This is part 3 of a 5 part report which attempts to detail a history of the rise of ISIS and to explain its true relations to the actors involved in the war theatre. It attempts to show how and why ISIS has been exploited while also answering the question: what has been the group’s ultimate purpose in relation to the dominant powers manipulating the proxy conflict. Given what is known historically, it hopes to shed light on what the motivations are behind the current actions against the group, as well as what purpose they serve.
A Salafist Principality for the West
As the opposition became increasingly sectarian, it was apparent that it was the militant elements and their “deadly results”1 which drove out and supplanted the real moderates.
A leading figure in the early uprisings, Haytham Manna criticized the negative impact that external intervention had on the protest movement. Writing in The Guardian in 2012, he explained that the main effect of taking up arms was to “undermine the broad popular support necessary to transform the uprising into a democratic revolution.” Furthermore, it was the eventual “pumping of arms to Syria [from] Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the phenomenon of the Free Syrian Army, and the entry of more than 200 jihadi foreigners… [that] have all led to a decline in the mobilization of large segments of the population… and in the activists’ peaceful civil movement.” The net result of this being that “the political discourse has become sectarian; there has been a Salafisation of religiously conservative sectors.”2
Going a way to back up this view, Vice President Biden succinctly admitted that in terms of finding “moderates”, in reality “there was no moderate middle because the moderate middle are made up of shopkeepers, not soldiers.” The shopkeepers and reformists being sidelined as the West’s allies, in Biden’s view, “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”3
The realization in the White House was that if they realistically wanted their policy to have any success they would have to empower those capable of producing results. “This idea,” Obama remarked, “that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” in other words, the moderate forces, “and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, was never in the cards.”4 Instead, as investigative journalist Gareth Porter explains, the US would have to accept “a tacit reliance on the jihadists to achieve [their] objective of putting sufficient pressure on the Assad regime to force some concessions on Damascus.” Obama would have to “hide the reality that it was complicit in a strategy of arming [al-Qaeda]” by maintaining the illusion that an independent “moderate” opposition existed, as this would be “necessary to provide a political fig leaf for the covert and indirect U.S. reliance on Al Qaeda’s Syria franchise’s military success.”5
Indeed, not only was this all well understood by planners, the true extent of the empowerment of extremists was known to decision makers from the beginning. The CIA, for instance, very early on was informing the President in classified assessments that “most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar” were “going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition.”6 The man described as the CIA’s “eyes and ears on the ground” in Syria, tasked with drawing up plans for regime change after spending a year meeting with rebels, concluded from his journey that in fact, “there were no moderates.”7
Even earlier the Defense Intelligence Agency was warning officials that events on the ground “are taking a clear sectarian direction” and left no doubt as to who was heading the opposition, stating “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency.” Most remarkably, this 2012 report had predicted the rise of ISIS a full two years before it occurred, stating that “if the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria.” Far from being undesired, in terms of the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey, the report said “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”8
Heading the DIA at the time, Michael Flynn confirmed the validity of this report, explaining that he “paid very close attention… the intelligence was very clear.”9 Not only that, he confirmed that his agency sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the White House about these and other predictions, saying that the jihadists were in control of the opposition and that toppling Assad would have dire consequences. By 2013 the assessments were saying that the US’ covert effort “had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. The so-called moderates had evaporated… and the US was arming extremists.”
But instead of heeding these warnings there was “enormous pushback” from the Obama administration, Flynn explaining that “I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.” Indeed, according to a Joint Chiefs of Staff advisor, there simply was “no way to stop the arms shipments that had been authorized by the president.” Even though, Flynn said, “if the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic.”10
When asked if this obstinacy was a result of mere negligence on the part of the civilian administration, remarkably Flynn replied “I don’t think they turned a blind eye, I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision.” Asked to clarify if he meant the US government deliberately decided to support extremist groups and the founding of a Salafist principality, Flynn stood firm and said “it was a willful decision to do what they’re doing.”11
Former MI6 agent Alastair Crooke later attempted to shed some light on the strategic thinking behind all of this. He explained that the idea “of breaking up the large Arab states into ethnic and sectarian enclaves” had been “established group think” at least as far back as 2006, and that this idea had been “given new life by the desire to pressure Assad in the wake of the 2011 insurgency launched against the Syrian state.” The idea being to drive “a Sunni ‘wedge’ into the landline linking Iran to Syria”, and thereby fracture the connection between Iran and its Arab allies.12
Following along with much of what Biden, Obama, and others had said about the inability to find moderates and the necessity of relying upon extremists, Crooke concluded that “the jihadification of the Syrian conflict had been a ‘willful’ policy decision, and that since Al Qaeda and the ISIS embryo were the only movements capable of establishing such a Caliphate across Syria and Iraq, then it plainly followed that the U.S. administration, and its allies, tacitly accepted this outcome, in the interests of weakening, or of overthrowing, the Syrian state.”13
A Useful Pretext
Much effort has been made to portray ISIS as antagonistic to US interests and to place blame for its rise on official enemies. This is not surprising given the near-unanimous outrage that the group elicited after emerging on the world stage. However, outside of being a useful ideological construct, this analysis neglects some very fundamental characteristics inherent to the situation.
Apart from the obvious conspiracy theories there is of course evidence that after ISIS was founded in 2014 it had made a sort of compact with Bashar al-Assad’s government. After gaining access to documents of a former deputy to Baghdadi, Der Spiegel uncovered what appeared to be an agreement between ISIS and Syria’s Ba’ath regime. The nature of the agreement was an understanding that Syria’s air force would not strike ISIS and in return ISIS commanders promised to order their fighters not to fire on Syrian army soldiers. This made sense for ISIS since its immediate goal was to gain supremacy over Sunni areas while the Syrian army was, as well, primarily concentrated on the immediate threats that it faced from other groups further west. It was in the interests of both sides to avoid a mutually assured destruction with each other.14
The problem with taking this too far is that after ISIS had consolidated its hold over Raqqa and gained supremacy over much of the other rebel groups this understanding appeared to have dissolved, ISIS then mounting an assault against the Syrian army at Al-Tabqa airbase and executing more than 160 Syrian soldiers. Since that point, ISIS has been in a constant state of war with the Syrian army, despite many attempts by regime-change supporters to claim otherwise.15
These kinds of arguments seem to miss an even larger aspect of the bigger picture and misinterpret the motivation of the various players involved. A truer picture of the situation is perhaps best exemplified by the dilemma that faced the Western powers as the public became increasingly aware of ISIS’ atrocities and began calling for some kind of a response to be made against the group. As Western officials had portrayed ISIS as a grave threat to Western civilization, there was great pressure on them to put their money where their mouth was and act. However, this put them in an awkward position.
For one thing, in terms of breaking up an enemy state into sectarian enclaves, ISIS had indeed proven quite efficient. It was also emerging as the strongest opponent to Assad and had accomplished much in the way of weakening the Syrian state, while, as well, driving an effective ‘Sunni wedge’ between Iran and its’ allies. Problematically then, as Christopher Davidson explains, “the Islamic State was effectively on the same side as the West, especially in Syria, and in all its other warzones was certainly in the same camp as the West’s regional allies.” Moreover, “on a strategic level, its big gains had made it by far the best battlefield asset to those who sought the permanent dismemberment of Syria and the removal of Nouri Maliki in Iraq.”
The trick, therefore, was “trying to find the right balance between being seen to take action but yet still allowing the Islamic State to prosper.”16
The response was an airstrike campaign aimed primarily at delineating boundaries that the group was not allowed to cross, mainly around the US’ own allies. This campaign also served as a useful opportunity to establish a military presence in Syria which otherwise would not have been manageable. After all, who would object to such an operation when it was being targeted against such a horrific barbarity as the Islamic State?
After having done nothing to stop the previous sectarian massacres that ISIS had committed, the US decided to launch its’ campaign when it appeared that the Yazidi’s in Iraq were about to face an imminent genocide at the hands of the advancing jihadists. While the mission was portrayed as a selfless rescue mission necessary to break a debilitating siege that ISIS had inflicted upon the Yazidis, in reality Kurdish fighters had already arrived on the scene days before the US got there and had begun the process of evacuating the civilians from the area.17
The real reason the US launched the mission was because ISIS was advancing towards the nearby Kurdish capital of Irbil which represents a key US client and area of extraction for Western energy companies. Apart from Western oil interests being heavily invested in the exploitation of the area’s natural resources, it also houses Israeli and US intelligence and military operatives conducting anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian, and other regional operations.18 Yet the main strategic purpose of this US alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan has been to make sure that the regime in Baghdad stayed in line; one CIA memorandum stating that the Iraqi Kurds are a “uniquely useful tool for weakening Iraq’s potential”, as well as a “card to play” against the Iraqi state.19
Therefore, far removed from the very public displays of humanitarian concern, Obama explained that the US would “take action if [ISIS] threatens our facilities anywhere in Iraq… including Irbil”, and made good on his promise that airstrikes would be launched “should they move toward” the Kurdish capital.20
The analogous delineation of boundaries in Syria occurred a few months later when the US launched airstrikes to help defend the Kurdish enclave of Kobane from a similar assault by the Islamic State, the Syrian Kurds fast becoming a useful US ally on the ground. A highly-publicized spectacle, these airstrikes helped to solidify the legitimacy of the illegal bombing campaign. However, it was never apparent how crucial the US’ assistance actually was, or if the bulk of the city’s defense hadn’t already been secured by the towns battle-hardened fighters.21
Nevertheless, these pretexts proved useful. In one sense, they allowed the West to appear responsive to public demands for action, while, at the same time, allowing Western aircraft to conduct a de-facto no-fly-zone over ISIS territory in Syria. There was a real danger that states genuinely committed to the protection of the Syrian government, notably Iran but possibly Russia, would take matters into their own hands and actually try to eradicate the Islamic State. In this sense, the US-led campaign was useful in portraying the image of US commitment to defeating ISIS while insuring, as well, that no other state would defeat the group before their use had been exhausted and the West could claim that symbolic victory for themselves.22
1.) Council on Foreign Relations, “Al-Qaeda’s Specter in Syria”, 6 August 2012.
2.) Guardian, “Syria's opposition has been led astray by violence”, 22 June 2012.
3.) P. Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State, pp. xix-xx.
4.) New York Times, “Obama on the World”, 8 August 2014.
5.) Consortium News, “Obama’s ‘Moderate’ Syrian Deception”, 16 February 2016.
6.) New York Times, “Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria”, 14 October 2012.
7.) NBC News, “Obama Nixed CIA Plan That Could Have Stopped ISIS: Officials”, 2 April 2016.
8.) Department of Defense, "Information Report 14-L-0552/DIA", August 2012 (subpoenaed), pp. 287-93.
9.) Al Jazeera, “Head to Head: Who is to blame for the rise of ISIL”, 29 July 2015.
10.) London Review of Books, “Military to Military”, 7 January 2016.
11.) Al Jazeera, “Head to Head: Who is to blame for the rise of ISIL”, 29 July 2015.
12.) Huffington Post, “If Syria and Iraq Become Fractured, So Too Will Tripoli and North Lebanon”, 1 June 2015.
13.) Consortium News, “Lost on the ‘Dark Side’ in Syria”, 17 November 2015.
14.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 391-92. Citing Der Spiegel, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State”, 18 April 2015.
15.) Ibid., pp. 392-93. Citing Daily Star, “ISIS seizes last Syrian regime base in Raqqa province”, 25 August 2014. Channel NewsAsia, “IS executes more than 160 Syria troops in new atrocity”, 28 August 2014.
16.) Ibid., pp. 421-22.
17.) Ibid., p. 423. Citing New York Times, “Despite US Claims, Yazidis Say Crisis is Not Over”, 14 August 2014. Washington Post, “Why can’t the US figure out how many Yazidis are on Mount Sinjar?”, 15 August 2014.; Gulf News, “Kurds unite to oust Iraq jihadists, rescue stranded civilian”, 6 August 2014.
18.) The New Yorker, “Plan B”, 28 June 2004. CNBC, “Iraqi Kurdistan-focused oil shares hit by IS advance”, 7 August 2014. RiskAdvisory, “Security in Iraqi Kurdistan – between perception and reality”, 18 September 2014.
19.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 424. Citing William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, p. 243.
20.) Washington Post, “U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants in northern Iraq”, 8 August 2014.
21.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 431.
22.) Ibid., p. 428.