The ongoing destruction of Syria and Iraq
Two places of great historic significance in Islamic history are in chaos. Damascus and Baghdad stand out in the early centuries of Islamic history for their rich culture, architecture, and scholarship. Provinces and towns Syria and Iraq all have some trace of great achievements of the early Islamic past.
But both countries are falling apart. They are being torn apart by actors we can identify from media reports. One such actor comes in the form of the recent, dramatic rise of Isis – the Dawla Islamiyyah fi Iraq wa al-sham, or Daesh – and has proided the opportunity yet again for strong anti-Islamic commentary in the media. Isis is indeed a violent and intolerant organization. But let us briefly look at recent history to create some context for its emergence.
Start in 1990 with first American invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein withdrew his forces from Kuwait, which he had invaded, but stayed in power. The Americans encouraged the Shi’ites in southern Iraq to rise up against him but did not militarily support the uprising. The uprising was defeated and the Shi’ites suffered immensely as areuslt. After this the US and UN imposed the most severe sanctions regime on the country ever imposed on any country, which only strengthened Saddam Hussein and the around him but strangled the ordinary people of the country. Millions suffered as a result. The sanctions regime continued until the next attack on Iraq.
In 2003 George Bush Jr followed his father and Iraq was again invaded, aided by tony Blair and a handful of other western states. The argument was that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction and that there was a connection between Al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime. Both were well-known fabrications.
The consequence of the so-called Gulf War II was: hundreds of thousands Iraqis were killed and millions displaced. An American colonial administration was installed and it ran the most corrupt government on earth. Mistake upon mistake were committed and the country was never pacified, the population never reconciled to occupation. For instance (and of relevance to this talk), the brutality of the military and private military contractors is now widely known, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Gharaib, and the dismissal of the virtually the entire Iraqi army, etc. In 2011 the Americans formally withdrew their military. An incompetent Iraqi government was in place under Nouri al-Maliki with a police and armed force of about one million men.
Throughout the occupation there was resistance. I mentioned Abu Gharaib prison but there were other prisons beside this one. Camp Bucca was a prison compound of thousands of prisoners where the Americans believed they were in control. But another story has emerged. This is where, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Amir of the Isis, was held for about four years. There strategies were plotted among the diverse prisoners, which included traditional sufi and salafi Sunnis and secular Baathists. This is where what we see today unfolding was conceived. The prison comrades from various backgrounds committed themselves to continuing resistance when outside. We thus see the curious gathering under the leadership of a hardline, armed and militant salafist, al-Baghdadi, men who went into prison with other allegiances, especially to Ba’athism. But their objectives are now the same: revenge for the American occupation and the people they put in power, and revenge against the majority Shi’ite population. The charismatic power of preaching an uncompromising Islamic message combined with the organizational skills of Ba’athists who once knew power is indeed powerful. Iraqis in Isis-conquered territories did not all uniformly fear Isis as it drove out government forces. They feared the Iraqi army more, who would bomb wrong targets, for instance.
Isis is using the language of classical Islamic history when it calls the territory it controls a Caliphate; the Arabs have not known an Arab Caliph for centuries. So, its aim is beyond the national boundaries of Iraq (similar to the aim of Ba’athism, which was always a pan-Arab ideal). And it is useful to its cause that around the same time of its emergence as a force in 2011 the revolt against the Asad regime in neighbouring Syria turned from a genuine popular uprising, inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia, into a Sunni military insurrection. Various Syrian factions eventually affiliated themselves to Isis. Western powers, and the US in particular, supporting the rebels saw the rise of Isis as potentially useful in the effort to defeat Asad.
There are, of course, outside powers involved with their own agendas: Turkey, Jordan, closest in proximity, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar with unlimited funding. For Saudi Arabia its part of a proxy war against Iran, which has huge influence in Iraq and supports the Asad regime. But I leave aside these factors for now.
What strikes one is the swift militarization of conflict. The logic in Arab states seem to be that a big army with lots of hardware will impress neighbours and more importantly scare the population. But Arab armies have not been impressive on the battlefield. Its all about the glamour of the military parade and uniform; and most importantly, the potential to make money. What has been said of Algeria applies virtually across the region: “the army has a country.” Look at Egypt: 40 percent of economy controlled by military. In Iraq the military is at the centre of the corruption in the country. With such a large army and police force they should have been able to stop or push back Isis. But they are a central part of the problem. There are tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers,” on the books, senior officials are known to buy their positions and to pay off this debt they have to bribe those lower down the ranks, who have to people ordinary Iraqis at checkpoints etc. (The coherence and persistence of the Syrian army is probably due to the fact that it is filled with Alawis and they have everything to lose if the Asad regime should fall.)
So the response in situations where military discourse, symbols and hardware is valued so highly is that the only option for opposition is often for them to meet weapons with weapons.
Al-Qaida was not present in Iraq before the American invasion in 2003. Al-Qaida arrived with the invasion, as a consequence of it. There is now a far more effective and organized force in Iraq in the shape of Isis. It controls far more territory than Al-Qaida ever imagined possible and it has attracted young recruits from all over the world to its cause. Al-Qaida never called itself a Caliphate, Isis does. The Taliban called itself an Emirate, meaning it had limited objectives. (More comparisons can be made with Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet occupation.)
The response of most of the Muslim world has been clear, of course. Isis does not speak in our name. They are not our caliphate. But our choice is not between two I’s: Isis or imperialism. The Americans and British engaged in an imperialist war in Iraq and the whole world is having to live with the consequences, those in the region in the first place. We are having to tell our communities that the excesses of Isis is not Islam and show the media that we are not all terrorists. Isis is trying to redraw the map just as George Bush Jr. and Tony Blair tried to with their invasion and occupation. (There are indeed maps by the US military of how the region could look: A Sunni Iraq, A Shi’ite Iraq, Kurdistan etc.) Indeed that region has seen too may imperialist map-making exercises and all with devastating effects.
Next year is the 100th anniversary of the most important such exercise, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 that saw France and Britain redrawing the map of the region, dividing peoples, playing with territory as if it was a children’s puzzle. Will Iraq and Syria begin to see a turn-around in its fortunes on the 100th anniversary of the first imperialist initiative in remaking the region? As the suffering continues, and the false claims to Caliph and change goes on there is no end in sight. This caliph is heir to the worst examples of caliphal rule from Damascus and Baghdad; the nasty figures of Islamic history.
Based on a talk at CMRM; July 11, 2015.