How Obama allowed ISIS to grow into the monster it has become

As long as the US continues to treat Saudi Arabia as a key ally, the Islamic State will remain a menace.

 |  5-minute read |   08-12-2015
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As the Barack Obama presidency winds down, his errors of judgment in the Middle East will intrigue historians for years.

President Obama has tried unsuccessfully for four years to unseat Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. By weakening but not defeating him, Obama created a power vacuum in northern Syria. In stepped the Islamic State (ISIS). Before 2011, ISIS was not a force to reckon with - a mere subaltern of al Qaeda.

America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon meanwhile funded, armed and trained anti-Assad "moderate" terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front. It was a classical outsourced operation to depose the Syrian leadership. But who would replace Assad? The United States thought it could prop up a Sunni puppet - as it did in post-Saddam Iraq - and all would be well.

It of course wasn't. Most of the "moderate" terrorist groups fighting Assad (an Alawite, a sect related to Shias in Sunni-majority Syria) were just that - terrorists. Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, the US claimed, gave it the moral authority to depose him.

Rewind to 2003. President George W Bush used a dodgy intelligence report on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq to invade the country. Saddam Hussein was chased, caught and executed. Chaos followed. Saddam, for all his brutal faults, had held Iraq together for over 30 years. A Sunni, he achieved a secular balance in a country where around 60 per cent of the population is Shia.

His Ba'ath party was, for all practical purposes, a US stooge. After the 1979 Iranian revolution deposed another US puppet, the Shah of Iran, the US nudged Iraq into a devastating eight-year war with Iran. The war, which dragged on from 1980 to 1988, cost millions of Iraqi and Iranian lives.

Saddam fell out of favour with his American benefactors in 1990 when he attacked another US protectorate, Kuwait. A short, sharp Gulf war, Desert Storm, followed. Saddam, defeated, withdrew from Kuwait. A vengeful US imposed debilitating economic and military sanctions on Iraq including no-fly zones over key parts of the country. Thousands of Iraqi children literally starved to death over the next decade as a result of the sanctions.

But a bigger tragedy lay ahead: the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

In the 1980s, Iraq and Syria, along with Lebanon, were secular oases in the Middle East. Women moved freely, worked in offices and dressed fashionably in skirts. The hijab was rarely seen.

After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the post-2011 bombing of Syria, the hijab and a warren of terror groups have become part of the Iraqi and Syrian landscape. Shia-Sunni wounds have reopened. The US and Britain destroyed Iraq's army on the fraudulent charge of Saddam possessing WMD. The US continues to attack Assad, giving ISIS the space to grow.

The rise of ISIS after 2011 was made possible by the destruction of the Iraqi army and the sectarian fissures the ensuing civil war created between Iraq's minority Sunnis and majority Shias. Meanwhile, the Syrian war, funded by American weapons and money funnelled to anti-Assad terrorist groups, has led to ISIS occupying large swathes of territory in northern Syria where a weakened Damascus holds no sway. Former commander of US Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, General Michael Flynn, recently went on record to admit that the Iraq invasion led directly to the creation of ISIS.

The Syrian-Iraqi theatre of war has changed the rules of the game. Russian jets are attacking both CIA-funded, anti-Assad terrorist groups and ISIS. The French are focusing on ISIS. So are the British. The US is bombing ISIS positions but, as American pilots have said publicly, they "release their ordnance (bombs) in only one out of every four sorties" for fear of killing civilians. The order to exercise "restraint" has come directly from president Obama.

ISIS fighters have embedded themselves into the Sunni population in the territories they hold. They are receiving tacit help from Turkey whom Russian president Vladimir Putin has accused of being "accomplices of ISIS terrorists". 

Much of ISIS' oil is smuggled through the Turkish border. If Turkey were to cut this supply off, ISIS would soon be on its knees. Ankara, however, wants Assad out of Syria. It regards him as a bigger threat than ISIS. With Russia now deeply immersed in the war, that position is no longer tenable.

The mess in Syria and Iraq has found resonance in the US presidential election. The first primaries are due in New Hampshire, Iowa and a slew of other states in February 2016. The surge of anti-Islamic feeling has given Donald Trump a lead among Republicans in most polls though Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both young senators, are fast catching up. 

If there is a Paris-style terror attack on American soil, Islamophobia will peak. The shooting of 14 people in San Bernardino by a Pakistani-origin couple with ISIS links has already polarised the election. Trump's anti-Muslim statements will now find wider appeal. Hillary Clinton, still smarting from accusations that as secretary of state she must be held to account for the security lapses that led to the assassination of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, could be hurt by rising public fears over another terror strike on an American city.

Obama has erred grievously over his obsession to depose Assad, allowing ISIS to grow into the monster it is. George W Bush made a similar mistake by dismantling the Iraqi army (which is now incapable of defeating ISIS) and driving a deep sectarian wedge within Iraqi society that could eventually lead to the country's trifurcation into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish provinces.

Meanwhile, the real culprit in the Middle East, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, looks on silently. It has waged without success a 9-month-long war on the Shia-affiliated Houthi rebels in Yemen. It funded ISIS at inception. It runs a nasty police state that beheads and lashes men and women.

As long as the US continues to treat Saudi Arabia as a key ally, ISIS will remain a menace. Saudi Arabia is the principal source of malignancy in the Middle East, ISIS the principal symptom.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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