As the US gingerly pulls together their coalition of the weary in response to the plainly obvious threat posed by the radical Islamic group ISIS, a solution to the problem that led to the emergence of the group appears to be no closer to being reached.
When the first shoots of the Arab Spring emerged from the hot deserts of Tunisia during the closing moments of 2010, many in Washington saw it as the ultimate vindication of a policy of regime change that began in Afghanistan after 9/11 and ultimately appeared to have floundered in the chaotic, wreckage strewn streets of Iraq, a land where American troops were supposed to have been “greeted as liberators” according to Vice-President of the United States at the time, Dick Cheney, in a 2003 interview. The belief among those who held power was that a regime change in Iraq and its transition to a flourishing democracy would see it become a beacon of hope to the rest of the Middle East setting off a domino effect as neighboring peoples, suffering under the claustrophobic effect of authoritarianism would rise up. This wasn’t the first time the domino effect has been used as an excuse to go to war. The justification for entering the Vietnam War was also tied to the theory of falling Dominos, in that case preventing the spread of Communism throughout south-east Asia by reinforcing a friendly government against Communist Insurgents.
By the time the American effort had floundered in Iraq, the country now a hive of sectarian brutality instead of a beacon of democracy, the hope that there would be some systematic collapse of surrounding Authoritarian regimes appeared distant. Iraq’s majority Shiite population, long the victims of Saddam Hussain’s brutal security apparatus, had understandably taken power with both hands and were determined to hold onto it. The Sunni’s suddenly became isolated from the decision making process. Sunni politicians included in the political process were often only there as a token gesture to the American “liberators” who still firmly held the keys to the billions of dollars that was pouring into the country. By 2006 Iraq was in a virtual civil war along sectarian lines.
What made this a particularly dangerous situation was the make up of the Sunni guerrilla forces that were now engaged in incessant battles against the Iraqi ‘army’ and the coalition forces remaining in the country. After defeating the Iraqi regular army in 2003 the decision was made to disband it completely to ensure that Baathist elements were removed. This left thousands of trained, professional, mainly Sunni, soldiers without jobs and bitter. It was an obvious step for many to join the guerrilla movement that sprung up in the country’s north. It was also not surprising that this movement was soon joined by Jihadists excited by the prospect of a war against both the Shiites and the Infidels. By 2009, with the advent of the ‘Sunni’ or ‘Anbar Awakening’, which saw local Sunni tribal leaders draw together militias to fight the forces lighting the sectarian flame, and an American ‘surge’, which saw an an additional 30,000 American troops deployed to the embattled country the guerrilla movement had been quelled, although significantly not removed altogether. Beneath the surface the tension of unresolved grievances continued to simmer.
On the 17th of December 2010 unemployed Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi stood by his roadside stand selling fruit in order to get by. He was soon approached by a local municipal inspector who declared his business illegal and confiscated it. Distraught and seemingly unable to face waking up in such a repressive environment again he doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. Despite his horrific injuries he survived to see in 2011 before passing away on the 4th of January, his death became the spark that would ignite the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. To those men behind the invasion of Iraq it was the sign they had been waiting for, the first domino of democracy hitting the ground.
Almost immediately Tunisia would be joined by Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen in facing the wrath of their populations, while Oman, Sudan, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco and Syria amongst followed not long after as the call for political and social reform echoed across the Middle East and North Africa. Governments, unprepared for the speed at which the movement grew, scrambled to try to contain the threat they posed. Some enacted laws enabling extended freedoms, while others cracked down further on the rogue elements, identifying and detaining the leaders in the hope this would fracture and weaken the protests. For some however, it was too little too late. Tunisian President of 22 years Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on the 14th of January 2011 and Egyptian President of 29 years, Hosni Mubarak, resigned on the 11th of February in the face of increasing lethal protests. For his part in bloodshed that occurred during the uprising he was sentenced to life in prison, although this was later overturned on appeal.
In Washington the events seemed to justify the belief that men’s natural desire was for liberty and democracy, and that the much maligned Iraq War, would be judged, historically, as the event which led to the democratization of the Middle East. Unfortunately things are rarely as simple as they first appear as the unfolding chaos would prove. In Libya, protests against President Muammar Gaddafi had turned into an increasingly bloody civil war dividing the east and west of the country. With the Libyan army controlling the bulk of the heavy weapons and having complete control of the sky Gaddafi’s forces soon gained the momentum necessary to crush the rebellion as they closed in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. This triggered a new phase of the Arab Spring as Western nations, led by the United States and sympathetic Arab states, primarily Qatar, scrambled to prevent this from happening. The belief was that by not acting a clear signal would be sent to these regimes that they had a licence to treat their people as they wished, free from any scrutiny. A Security Council meeting was hastily arranged and approval was gained for the implementation of a no fly zone with the aim of removing Gaddafi’s air-force from his options and to protect the civilian population from indiscriminate bombing as Gaddafi closed in on Benghazi. The no fly zone soon became a campaign to generally reduce Gaddafi’s offensive capabilities. Command and Control facilities were destroyed, military convoys wiped out and air strikes often coordinated with the advance of rebel forces. Aside from causing the inevitable collapse of the Gaddafi regime, the decision to stretch the parameters of the campaign would cause wider ramifications in the Western nation’s relationship with Russia who believed the interpretation of the resolution adapted by the West far exceeded what was actually agreed. This disagreement would have serious consequences in later attempts at making a Security Council resolution over Syria and echoes can still be found in the Russian actions in Ukraine.
With the fall of Libya it appeared another obstacle to the achievement of a dream laid out with with the invasion of Iraq was realized. Many of the countries who had overthrown their leaders however, had no experience, no history and no real understanding of what democracy meant. Many were still based around tribal systems and inevitably power vacuums emerged, as they had so alarmingly in Iraq, once the long established state apparatus collapsed. In Egypt the ones to fill the void were the Muslim Brotherhood who benefited from an already established organisational structure that was ready and able to fill the void after Mubarak left. In what was an intensely close election Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi scrapped home against former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik by only three percent. The result left many Western and Arab leaders aghast that Egypt’s new leader was to come from a group considered to be a terrorist organisation in several countries and which had been illegal in Egypt up until Mubarak had resigned.
The election of the Muslim Brotherhood would soon be but one example of an ever increasing involvement in the events of the Arab Spring by so-called Islamist groups. It wasn’t long before a darker side to Libya’s rebel groups, often displayed in Western media as bright eyed, smiling, ideologues flashing the peace sign at every opportunity, became apparent as the country was carved into areas of power controlled by individual militias as they fought for the spoils of their victory over Gaddafi. Many were discovered to have extremist Islamist beliefs, others ties to the elusive American nemesis that is al-Qaeda. Rather than being the doyens of democracy in a new world order they became a packs of dogs scavenging at the carcass of their deceased master. The country’s central authority, the aptly named National Transitional Council failed to assert any control over the militias as the vacuum of the war had left them with no real army of their own, instead forcing them to rely on deals with the different factions that controlled the militias. Such is the state of the country that the current Prime Minister of Libya Abdullah al-Thani temporarily resigned after his family was attacked before returning to the job, but only until they find someone else to take it. Far from being a country united under the banner of democracy Libya stands closer to Ancient Greece, a collection of city states and areas, each with their own militia and each fighting to secure a dominant position.
But however synonymous Libya is with the evident problems that have emerged following the Arab Spring, it cannot take the place of Syria which has become the devastating culmination of decades of harmful Middle Eastern meddling and misguided policy. It is a country hailed in historical texts as the birthplace of civilization but now, in the civilized world, finds itself the place most difficult to find that which it gave birth to. Syria, like so many other countries directly involved in the Arab Spring, found itself caught up in popular protests primarily involving the majority Sunni population who had lived under the often brutal rule of the al-Assad family, members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of the Shia faith, since 1971. The reaction to these protests by an al-Assad regime which had seen several counterparts fall under their weight, was unsurprising. Offers of greater freedoms were made to appease, while the country’s much feared security forces moved into action to identify, detain and destroy those deemed to be instigators. The two pronged defense failed to quell the unrest and, backed by a sympathetic Western media and neighboring Sunni governments who envisioned a revitalized Sunni dominated Syria offsetting the recently established Shia Iraq, the protests soon turned into a fully fledged civil war. Syria however, from the start felt different to the other lands that had faced the wrath of oppressed populations. It felt like the epicenter, the middle of a war much greater than what it was given credit for. Syria was the prize that everyone wanted.
With such a prize at stake for so many players it soon descended into a brutal quagmire where each faction on the ground quickly realized they were potentially fighting for their existence. Those brave souls who first raised the flag of rebellion, those Syrians protesting for a better future, for more freedoms and for a future that they could have a say in, those who would become known as the ‘moderate Syrian opposition’ were soon swept away by those who saw Syria as a much bigger opportunity. Syria became the natural extension of the war in Iraq, a war that had never really finished but lay simmering gently across the open border. Those Sunni warriors who had fought the American occupation and battled Shiite rule only to be forced into submission by elements of their own faith eager to secure their own futures. In Syria there were no such restrictions and these hardened fighters were soon flooding into Syria to renew the battle and forge a new Sunni stronghold. Sympathetic Sunni states also eagerly threw their weight behind the rebellion hopeful that a long term nemesis might be replaced by a state they had some direct control over. Qatar and Saudi Arabia assumed the rolls of key supporters to the opposition supplying both light arms and finances to the uprising. Saudi Arabia in particular also ignored a large number of its civilians taking up arms in direct support of the Syrian opposition. The Western powers also threw their support behind the Syrian opposition under the context of removing a leader who had committed heinous crimes against his own people. Behind this veneer however, was also the knowledge that removing Syria would deal a serious blow to not just Iran but also Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Russia, a key ally of Syria. Rather than being just the happiness and democratic freedom of the Syrian people at stake, it was a geo-political firestorm that had been lit which had the potential to tip the balance of regional power decisively.
With the stakes so high the battle on the ground became ever more destructive. Each side held onto the belief that they were fighting for their very survival. The Alawites, Shia and Christians foresaw a Syria where they would be at best driven out of the country and into a life experienced by so many thousands of Palestinian exiles, or at worst face extinction at the hands of an increasingly hard-line opposition. The rebels, reinforced by the extensive support they had received, believed they were fighting to fulfill their rightful place, as the majority, in Syrian society and that this would be their best chance of achieving it. Month after month the war rumbled on, ever more bitter, ever more brutal. The hope that had carried the rebels to their early successes was soon replaced with a realization that there would be no decisive intervention from the globe’s most powerful players. As this belief grew so the power of the moderate Syrian rebel groups waned. The fighters began to look toward those warriors who had been proving themselves most capable of achieving a decisive victory, those warriors carrying the scars of past wars, those warriors who appeared immune to the horrors of war and fought under the flag of Jihad. They came from the various battles fields across the Middle East and beyond, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Tajikstan and of course Iraq, and they flooded into the new epicentre of Jihad. Syria. It was not long before Al-Qaeda claimed ownership over some of this mishmash of killing machines, driving the conflict into ever deeper shafts of violence and brutality. Still, with the help of their backers, the Syrian government held strong, fending off this multi-faceted challenge despite predictions of its imminent demise.
As the Moderate rebels floundered, the Western world in particular found itself torn between two confessed enemies, unable to intervene for fear of empowering one of those it had previously denounced. Any intervention on behalf of the rebels would see the dominant Jihadist groups no-doubt secure large swathes of the country, while support for the Assad regime would be a complete reversal of everything they had said previously. Faced with a dearth of feasible options they chose to do nothing and hope that they would wipe each other out. The problem was that the sympathetic media attention poured onto the Syrian rebels in Western countries, combined with the complete failure to act against the Assad regime, had stirred up the passion of many impressionable young Muslims across the Western world. It was not long before many took up the call to fight and departed for Syria via the Turkish border. Whatever their intentions upon departure it was not long before realities on the ground soon took over. The arrivals would have become immediately drawn to those groups who were pulling the strings on the ground, those whose passion for Islam and Jihad would have proved particularly appealing to these young men from abroad and of all these groups it would have been apparent that the most effective group was the one marching under the black banner emblazoned with the words ‘La ‘ilaha ‘illa-llah’ – ‘There is no God but God’.
The group is known under many names; ‘ISIL’ for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a historic name for the region encompassing modern day Syria, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon; ISIS for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and more recently just IS for the Islamic State the simple title given to the Caliphate it has declared over its current areas of control. The group’s roots date back to the numerous Islamists who went to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Once victory was secure many of the fighters found themselves enamored with the ideals behind Jihad but little in the way of structure, targets and opportunity to solidify their beliefs. This all changed with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an man of extremely violent tendencies matched only by his passion for Jihad, had been in charge of organizing and training terrorists operations in the name of Jihad. He had been responsible for a number of attacks including a 1999 Bombing of the Radisson SAS in Amman and the assassination of American Laurence Foley in Jordan. The invasion of Iraq presented him with an opportunity to take his Jihadist beliefs to another level. Only a few months into the war Zarqaai’s group, the Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad, had gained a reputation for its brutality and fervor against not just Western soldiers but also civilians, particularly those of the Shiite faith. By October 2004 his group had taken on a new name, The Organisation of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia, which translated in the Western media as simply Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Certified by al-Qaeda, the groups profile and reach extended, it became renowned for its regular suicide bombings that destroyed marketplaces and military compounds alike. In 2006 the group joined with four others to form the Mujahideen Shura Council with the aim of removing foreign forces from the Iraq and reinstating Sunni Islam as the dominant force. These groups would soon be known under a new name, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Within a year however, the group faced a backlash from their own power base, the Sunnis. Tired of perpetual war and the possibility of the Mujahideen Shura Council taking some of their own power, a series of tribal leaders agreed to work with the Coalition forces against the group in exchange for additional privileges and monies for reconstruction, much of which would be funneled through their own systems. This agreement became known as the ‘Sunni’ or ‘Anbar Awakening’, and in combination with a surge of American troops led to a dramatic reduction the capabilities of the ISI to launch attacks, a major culling of its leadership and a dramatic drop in ready and willing fighters. By 2010 the group would find itself struggling to stay relevant. Its leadership had been wiped out and Iraq appeared to be steadying itself after a almost a decade of turmoil. A new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was appointed, and he quickly set about rebuilding the devastated base of the group. Doing so was surprisingly simple. al-Baghdadi was able to tap into the numerous ex-Iraq army officers who found themselves unemployable following their dismissal after Saddam Hussain’s government had folded. As things began to fall into place in Iraq, it was events in neighboring Syria which would present al-Baghdadi with the opportunity to further his groups aspirations.
With opportunities restricted in Iraq, al-Qaeda wanted to establish a presence in Syria whose protest movement had descended into bloody civil war. The sectarian nature that had taken hold on the conflict would be an ideal breeding ground to espouse al-Qaeda ideology and the Islamic State of Iraq, who had been rebuilding their base, would be the ideal vehicle to carry this message. From August 2011 a core of men indoctrinated in the methods and belief system of ISI moved across the border to start the recruiting. Within five months they felt confident enough in their position to announce the formation of the al-Nursa Front, the official al-Qaeda presence in the Syrian war. It wouldn’t be long before al-Nursa were one of the dominant groups within of the rebel force fighting al-Assad, their brand and expertise in guerrilla warfare ideal for drawing in fighters from across Syria and, importantly, abroad.
After just over a year of existence al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal who the true mastermind behind al-Nursa was. He announced that the two groups which had been born of the same father would be again merging under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL. The announcement was obviously a surprise to both al-Nursa and al-Qaeda who were quick to reject any idea of a merger but al-Baghdadi would not be swayed. Soon troops to the new Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began to appear across the battlefields of Syria, dislodging al-Nursa as the most effective and brutal force within the loose umbrella of rebel groups. Their penchant for beheadings and executions, combined with their advanced understanding of the nuances of social media soon created a media storm and general outrage across Western countries. They also dramatically heightened the sectarian aspects of the Syrian civil war, executing not just Syrian government soldiers but also many Shiites, Kurds, Christians and Westerners who happened to fall into their hands.
Their sledgehammer tactics also bought them into direct conflict with other rebel groups who both felt their tactics were counter productive to the overall goal of unseating the al-Assad regime and securing western support. Unfortunately for the more moderate groups however, the tactics of ISIL proved to be alarmingly effective. They soon secured large swathes of territory in both Syria and Northern Iraq, further increasing their profile and drawing the attention of would be Jihadists across the globe. Perhaps the moment that really caught the attention of the International Community occurred on the 10th of June 2014 when the flag of ISIL was raised above the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, after the Iraqi army had dropped weapons and fled in the face of a much smaller force. Over the following weeks town after town fell to the rampaging Jihadist group as they closed in on Baghdad itself, the possibility of the whole country collapsing under the relentless advance suddenly a shocking reality.
By the end of June ISIL had changed its name to simply the Islamic State and declared its territory was now a new Caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq. Within a few lonely months the dream of the Dick Cheney and his hawks of a democratic, American friendly Middle East that would be initiated by the toppling of the first domino, Iraq, suddenly seemed world’s away. The Arab Spring, seemingly the logical progression of the falling dominoes, had morphed into a vehicle for the spread of extremist ideology and thought. Instead of freedom and liberty there was chaos and oppression which had swept to the doorstep of the very place hailed as the model of the new Middle East. Instead of being remembered as the men who bought democracy to the Middle East, Bush and Cheney will forever be remembered as the men who opened Pandora’s box and released the hounds of war upon the Middle East, the ones who turned turned the Jihadist movement from a small, fairly contained phenomenon into a movement capable of bringing down nations.