By Vijay Prashad
May 28, 2015
Long-term antidote to IS is not Arab jails and American jets, but the creation of an honest and wide-ranging political dialogue in the region.
Maps depict names of places seized by the Islamic State (Da’esh) and its al-Qaeda confreres: Syria’s Raqqa, Idlib and Palmyra as well as Iraq’s Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah. Names of places have become associated with massacres. Aerial bombardment by the West seems futile. The West cannot stem the tide of extremism. U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter says that the Iraqi forces have “no will to fight” in Iraq. When confronted by the advance of Da’esh toward Palmyra, the Syrian troops could put up little defence. Confidence in the ability of superior firepower to stop the spread of the black flag of Da’esh seems to be at a low.
“The midwives of Da’esh cannot be its pallbearers,” says veteran journalist Rami Khouri. Who are its midwives? Western jets and Arab jails. The test case is the destruction of Iraq by Western jets, which unleashed the social forces that produced Da’esh. Its Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was both in the Iraqi army and in its prisons — bombed by the Western jets, held in the Arab jails. The U.S. bombed the Da’esh positions around Ramadi 165 times over the month preceding its capture. It made little difference to the onslaught of the highly-motivated armies of Da’esh.
The Loss of State
Strikingly, in the war against Da’esh, it is no longer the formal armies of states that are effective. In Syria, the most competent outfits are the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, the Kurdish militia YPG (People’s Protection Units), and the government-backed Shabiha (ghosts). Iraq’s army is a pale shadow of Iraqi Shia militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. The war against Da’esh is a war of non-state actors against non-state actors, this militia against that one. Charles Tilly’s aphoristic claim that modern states are a product of the institutions of war could be turned on its head — states are being destroyed by war, and non-state militias are creating fiefs of their own rather than states with broader, less sectarian ambitions.
Most of the anti-Da’esh militias receive assistance from Iran, whose Defence Minister Hossein Dehgan rushed to Baghdad after the fall of Ramadi to settle nerves. Iran’s main military strategist, General Qassim Soleimani, told Javan, “Today there is nobody in confrontation with [Da’esh] except the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Militarily, the Iranian assistance has been crucial, but ideologically it is an albatross. A new sectarian geography is being written over the old nation states, with enclaves based on religion emergent in both Iraq and Syria. The Iran-backed militias do not have the credibility of a broad horizon in areas of Sunni discontent (such as Anbar province and in the drought-rife Euphrates basin in northern Syria). They can halt the Da’esh advance, but they cannot roll it back. Other means are necessary for such a prospect.
Where do answers lie? Neither the Iraqi nor the Syrian government are close to implosion. Damascus still controls the bulk of Syria’s population centres, even as large swathes of empty territory have gone over to Da’esh and the al-Qaeda affiliates. Syria’s army, exhausted by the long war, remains intact, although it has been ill prepared for the new onslaught by the extremist fighters, resupplied by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (with Western sponsorship). A failed American policy of overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad-led government in Syria and of micro-managing the Haider al-Abadi-led government in Iraq has undermined state institutions. Support for the al-Qaeda groups by the Gulf Arabs, Turkey and the West in western Syria against the Assad government is going to prevent Syria’s substantial military force from any significant operations against Da’esh. The strategy of Mr. Assad has been to create a large Green Zone around the main population centres, abandon the periphery and fight brutally to protect the important city of Aleppo. Mr. Assad is not prepared, at this time, to engage Da’esh frontally. Such a thrust would be suicide for the regime.
In June, the “international community” will gather in Paris, France, to discuss the problem of Da’esh. On the agenda is Iraq, but as the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius put it, it is “not impossible” that Syria will be examined. Western foreign ministers will take the main seats at the table, where they will set the tone of the meeting. This is exactly the kind of Western arrogance that allows Da’esh to prove its credentials as an anti-Western force.
Such a meeting should be held in Cairo or Beirut, major cities in the Arab world. Its agenda needs to be set by a handshake between Iran and Saudi Arabia — in the midst of a regional Cold War that has deleterious effects. Iran’s “Resistance Axis” (Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah) needs to be in the room, where it would need to propose a grand bargain to the Gulf Arabs and Turkey. Concessions from all sides have to structure a real dialogue since neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is capable of overshadowing the other. Neither Iraq nor Syria can flush out the extremists and rehabilitate the alienated populations as long as Turkey allows arms and logistics to rush across its border. The U.S. has not insisted, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, that Turkey close its border to the resupply routes; this hesitancy kindles suspicion that the West yet believes it could use Da’esh to weaken Iran. Saudi money has silenced opposition in the Arab League to the continued support by the Gulf Arabs of the extremists in Syria. If the Saudis wish to see Iranian influence lessen in the region, it would have to withdraw the allowance of private donations to dangerous jihadi groups in the Arab East and elsewhere.
Da’esh will not be defeated on the battlefield alone. It will have to be suffocated by lack of resources. Grievances of the sect were set in motion by the bloody Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 15 years and left the country exhausted into peace. A police officer of the time told me that the Lebanese Civil War has not ended but is “at half time”. Even an intermission would be a relief for the people of Syria. But it would not be enough. More is needed. Both the Iraqi and Syrian governments will have to learn to accommodate the genuine injuries of their people who drifted into revolt and then, some of them, under the black banner. The long-term antidote to Da’esh is not Arab jails and American jets — but in the creation of an honest and wide-ranging political dialogue. However utopian this sounds, it is the only realistic pathway from the chaos that tears across Iraq and Syria.
(Vijay Prashad is Professor of International Studies at Trinity College and editor of Letters to Palestine (Verso, 2015).)