AS Iraq hovers on the brink of a sectarian civil war, raising the prospect of the bloodiest partition since India was divided in 1947, the serially delusional former British prime minister Tony Blair has deemed it opportune to leap into the fray with the incredible thesis that the US-led invasion of Iraq 11 years ago had nothing to do with today’s events.
In his blinkered view, the unprovoked aggression that unleashed unprecedented chaos in Iraq was a noble venture that ought to have been repeated in Syria. The primary fault lay in exiting too soon — and that can be remedied by intervening militarily once more.
Luckily, his lunacy does not seem to be particularly infectious. His key allies in the monumental misadventure — the Bushes, Rumsfelds and Wolfowitzes — have thus far opted for discretion. So has Colin Powell, who in his infamous 2003 United Nations presentation repeatedly cited the presence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on Iraqi soil as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s collusion with Al Qaeda.
The Jordanian militant Zarqawi, a veteran of the US-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan, no doubt posed a danger. But his training camp was on Kurdish territory protected by Western no-fly zones. He moved in when the invasion offered an opening, wreaking havoc on a scale paralleled only by the Western occupiers. Following his demise in a US military strike in 2006 there were repeated claims that Al Qaeda in Iraq was a busted flush.
The division of Iraq may well become a reality.
Yet it morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and eventually, under the aegis of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, into the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), whose brutality is believed to be responsible for its expulsion from Al Qaeda.
Not long ago, Ayman al-Zawahiri is said to have ordered ISIS out of Syria, where it mainly holds territory ceded by fellow opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime. ISIS hasn’t exactly complied — reports suggest much of the hardware left behind last week by the 30,000 Iraqi troops who abandoned Mosul when threatened by ISIS forces has found its way into Syria.
In suggesting that Western intervention in Syria would have thwarted the aims of ISIS, Tony Blair ignores the likelihood that attacking the Assad regime would have produced exactly the opposite effect. He suggests that if the US-UK alliance hadn’t overthrown Saddam Hussein, Iraq would have gone much the same way anyhow in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring — insidiously ignoring the part played by the conquest of Iraq in unleashing that phenomenon.
It is not terribly surprising that ISIS views its role in obscuring the Iraq-Syria border as a crucial blow against the political contours delineated by the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement nearly a century ago. But that allows no room for complacency about the caliphate-resurrecting aims of Baghdadi’s Sunni forces.
The prospect, meanwhile, of a loose US-Irani military alliance — held out on the American side even by some of the hawks who were not long ago salivating at the idea of bombing Tehran — has been underplayed after initially being raised on both sides, exciting much commentary and, presumably, palpitations in Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
Iran is reported to have contributed both Revolutionary Guards and advisers to Baghdad, while the US has positioned an aircraft carrier named after George H.W. Bush in the Gulf, with President Barack Obama saying all options are on the table, barring a redeployment of ground troops — but also cautioning Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to build bridges with the Sunnis whom he has alienated over the years. It may be too late for that, amid evidence of Sunni tribals and unreconstructed Baathists allying with ISIS.
There is considerable scepticism about the game-changing potential of the American airstrikes. On the other hand, Shia militias have been bolstered by volunteers, while the Kurdish peshmerga have taken control of Kirkuk. The three-way division of Iraq predicted by some a decade ago may well be on the verge of becoming a reality. The potential cost in blood, though, is too awful to contemplate.
And one can hardly overlook the exemplary effect of ISIS-led forays on comparable movements elsewhere in the Muslim world, most notably the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The former have lately come under attack by the Pakistan army, with a civilian exodus reported from North Waziristan, but the military action may well be too late to diminish a threat that manifested itself earlier this month in the audacious attack on Pakistan’s busiest airport.
Pakistan is familiar, of course, with the kind of fratricide being perpetrated in Iraq —- albeit not on that scale, especially if the claims of 1,700 executions by ISIS turn out to be credible. But there’s a much broader danger to be feared if the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham turns out to be more than an aberration.
Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2014