Asking the wrong questions: Western intervention in Syria, not inaction, has strengthened ISIS
By Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
26 August 2014
Hillary Clinton, in what was likely an early attempt to position herself as strong on foreign policy for the 2016 US Presidential Election, recently criticised President Obama’s alleged failure to ‘help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad’. This, she said, had ‘left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled’.
As is often the case, the BBC was happy to let established power define the news agenda. ‘Did inaction over Syria forment regional chaos?’, was the title of BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus’s BBC website think piece on the rise of ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria aka the Islamic State] in Iraq.
The article was largely opinion free, but in a way it didn’t matter what answer was given, the damage had already been done by how the story had been framed. As the American author Thomas Pynchon once wrote: ‘If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.’
Someone who has been answering the wrong questions on Western foreign policy for some time is James Bloodworth, Editor of Left Foot Forward and a columnist with the Independent. Echoing the former US Secretary of State, Bloodworth argues: ‘ISIS have germinated so rapidly not because of George Bush and Tony Blair, but because Western governments decided at some point that it would be acceptable for Bashar al-Assad to drop explosives on the Syrian people in order to keep power.’ Political commentator Sunny Hundal made the same argument in June 2014.
Unfortunately, for Clinton, Bloodworth and Hundal, this argument has been thoroughly discredited.
Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, concluded: ‘As catastrophic as Syria’s war has been, and as alarming as the Islamic State has become, there has never been a plausible case to be made that more US arms for Syrian rebels would have meaningfully altered their path.’
Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s veteran Middle East Correspondent who has just published the book The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, is also dismissive of Clinton’s claim, ridiculing it as ‘nonsense’. ‘The idea, which is very widespread,’ says Cockburn, ‘that there was a moment that, with a few more guns and ammunition, that a moderate Syrian opposition could have taken over in Syria in 2011 or ’12 or ’13, is just unreal.’
More importantly, not only is the ‘West inaction in Syria is to blame for ISIS in Iraq’ argument wrong, it also hides a far more significant, inconvenient truth – that the West’s intervention in Syria is a key reason behind ISIS’s growth.
This argument contradicts the popular notion that the West’s role in Syria has been one of inaction and indifference. But, as with the common perception that President Obama is ‘intervention-averse’, the facts tell a different story.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Obama Administration, often along with the UK and France, has been supporting the rebels in Syria since at least mid-2012. As the Wall Street Journal noted, from the early stages of the war the US has been ‘acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates’. The CIA has played a key role, coordinating large arm shipments to the insurgents, training them in Jordan and providing significant amounts of non-lethal and financial support.
This support has likely prolonged the war. Citing the academic literature on the subject, Professor Lynch notes: ‘In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve.’
Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan has explained how many of the Western-backed rebels in Syria have changed their allegiance to ISIS.
Linking all this with the current crisis in Iraq, Cockburn makes the key point that: ‘US government as a whole – and foreign powers steer away from one very crucial aspect of the rise of ISIS, which is that in Syria, the West backed the uprising against President Assad, and still does, and this enabled ISIS to develop, gain military experience and then use it back in Iraq.’
This is not just the clarity of hindsight. In June 2013, referring to the possibility of directly arming rebels or conducting military strikes against Assad’s forces, two former Secretary Generals of NATO argued:
Rather than secure humanitarian space and empower a political transition, Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country. The idea that the West can empower and remotely control moderate forces is optimistic at best. Escalation begets escalation and mission creep is a predictable outcome if the West sets out on a military path [emphasis added].
This, then, is the real link between the West’s role in Syria and the rise of ISIS – not Clinton’s evidence-free musings about President Obama’s inaction. With the UK seemingly sliding deeper into war in Iraq, now is the time for the anti-war movement to challenge and change the popular narrative about the West and Syria – not least because it’s another example of the disastrous and deadly consequences of Western intervention in the region.
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March that Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair