This is the final 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.
The Strategic Asset, Then and Now
About a year after the fall of Mosul, ISIS as well overtook the Iraqi city of Ramadi. Afterwards, US intelligence and military officials revealed to Bloomberg that the US had “significant intelligence” about the pending attacking. For the US military, it was an “open secret” at the time, which “surprised no one.” The intelligence community was able to obtain “good warning” that ISIS was planning “a new and bolder offensive in Ramadi” because they had identified “the convoys of heavy artillery, vehicle bombs and reinforcements through overhead imagery and eavesdropping on chatter from local Islamic State commanders.”
Indeed, departing from ISIS’ base in Raqqa, these convoys consisted of long columns of vehicles and had travelled a full five-hundred and fifty kilometers through open desert in broad daylight to reach Ramadi. Despite this, the US coalition did not act, instead they “watched Islamic State fighters, vehicles and heavy equipment gather on the outskirts of Ramadi before the group retook the city.” The US “did not order airstrikes against the convoy before the battle started”, but instead “left the fighting to Iraqi troops, who ultimately abandoned their positions.”1
Commenting on this, former MI6 agent Alastair Crooke noted that “the images of long columns of ISIS Toyota Land Cruisers, black pennants waving in the wind, making their way from Syria all the way – along empty desert main roads – to Ramadi with not an American aircraft in evidence, certainly needs some explaining.” He continues by pointing out that “there cannot be an easier target imagined than an identified column of vehicles, driving an arterial road, in the middle of a desert.”2
Even more troubling, it seems that the US had taken further precautions to ensure that the Iraqi forces would not be able to repel the ISIS attack. In the same Bloomberg report, US officials revealed that Iraqi government forces in Ramadi were not being properly resupplied, stating that ever since the US-led campaign began they had been forced to acquire weapons and ammunition on the black market since supplies were simply not reaching them.3
After the fall of the city to ISIS, Iraq was thereafter dependent on the US military to help repel the invading forces, which appears to parallel closely with the aforementioned strategy envisioned by think-tank analysts whereby “moderate or even radical Sunnis” could be useful in order to pressure and “put fear” into the government, and thereby help “encourage [them] to cooperate with the US.”4
Explaining further how such situations may be used for the political benefit of outside powers, University of Cincinnati’s Abraham Miller explains that “as long as there is chaos” like that produced by the Islamic State, then “there is a need for foreign intervention” such as the American intervention in Iraq. Such interventions are important opportunities because “with chaos and bloodshed come arm sales and political and economic influence.”5
This seems to track quite closely as well to a strategy envisioned for Iraq during the Bush administration. Co-authored by then Vice President Cheney and other influential neoconservatives, the strategy put particular importance on Washington being able “to justify its long-term and heavy military presence in the region”, which could be accomplished through the Iraqi state being weak and unable to defend itself, and therefore the US military would ostensibly be “necessary for the defense of a young new state asking for US protection.” Yet the real reason for the US presence would be “to secure the stability of oil markets and supplies,” which “in turn would help the United States gain direct control of Iraqi oil and replace Saudi oil in case of conflict with Riyadh.”6
Today much of this has been achieved, Iraq having been forced to ask the US for protection while the chaos and bloodshed justify further arms sales and help to expand political and economic influence over the country.
After the replacement of Maliki, Iraq has largely been secured by the US and rid of a lot of its former Iranian influences.7 Given this, the presence of ISIS now serves as a useful means to further demonstrate Iraq’s dependence on the US military, a dependence the US intends to nurture. In a telling admission, Secretary of State Tillerson confirmed that recent troop deployments would remain in the country after ISIS is defeated, in order to “help clear mines and establish stability.”8 As well, with the elimination of ISIS, Iran would be closed off from the opportunity of expanding its influence through its sponsoring of various proxy militias throughout the country.9
The symbolic victory of a US-backed ISIS defeat would further legitimize the US presence in Iraq and help convey a positive image of the US’ role in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the very recent threat that the Islamic State posed could be invoked in the future if the government in Baghdad ever flirted with closer Iranian ties or strayed too far from the US-designated course. With Trump’s increasingly Pentagon-influenced administration, the current fight against the Islamic State will also be useful in justifying increased arms sales both to the Iraqi forces and for the US jets flying overhead. In this sense, it appears “the political and military costs of defeating” ISIS would outweigh its previous functions.10
In Syria, however, the situation is different. In a revealing interview, the former British Prime Minister argued for Britain to join the US campaign against ISIS on the basis that it was a “direct threat to Britain”, and that he was “not prepared to subcontract the protection of British streets from terrorism to other countries’ air forces.” Analysts commented that such a remark was indicative of a policy among the Western administrations which would not allow other states genuinely allied to the embattled Syrian government to claim victory over ISIS for themselves.11 In this sense, while blocking others from defeating the group the universally accepted consensus of the need to eradicate the Islamic State could be transformed into an effective mandate to occupy and annex Syrian lands. With the attempt to overthrow the government having failed, strategy could shift from support to the opposition towards “defeating ISIS.”
Signaling the adoption of such a strategy, the Trump administration announced that it “accepts” the “political reality… with respect to Assad”, and that “foremost among its priorities” from here on out would be “the defeat of ISIS.”12
In many ways this realization was already understood in the final months of the Obama administration, exemplified by the withdrawal of their demand that “Assad must go” and support instead of a negotiated settlement.13 The plan, however, is not to fully abandon regime-change, but to focus on “ISIS” and then after occupation continue to exert pressure and push for Assad’s ouster.
The Partition of Syria
The change in strategy has further become apparent with indications that the CIA has discontinued its covert support for the opposition.14 This represents the failure of the regime-change effort while as well being indicative of the change in political leadership within the White House.
The transition from Obama to Trump represents a long-standing rivalry between the CIA and the Pentagon. During the Obama administration, the Pentagon forcefully opposed the CIA rebel program on the very realistic grounds that it was empowering Islamist extremists, even going so far as to leak military intelligence in order to subvert the operations’ success.15 However, the sectors of power that Obama represented largely centered around the CIA and NSA intelligence apparatus and therefore the program had continued. The Trump administration however largely represents the interests of weapons manufacturers, defense contractors, and the military industrial complex as a whole and is centered around the political leadership of the military and the Pentagon. The public displays of liberal antagonism to Trump are largely a reflection of this internal power-struggle, as are the administration’s efforts to consolidate control over the intelligence agencies and to increase the discretionary powers of the military establishment.
Under Trump the military’s influence over foreign policy has vastly increased, the Defense Secretary being granted leave to authorize deployments and operations with little oversight from the chief executive.16 The result of this has been an increase in the power of the vested interests behind the military industrial base and their ability to steer the course and direction of US foreign policy strategy. The main consequence being the specific character that US imperialism will take, a shift from secretive drone strikes, covert regime-change operations, and the financing of extremist elements towards a strategy of direct military deployment and the securing of foreign-policy interests through overt military operations.17
Thus, the CIA rebel-sponsoring program under Trump has ceased while the footprint of the US military in Syria has grown,18 and the beginning indications of a military occupation have started to become visible.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “there is growing receptiveness among US and international officials to the idea of setting up unofficial Syria safe zones.” The nature of these “safe-zones” was described by the French Foreign Minister, who hypothesized “they would cover areas retaken from the Islamic State and help people return to their homes.” However, the plan is for US troops to stay in the region long after ISIS is defeated, US Central Command Army General Joseph Votel announcing that US forces will be “required” to stabilize the region and assist “America’s allies” on the ground for the foreseeable future. The zones would therefore consist of Syrian lands directly under the security control of the US military and their partners on the ground, Secretary of State Tillerson describing them as “interim zones of stability” which would “allow refugees to return home”, wherein the coalition would “help to restore water and electricity” and other vital infrastructure, authority over which is necessary for political control.19
In many ways, this strategy is not new, and was considered as a “plan B” of sorts by planners during the Obama administration.
Exemplifying this mindset, Henry Kissinger had earlier put forward proposals which justified the annexation of Syrian lands under the pretext of defeating ISIS. “In a choice among strategies”, he writes, “it is preferable for ISIS-held territory to be reconquered either by moderate Sunni forces or outside powers than by Iranian jihadists or imperial forces.” The strategy called for the post-Islamic State areas to be put under the direct political control of US allies, who, of course, have been heavily invested in the overthrow of the Syrian state: “The reconquered territories should be restored to the local Sunni rule that existed there before the disintegration of both Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty. The sovereign states of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Egypt and Jordan, should play a principal role in that evolution.” Turkey, as well, “could contribute creatively to such a process.”
The plan then called for a partition of Syria between these newly annexed entities and the areas still under Syrian government control: “As the terrorist region is being dismantled and brought under nonradical political control, the future of the Syrian state should be dealt with concurrently. A federal structure could then be built between the Alawite and Sunni portions.”20
In many ways, recent US maneuvers have shown that this is, in fact, the course of action being pursued.
The US military has long been setting up key infrastructure such as numerous military bases and an airport within the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in Syria where hundreds of its special forces maintain a military presence; an indication of long-term plans to remain and establish autonomous regions within the country which the Syrian government would be prevented from reclaiming.21 As well, the US has recently conducted an unprecedented military operation involving hundreds of US soldiers aimed at reclaiming the Tabqa dam from the Islamic State, which is described by the New York Times as an vitally “important power source for north Syria.” The operation is understood to be a precursor to the launching of an offensive against ISIS’ de-facto capital of Raqqa in a final push to eliminate the group.22
The main consequence of the maneuver however has been to block the advance of the Syrian army and Russian air force, preventing them from moving onwards toward Raqqa and claiming victory over ISIS for themselves, harkening back to the strategy invoked by the West of being unwilling to “subcontract the protection of [its] streets from terrorism to other countries’ air forces.”23 International correspondent Elijah J. Magnier explains this operation represents the drawing of a line “of the new ‘safe zone’ that will be occupied by the US forces and will therefore be their future ‘safe haven’, thus beginning the partition of the north of Syria.”24
This paves the way for the split-up of the country into three separate zones of influence, a pro-US Kurdish northeast, a Syrian government controlled west and south, and likely a Turkish-occupied northwest.
The conquest of ISIS’ main capital by US-backed forces would allow Trump to gain a useful “symbolic victory” that will increase his domestic political standing, especially after justifying much of his administrations military build-up under the pretext of fighting extremist groups.25 The increased US military involvement will legitimize further arms sales for domestic weapons industries. As well, the strategy could see the US pushing ISIS towards cities controlled by the Syrian army, thereby keeping the pressure on Russia and Iran as they go about the partition of the country. Most importantly, the US will likely be able to ensure that any pipeline project aimed at directly connecting Iranian gas to European markets would be stymied and unable to pass through Syrian lands, especially those under their control, thus protecting such markets for Western corporations.26
All of this ensures that Syria remains a weakened state which the West will be able to exert significant influence over. After ISIS is dealt with and balkanization is accomplished the subsequent land and leverage gained can be utilized to continue the process of removing Assad from power. According to Tillerson, “The process by which Assad would leave is something that I think requires an international community effort—both to first defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country, to avoid further civil war, and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.”27
In this way, the threat of ISIS continues to serve its intended purpose of securing Western corporate and investor control over important consumer markets and valuable Middle Eastern energy resources. ISIS therefore representing the “gift that keeps on giving”,28 which continues to proliferate the interests of the Western powers and their strategic attempts for hegemony over the Middle East.
Those killed in the process outweighed by the “function” represented in the “political structure” of the Islamic State, as professor Abraham Miller describes, whose proliferation of “chaos is perceived to serve a multiplicity of purposes within and outside the region”,29 as can be seen in the recent maneuvers ostensibly aimed at the disintegration of the group.
1.) Bloomberg, “U.S. Saw Islamic State Coming, Let It Take Ramadi”, 28 May 2015.
2.) Huffington Post, “If Syria and Iraq Become Fractured, So Too Will Tripoli and North Lebanon”, 1 June 2015.
3.) Bloomberg, “U.S. Saw Islamic State Coming, Let It Take Ramadi”, 28 May 2015.
4.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 367. Citing The New Yorker, “The Redirection”, 5 March 2007. Remarks made by Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
5.) Ibid., p. 444. Citing Daily Caller, “Understanding The Function Of The Islamic State”, 19 June 2015.
6.) Guardian, “Iraq blowback: Isis rise manufactured by insatiable oil addiction”, 6 June 2014.
7.) Al Rai Media Group (Arabic), “USA pushes Iran out of Iraq and leaves Syria to Russia”, 19 January 2016. Translated at https://elijahjm.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/usa-pushes-iran-out-of-iraq-and-leaves-syria-to-russia/.
8.) Yahoo! News, “Allies vow to destroy IS as attacks overshadow talks”, 23 March 2017.
9.) “The United States came back to Mesopotamia from the same wide door that was asked to withdraw by the Vice-President and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that favoured the Iranian influence. ISIS occupation of part of the country and the slow American reaction after July 2014 allowed Iran to increase and expand its influence through arming directly secondary Iraqi groups, and extend its support to Baghdad and Erbil. But the support was not enough to stop the ISIS expansion. Iran soon realised its inability to reach a Shia – Shia, Shia – Sunni and Shia – Kurdish unity or reconciliation. It has failed to stop the tiresome requests for an American intervention in Iraq by the Iraqi administration.” Al Rai Media Group (Arabic), “USA pushes Iran out of Iraq and leaves Syria to Russia”, 19 January 2016. Translated at https://elijahjm.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/usa-pushes-iran-out-of-iraq-and-leaves-syria-to-russia/.
10.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 444. Citing Daily Caller, “Understanding The Function Of The Islamic State”, 19 June 2015.
11.) Ibid., p. 428. Citing BBC Online, “MPs support UK air strikes against IS in Iraq”, 26 September 2014.
12.) New York Times, “White House Accepts ‘Political Reality’ of Assad’s Grip on Power in Syria”, 31 March 2017.
13.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 511-14.; Moon of Alabama, “Syria - Trump Administration Will Continue Obama Policy”, 31 March 2017.
14.) Reuters, “Exclusive: CIA-backed aid for Syrian rebels frozen after Islamist attack – sources”, 21 February 2017.
15.) London Review of Books, “Military to Military”, 7 January 2016.
16.) New York Times, “Trump Shifting Authority Over Military Operations Back to Pentagon”, 19 March 2017.
17.) New York Times, “U.S. War Footprint Grows in Middle East, With No Endgame in Sight”, 29 March 2017.
18.) New York Times, “U.S. Is Sending 400 More Troops to Syria”, 9 March 2017.; Army Times, “The U.S. is sending 2,500 troops to Kuwait, ready to step up the fight in Syria and Iraq”, 9 March 2017.
19.) Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Weighs ‘Zones of Stability’ As Part of Anti-Islamic State Effort”, 22 March 2017.; Army Times, “The U.S. is sending 2,500 troops to Kuwait, ready to step up the fight in Syria and Iraq”, 9 March 2017.
20.) Wall Street Journal, “A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse”, 16 October 2015.
21.) Al Rai Media Group (Arabic), “The roles of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel in Syria: moving towards the end of the war”, 14 March 2017. Translated at https://elijahjm.wordpress.com/2017/03/14/the-roles-of-the-us-russia-turkey-iran-and-israel-in-syria-moving-towards-the-end-of-the-war/.
22.) New York Times, “U.S. Airlifts Hundreds of Militia Fighters in Attack to Cut Off Raqqa, Syria”, 22 March 2017.; Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Increases Support for New Anti-ISIS Operation in Syria”, 22 March 2017.
23.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 428. Citing BBC Online, “MPs support UK air strikes against IS in Iraq”, 26 September 2014.
24.) Al Rai Media Group (Arabic), “Washington is uprooting part of Syria, demarcating its new “safe haven”, 27 March 2017. Translated at https://elijahjm.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/washington-is-uprooting-part-of-syria-demarcating-its-new-safe-heaven/.
25.) Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Forces Get More Freedom to Strike Militants in Somalia”, 30 March 2017.
26.) See The Guardian, “Syria intervention plan fueled by oil interests, not chemical weapon concern”, 30 August 2013.; Foreign Affairs, “Putin’s Gas Attack: Is Russia Just in Syria for the Pipelines?”, 14 October, 2015.; Middle East Eye, “The US-Russia gas pipeline war in Syria could destabalise Putin”, 30 October 2015.; EcoWatch, “Syria: Another Pipeline War”, 25 February 2016.
27.) Daily Beast, “Tillerson: ‘Steps Underway’ for U.S.-Led Coalition to Remove Assad”, 6 April 2017.
28.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 469-504.
29.) Ibid., p. 444. Citing Daily Caller, “Understanding The Function Of The Islamic State”, 19 June 2015.