Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’

This essay first appeared in The Drouth (‘The Thirst’), a quarterly magazine published in Glasgow (Issue 50, Winter 2014/2015). I wrote it in December 2014.

The Road to Iraq book coverThe Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War
By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
Edinburgh University Press
£19.99

Reviewed by Danny Postel

I was reluctant to review this book. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today—the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading—let alone reviewing—a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction.

But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:

  • ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it—and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
  • The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration—the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
  • There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.

The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled ‘Black Gold and Red Herrings’, he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one: Continue reading “Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’”

Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS? An Exchange of Views

Reposted from In These Times

 

Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS?

Most U.S. leftists say yes. But voices we rarely hear—Kurds and members of the Syrian opposition—have more ambiguous views.

ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State) sent shock waves through the Middle East and beyond in June when it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The organization has now laid claim to a swath of territory “stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south,” in the words of Patrick Cockburn, author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.

In August, the United States assembled an international coalition (eventually including more than a dozen countries) to conduct a campaign of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Then, in October, the coalition expanded the intervention into Syria, coordinating with Kurdish fighters on the Syrian-Turkish border and Free Syrian army forces.

American progressives have been relatively uniform in opposing the intervention against ISIS. But to most Kurds and many Syrian activists, the intervention is more welcome. Turkish and Syrian Kurds along the border watch the battles against ISIS from hilltops, breaking out in cheers and chanting, “Obama, Obama.” Within the Syrian opposition, one finds a range of perspectives—some support intervention, others oppose it, and many, like the Syrian leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, are torn. In late September Saleh told me, Continue reading “Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS? An Exchange of Views”

How does the “Islamic State” change the perception of the conflict in Syria?

Bente Scheller delivered the following keynote lecture at a recent conference on Syria at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.

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War, it is commonly said, is a last resort. That is a wise notion and one that should be in the best interest of every party. However, it is problematic to use it as legitimation for the choice to perpetually remain in an observant position. ‘Last’ should mean: last possible – when diplomatic efforts are of no avail, and not for when it is already too late.

The Syrian regime has turned the concept of ‘war as a last resort’ inside out. It commenced the war against its own population without seriously considering the reforms initially demanded by protesters. Children were the first victims of the regime, the first victims of torture in the recent conflict, which led to the outbreak of the revolution in March 2011. Rarely did the regime negotiate in the course of this conflict – and when it did, it regularly broke its promises.

Continue reading “How does the “Islamic State” change the perception of the conflict in Syria?”

Shock and Awe versus Dentists, Farmers and Students

binladensWhatever the hearts-and-minds rhetoric at the United Nations, in Syria the Obama administration is feeding the flames of Sunni extremism, and proving once again the truism that the American state is an enemy of the Syrian people (as it’s an enemy, like all states, of all peoples, including the American).

We expected strikes on ISIS. Some of the strongest strikes (and the strikes are far stronger than in Iraq), however, have been aimed at Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the organisation from which ISIS split. Nusra is certainly an extremist Salafist group, and is openly linked to al-Qa’ida. Because its ideology terrifies not only minorities but also huge swathes of the Sunni population, it’s also a strategic obstruction in the way of the Syrian revolution. In August 2013 it participated (with ISIS) in the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians in the conflict. On the other hand, Nusra (unlike ISIS) was until yesterday actually fighting the regime, not other rebel groups. From January, along with every rebel formation, it’s been fighting ISIS too. And its leadership is entirely Syrian. Many Syrians, not necessarily extremist Salafists themselves, admire Nusra’s victories against their most immediate enemy – the Assadist forces dropping barrel bombs and raping and torturing at checkpoints. A sensible answer to Nusra would be to provide weapons and funds to Free Army forces who would then be in a position to gradually draw men from the organisation, slowly making it irrelevant (most men don’t care about the ideology of their militia’s leadership; they care about food and ammunition). But the Americans are allergic to working with the people on the ground most immediately concerned by the outcome, and bomb from the air instead. Nusra is now abandoning front line positions (in some areas the regime may be able to take immediate advantage). One Nusra leader has already spoken of an alliance with ISIS against the Americans.

Syria’s new daily routine: the Americans and Gulf Arabs bomb the Salafist extremists while Assad bombs the Free Army and Islamic Front (and of course civilians – as usual it isn’t being reported, especially not now the televisual US war is on, but about a hundred are being killed every day). The headline in regime newspaper al-Watan reads “America and its Allies in One Trench with the Syrian Army against Terrorism”. The opposition reads it this way too. Several demonstrations yesterday condemned the American strikes, called for America’s fall, and for solidarity with ISIS and Nusra. A sign at one protest read: “Yes, It’s an International Coalition Against Sunnis.”

Continue reading “Shock and Awe versus Dentists, Farmers and Students”

Three Monsters

threemonstersPart of me, of course, is happy to see bombs fall on the heads of the international jihad-fascists tormenting the Syrian people (I refer to ISIS, not the Shia jihad-fascists fighting for Assad, who I’d love to see bombed too). Mostly, I’m just disgusted. In the name of disengagement the West not only refused to arm and supply the democratic Syrian opposition – even as Assad launched a genocide against the people – the United States actually prevented other states from providing the heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry the Free Army so desperately needed. It was obvious what would happen next. The Free Army – and the Syrian people – were increasingly squeezed between Assad and the ISIS monster. And now the Americans are bombing both Iraq and Syria. This is where ‘disengagement’  and ‘realism’ has brought us.

ISIS, like Assad, can be hurt from the air but defeated only on the ground. Obama and the Congress have just agreed to spend $500 million on training 5000 vetted members of the Free Syrian Army – the same people that Obama mocked as irrelevant “pharmacists, farmers and students” a few months ago. The training won’t be finished for eight months, and anyway will be of little use. The Free Army now houses some of the best, most battle-hardened fighters in the world. They don’t need training; they need weapons. In the present balance of forces, in any case, the wounds inflicted by America’s photogenic bombing run may not translate into any improvement on the ground. Only Syrians can improve things on the ground.

The West was not moved to act by 200,000 (at least) slaughtered, or nine million homeless, or by barrel bombs, rape campaigns, starvation sieges or sarin gas. It was only moved when an American was beheaded. The inconsistency is noted well by Syrians. In some quarters, an assault on ISIS which is not accompanied by strikes on Assad and aid to the Free Army will be perceived as a Western-Shia-Assadist alliance against persecuted Sunnis. This could increase the appeal of ISIS and successor Sunni extremist groups.

ISIS has many parents, but the first of these, in Syria at least, is Assad. He released extremists from prison while he was assassinating unarmed democrats. He sectarianised the conflict by setting up sectarian death squads and by bringing in Iran-backed Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon. His scorched earth policy made normal life impossible in the liberated areas, creating the vacuum in which organisations like ISIS thrived. And until this June, he had an effective non-aggression pact with ISIS, not fighting it, buying oil from it. From January, on the other hand, all opposition militias – the Free Army groups and the Islamic Front groups – have been fighting ISIS (and losing thousands of men in the struggle). These fighters are not about to become an on-the-ground anti-ISIS militia, as the Americans seem to want. They know the truth – that both states, the Assadist and the psychotic-Islamist, are absolute enemies. There’s no destroying one without the other. And both must be destroyed by Syrian hands, not by foreign planes.

Continue reading “Three Monsters”

The Islamic State

VICE News reporter Medyan Dairieh spent three weeks embedded with the Islamic State, gaining unprecedented access to the group in Iraq and Syria as the first and only journalist to document its inner workings. Once you watch the film you’ll understand why my friend Faisal al Yafai calls them “a cancer of the Middle East politics and society“.

The Islamic State, a hardline Sunni jihadist group that formerly had ties to al Qaeda, has conquered large swathes of Iraq and Syria. Previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group has announced its intention to reestablish the caliphate and has declared its leader, the shadowy Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the caliph.

The lightning advances the Islamic State made across Syria and Iraq in June shocked the world. But it’s not just the group’s military victories that have garnered attention — it’s also the pace with which its members have begun to carve out a viable state.

Flush with cash and US weapons seized during its advances in Iraq, the Islamic State’s expansion shows no sign of slowing down. In the first week of August alone, Islamic State fighters have taken over new areas in northern Iraq, encroaching on Kurdish territory and sending Christians and other minorities fleeing as reports of massacres emerged.

Fathers of ISIS

There’s no need to stoop to conspiracy theories to understand the ISIS phenomenon. In this brilliant summary, first published here, Ziad Majed explains the organisation’s origins.

The organization abbreviated as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is not new in the region, nor is it a newfound expression of the crises afflicting Arab societies at a moment of profound transformations, initiated by 2011 revolutions.

To the contrary, ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness. The organization’s explosive growth today is in fact the result of previously existing, worsening conflicts that were caused by the different fathers.

ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region.

 

Therefore, it is no coincidence that we see its base, its source of strength concentrated in Iraq and Syria, where Saddam Hussein and Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad reigned for decades, killing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying political life, and deepening sectarianism by transforming it into a mechanism of exclusion and polarization, to the point that injustices and crimes against humanity became commonplace.

ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed. Specifically, it was the exclusion of a wide swath of Iraqis from post invasion political processes and the formation of a new authority that discriminated against them and held them collectively at fault for the guilt of Saddam and his party, which together enabled groups (such as those first established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) whose activities have been resumed by ISIS to get in touch with some parts of Iraqi society and to establish itself among them.

ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years — taking Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as its backyard, feeding (directly or indirectly) confessional divisions and making these divides the backbone of ideological mobilization and a policy of revenge and retaliation that has constructed a destructive feedback loop.

ISIS is fourth the child of some of the Salafist networks in the Gulf (in Saudi Arabia and other states), which emerged and developed throughout the 1980s, following the oil boom and the “Afghan jihad”. These networks have continued to operate and expand throughout the last two decades under various names, all in the interest of extremism and obscurantism.

ISIS is fifth the offspring of a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century, believing that they have found within its imaginary folds the answer to all contemporary or future questions.

ISIS is sixth the progeny of violence, or of an environment that has been subjected to striking brutality, which has allowed the growth of this disease and facilitated the emergence of what could be called “ISISism”. Like Iraq previously, Syria today has been abandoned beneath explosive barrels to become a laboratory, a testing ground for violence, daily massacres and their outcomes.

ISIS, an abominable, savage creature, is thus the product of at least these six fathers. Its persistency depends on the continuation of these aforementioned elements, particularly the element of violence embodied by the Assad regime in Syria. Those who think that they should be impartial toward or even support tyrants like Assad in the fight against ISISism fail to realize that his regime is in fact at the root of the problem.

Until this fact is recognized — that despotism is the disease and not the cure — we can only expect more deadly repercussions, from the Middle East to the distant corners of the globe…

Continue reading “Fathers of ISIS”

Beware the Game of Shadows in Syria

I am a signatory to this letter published by the Guardian.

'Hamza Bakour' by Khalil Younes
‘Hamza Bakour’ by Khalil Younes

As supporters of the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy, we are concerned by the British government’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran in response to the crisis in Iraq (Shortcuts, G2, Iran, 18 June).

There is a grave danger that the Iranian government will see this as a licence to extend its already substantial intervention in Syria in support of its client – the Assad regime – which could not have survived this long without Iranian support.

Thousands of troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia are actively fighting in Syria on the regime’s side, as are Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias. To ally with Iran in order to combat Isis is deeply ironic, since there is considerable evidence that the Syrian regime has been colluding with Isis: Assad’s air force bombs civilians, schools, markets and hospitals without mercy but declined to attack Isis’s massive headquarters in Raqqa until the Iraq crisis erupted.

The Syrian regime has been playing a game of shadows in which this covert collusion with the growth of Isis has been used to undermine the democratic opposition and strengthen its own claim to be a bulwark against “terrorism”. To accept Iran – and by implication Bashar al-Assad – as allies in the fight against Isis is to fall for this deception.


Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, Haytham Alhmawi, director of Rethink Rebuild Society, Reem Al-Assil, activist, Adam Barnett, journalist, James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward, Mark Boothroyd, International Socialist Network, Sasha Crow, founder of Collateral Repair Project for Iraqi and Syrian Refugees, Naomi Foyle, writer and coordinator of British Writers in Support of Palestine, Christine Gilmore, Leeds Friends of Syria, Bronwen Griffiths, writer and activist, Juliette Harkin, associate tutor, University of East Anglia, Robin Yassin Kassab, author and co-editor of Critical Muslim, Tehmina Kazi, human rights activist, Maryam Namazie, Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation and Equal Rights Now – organisation against women’s discrimination in Iran, Fariborz Pooya, Worker-communist party of Iran UK, Mary Rizzo, activist, translator and blogger, Christopher Roche, Bath Solidarity, Naame Shaam campaign group http://www.naameshaam.org, Brian Slocock, political scientist and blogger on Syria, David St Vincent, contributing writer and editor, National Geographic Books, Luke Staunton, Merseyside Syria Solidarity Movement – UK Continue reading “Beware the Game of Shadows in Syria”

Something Worse?

Down with ISIS, from Kafranbel
Down with ISIS, from Kafranbel

In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.

Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.

Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.

Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.) Continue reading “Something Worse?”

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