There is a threat of genocide which hangs over Iraq. And not just the spectre of the horrors which were inflicted on the Kurds and Marsh Arabs by the state in the time of Saddam. This one is far more contemporary, more terrifying. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or IS: the Islamic State) came very close, shockingly close, last summer to massacring Iraq’s Yazidi minority, who were perched perilously atop the Sinjar mountains.
A Genocidal Threat
For their part, the Yazidi practise an ancient religion which predates both Christianity and Islam. It is thought that their culture may extend back as far as 6,000 years ago. Because of their idiosyncratic religious traditions – they revere Melek Taus, a peacock angel of sorts – they have been ostracised by extremists of other, larger religious groups. ISIS calls them ‘devil worshippers,’ but that designation is not new. As far back as 2007, religiously motivated acts of terror were being perpetrated against Yazidis. A wellspring of hatred against them has seemingly existed for very a long time, and ISIS is all too happy to make use of that animosity in its own atrocities.
The sectarian nature of ISIS’ modus operandi has never been a mystery to observers – after all, it is one of the key features of its propaganda, which serves a sinister dual purpose. To Sunnis of a similar ideological bent, the remarkably high-quality footage of torture and mass murder that ISIS produces is intended to serve as a rallying cry. To opponents – of any political, religious or ethnic stripe – it acts as a warning. ‘Join us’, it says, ‘or stay away’. IS has been formally denounced by the terrorists and fanatics of Al-Qaeda for being ‘too extreme’.
The tragedy that hovered on the very near horizon was of almost unimaginable proportions. It was compared, emotively but also correctly, to the appalling genocide in Rwanda by Dan Hodges of the Daily Telegraph. Rwanda occupies the particular place in our global memory that it does for reasons that are greater than the sum total of horror inflicted on the innocent. More than that – Rwanda retains its primacy in the world’s collective consciousness because it could so easily have been stopped.
This is the brutality of ISIS; this is the face of the worst jihadi violence. Thankfully, due largely to US airstrikes on IS fighters, the group has been driven back.
The Terror State
The terror of the Islamic State is very real, and it must be opposed, but it is also being manipulated by other agents of savagery in the region. The horrors in Iraq are merely the latest in a series to have swept the Middle East. In Syria, where the fight against IS truly began, a revolution is being betrayed.
The Syrian situation is certainly complex – with many constituent factions within both sides, as well as a myriad of historical reasons which continue to influence events on the ground. However, this fact should not be allowed to give our politicians, and ourselves, the opportunity to declare that this complexity precludes both understanding and action.
The Arab Spring was a quantifiable, measurable and internationally recognised phenomenon. Even if one disagreed with its aims at least one could see what those aims were. In Syria, the objectives of this revolution – which still exists, despite the propaganda of late which seems to suggest that there are no ‘good guys’ in the region – are deliberately obscured for political ends.
In Britain and the West, dogmatic isolationism seeks justification, and it does so by attempting to muddle the narrative. Assad is bad; everyone except George Galloway accepts that. But the rebels too have been denigrated, and in no uncertain terms, as Islamists and fanatics. The fact that this characterisation is a grotesque distortion of the facts as they stand has never seemed to matter. The Free Syrian Army, even after a period of relative defeat and military hardship, can still command thousands of men. Allies of the FSA, and there are many, substantially add to this already impressive figure. And the fact that the FSA is a largely secular, nationalist force only increases the extent to which these rebels themselves – rather than being allies of ISIS or even potential ISIS recruits – are both ISIS’ greatest opposition and the side in Syria furthest from ISIS in terms of both objectives and methods.
ISIS, is a tremendous threat to the region, and one which can lay claim to geographically extensive territory and distressingly large financial assets. However, the Islamic State is not, and never has been, a ‘rebel group’, and it is profoundly wrong to say so. ISIS is currently at war with practically everyone in the region. Governments; ethnic groupings, such as the Kurdish peoples who live without a state of their own; rebel groups – all are currently engaged in fighting the Islamic State.
The Death Cult
This Islamic State is a hideous organisation. That is well known. The Syrian and Iraqi peoples have suffered under the heel of its potentates and acolytes for months, even years. But no one listened. It took the beheading of American journalist, James Foley, in a video released on the internet, before those living in the West began to sit up and take interest. He was the first. He would not be the last. Steven Sotloff, another foreign correspondent held by IS, also met his grisly end at the razor edge of a ceremonial blade. He was a Jew and an Israeli citizen. He managed to keep that secret. His fate would likely have been much worse – if that thought is possible to process – if his murderers had found that out. Days before the tragedy, his mother had released a statement in which she begged for his life. Her pleas were met with silence. These are people who decapitate non-combatants mere days after receiving emotional appeals for their release, it seems. David Haines, a British aid worker, was the third captive Westerner to be put to death on film. Alan Henning, a taxi driver turned humanitarian, was fourth. After that the deaths began to blur. A Jordanian pilot was burned to death in a cage; dozens of Coptic Christians were ritualistically slain in Libya. Many more ritual murders have been committed, all of them filmed with grotesque care. Until ISIS is ultimately defeated, there will in all likelihood be more.
For the theocrat, there are no serious deterrents; for the fascist, there are no illegitimate targets. In the case of the former – and this is especially true of IS, which comes, with its sinister propaganda reels and its incessant brutality, as close as any grouping in recent times to epitomising that ominous yet overused phrase ‘a cult of death’ – eternal life is the reward for barbarism, and there is little on this earth which can come close to the promise of paradise. And for the latter, seemingly anything is justified in pursuit of the objective at hand. Obviously, there is a great intersection between the two, and the vulgar ceremony which fills the streets of Raqqa (IS’ de facto Syrian capital) with the militaristic and the mystical at once exemplifies this with ferocious, daily certainty.
An Unholy Alliance
All of this is hideous, certainly; even evil. Yet this is not the whole story. Shockingly, evidence has recently been uncovered which links ISIS – this feared ‘rebel’ Jihadi group – to the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. This news is incredibly important, as it cuts through regime propaganda which states that the events which comprise the brutal conduct of the Syrian armed forces – the barrel bombs and the chemical weapons attacks, the bombings of hospitals and schools, the liberal use of starvation as a weapon of war – are all necessary in order to ‘fight terrorism’. As it happens, the Syrian government is buying oil from ISIS-controlled terminals all across Islamic State-conquered territory in Syria and Iraq – and it is doing so in vast quantities. In addition, it appears as if the Assad regime not only deliberately released jihadists from government prisons but facilitated the creation of armed Salafist units at a time when the revolution was almost exclusively peaceful. In this manner the Assad regime creates its own supposed enemies and hands itself a propaganda tool. (There is even the suggestion that Foley was actually captured by groups affiliated with Assad paramilitaries. How he travelled from Syrian Army air force bases to the desert prison cells of the Islamic State currently defies explanation.)
After Syrian government airstrikes on ISIS positions in eastern Syria and Iraq, which were notable only for their cosmetic nature – government forces largely leaves ISIS alone, especially when it is making its most rapid advances at the expense of revolutionary forces – Assad began to reposition himself. Out went the rhetoric warning of American exceptionalism and invoking the unpopularity of the Iraq war. In came the talk of a common enemy.
From a government which, as Bente Scheller notes in her book The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads, values its own survival above the survival of the nation it rules, such sentiments should be seen as they are: an exercise in winning allies as a means toward self-preservation – and nothing more. (She also goes on to detail the numerous instances in which the propaganda of the Assad regime was unreflective of the state of the nation at large. There are some fascinating revelations. If you have ever heard that Assad was a secular democrat, or that his regime protected minorities, or that he himself was a humble and modest man, reading this book will prove eye-opening.)
But the transparent political posturing at work here appears to have met with some success. Among the isolationist right – especially in the US, although the same is true in Britain as well – there is very little that will spur a move towards military action. Foreign affairs are so called for a reason, it is claimed. It is not ‘our place’ to interfere in the rest of the world – even when many thousands die and they do so by some of the most horrific means imaginable. There is, however, one thing with which even the most parochial state senator will wish to go to war: Islamism, and the attendant prospect of terror.
Because Islamism, in its root word and in its 19th century theological origins, comes from Islam – a belief system that finds little sympathy among those same provincial politicians – it can be effectively used to prod those who are normally reticent when it comes to military action into endorsing the use of force. With the strength, and therefore the potential threat, of IS almost impossible to overstate (the new ‘Caliphate’ has financial assets exceeding billions of dollars by some estimates) the Assad tyranny has hit on a winning strategy. If the regime protests loudly enough about the beheadings and crucifixions in Mosul, outsiders – perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out of morally flawed ‘enemy of my enemy’ triangulation – will forget the chemical war crimes in Damascus suburbs and the widespread use of internationally condemned brutality in Aleppo.
Here we can see a convergence of the two supposedly warring groups. The despotism of Assad is not at war with the theocratic fascism of IS – the two are in league. And not just that; this collaboration is undertaken against the genuine moderates of the Syrian opposition: the very people we ought to be supporting.
In the situation as described by doom-mongers such as Peter Oborne of the Telegraph, however, this reality is not reflected; in this telling, both sides represent that which is bad and that which the West should oppose. Oborne argued that the West should leave Syria to it as its civil society disintegrated and thousands were killed; he said so because, to his mind, neither of the ‘two sides’ was one that justified Western support. (His work was fatally undermined because of his absurdly obvious admiration for Assad – as well as the inherent flaw with his point of view; Oborne mentions only two sides in a war that has at least six. One could also note his absurdly soft interview technique when confronted with British Islamists, too.) In his writing, our hero, who had not seen any rebels, or travelled to any rebel areas – summarising the weakness of his reportage with a single, breezy clause: ‘I have not spoken to the opposition’ – managed to draw an entire article, a thousand or so words in length, from a single, unalterably biased viewpoint.
Other dogmatic isolationists, such as Peter Hitchens, refuse to row back on the claims that they have been making for months, if not years. In an archetypal column on the issue, Hitchens sidestepped the mounting evidence that links Assad and IS in order to declare that war against the regime would have put us on the same side as the jihadists who are ‘now murdering, persecuting and mutilating their way across the Middle East’. (This is the man, if you are interested, who suggests that Russia is not the aggressor in Ukraine, and that Vladimir Putin’s shelling of Ukrainian positions from across the shared border is justified because of the ‘greedy’ actions of the European Union. One hopes that this provides some necessary geopolitical context.) Others openly advocate allying with Damascus against the terror state – a position as self-defeatingly futile as it is morally abhorrent.
In journalism such as that of Oborne, Hitchens and others, the propaganda of the Assad war machine is allowed free rein. The misuse of regional complexity means that the simple narrative of revolution against a corrupt and ossified government is frequently obscured by those who wish that revolution ill; the notion of an Islamist takeover of rebel forces proves attractive both to Assadist spin doctors and inveterate isolationist elements within our own media; and the collusion of the regime and the most deadly Islamist group in the area has only now been exposed for the first time.
The US and her allies have begun to hit ISIS targets inside Syria as well; while Britain will not (yet) officially engage Islamic State targets in Syria – at least in de jure terms – our MPs have voted, and by quite a substantial margin, to join the growing coalition ranged against ISIS in Iraq. While these measures are partial – since they do not deal with the origins of the problem, the Assad regime, which is the major source of the Islamic State’s income – they are to be welcomed; combating terror of this scale and of this barbarity cannot in all conscience be opposed. What cannot be greeted as enthusiastically, however, are the inevitable calls for alliance with Assad, or, at the very least, diplomatic rapprochement with one of the worst Arab tyrannies. (We must be wary, for similar reasons, of detente with Iran, whose government props up the Assad regime and provides the financial and military bases for many of its evil actions.)
What this amounts to, in combination of that which has been detailed before, is the suggestion of a serious flaw in the way the Syrian crisis has been reported, and how it is being discussed today. Until we liberate ourselves from the view of Assad and ISIS as mortal enemies, our collective response as a nation – and as a continent and even a hemisphere – will be defined by the relatively narrow spectrum of opinions which conform to the narrative which has been so insidiously put forward. Until we do that, the nature of debate in this country in particular, and in the West at large, will continue to be short-termist, myopic and reductive. After the rejection by the British Parliament of intervention against Assad, he has been given free rein to destroy Syria and its people, creating devastation, chaos and a power vacuum. Into that gap stepped the Islamic State, Iran, and the Shia militias which have committed brutal and widespread crimes of their own. The situation has always been tragic and complex; our non-intervention has exacerbated both aspects. And this state of affairs helps nobody – least of all the Syrian (and now Iraqi) people.
This essay has seen publication before in several different forms.