There is a certain difficulty in attempting to have a rational discussion about the Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS) and how the threat it poses to people in the Middle East and beyond should be addressed.
Most of what one reads about the subject in Australia simply reflects the ignorance of Australian media and commentators about the Middle East, which results in their unquestioning loyalty to the foreign policy agendas of Western governments.
I am not saying that they would behave more independently if they knew more, but I often feel that when one discusses the Middle East in Australia, one must either discuss what is happening there, or media coverage of it, which is so abysmal that even writing long articles critiquing media coverage will only permit small portions of the underlying issues to be addressed.
In trying to offer a general critical analysis of media coverage of IS, I would not like to be accused of writing apologetics for a vile organisation which I would like to see crushed.
This article seeks to make two main points.
Firstly, to demonstrate that anyone who cared could have seen the warning signs leading up to the current crisis: a greatly strengthened and powerful IS, for which I believe the West shares strong responsibility.
Secondly, I would like to explain why I think Western intervention against IS is unnecessary, and why we should oppose further Western intervention in the Middle East.
It is easy to be wise after the fact and say how obvious everything was. So let us review what any observer could have known as it happened.
In May 2012, I wrote an article where I discussed that the West ‘backed Bin Ladenites’ in Libya. I wrote that there were plainly serious problems facing “liberated” Libya. I then proceeded to discuss the case of Syria.
I stated flatly that “No one denies the horrors perpetrated by Assad’s brutal regime”. However, I thought it worthwhile to look more closely at “what type of opposition has gained the support of the West.” I noted that it was backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, and that there were serious reports of egregious human rights violations, and extremist sectarian ideology, as demonstrated in chants like “we want to exterminate Alawites”.
I concluded: “So, Saudi supported sectarian Islamists who kidnap and behead. Should we arm them?”
This was a serious question, because supporting the Syrian rebels was a respectable position at the time – it was considered moderate, compared to bombing Syria to help the rebels overthrow Assad.
My article responded to Benjamin Herscovitch, from the right-wing think tank, Centre for Independent Studies, who boldly wrote that “To not consider either arming the Free Syrian Army or intervening militarily in some capacity would be pacifism at its most irresponsible.”
I pondered why a right-wing think tank was “so in love with jihadi extremists”.
On June 8 2012, I wrote an article comparing media coverage of repression in Bahrain and Syria. There was virtually zero coverage of Bahrain, even though Australia improved its relations less than a month after the uprising began.
Meanwhile, the media fell over itself to condemn Assad, not just for the crimes he was shown to have committed, but for atrocities that we did not yet know he was responsible.
For example, Paul Daley in Fairfax explained that this was an issue of our “tolerance of evil in the world”. Plainly, there couldn’t be much worse than the brutal dictatorship of Assad, and the only relevant question is what measures we should take to oppose such evil, like expelling Syrian diplomats.
Meanwhile, Fairfax Middle East correspondent Ruth Pollard wrote a rather amazing article where she uncritically reported the US saying it was “disgusted” at China and Russia preventing stronger UN action on the “deepening crisis” in Syria. As is well known, the US would never prevent UN action on a crisis, like in Gaza, for instance.
On June 17, I noted that the Australian government expelled two Syrian diplomats for a massacre, even though an investigation by a UN Human Rights Council (HRC) panel had been unable to determine who was responsible for it.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr then contemplated military action against Syria, and Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher thought “nothing short of brute force” would “restrain the dictator”, Assad.
Another massacre Carr blamed on Assad, the New York Times reported that UN observers suspected the evidence showed that the reality of what happened “more closely followed the Syrian government account”.
I then quoted extensively from a HRC report on human rights violations in Syria. It recorded at length the terrible human rights violations by Assad, but it also chronicled atrocities committed by the Syrian rebels, and more signs of its extremist sectarianism, such as one report that “Alawite soldiers are normally killed immediately upon capture, while soldiers from other sects are offered the chance to join the FSA, and if they refuse to join, they are released to their relatives."
The report warned that the flow of weapons to both sides served to militarise the conflict, and made the situation worse. Syrian left-wing activist Haytham Manna warned about this, and the support by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to Syrian rebels, which resulted in demobilisation of “large segments of the population”, and signs of “sectarian” discourse and “Salafisation”.
I then discussed my article with Waleed Aly on ABC radio. I discussed Western and Arab states’ support for extremist Islamist groups, and that “some of them are actually affiliated with al Qaeda”.
Aly interjected: “Really?” Plainly, this was something that he did not know, and is something people in Australian media more generally preferred not to know.
The only relevant question was that Assad was awful, and that we should support him being overthrown, and there was little interest in applying closer scrutiny to the groups the West and its client Arab states were supporting in this struggle.
Fast forward a few years, to the enormous gains IS has made in Iraq, and the panic this has caused in the West, which had imagined Iraq had been finally stabilised. As I argued in June this year, Al Qaeda in Iraq basically was defeated.
But the kind of peace that the West achieved was an unstable one. It armed and bribed splinters from Al Qaeda, known as the Sunni Awakening, who had similar extremist Islamist ideology, but now received the support of the West, in exchange for turning on Al Qaeda.
These extremists were basically abandoned when the US left the country. Nouri al-Maliki ruled Iraq, an authoritarian and sectarian president favoured by the US and Iran.
The US, believing as always that it could solve the problem of terrorism through force, assassinated the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is what led to the rise of the current and more effective leader of what is now IS – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Patrick Cockburn observed that “Al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which was seen as largely defeated three years ago, has staged a dramatic resurgence thanks to IS, seizing significant parts of northern and eastern Syria. Some of the fighters now holding central Fallujah are reported to be Syrians who have come across the 373-mile long border. The wars in Syria and Iraq are increasingly turning into a single conflict.”
He also noted: “What destabilised Iraq from 2011 on was the revolt of the Sunni in Syria and the takeover of that revolt by jihadis, who were often sponsored by donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates.”
IS developed through the support it received in its struggle in Syria against Assad. Indeed, al-Baghdadi reportedly helped establish Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, now the official Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda.
Cockburn wrote that the insurgency against Assad was “dominated by al-Qa’ida umbrella organisation the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); the other Al-Qa’ida franchisee, the al-Nusra Front; and the Islamic Front, consisting of six or seven large rebel military formations numbering an estimated 50,000 fighters, whose uniting factor is Saudi money and an extreme Sunni ideology similar to Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam.”
Meanwhile, Seymour Hersh reported that a “rat line” was established, funnelling weapons and ammunition from Libya to Syrian rebels, many of them “jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida”.
What does this show? Firstly, that Western policy in Iraq and Syria has been disastrous. We, and our client states, backed extremist jihadis in Syria. Now, IS has consolidated a strong position in Iraq, and threatens further advances in Iraq, possibly Syria, and elsewhere.
The overthrow of Arab regimes normally would not be a bad thing: they all deserve to be overthrown. However, as Cockburn wrote, IS is a “pathologically bloodthirsty and intolerant movement, a sort of Islamic Khmer Rouge, which has no aim but war without end”.
So does this mean that “we” just have to do something? No. The fact that Western states have great military power does not mean that their use of force would resolve the issues that have helped allow the advance of IS.
Israel also has a powerful military. However, any well-informed person would understand that if Israel were to invade Iraq to fight IS, the result would be increased legitimisation of IS, which would be fighting a hated invader. If anything, such an invasion would make Muslims more supportive of IS and more interested in joining its jihad.
Similarly, Western bombing and invasion would only serve to unite Iraqis and Syrians against their foreign invaders. It should be realised: there are plenty of forces indigenous to the Middle East which oppose IS.
IS is a fanatically extreme movement which hates Shi’ite Muslims. In one instance, IS executed hundreds of Shi’ite prisoners. Iraq is a country where the majority of the population is Shi’ite: it is, to put it mildly, unlikely that the majority of the population will ever support such a group.
After long years of a brutal civil war, in which the Shi’ites were basically successful, there are plainly Shi’ite forces that will be able to fight back against IS. One does not relish such a situation: the years of slaughter in Iraq were awful. However, just as al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated before, so IS can be defeated again.
Whilst IS used to have the support of Arab gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, that is likely to dry up, if it hasn’t already. Saudi Arabia is an ultra-reactionary state. As’ad AbuKhalil, an academic specialist on the Middle East, who wrote an excellent book on Saudi Arabia and who has been one of the earliest and most persistent analysts to notice the dangers of the Syrian jihadis, observed that “the ideology of IS is indistinguishable from the ideology that has governed the Saudi regime since its founding”.
Nevertheless, whilst that made IS initially congenial to Saudi Arabia, it is now a force that threatens the kind of upheaval Saudi Arabia does not want, and that even threatens its own rule.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the Assad government has been fighting jihadi groups for years. There are already reports that the West has started working with Assad, by passing on intelligence to his government about jihadi leaders. Such cooperation may increase, if IS is considered sufficiently menacing to warrant vigilance.
It should be remembered that IS became a serious issue for the West when it started edging closer to crucial Iraqi oil supplies.
It is interesting to note how quickly Assad became the most evil man on the planet, and it will be just as interesting to note how quickly he becomes a strategic ally, and to see Western commentators dutifully obey the new party line and declare that he’s the lesser of two evils.
You may recall that the war on Afghanistan was legitimised through solemn explanations of how evil the Taliban was. As the war went on and on, we started seeking to negotiate with the Taliban, and, it turned out, there are certain grey areas of evil which had not yet been properly explained after all.
Whilst Muslims who have gone off to fight with Syrian insurgent groups against the Assad regime face possible new draconian laws, the urbane white men like my friend at the Centre for Independent Studies who urged Australia to arm those groups don’t even face a decline in their credibility.
And why would they? Supporting Western imperialism and militarism tends to prove one’s seriousness and understanding of the burdens of power. There are obvious steps that the West can take against IS that don’t involve bombing or invading, but simply mean reining in their Middle Eastern allies to cut off support for IS.
The Middle East had many problems before IS, and it will have many problems after IS. If people in the West want to help, the best thing we could do is call for less intervention in the Middle East.
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