Who is really fighting ISIS? In Iraq and Syria, ISIS faces Kurdish forces, the Iraqi Army and the Western air forces supporting it, and the Syrian Army and its allies from Hizbollah, Iran, and Russia. The Kurds of Rojava have been fighting for survival, and while outgunned, they have both political and military preparation, and something to fight for. They have been successful in their battles with ISIS, even though they have suffered immensely in the process.
The Iraqi Army? ISIS’s spectacular rise coincided with the Iraqi Army’s collapse. To understand this, as with so much about ISIS, it is necessary to look back at the early days of the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, when the decision was taken to disband the Iraqi Army that had existed under Saddam Hussein and create a new one. The old army had training, organization, most of their weapons, and had just reached the point of having nothing to lose. Many of them joined the insurgency against the US. Among those who did, many were killed, many were tortured and killed, and many survived. Some of those survivors, now battle-hardened veterans, are now part of ISIS. One of those who made his way through the US prison system in Iraq is ISIS’s leader. These veterans, joined by al-Qaeda fighters, with Saudi and Qatari funding, and Turkish help getting across the border, have become ISIS, the force that controls a big part of Iraq and dominates and absorbs all other opposition forces in Syria.
What about the new army, the one built by the US during the occupation? That army was built, like post-2003 Iraq, as an experiment in a new kind of neoliberal occupation. George W Bush had declared that the US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan were not “nation building” exercises. The trillions of dollars that were spread around in Iraq went to contractors and subcontractors, and the Iraqi army was built on the same principles. Commanders bought their way in, collected money for more soldiers’ salaries than he had under command, and kept the difference. Other commanders paid for their posts and recouped the money at checkpoints on the roads: the army became, as Patrick Cockburn wrote in his new book The Jihadis Return, “a money making machine for senior officers and often an extortion racket for ordinary soldiers” (pg. 51). As it turned out, the “money making machine” didn’t prove especially effective as a fighting machine. Instead, as the Iraqi army fell apart and ran from ISIS in the early battles, most of the equipment they received ended up in ISIS’s hands.
What about the Syrian Army? Russia, having supplied Syria’s government for years, has now entered the war on Syria’s side. Lebanon’s Hizbollah, with Iran’s help, entered Syria to help Syria’s government some time ago, judging that the fall of Syria to ISIS would be the loss of their own lines of supply and support. These forces are holding territory against ISIS, but the government’s way of fighting mirrors their enemies. For several decades war has not primarily been about armies fighting each other, but about the unarmed getting killed by the armed. One siege in 2014, written about by Patrick Cockburn, illustrates this:
“Rather than taking over rebel-held areas, the government simply bombards them so that the civilian population is forced to flee and those who remain are either families of fighters or those too poor to find anywhere else to live. Electricity and water is then cut off and a siege is mounted. In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed Jabhat-al-Nusra forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians. The government did not counterattack but simply continued its siege.” (pg. 76)
In the West, ISIS videos are used to stoke nightmares and justify police powers, and are politically valuable to fear-mongering politicians. As the collapse of Syria proceeds under the weight of the war and millions of Syrians are on the move, Westerners are being led to believe that every refugee family might be a secret ISIS cell. Local countries are hit far harder by the refugee crisis: Western countries are only taking a small fraction of the refugees.
Despite the horrors of their videos, and the airstrikes that have been organized against ISIS, the West, and its allies, have found several uses for ISIS.
ISIS provides Western allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar a way to advance their influence in the region against Iran. ISIS provides an outlet for the people that Saudi clerics have fired up to hate everyone but their sect, people who might otherwise stay in their own Gulf countries and take up arms.
ISIS provides the troops for Western ally, Turkey, to fight the Kurds, who created an autonomous zone in Iraq, have recently done so in Syria and have long been trying to advance their agenda of self-determination in Turkey.
For Western ally, Israel, ISIS bleeds Hizbollah and has helped destroy Syria, creates massive numbers of refugees, and so diverts and destroys military forces that might otherwise be facing off with Israel.
The Gulf countries and Israel are also not taking refugees. Israeli soccer fans proudly display banners that say “Refugees Not Welcome”, and Saudi Arabia is running its own murderous war in Yemen, creating refugees of its own.
For the West, these alliances with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are more important than fighting ISIS. For Israel, the possibility that Assad might be overthrown and Hizbollah harmed is more important than fighting ISIS.
Diplomatic solutions, the latest of which has been written about by Vijay Prashad, have floundered on the Western insistence on Assad’s departure as a precondition. That insistence has amounted to an acceptance of this destruction over a negotiated end to the war. Syria is on its way to complete destruction. Most of its population is on the move. Responsibility for this is shared between Assad’s regime and those fighting him.
More than Gulf funds and captured weapons, more than twisted religious ideology and military corruption, ISIS has thrived because of the chaos of war and the collapse of society. ISIS will not be part of a negotiated solution, but an agreement between its Western sponsors and those of the Syrian government would isolate and contain ISIS, and make peace in the region imaginable.
What could be more important than an end to the war and the defeat of ISIS? For the West, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel, many things: weakening Iran and Hizbollah, showing toughness to Russia, the chance of overthrowing Assad, destroying the basis for Kurdish independence. To those steering the Syrian war, these are higher priorities than the plight of millions of refugees and the destruction of several countries.