Iraq to Syria and Back again

The takeover of Mosul by ISIS was extraordinary. (Al-Furqan)

By Jeremy Salt

Nearly four decades ago, determined to win a war it was losing in Vietnam, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger paved the way for the rise of Pol Pot and the inception of Year Zero by intervening in Cambodia.  By destroying Iraq as a unitary state, and setting the scene for the rise of Al Qaida in a country where previously it did not even have a toehold, the US has done it again. Ayman al Zawahiri has designated Jabhat al Nusra as the standard-bearer of Al Qaida ideology but basically this is an internal dispute over power and authority and not ideology.  The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) is just as ideologically committed and just as brutal as Jabhat al Nusra. Where it has the edge is its iron discipline. If it succeeded in taking Baghdad it has already signaled by the massacres in Mosul that it would slaughter all the Shia it could get its hands on. For ISIS the Shia are what the Jews were to Hitler and  what people with spectacles were to the Khmer Rouge,  but while  Pol Pot arose on the back of American blundering, the US appears to be fully cognizant at the start and right behind  Iraq’s ISIS-led  Sunni restoration.  Obama appears to be playing the same sly coordinating role he has played in Syria.  By allowing his gulf partners to take the lead in sponsoring ISIS and other Sunni militias in their drive on Baghdad, he can avoid charges of direct responsibility even at the cost of appearing to be caught short and not knowing what to do next.

On the face of it, the takeover of Mosul by ISIS and affiliated Sunni militants was extraordinary, tens of thousands of soldiers taking to their heels before the advance of a few hundred armed men with only a fraction of the weaponry available to the Iraqi army. The refusal of the US to take any military action against ISIS unless Nuri al Maliki resigns suggests either rank opportunism or US backing for the restoration of Sunni rule in Baghdad in the first place. The US was once enthusiastic about Maliki but effusive praise for a foreign leader followed a short time later by a merciless campaign to destroy him is a familiar pattern in US foreign policy.

Media certainty that the US would have to do something about ISIS because it is a terrorist organization is risible. Assassination, subversion and the sponsorship of terrorism are common themes in US foreign policy. Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Nicaragua and other countries too numerous to mention are the templates for this particular mode of pursuing the national interest.  Having publicly declared that it wants him to step down, the US offered to send several hundred troops to Baghdad, where their only function could be to protest the US embassy if ISIS gets as far as Baghdad.  ISIS’s Sunni allies are calling for  large-scale intervention to drive the Shia-dominated government (not surprising in a country where  the Shia  now constitute  close to 70 per cent of the population)  out of office.  Knowing all this, Maliki would be crazy to accept even a token number of US boots back on the ground in Iraq.

One has to go back to the early 19th century to find the starting point of western meddling in the region known then as the Levant or the Near East but the recent connections are very clear. They begin with the US/Israeli plan to ‘reshape’ the Middle East. The chief architects of this infamous policy were the US neocons, many of them Zionists whose overriding interest was not the protection of American interests  but of Israel’s and what  Israel wanted was cleared space around its non-declared borders so it could live in peace amidst the smoking ruins of the Middle East.  Zionist plans for the reshaping of the Middle East and the installation of puppet governments go back to the 1940s if not earlier. Lebanon was the first target of choice and has suffered ever since.  The two other obvious candidates for breaking down the region into digestible ethno-religious statelets were Iraq and Syria. The US-led invasion of 2003 destroyed Iraq as a unitary state while the US-dictated constitution created a Kurdish state-in-being in the north at odds with the central government over oil and control of the city of Kirkuk.  Arabs and Kurds were deliberately set against each other.

Even while planning the attack on Iraq, Israel and the US were targeting Iran through sanctions, assassinations and the threat of military action. Israel wanted the US to join it in a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear reactors, irrespective of the consequences for the people of Iran and the gulf as nuclear fallout drifted southwards. It would be hard to imagine anything more irresponsible than a military attack on active nuclear reactors – at least Iraq’s Osirak reactor had not come on line when it was bombed by Israel in the 1980s –   but Israel is not and never has been a responsible state.  The nuclear issue was a red herring anyway. The real reason Israel wanted to attack Iran was its growing influence in and beyond the region and the strategic alliance it had formed with Hizbullah and Syria. Saudi Arabia was also pushing for an attack on Iran and when the US would not bite, the second best option was picked up, an attack on Syria.

These plans were pushed to the point of urgency by Hizbullah’s victories in Lebanon. Sent scampering from the south by Hizbullah’s part- time soldiers in 2000, the Israeli army tried again in 2006 only to suffer an even more humiliating defeat. The widespread destruction caused by Israeli air power was no more than the enraged reaction of a child smashing a toy that no longer worked.  The US, Israel and Saudis tried every trick in the book to break Hizbullah but the organization stood its ground as strongly as did Iran. It was about this time that the Saudis persuaded the US to pick up the option of sectarian warfare across the Middle East.  Neither it is likely to be coincidental that following the humiliation in Lebanon, the Israeli army began to emphasize the role of religion and push religiously-inspired soldiers into senior command positions.

While trying to outflank Hizbullah and corner Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel were laying specific plans for the destabilization of Syria.  If they could bring down the central pillar the whole strategic ‘axis of resistance’ would collapse.  The chief architects of this policy were Jeffrey Feltman, the former ambassador to Lebanon and now a senior UN luminary, and Bandar bin Sultan, with the ruler of Qatar playing an important secondary role. The outbreak of the so-called ‘Arab spring’ in late 2010 came as an unexpected boon. Like all people across the Middle East, the Syrians wanted open, transparent government and not the mukhabarat state they had been saddled with for the past four decades.  They did not want change at any price but their street protests were an opportunity the US and its allies could not waste.  The US had long experience in fomenting disorder as the prelude to ‘regime change.’ The template had been applied successfully in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and other countries too numerous to mention and the US administration and its allies were confident it could be applied again  just as effectively in Syria.

Behind the screen of street protests the anti-Syrian alliance set in motion an armed uprising to bring down the government in Damascus whatever the cost to the country and its people. The same tools of the trade that had been used before were used again. Agents-provocateurs stationed on rooftops shot into crowds of peaceful demonstrators to incite violence. Nowhere and at no time did the mainstream media mention that even in the first week of the uprising in Dara’a armed men had embarked on a killing rampage against soldiers and civilians. The line of peaceful protestors turning to violence belatedly and only in response to government oppression was maintained by the media throughout.  The war on Iraq seemed the last word in media propaganda until excelled by its ‘reporting’ of the attacks on Libya and Syria.

Unable to secure a UNSC mandate for a direct military attack the US and its regional allies armed and financed the takfiri gangs rampaging across the country.  Their claims that they were only supporting the ‘moderates’ was nonsense because there were no moderates but only variations of extreme, mildly extreme, moderately extreme or extremely extreme. The Free Syrian Army was media packaging from start to finish, its claimed authority rejected by the majority of fighting groups on the ground.  Even within its own ranks the most effective fighting force was the Faruq Brigades, cutting throats in Homs while the media continued to praise the holdout of this ‘rebel city.’ The armed groups were not fighting for democracy or anything like it but for the establishment of sharia law and an Islamic emirate in place of a secular state.

Turkey – itself a secular state but one undermined in recent years  by the forces of religious reaction – played a pivotal role, turning its southeastern corner into a mobilization zone for takfiris pouring into Istanbul from around the world and then taking the first plane or bus to one of the cities of the southeast before crossing the border to fight.  The ‘refugee’ camps along the Turkish-Syrian border are full of jihadis who more or less treat Turkey as rest and recreation in between spells of fighting with one of the Islamist groups in Syria. Turkish and international aid organizations had an obligation to house, feed and clothe the women and children but giving aid to the men effectively put them in the position of subsidizing some of the most fanatical groups on the face of the earth.  The sole architect of what is now being belatedly but generally recognized in Turkey as a policy failure of ground-shaking dimensions is the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The consequences of this war against Syria are there for all to see. Mass destruction, the killing of perhaps 150,000 people and the displacement of millions of Syrians across borders or inside their own country. Going back to 1948 this has become a familiar pattern in the Middle East, yet despite the intensity of the assault, Syria held together.  The army proved that it is an army and not the media’s ‘Assad loyalists’ and the government showed that it is a government and not a ‘regime.’  Otherwise the state would have collapsed long ago.  The media  and the  Middle East ‘experts’  lining up to speak on CNN or write for the Washington Post or the London Guardian have been shown to be wrong on virtually every count.  On the face of it they deserve to be sacked for incompetence and in any other line of work they would be but this is the media, after all and in relaying warped opinions and disinformation to the reading and viewing public about Syria they shown themselves to be very competent.  This is their job and they have been doing it very well.

Sunni Muslims and not just the minorities are behind the Syrian government.  Whatever criticism Syrians had at the start, they realized long ago that their country has been targeted for destruction by foreign governments working through the armed gangs. The recent presidential elections were a genuine expression of popular will, which is why the US and friends dismissed them and the media ignored them. Determined to destroy Syria they have ignored all the reform initiatives of the past three years.  It must be galling for Obama, Cameron, Hague, Hollande and Erdogan but Bashar al Assad is infinitely more popular in his country than they are in theirs.

The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey did their best to break Syria. The gulf states – Qatar and Saudi Arabia chiefly –  pumped billions of dollars into this war.  The US played a coordinating role, with Israel pitching in by providing weapons, medical treatment for the takfiris and by launching the occasional air assault but the grand plan still failed.  The ability of the Syrian government, army and people to resist what has been the most determined attempt to destroy an Arab government in modern history is a critical landmark event, second only to Hizbullah’s defeat of Israel in Lebanon.  The west and its regional allies have been stopped in their tracks and are now trying to make up for lost ground in Iraq.

Looking at motives for this assault on the central lands of the Middle East, chaos is always an end in itself for the Zionist regime. Obsessed with Iran and the rise of Shia power across the region, Saudi Arabia wants to see a Sunni government re-established in Baghdad.  Its reactionary gulf allies have the same goal. The US dances to Israel’s tune but also has oil on its mind and so does the Turkish government.  Before the invasion of 2003, Chinese and Russian companies had been given the leading role in the reconstruction of Iraq’s oil industry. The invasion finished that and was probably launched with this as one of its many goals in the first place.  Now American companies dominate the scene and are signing separate deals with the Kurdish regional government despite the warning of sanctions by the government in Baghdad.  Oil alone is a reason for the US wanting Maliki out of the way and replaced by someone more pliable, Iyad Allawi for example or perhaps even the completely discredited Ahmad Chalabi.

The Turkish government has developed relations with the Kurdish north at the expense of relations with the central government. Against its protests, oil from the north is being piped directly to Ceyhan, in southeastern Turkey. Tankers move it onwards to international buyers, with Turkey picking up lucrative transit fees along the way but whatever their specific interests in Iraq, all the foreign players in this unholy coalition want to sever the link between Baghdad and Tehran. If the Islamic republic can be dragged into the new quagmire they are creating in Iraq, even before the last one has dried out, so much the better.

Having invaded in the 19th century and pulled the region apart after the First World War, the west and its local satrapies are playing the same old deadly games. Lebanon and Syria have shown that they can be stopped but they never stop trying. If this tormented and already severely weakened region can be dismembered again, geographically and politically, the dismemberment of its collective memory, history and place in history will  eventually follow as a matter of course  until the ‘Arab world’ is stripped of all meaning and relevance. There will be no ‘Arab world’ and no ‘Arab’ history except in the fading sense of a sepia print. This is precisely what Israel wants and is trying to achieve through the power of its own satrapy, the US administration.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to

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