This essay, which originally appeared on TomDispatch, is excerpted from the first chapter of Patrick Cockburn’s new book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, with special thanks to his publisher, OR Books. The first section is a new introduction written for TomDispatch.
There are extraordinary elements in the present US policy in Iraq and Syria that are attracting surprisingly little attention. In Iraq, the United States is carrying out air strikes and sending in advisers and trainers to help beat back the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (better known as ISIS) on the Kurdish capital, Erbil. The US would presumably do the same if ISIS surrounds or attacks Baghdad. But in Syria, Washington’s policy is the exact opposite: there the main opponent of ISIS is the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds in their northern enclaves. Both are under attack from ISIS, which has taken about a third of the country, including most of its oil and gas production facilities.
But US , Western European, Saudi and Arab Gulf policy is to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, which happens to be the policy of ISIS and other jihadis in Syria. If Assad goes, then ISIS will be the beneficiary, since it is either defeating or absorbing the rest of the Syrian armed opposition. There is a pretense in Washington and elsewhere that there exists a “moderate” Syrian opposition being helped by the United States, Qatar, Turkey, and the Saudis. It is, however, weak and getting more so by the day. Soon the new caliphate may stretch from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean and the only force that can possibly stop this from happening is the Syrian army.
The reality of US policy is to support the government of Iraq, but not Syria, against ISIS. But one reason that group has been able to grow so strong in Iraq is that it can draw on its resources and fighters in Syria. Not everything that went wrong in Iraq was the fault of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as has now become the political and media consensus in the West. Iraqi politicians have been telling me for the last two years that foreign backing for the Sunni revolt in Syria would inevitably destabilize their country as well. This has now happened.
By continuing these contradictory policies in two countries, the United States has ensured that ISIS can reinforce its fighters in Iraq from Syria and vice versa. So far, Washington has been successful in escaping blame for the rise of ISIS by putting all the blame on the Iraqi government. In fact, it has created a situation in which ISIS can survive and may well flourish.
Using the Al Qaeda Label
The sharp increase in the strength and reach of jihadist organizations in Syria and Iraq has generally been unacknowledged until recently by politicians and media in the West. A primary reason for this is that Western governments and their security forces narrowly define the jihadist threat as those forces directly controlled by Al Qaeda central or “core” Al Qaeda. This enables them to present a much more cheerful picture of their successes in the so-called war on terror than the situation on the ground warrants.
In fact, the idea that the only jihadis to be worried about are those with the official blessing of Al Qaeda is naïve and self-deceiving. It ignores the fact, for instance, that ISIS has been criticized by the Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for its excessive violence and sectarianism. After talking to a range of Syrian jihadi rebels not directly affiliated with Al Qaeda in southeast Turkey earlier this year, a source told me that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US.”