The Syrian crisis is proof that the United States continues to use radical Salafist Islam as a tool of its foreign policy
On the night of Friday, November 13, three teams totalling eight persons attacked seven targets across Paris. They killed nearly 130 people and injured a few hundred more. Most of the people killed were at a music concert, their night of convivial song and laughter brought to an abrupt and horrific end. The Islamic State of Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) has rushed to take credit. President François Hollande has described the assault as an “act of war” and declared a state of emergency, the first occasion since the Second World War. The shadow of the five-year fratricidal conflict in Syria had now reached the heart of Western culture.
Ever since the ISIS captured world attention after the dramatic capture of Mosul in June last year, followed by the occupation of other territories across the Iraq-Syria border and the declaration of the “Caliphate” in these lands of historic Mesopotamia, the conflicts in the region have taken new and more violent turns practically every day. Hundreds of Syrian soldiers, Yazidi, Kurdish and other Iraqi civilians, and a few Western hostages have been summarily executed through beheadings by ISIS, often captured and widely publicised on social media throughout the world.
Though attacked by the United States and GCC forces, the ISIS has not suffered any major setback militarily; in fact, it has gradually consolidated itself into a proto-state, with many of the attributes of state order – a top advisory council, standing army, substantial financial resources, a council of ministers, provincial governors, a functioning judicial system, a stern security force and provision of municipal and welfare services. And, it seems to have no difficulty in attracting more and more recruits eager to join its ranks and carry out bombings and suicide missions. The distinguished commentator on Arab affairs, Abdel Bari Atwan estimated recently that ISIS had a cadre of about a 100,000 fighters, mainly from the Arab world, but also from other Asian countries and even a few thousand from Europe.
In recent months, ISIS has made its presence felt outside Mesopotamia – in Libya to the west and Afghanistan in the east. It has also expanded its support base, with increasing numbers of far-flung jihadi bodies (or their splinter groups) declaring their affiliation to the Caliphate in preference to Al Qaeda.
Over the past few months, as ISIS carried out its depredations, the war in Syria ground to a stalemate, with the GCC-backed Salafist forces unable to defeat the national forces still loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The ground situation changed dramatically when, from September 30, Russia joined the conflict on the side of the Assad government, deploying its aircraft, tanks, and surveillance capabilities. Russia has carried out lethal bombings against all forces hostile to Assad, not caring to distinguish between ISIS and the other rebel forces, though the former received at least a fifth of the attacks. On November 10, the Russian-backed Syrian forces took eastern Aleppo and the Kweiras air base from ISIS, threatening the group’s logistical connections with Raqqa and its territories in Iraq. The consolidation of the Syrian Kurdish forces at the Turkish border has already blocked the flow of weapons and recruits from Turkey.
ISIS has responded to these attacks by wreaking some harsh reprisals on its enemies. On October 10, it carried out twin bombings in Ankara in Turkey in which 128 persons, mainly Kurd demonstrators, were killed. On October 31, it claimed responsibility for bringing down a Russian passenger aircraft flying from Sharm el Sheikh to St Petersburg, in which over 200 people lost their lives. The Russians deny this, saying the debris does not contain traces of explosives. On November 6 and 12, it carried out two bombings in Lebanon killing over 40 people, while gloating that it had successfully attacked Shia “apostates”. A Lebanese commentator, Khalil Harb said presciently: “Much more bloodshed is on the way.”
On the eve of the Paris attacks, the US announced that its drones had killed Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John”, the UK-origin ISIS member who had presided over several ISIS killings on video and seen across the world. In response to this news, British prime minister David Cameron had said that this had been a strike “at the heart of the terrorist organisation.” Separately, the Americans also announced that they had killed the head of ISIS in Libya, the Iraqi national, Abu Nabil.
The Paris attacks are thus a part of the tit-for-tat attacks that have been going over the last few months and are directly linked to the Syrian conflict. The reactions to these attacks from the protagonists in contention in Syria reflect their deep sectarian and political divide: both Hezbollah and 49 anti-Assad militia groups have strongly condemned the attacks. But, while Hezbollah sees ISIS as a product of the support for terrorists provided by the GCC countries and Turkey, the rebel militias have asserted that Assad is at the heart of terrorist activity in Syria.
The Paris attacks mark the first occasion that ISIS has moved out of West Asia to organize assaults on the ‘far enemy’ in the West, thus indicating that it has assumed Al Qaeda’s agenda of global jihad. Again, while it is not yet known whether the Paris attacks were carried out by local, home-grown affiliates or whether there was some participation of experts from the central leadership, it is clear that in spite of the punishment inflicted upon it by major world powers, ISIS retains considerable resilience and, in a short period, has built up networks that enable it to penetrate the security cordon of the world’s advanced nations.
The Saudi-led GCC countries, Turkey and the US emerge from this imbroglio with little credit. The Saudis have been so focused on regime change in Syria that they have allowed the conflict there to become a major sectarian confrontation in which they have backed jihadi groups, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, in their proxy war against Iran. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the early stages of the Syrian conflict, was similarly obsessed with unseating Assad since he was seen as a supporter of the Syrian Kurds against Turkey. Erdoğan allowed the free flow of jihadis across the Turkish border into Syria, who later bolstered the ranks of the ISIS.
The US approach has been the most weak-kneed and unprincipled: while initially rejecting direct military involvement in Syria, it gave the Saudis a free hand in return for GCC support for the nuclear agreement with Iran. This ensured that the main rebels in Syria were jihadis, many of whom traded their weapons to ISIS or simply joined its ranks. Later, the US saw the Russian entry in Syria as a threat to its global primacy, and worked with the GCC countries to weaken the Russian military effort by providing TOW missiles to the rebels which were most effective against Russian armour.
However, recent US reports suggest an even graver culpability on the part of the Americans. Lt General Michael Flynn reported in August this year, that following the US military failure in Iraq in 2006, the Neocons persuaded Vice President Dick Cheney in 2007 to support initiatives to topple the Assad regime by driving “a wedge between Syria and Hezbollah”; this would be done by backing the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria. This, the reports say, marks the beginning of Saudi and other GCC support for Sunni radicals in Iraq who later metamorphosed into ISIS. The Conflicts Forum, which has published the report, concludes: “The jihadification of the Syrian conflict has been a ‘willful’ policy decision [of the US administration].”
In public remarks in October 2014, Vice President Joe Biden placed the blame where it belonged when he said: ” … our allies in the region were our biggest problem in Syria. They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a Sunni-Shia war … [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
The road ISIS took from Syria to Paris originated in Washington.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE