It is impossible to find anything good to say about ISIS. Without a doubt, it has reset the bar for the levels of savagery inherent in a terrorist group: the much communicated beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, enslavements etc…have placed ISIS at the top/bottom of all the scales and have helped redefine the word “terrorism” itself.
In fact, the media hype over ISIS has been so loud that it is nearly impossible to hear anything but condemnations against ISIS and cheers for the nations and the people trying to defeat it. And as with all media hype, the message has boiled down to a very simple black and white “soundbite”. Since, there is an ongoing campaign to place the US as responsible for the birth of ISIS, the simplified narrative goes something like this: “ISIS and its real/imagined backers (US, Saudi Arabia and even Israel) as the “bad/evil guys promoting terrorism” and the anti-ISIS axis (includes nearly the whole world but is basically Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and now Russia) as the “good/benevolent guys fighting terrorism”.
Obviously, this simplified polarized version of the situation is as far from the truth as the infamous “axis of evil” tags that President Bush was so fond of using. ISIS is definitely evil and should be eradicated but, and this is a big “BUT”, the core anti-ISIS axis poses an evil that is much larger, albeit less immediate and less graphic, than ISIS itself.
The Birth of ISIS in Many Shades of Grey
One fact is certain: as Obama would later admit, ISIS was born as an “unintended consequence” of the US’s mismanagement in Iraq.
The birth of ISIS as it is today began in 2004 in the US-run prison of Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq: Most of the would-be commanders of ISIS were at one time prisoners at Camp Bucca and it was there that they developed their network and their extremist ideologies. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was one of the key figures but he wasn’t even close to becoming its leader. When the US pulled out of Iraq, it left a vacuum of power that was to becoming the womb for the birth of ISI (Islamic State of Iraq). Old rivalries were set aside and new allies were created to fight different wars on a constant basis. ISI’s goals were mostly anti-Shiite and anti-US but these goals were relatively fluid depending on the environment at each moment. In fact, ISI was, at one time, supported by Assad’s own government in an effort to topple the Iraqi government. Al-Qaeda was and remained for a long time the most powerful terrorist organization that all other factions had to deal with.
In 2011, the rumbles of a civil war began in Syria and Al-Baghdadi, decided to expand ISI’s territory of operations beyond Iraq into Syria through a Syrian rebel called Abu Muhammad al-Julani who formed Jabhat al-Nusra for the purpose of fighting Assad who had refused to hold free elections and had answered local protests by killing and jailing demonstrators.
Events came to a peak when in 2013, al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra and ISI were one and the same, resulting in denials by al-Julani and a condemnation by al-Qaeda who felt that ISI was growing too big too fast. But by this time, al-Baghdadi felt strong enough to make his move: he led multiple raids on Iraqi prisons in order to free more than 500 hard-core prisoners who later pledged their allegiance to ISIS. By 2014, al-Qaeda broke its ties with ISI and after much infighting between al-Nusra and ISI in Syria (al-Nusra wanted to topple Assad, al-Baghdadi wanted to create a Sunni stronghold within Iraq and Syria), the two groups finally consolidated.
In June 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the worldwide Islamic State and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIS’s rampage across Syria and Iraq quickly followed. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria raged on with Syrian rebels backed by the US and Saudi Arabia fighting against Assad and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militias. Some of these Syrian rebels joined ISIS in the hope of overthrowing Assad while others fought against ISIS in a classic Middle Eastern melee.
So, who’s to blame for the birth of ISIS? Like any recipe for disaster, there are many ingredients: Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the US invasion of Iraq, the pro-Shiite government in Iraq, the incarceration of would-be ISIS leaders in a US-Iraqi prison, the subversive efforts of Syria in Iraq, the civil war in Syria, the break with al-Qaeda, Iran’s efforts to export the Shiite revolution and many more links that would eventually become the horror that is ISIS. Sorry, no easy black/white, good/bad picture here…only many many shades of grey.
From Shades of Grey to Black and White
The savagery of ISIS made huge headlines. These were terrorists who knew that a youtube video of the beheading of one single person is worth more than a bloody battle. News of the horrors of ISIS were smartly disseminated through media outlets and social media and within a few weeks, ISIS became the terrorists everyone loved to hate.
This strategy helped to build ISIS’s image but also, as a direct consequence, rebranded Assad and his supporters in Tehran as the world’s saviors who were doing what the whole world wanted to do – kill ISIS. The US joined the fray in bombing ISIS strong-holds but the involvement of the US was criticized and denigrated by Tehran as cynical (since the US was identified with the rise of ISIS) and worthless (no real examples of success). Riding this sentiment, Rouhani developed his WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) initiative which placed Iran and Assad in the White Corner and ISIS, the US and Saudi Arabia in the Black Corner.
The public admissions by Obama and several key US political and military leaders of being a part of the birth of ISIS weren’t balanced by admissions by Assad, Baghdad or Tehran of their own responsibility for creating ISIS or for supporting terrorism and the simplified black-white narrative of ISIS began to take traction. In such a black and white picture, there was no room for shades of grey of the massacres carried out by Assad, Hezbollah and Iran on Syrian citizens and legitimate Syrian rebels (not ISIS). The facts that Tehran had not only been a part of the birth of ISIS, has invested over $10 billion a year in the Syrian civil war and was supporting numerous terrorist militias and faction in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas were dwarfed by the world’s hope that ISIS would be destroyed – any questionable shades of grey were pushed to the extreme black-white picture of the situation.
The fact that despite Tehran’s repeated calls for foreign entities to not get involved in the civil war in Syria, Tehran dispatched 15,000 Iranian troops and increased its supplies of weapons to Syria.
Even as Syrian refugees landed in Europe, many who were escaping Assad’s coalition, and not ISIS, Rouhani continues to bang the drum of guilt over the US’s head: “Assad + Tehran = Good/White, ISIS + US = Bad/Black”, in other words, killing “bad guys” turned Tehran into the “good guys”.
Putin, The White Knight
Before Moscow joined the war, many other nations took part in trying to destroy ISIS: the US, Canada, Australia, UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE have all joined in air-srikes against ISIS in Syria/Iraq while Egypt has targeted air-strikes against ISIS bases in Lybia, Germany and Italy have supplied weapons to fight ISIS and Qatar supplied humanitarian aid.
For years, Moscow watched wearily as Assad’s future dangled precariously while at the same time pressuring the US to sign a nuclear deal with Iran in order to begin a new era of trade and partnership with Iran. In June the JCPOA was finally inked and the following month, Iran’s Qods chief Suleimani visited Moscow (despite sanctions against him to travel) to convince the Russians to take a more dramatic part in saving Assad. What Suleimani showed Moscow must have been alarming and Suleimani next visit to Russia in September clinched the deal, bringing Moscow to invest its full power to support Iran and save Assad.
Within weeks, Moscow deployed its jet fighters and suddenly, Assad’s precarious fortunes turned rosier and Moscow enhanced the black-white narrative of ISIS by placing itself, together with Assad, Tehran and Hezbollah as the “good guys”. The Russian jet fighters, directed by Assad’s commands, began bombing Syrian rebel outposts regardless of whether the rebels were factioned with ISIS or not. The US looked on worriedly as Russian jets bombed US-backed rebels and pictures of Syrian casualties from the Russian bombings began flooding the media.
The EU, high on the success of the JCPOA called for diplomatic interventions to save Syria while keeping Assad in power and both the EU and the UN reinforced Iran’s role in helping to end the war, reinforcing, once again, the black-white ISIS narrative. Both Rouhani and Putin made it quite clear in their speeches at the UNGA: Assad must remain in power in order for the conflict to be resolved.
Saudi Arabia, a long term rival of Assad and Tehran called unsuccessfully on Russia to step down and even threatened to join the war against Assad but will probably not do so since it a) reinforces the blackened image of Saudi Arabia as fighting against the fighters against ISIS and b) increases the chance of turning a proxy war in Syria to into a global conflict.
No doubt about it, ISIS should be destroyed and so should Assad. But the anti-ISIS axis is much more dangerous in the long run to the West than ISIS itself. Unfortunately, in a world of simplistic media sound-bites, the grey intricacies of this war are lost. In the shorter scenario, while the West looks on, the Syrian rebels who legitimately called for the removal of Assad will die along with ISIS and the world will hail the anti-ISIS axis as its savior. The other scenario is much more worrisome: If the Russians continue to hit US interests in Syria and if their blitz turns out to a protracted war, the chances of the a global war emanating from Syria will dramatically increase. In any case, the Middle East looks like its spiraling into a “meltdown“, and the superpowers (specifically Russia and China) are jostling to fill up the vacuum.