Asking the wrong questions: Western intervention in Syria, not inaction, has strengthened ISIS

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

3 thoughts on “Asking the wrong questions: Western intervention in Syria, not inaction, has strengthened ISIS

  1. Zonk

    An exceptionally well-written opinion editorial. I have much to learn, so it seems. My counter-point, or question really, to your argument is this:

    Assad is a barbaric miscreant. That alone may not justify intervention, but the use of chemical weapons certainly does. I contend that an “all or nothing” argument, rather than an “intervention lengthened the conflict” makes more sense here. That is, half measures in war do not work. Supplying arms to a losing faction usually means that faction loses slower, and bloodier. In this case I agree that it allowed the ISIS-populist movement to take hold.

    Our options from the beginning have been:
    1) Decimate ISIS and Assad
    2) Do nothing

    Option 1 is hard and bloody, but has a more ideal outcome. Option 2 means Assad crushes the rebels and retains control of his state. Is that a satisfactory outcome? I’m interested on your take.

    Anyway, while I disagree with your premise, you have earned a new follower.


    1. ianjs2014 Post author

      Hi Zonk.

      Thanks for your comment. I just started building the website today, so as you can see it’s pretty sparse at the moment. I wasn’t expecting anyone to look at it for a few weeks!

      Anyway, to answer your question.

      First, I’m not sure we should be attributing blame re: chemical weapons quite so quickly. See my other post on the website, which includes links to reputable sources questioning this:

      I’m fairly sceptical of arguments that set out the two options as only 1) all out war or 2) do nothing. This is exactly what the US and UK governments and their supporters in the media would like us to think. Of course there are lots of options that sit between these two extremes.

      I’ve written a bit about possible options for dealing with ISIS here: In terms of Syria, there are options other than Western military intervention that could reduce the violence and death, and which could well lead to Assad stepping down at some point in the future. First, rather than arming the rebels and turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia and Qatar arming the rebels, we could stop arming the rebels and pressure Qatar and Saudi Arabia to stop arming the rebels. This would likely de-escalate the violence – and also give us (and the rest of the world) a moral credible high ground to pressure Russia to stop arming the regime and to pressure Assad to return to talks. As soon as Russia (and Iran) stop backing Assad its all over – so we could also work on how to do this. For example, we might want to guarantee Russia continues to have a military base in Syria in the future. Or agree to not attack or undermine Iran in the near future. Both fairly doable, surely, if the political will was there. These are my off the cuff thoughts – there are obviously a lot of other options available if the US and UK were sincerely interested in peace.

      Your option of “decimate ISIS and Assad” would almost certainly lead to a bloodbath that might even out do the 2003 invasion of Iraq in the size of destruction. It would inflame the Middle East and turn Arab public opinion even further against the West, which would no doubt include more terrorist attacks directed against the West. Thousands, maybe millions would die, including lots of Western troops. Western public opinion simply won’t allow this to happen.

      Thanks for your comment.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s