Mosul maelstrom: ISIS and the turning point of American adventurism in Middle East
Sonia Mansour Robaey is a Middle East observer and analyst. Sonia tweets at @les_politiques.
Sonia Mansour Robaey is a Middle East observer and analyst. Sonia tweets at @les_politiques.
The American wars, including the ‘War on Terror’, were cat-and-mouse games that did not produce a final confrontation with Takfiri groups, but rather multiple confrontations, which have deferred or delayed both the domestic goals of these groups and their destructive power abroad, while ratcheting up their number and the resentment they carry against the West and its regional allies.
What happened in Mosul, after what happened in Syria, threatens the pluralistic essence of Iraq and the Levant, and promises us another decade of unrest and terror in the region and abroad, if not addressed cooperatively on the international level, and in a responsible manner.
There is a story in the Babylonian Talmud, retold by Somerset Maugham in 1933, which my father liked to tell me when I was a child, about a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market to buy provisions. Back from the market, the servant told his master that a woman in the crowd, who seemed to be Death, gestured threateningly at him. He asked his master to lend him a horse to flee to Samarra. The merchant lent his horse and went down to the marketplace where he saw the woman. He asked her why she had made a threatening gesture at his servant. ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ the woman said, ‘I was only surprised to see your servant in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’
By all accounts, the appointment that was given by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and greater Syria) in Mosul to Iraq, the region and the world, seems to have taken everybody by surprise, but it was bound to happen.
For decades now, the US and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, has been playing cat and mouse with Islamist extremists trying to harness their destructive power, without yielding to this power, and for years, it has succeeded, exception made of 9/11. The post-9/11 War on Terror was supposed to be the end of this game with terror, but it wasn’t.
The same game is being played again, this time in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East, thanks to two events: the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and the 2011 toppling of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, along with the three-year-old failed attempt at regime change in Syria – which came to be called the ‘Arab Spring’.
These two sets of events have introduced power vacuum, weakened the central authority of these states and their security apparatuses, attracting many Islamist extremist groups. However, what’s different this time in the new appointment with these groups is their proliferation and power of mobilization based on humiliation, and religious and class resentment in the face of power shift and power loss. This complex reality is acknowledged in the West only as the one-dimensional religious sectarianism viewed through the history of religious wars in the West.
The appointment given by extremist groups in Mosul to Iraq, the region and the world, will not only be more deadly than 9/11, and will not only topple regimes, but it will signal the death of pluralistic societies in the Middle East and the Levant, inaugurating a new era of barbarism and a new phase of persecution of religious minorities, whoever they are, wherever they are.
This may seem benign to Westerners because, contrary to the threat felt from these extremists with 9/11, the end of religious pluralism in the Levant is, after all, far from their shores. But it will be a mistake to think that, in an interconnected, multicultural, multiracial world, the end of religious pluralism in the Levant will have no impact in the West.
The West will not be able to escape the fallout of the appointment given to the Middle East and the Levant by Islamist extremist groups in a city known for its millenary old pluralism. Obama may hesitate, the public in West may be wary of wars, the war in Iraq may be conveniently portrayed as a Sunni-Shia war, but if no firm action is taken against these groups – not the cat-and-mouse game we have seen so far – there will be an appointment for the West with these groups again.
War on Terror: An appointment always deferred
ISIS originated in Iraq in the wake of the American-led invasion based on the lie that Iraq had a ‘relationship’ with Al-Qaeda. Its new name was acquired only recently after assuming a new role fighting for regime change in Syria. ISIS terror operations in Iraq were led by a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who waged a savage sectarian campaign against Iraqis in the name of Al-Qaeda, but ended up on bad terms with the terror group as his actions turned Iraqi Sunnis against Al-Qaeda. Zarqawi was defeated and killed in 2006. The group fighting with Zarqawi suffered many setbacks before merging with other small insurgent groups – including former officers from the disbanded Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein – continuing terror operations in an Iraq that had never ceased to bleed since the American-led invasion.
Led now by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was liberated by the US in 2009 after five years of detention in camp Bucca in Iraq, ISIS found a new opportunity in the Syrian ‘revolution’, and territorial aims.
In Syria, ISIS gained strength, followers, and greater coverage form the traditional and the new media, being Western liberals or conservatives from the Arab Gulf, willing to bet their sympathies on any group challenging the rule of President Bashar Assad. In Syria, ISIS also came to lay its hands on revenues from oil refineries and seems to have achieved financial success by attracting private donations and logistic support for a ‘cause’ dear to West, Gulf leaders, Saudi affiliated Sunni groups in Lebanon, and Turkey.
ISIS terror operations in Syria and Iraq shifted in intensity, during late 2013, early 2014, to Iraq, due to the advances of the Syrian Arab army. It is then logical that ISIS, an organization with a structured leadership and a long-term vision, turned to Iraq to break the deadlock in which it found itself in Syria. Iraq was ripe for an ISIS breakthrough, with a weak central government, a weak leader, a political climate poisoned by sectarianism, and a known operational field, thanks to its own dormant cells helped by former officers from Saddam’s disbanded army.
Syria did not make ISIS, as some allege, it was rather the US invasion of Iraq that made ISIS, and the Syrian ‘revolution’ gave it a sympathetic platform.
The ISIS war chest is estimated at somewhere between $400 million and $2 billion now; most gained during the Mosul takeover with the looting of the central bank, although sources in the US say these figures are exaggerated. ISIS has been already known for its mafia style, racketeering and imposing local taxes on the population, with harsh punishments for those who refuse to pay (see also ISIS inc).
Mosul’s proximity to Kurdish territory, which evades Baghdad’s control and sells its oil on the black market, or to countries willing to defy Baghdad, will make business easy for ISIS. In the wake of Mosul’s takeover, many speculated about a Kurdish-ISIS conspiracy, but this is only logical since Kurds and ISIS, despite differing views, both plan to sell Iraq’s oil, unencumbered by a central authority.
Without the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, ISIS would not have existed in Iraq and resurrected in Syria, and without Gulf Arab countries’ and West’s push for regime change in Syria, ISIS would not be claiming its throne in Mosul. But “Sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one.” ISIS territorial ambitions are fantasies. Not one pious Sunni Muslim, let alone any Muslim, outside the fanatics who are fighting with ISIS, wishes to live by their rules.
Since the early 1990s, Al-Qaeda and other Takfiri groups, militarily strengthened by the anti-Soviet War in Afghanistan, trained and radicalized with Saudi-Gulf money & American complicity, have been serving the interventionist unilateral foreign policy of the United States and its allies acting as facilitators of armed intervention in countries they view as theirs to subdue to their brand of Islam.
From Afghanistan to Nigeria and in-between, these groups have either reacted to US interventions or pro-actively preceded US penetration in new territory by causing a deep enough crisis resulting in US intervention. A recent example is the US late penetration of sub-Saharan Africa, achieved through these two modes of action and reaction resulting in the presence of these groups where there is American presence, being on the military or security levels. The cat-and-mouse game the US plays with these groups follows two main objectives, which have not changed for decades: Israel’s security and the West’s own energy security. ISIS is no exception.
Feeding the politics of resentment
The religious extremism of Takiri groups is a project born out of resentment; it is not a resistance movement, neither a revolutionary one. It is bound to fail. The politics of resentment often ignores reality, is moved by a set of negative collective emotions pertaining to loss of power, experience of humiliation, and desire for vengeance. Its project for the future is often to withdraw, return to a previous state. It thrives on anxiety and disenchantment with the world.
In the case of ISIS and other Takfiri groups, these factors pervade the religious, spiritual and political lives of individuals from different nationalities. This is what makes these groups dangerous to any society they live in.
At its source, Takfiri ideology was born in Egypt where it thrived in a context of endemic poverty and oppression as an alternative to the emergence of a secular state as a process of decolonization. Takfiri ideology not only distrusted colonial powers, but also the process of decolonization as a march toward separation between the religious, the spiritual, and the state.
From Egypt, the Takfiri ideology spread to Saudi Arabia who tried, and succeeded, in harnessing the discontent of these groups persecuted by Egypt’s governments and used it against nascent Arab secular regimes. But in Saudi Arabia, Takfiri ideology gained traction among part of the elite who felt ostracized and alienated by the Saudi monarchy. Before gaining prominence on the world stage, the first attempts of these groups at implementing their political objectives were made in Egypt and in Saudi Arabiahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Mosque_Seizure.
Sayyed Qutb allegedly made an attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser and was sentenced to death. Later, Islamist extremists succeeded in killing his successor, President Anwar Sadat.
Since then, either they were manipulated to fight in many conflicts where their resentment could find an operational terrain or they were fought in a manner feeding resentment, through illegal invasions, illegal detentions, and humiliations. America’s War on terror in the wake of 9/11 did not address the root cause of Takfiri ideology, it worked mainly on validating the way Takfiris view the world and the West.
This is what I call a War on Terror that is deferred. After each battle, along with or against America, these groups have returned to fight their governments at home, always better armed and better trained. Groups who fought in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan initiated the Algerian civil war.
The tragedy of 9/11 can be seen as a reaction to Gulf countries’ willingness to surrender more sovereignty to American troops in the form of permanent US bases, in exchange for more protection, after the first Gulf War. The takeover of the Syrian ‘revolution’ by ISIS, and its offshoot Al-Nusra Front, is the direct result of the 2003 American led invasion of Iraq, which unsettled the power equation in the whole region. And the current (though supposedly finished) Iraq War, with the takeover of Mosul and the direct threat to the integrity of Iraq is, the direct result of the war Western and Gulf countries are waging on the Syrian regime with the help of these groups.
The resentment of these groups, carefully cultivated over the years, is now joined by the resentment of Iraq’s Sunni cadres after their exile from a long held throne. Many have questioned the unnatural alliance between ISIS and former Saddamists, but it is not to be seen as unnatural if we consider that both ISIS and former Saddamists share a strong resentment against Shia and other sects as a motivation, for the exile of Sunnis from power.
Saddam’s regime never achieved the kind of secularism and inclusion fostered by the Syrian Baath because it relied heavily on brutal sectarian politics, and its former cadres are moved by strong sectarian politics against other sects, mainly the Shia. It is madness to accuse Nouri al-Maliki of sectarianism when the Sunni insurgency, which never abated since power has been taken from them in Iraq, has killed mainly Shias.
As ISIS descends now on Mosul and other cities in Iraq, including Samarra, a perfect storm is gathering. Its outcome is certain to produce only atrocities and wars for years. And as ISIS descends on Mosul, and Samarra, and Baghdad, there will be no escape this time for the US and its regional allies, who have been playing cat and mouse with these groups for over three decades now, but to look into the eye of the storm and act responsibly, to own the monster they have created.
Unfortunately, this is not what the US administration has signaled since the beginning of this crisis. Obama, who to his credit opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, finds himself with no clear policy on Iraq, and I’m not sure, even with the best intentions, that he understands the gravity of the situation. His two speeches until now indicate a mix of caution and laissez-faire that has marked his approach to foreign policy. But this is no time for nuances and carefully studied caution.
The absence of a coordinated campaign with other powers that have influence in the region – namely Iran and Russia - against ISIS makes the current situation even more alarming. If ISIS is to consolidate its presence in Mosul and beyond, no country will escape the chaos created by this storm.
Sonia Mansour Robaey for RT
The author thanks Ivor Crotty for editing this article and another one for RT on Syria, which can be found here
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.