For the mess in Iraq, blame the US

Updated on: Jun 18, 2014

By invading Iraq in 2003 and dabbling in its fractious polity all these years, the US has turned it into a basket case

So brutal and fanatical is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) that even Ayman Zawahiri, leader of the core group of al-Qaeda, is complaining that it’s giving his organisation a “bad name”. What makes ISIS a dreadful force to reckon with in today’s West Asia is its ability to blend this brutality with operational excellence and asymmetric strategies.

Founded in early 2013, its rise to notoriety was so quick that it now controls a huge swathe of territory encompassing much of eastern and northern Syria and western and northern Iraq.

ISIS wants to create an enclave straddling the borders between Iraq and Syria, which its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi would like to call the first step in creating an Islamic emirate.

The capture of Iraqi city Mosul, on June 10, is by far the greatest prize ISIS has taken in this war. Within days, it took control of Tikrit, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s home town, only 140 km northwest of Baghdad.

In January, it had taken control of Fallujah, less than an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, and parts of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province. Iraq’s Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said it will take back the lost territories, but it’s been saying the same since last year, and hasn’t made any significant gains in its fight against the Sunni rebels. If the ISIS manages to hold on to its turf in Iraq and Syria, it would effectively redraw the borders of modern West Asia.

Any attempt to analyse the reasons for Iraq’s current tragedy should begin right from the American invasion of the country in 2003. Despite all his problems, Saddam Hussein had never let the radical Islamists gain an upper hand in his Iraq.

At the time of George W Bush’s invasion, many had warned that the forceful removal of a well-entrenched dictator would create a power vacuum which the invaders would not be able to fill in.

The US’ decision to dismantle the entire Saddam regime was a strategic blunder as many of the former president’s troops, mostly Sunnis, turned to resistance.

A tragedy foretold Post-war Iraq was a classic case of a failed state — lack of a proper authority at the centre, foreign boots on the ground and a bloody sectarian civil war among the people. The rise of majority Shias to political authority in Baghdad under American tutelage effectively poured oil on the sectarian fire.

The violent incidents subsided by 2010-11 only after the US started recruiting Sunnis to take on Sunni Islamists such as the al-Qaeda of Iraq. It was a fragile peace plan. The Shia government in Baghdad won the support of both the Americans and the tallest Shia cleric of Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and thereby the neutralised the Shia resistance, mostly led by the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

On the other side, the Sahwa (awakening) movement set up Sunni tribal forces with the support of both the Iraqi government and the US to take on the Iraqi al-Qaeda, which has changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). This strategy worked briefly, but the civil war in neighbouring Syria has turned everything upside down in Iraq.

Rise of ISIS ISIS leader al Baghdadi was among the first jihadists who found an opportunity in the Syrian crisis, where majority Sunnis were fighting against a regime dominated by minority Alawites (Alawism is a branch of Shiism, while hardline Sunnis deem both sects as infidels).

He sent his men across the border to fight along with the al-Nusra Front, which al-Qaeda calls its branch in Syria, against President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Turkey’s decision to open its border with Syria for anti-Assad militants offered Baghdadi’s men a hassle-free transit route.

In April 2013, Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq formally announced the expansion of its operations from Iraq to Syria by changing its name to Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIS (al Sham is translated as “the Levant” or Greater Syria).

They joined hands with the Nusra Front and unleashed a violent campaign both against the Syrian troops and civilians, especially minorities, in eastern Syria. They captured the oil fields in areas they took control of, and raised money by ransoming foreign hostages. They have also imposed local taxes and set up training facilities in eastern Syria.

Unlike al-Qaeda’s hit-and-run tactics, there’s a well-planned pattern in ISIS’s military advances. They hold the areas they seize and make them the bases for further military movement.

ISIS first took the eastern Syrian city of Raqa last December, and then expelled other rebel groups, including the Nusra Front. Raqa became their base for further advances into Iraq. A month later, they seized Iraqi city of Fallujah. Six months later, ISIS is now in Mosul, seizing huge stores of American-supplied arms, ammunition and vehicles, including six Black Hawk helicopters.

They have also released some 2,000 prisoners and seized $430 million in banknotes from the city’s banks. All these point to the darker days ahead in Iraq.

What next? US President Barack Obama says all options are open to fighting insurgents in Iraq. There’s speculation that he will order an air strike to reverse the militants’ gains. That’s unlikely to solve the problem. The primary reason for the mess Iraq is in today is the American invasion of the country. If US military had to solve the problems of Iraq, it would have done so when the Americans had occupied the country from 2003 to 2011.

Besides, a US air strike would send oil prices soaring, hitting the fragile global economy. India would be particularly hit as Iraq is India’s second largest oil supplier. Last week, crude oil prices jumped to a nine-month high of $106 a barrel on fears of an American strike.

For any solution to work, there has to be broad regional cooperation across the Shia-Sunni spectrum. The Gulf monarchs and their ally in Washington will have to stop destabilising the Syrian government, which is directly helping the ISIS and other extremist elements, while Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should give up his Shia triumphalism and offer political representation to Sunnis.

Unless such a political counter-offensive is begun immediately, standalone military campaigns may bleed the region further.

Published on March 12, 2018

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