U.S. President Barack Obama has labeled the jihadist juggernaut that calls itself the Islamic State a “cancer,” while his defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, has called it more dangerous than al-Qaida ever was, claiming its threat is “beyond anything we’ve seen.” No monster has ever been born on its own. So the question is: Which forces helped create this new Frankenstein?
The Islamic State is a brutal organization whose members take pride in carrying out beheadings and flaunting the heads of their victims as trophies. This cannot obscure a fundamental reality: The Islamic State represents a Sunni Islamist insurrection against non-Sunni rulers in disintegrating Syria and Iraq.
Indeed, the ongoing fragmentation of states along primordial lines in the arc between Israel and India is spawning de facto new entities or blocks, including Shiastan, Wahhabistan, Kurdistan, ISstan and Talibanstan.
Other than Iran, Egypt and Turkey, most of the important nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan are modern Western concoctions, with no roots in history or preexisting identity.
It is beyond dispute that the Islamic State militia — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — emerged from the Syrian civil war, which began indigenously as a localized revolt against state brutality under President Bashar Assad before being fueled with externally supplied funds and weapons. From CIA-training centers in Turkey and Jordan, the rebels set up a Free Syrian Army (FSA), launching attacks on government forces, as a U.S.-backed information war demonized Assad and encouraged military officers and soldiers to switch sides.
But the members of the U.S.-led coalition were never on the same page because some allies had dual agendas. While the three spearheads of the anti-Assad crusade — the U.S., Britain and France — focused on aiding the FSA, the radical Islamist sheikdoms such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates as well as the Islamist-leaning government in Turkey channeled their weapons and funds to more overtly Islamist groups. This splintered the Syrian opposition, marginalizing the FSA and paving the way for the Islamic State’s rise.
The anti-Assad coalition indeed started off on the wrong foot by trying to speciously distinguish between “moderate” and “radical” jihadists. The line separating the two is just too blurred. Indeed, the term “moderate jihadists” is an oxymoron: Those waging jihad by gun can never be moderate.
The U.S. and its allies made a more fundamental mistake by infusing the spirit of jihad in their campaign against Assad so as to help trigger a popular uprising in Syria. The decision to instill the spirit of jihad through television and radio broadcasts beamed to Syrians was deliberate — to provoke Syria’s majority Sunni population to rise against their secular government.
This ignored the lesson from the 1980s Afghanistan — where the CIA ran, via Pakistan, the largest covert operation in its history — that inciting jihad and arming “holy warriors” creates a deadly cocktail, with far-reaching and long-lasting impact on international security. The Reagan administration openly used Islam as an ideological tool to spur armed resistance to Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In 1985, at a White House ceremony in honor of several Afghan mujaheddin — the jihadists out of which al-Qaida evolved — U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.”
Afghan war veterans come to haunt the security of many countries. Less known is the fact that the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — like Libyan militia leader Abdelhakim Belhadj (whom the CIA abducted and subjected to “extraordinary rendition”) and Chechen terrorist leader Airat Vakhitov — become radicalized while under U.S. detention. As torture chambers, U.S. detention centers have served as pressure cookers for extremism.
Obama’s Syria policy took a page out of the Reagan playbook. It took just two years for Syria to descend into a Somalia-style failed state under the weight of the international jihad against Assad. This helped the Islamic State not only to flourish but also to use its control over northeastern Syria to stage a surprise blitzkrieg deep into Iraq this summer.
Had the U.S. and its allies refrained from arming jihadists to topple Assad, would the Islamic State have emerged as a lethal, marauding force? And would large swaths of strategic territory along upstream Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria and Iraq have fallen into this monster’s control? The exigencies of the topple-Assad campaign also prompted the Obama administration to turn a blind eye to the flow of Gulf and Turkish aid to the Islamic State.
In fact, the Obama team, until recently, viewed the Islamic State as a “good” terrorist organization in Syria but a “bad” one in Iraq, especially when it threatened to overrun the Kurdish regional capital Erbil. In January, Obama famously dismissed the Islamic State as a local “JV team” trying to imitate al-Qaida but without the capacity to be a threat to America. It was only after the public outrage in the U.S. over the video-recorded execution of American journalist James Foley that the White House reevaluated the threat posed by the Islamic State.
Many had cautioned against the topple-Assad campaign, fearing that extremist forces would gain control in the vacuum. Those still wedded to overthrowing Assad’s rule, however, contend that Obama’s failure to provide greater aid, including surface-to-air missiles, to the Syrian rebels created a vacuum that produced the Islamic State. In truth, more CIA arms to the increasingly ineffectual FSA would have meant a stronger and more deadly Islamic State.
As part of his strategic calculus to oust Assad, Obama failed to capitalize on the Arab Spring, which was then in full bloom. By seeking to topple a secular autocracy in Syria while simultaneously working to shield jihad-bankrolling monarchies from the Arab Spring, he ended up strengthening Islamist forces — a development reinforced by the U.S.-led overthrow of another secular Arab dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, which has turned Libya into another failed state.
Today, Obama’s Syria policy is being turned on its head. Having portrayed Assad as a monster, Washington must now accept Assad as lesser of the two evils and work with him to defeat the larger threat of the Islamic State.
The fact that the Islamic State’s heartland remains in northern Syria means that it cannot be stopped unless the U.S. extends airstrikes into Syria. As the U.S. mulls that option — for which it would need at least tacit permission from Syria, which still maintains good air defenses — it is fearful of being pulled into the middle of the horrendous civil war there. It is thus discreetly urging Assad to prioritize defeating the Islamic State.
Make no mistake: Like al-Qaida, the Islamic State is a monster inadvertently spawned by the policies of those now in the lead to combat it. The question is whether anything substantive will be learned from this experience, unlike the forgotten lessons of America’s anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan. At a time when jihadist groups are gaining ground from Mali to Malaysia, Obama’s current effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Taliban, for example, gives little hope that any lesson will be learned.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.