By Jeremy Salt – Ankara, Turkey
The ‘birth pangs’ of which Condoleeza Rice spoke in 2006 during Israel’s onslaught on Lebanon have finally produced her ‘new’ Middle East, wrapped up in the black flags of the Islamic state. Impregnation was just a twinkle in the eye of the neo-conservatives back in the 1990s. Their talk was of an axis of evil, of making a ‘clean break’ and developing a new strategy to ‘secure the realm’. In 2005 Condi remarked that ‘a regional order that produced an ideology so savage as the one we now confront is no longer serving any civilized interest’. Ah, that wonderful word again, civilization, perfumed in the speeches of politicians and generals but actually reeking of blood. So Condi, Richard, Benjamin, Douglas and all those who laid the foundations of the new Middle East, does the realm seem any more secure now? How savage does the ideology of 2005 compare to the savagery of the ideology of 2014?
The ‘new’ Middle East was born out of the ruins of the old. The ruin was not accidental but deliberate, an act of ‘creative chaos’. Like a snake shucking itself out of a dead skin the new Middle East wriggled into the bright light of day, first in Iraq. This was not so much birth as reincarnation, the democratic Phoenix born out of the ashes of a state terminally weakened by war and a decade of sanctions before the plug was finally pulled in a second war. In May, 2003, standing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in his ornamental bomber jacket, George Bush declared that the war was over. ‘Mission accomplished’ read the banner over his head just to make sure that the viewers in the homeland got the message.
The war was not over, of course. It started when the British occupied Baghdad in 1917; when the monarchy was destroyed in 1958; when Abd al Karim Qasim was murdered in 1963 and the Ba’ath came to power; when Saddam took over in 1979; when he took over Kuwait in 1990; when the Americans launched their air war and these are just some of the starting points. When it will end, how it will end, no one knows but as Donald Rumsfeld, has said on different occasions, freedom is untidy and democracy messy. Messy is a word often applied to a teenager’s bedroom but messy in Iraq means IEDs tearing the legs and genitals off American soldiers, white phosphorus melting flesh off the bones in Falluja, tens of thousands of civilians dead across the country, Nicholas Berg beheaded by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, prisoners humiliated and tortured at Abu Ghraib and a constitution written that effectively destroyed Iraq as a unitary state. The servants of empire seemed to have confidence in the rightness of their mission but it was not they who were standing on the edge of the abyss: it was the Iraqis whom they had come to save, had come to deliver the gifts of civilization and democracy.
‘Once again the Land between the Two Rivers is the focal point of the clash between the forces of darkness and the light of civilization, ’ L. Paul Bremer III, ‘Jerry’ to his friends, America’s proconsul in Baghdad, declared in 2004. He placed the citizens of the new Iraq on the front line between civilization and barbarism. Here Jerry, consciously or otherwise, was repeating a line that runs backwards from Bernard Lewis to the observations of the 19th century Scottish orientalist Sir William Muir, who declared, paraphrasing him, that Islam was the most stubborn enemy of civilization yet known. Within half a century or so the most stubborn enemy was communism. In the Middle East, by the 1950s, the most stubborn enemy was Arab nationalism. By the 1990s the most stubborn enemy was Islamic ‘radicalism’ and that, in its present savage incarnation, is where the turning wheel has come to rest for the time being. Civilization needs enemies, otherwise those are part of it would not know what it is: only by knowing the enemy do we know who we are. The enemy varies, which is why we need people like Professor Lewis to tell us who he is.
Roots of ‘Takfiris’
Jerry was speaking a greater truth than he possibly knew even if civilization and barbarism have always been interdependent. Civilization needs barbarism not only as its alter ego but as the means by which it is delivered, with the infinitely greatest price always paid by those who are its raw material, the rough and ready clay from which it is molded. ‘The light of civilization’ in Iraq has now been shrunk to a pinpoint. The invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century has been superseded by the invasion of the takfiris. The Mongols are supposed to have left in their wake pyramids of skulls. Whether they actually did we will never know but there is no supposing about what the takfiris do. They bury their victims alive, cut their throats, behead them, line them up on the side of a road and shoot them in the back of the head and massacre them in groups. What the Mongols are supposed to have done comes down to us by word of mouth: what the takfiris do is filmed so we can watch and be horrified, terrified and intimidated.
There is no mystery about where the takfiris come from. The ‘swamp’ is not the Syrian mukhabarat state or agricultural depression. They have their place in the unfolding of the crisis in Syria but the true breeding ground of the takfiris is the policies pursued by the US and its allies since 1990. They are ultimately responsible for what we now seeing in Iraq, which they crippled in the air war of 1991 and finally broke with the invasion of 2003. In 2011 it was Libya’s turn: what was a country is now a patchwork of territorial enclaves fought over by rival militias, mostly Islamist, one of which has just taken control of Tripoli’s international airport.
After finishing off Libya the same crew turned their attention to Syria. Failing to win UNSC support for a full-scale aerial assault, they threw their weight behind an attack on the country through armed groups. The takfiris poured into the fissures they opened up. Turkey’s prime minister and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, played a pivotal role, thrusting himself into the forefront of the campaign against the government in Damascus. The tough guy from the inner Istanbul suburb of Kasimpasa bellowed and raged at Bashar al Assad. Backing up words with action he turned southeastern Turkey into a jumping off point for armed men seeking the overthrow of the Syrian government, not just the (very) so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) but foreign takfiris making their way to the front from the four corners of the Muslim worlds.
Flying into Istanbul, all they had to do was walk to the domestic terminal and take the first plane to Antakya or Adana and the safe houses awaiting them; if they were Chechens, all they had to do was cross the Georgian border with Turkey in the northeast. Syrian takfiris operated from the refugee camps set up along the Turkish border, moving freely between them and treating Turkey as rest and recreation between bouts of fighting with one of the armed groups. ‘Gone to the mountain’ was what their womenfolk said to those who asked where they were. The questionable role of aid agencies in underwriting the activities of these people is just one of many questions that need to be answered at some point.
The claim of a ‘rebellion’ – even worse a ‘revolution’ – hijacked by ‘extremists’ was not true from the start. Armed men butchered soldiers and civilians in the first week of the ‘peaceful protests’ in Dara’a and perpetrated a terrible massacre in Jisr al Shughur a few months later, burying bodies in mass graves or flinging them into the Assi (Orontes) river to cries of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ The FSA, organizing bombings in Damascus from across the border in Turkey, was soon supplanted in the field by takfiri fighting groups: its own most effective fighting force, the Faruq Brigades, was as brutal as any of the takfiri groups and permeated by takfirism anyway. The takfiris rejected everything the US and its allies, including the FSA and its political arm, the Syrian National Council, said they stood for. The western members of this coalition professed to be doing all this for the sake of democracy: as hostile to democracy as were the armed groups, Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not even pretend. Bashar al Assad oversaw amendments to the constitution which removed the Ba’ath Party as the central pillar of state and society and set up the framework of a multi-party electoral system. These significant changes were dismissed out of hand in Washington, London and Paris for the simple reason that the end objective in Syria never was ‘transition to democracy’ but the destruction of a government which was Iran’s most important regional ally.
As it was only the takfiri fighting groups which had any hope of bringing this government down, the anti-Syrian coalition poured money and arms in their direction even while the US and its western partners claimed to support only the ‘moderates.’ They provided the takfiris with the anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles now in the possession of the Islamic state. They falsely and fraudulently accused the Syrian government of launching chemical weapons attacks which were undoubtedly the work of their protégés. Takfiris were trained in Jordan in a collaborative effort reportedly involving the US and Israel, which, according to the Syrian government, was channeling them into Syria through the occupied Golan Heights as well as treating the wounded in Israeli hospitals. Despite its claims of supporting only ‘moderates’ the US had no means of controlling where these fighters went once inside Syria. Many will have turned up inside the ranks of the Islamic state.
Only when European takfiris turned up in Syria did western governments begin to show alarm at the consequences of their policies and that was for their own sake, not Syria’s. The near-decapitation of a soldier in a London street in November, 2013, and later, the picture of a young Australian boy holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier at the instigation of his doting father, caused alarm and revulsion. Heads had been cut and throats slit in Syria for years without these governments uttering a word of protest but the sight of their own citizens brandishing bloody knives and holding up severed heads filled them with disgust. What if they did these things, not in the streets and squares of Idlib or Al Raqqa, but the streets and squares of Washington, Paris, Brussels and London?
Even at this late stage, with the minions of the Islamic state rampaging across Iraq and Syria, their response to what is going on is morally selective. Yes, the Yazidis have to be saved from these butchers and so do the Kurds but what about everyone else? Is there any difference between a Syrian mother and child and an Iraqi mother and child, Yazidi, Sunni, Alawi, Shia or Christian, about to be swept into the black maw of the Islamic state? Or for that matter, equally ignored by western governments, the men, women and children slaughtered by the Zionists in Gaza?
The response of the US to rise of the Islamic state has very much centered on protecting US interests as these excerpts from Barack Obama’s statement of August 18 indicate:
‘The Mosul dam fell under terrorist control earlier this month and is directly tied to our objective of protecting Americans in Iraq. If that dam was breached it could have proven catastrophic, with flood that would have threatened the loss of thousands of civilian lives and endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad …. There should be no doubt that the United States military will continue to carry out the limited missions that I’ve authorized – protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Erbil and Baghdad and providing humanitarian support as we did on Mount Sinjar.’
The Islamic state immediately flung down the gauntlet by beheading an American photographer and threatening to murder another captive American unless Obama stopped his ‘limited missions.’ Like most other journalists, these two crossed into Syria illegally and were reporting the war from the ‘rebel’ side before the ‘rebels’ turned on them. Captive Turkish nationals are similarly exposed. The followers of the Caliph Ibrahim kidnapped 49 Turkish consular staff and their families when they seized Mosul in July, along with 31 Turkish truck drivers. Since then nothing has been heard of them. The beheading of James Foley sends the same message to Turkey as is being sent to the US: if it does anything to slow the advance of the Islamic state its captured nationals may suffer the same terrible fate.
The Mosul dam has been ‘saved’ and the Islamic state driven back from the approaches to Erbil but the city of Mosul remains in its hands and Aleppo is now threatened. Well financed from oil sales and well-armed, the Islamic state has the right combination of manpower, weaponry, fighting experience and confidence to sweep aside its takfiri rivals and challenge the Syrian army for control of the city. Its fall would clear the way through the Alawi heartland to the Mediterranean coast.
Stopping the Islamic state just in Iraq – even if this can be done and the task is growing more difficult by the day – would be like chopping the head off a weed while leaving the roots in the ground. It is self-evident that it has to be stopped in Syria as well but this will mean calling off the campaign of the last four years and cooperating with the Syrian government. There are some signs that the US is already giving some support to Syria behind the scenes but no signs that it is prepared to do what is necessary to stop the Islamic state. Turkey is being asked to do more to seal its border and Saudi Arabia and Qatar will have to be told to cut off the money pipeline. As the Islamic state is increasingly self-sufficient it is already rather too late for this. The administration does not see the Islamic threat as an immediate threat to the homeland, so why do more than drop a few bombs and make noises about threatened minorities? Senior officials and military men are already saying that only when US interests are directly threatened will the administration do more.
The Islamic state is growing stronger by the day and stopping it in a few months is going to be infinitely more difficult than stopping it now, and here another question has to be asked. The US and its allies have tried very hard to destroy the Syrian government. Now they have in their hands the weapon they wanted all along: a highly motivated, well-armed movement with a large army. Is this by accident or design? Either way, why stop the Islamic state now when it has the best chance yet of breaking up Syria? If the problem is indecision and an unwillingness to commit then the US and its allies are giving the Islamic state exactly what it expected. If the end objective of ‘creative chaos’ always was creating more chaos, then the present mess can be regarded as a brilliant policy triumph. The alternative explanation is that the present mess is the inevitable outcome of decades of policies gone wrong: either way the ‘west’, its interests and its regional surrogates, especially those in the gulf, will eventually be no safer than anyone else.
- Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.