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The US and the Rise of ISIS

Isis fighters parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armoured vehicle in Mosul. (Photograph: AP)

The rise of ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL, or the "Islamic State") is a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. While there are a number of other contributing factors as well, that fateful decision is paramount.

Had Congress not authorized President George W. Bush the authority to illegally invade a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us, and to fund the occupation and bloody counter-insurgency war that followed, the reign of terror ISIS has imposed upon large swathes of Syria and Iraq and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, the Sinai, and elsewhere would never have happened.

Among the many scholars, diplomats, and political figures who warned of such consequences was a then-Illinois state senator named Barack Obama, who noted that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would "only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda" and other like-minded extremists.

It is ironic, then, that most of those who went ahead and supported the invasion of Iraq anyway are now trying to blame him for the rise of ISIS. These include Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, who was among the minority of Congressional Democrats to vote for war authorization. In an August 2014 interview in The Atlantic, she claimed that Obama's refusal to get the United States more heavily involved in the Syrian civil war "left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled."

There are serious questions as to whether providing additional military support to some of the motley and disorganized local Syrian militias labeled "moderates" by Washington could have done much to prevent the takeover of parts of Syria by ISIS. It is a powerful organized force led by experienced veterans of the former Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein and flush with advanced American weaponry captured from the new U.S.-organized army.

In addition to the military leadership, the political leadership of ISIS is also primarily Iraqi, many of whom were radicalized by internment and torture in U.S.-operated prisons. These include the ISIS "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a one-time Sufi-turned-Salafist extremist. As The New York Times observed, "At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi's rise has been shaped by the United States' involvement in Iraq -- most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action." 

Recent research by an Oxford scholar based on interviews with ISIS prisoners in Iraq noted how the younger recruits were drawn not by religious zealotry but by bitterness over how they and their families had suffered under U.S. occupation and the corrupt and repressive US-backed government in Baghdad.


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Under U.S. occupation, Iraq's two major bastions of secular nationalism -- the armed forces and the civil service -- were effectively abolished, only to be replaced by partisans of sectarian Shia parties and factions, some of which were closely allied to Iran. Sunni extremists, believing Iraqi Shias had betrayed their country to Persians and Westerners, began targeting Shia civilian neighborhoods with terrorist attacks. The Iraqi regime and allied militia then began systematically kidnapping and murdering thousands of Sunni men. The so-called "sectarian" conflict that emerged 10 years ago, then, was not simply a continuation of a centuries-old internecine struggle -- indeed, mixed neighborhoods, shared mosques, and intermarriage was widespread prior to the U.S. invasion. It was instead a direct consequence of U.S. policies.

Despite this, recognizing that the emergence of al-Qaeda-related extremists among the dozens of resistance groups fighting the sectarian Shia government and U.S. forces were actually a bigger threat, Sunni tribesmen and other leaders in northern and western Iraq agreed in late 2006 to ally with the United States and the Baghdad regime in return for better incorporating Sunnis into the government and armed forces. This led to a temporary lull in the fighting, which various politicians and pundits have falsely attributed to the U.S. troop surge that followed.

However, the Maliki regime in Baghdad did not come through with its end of the agreement. Indeed, discrimination and repression increased. Nonviolent protesters were gunned down. Dissident journalists were targeted for imprisonment and assassination. There was widespread torture. Thousands of Iraqis were detained for years without trial. Sunnis and their communities faced rampant discrimination and the Maliki regime became recognized by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

As a result, when ISIS emerged as the latest manifestation of al-Qaeda-style extremists two years ago, the Sunni population -- despite their relatively secular outlook and strong opposition to such ideologies and tactics -- found them to be the lesser evil and did not resist their takeover. Their advance was made easier by the failure of corrupt and inept Iraqi army to fight. As the U.S. learned in South Vietnam, no matter how well you train a foreign army and how many arms you provide them, they will only be successful if they believe their regime is worth fighting and dying for.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the taking up of arms by anti-regime forces in early 2012, the collapse of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle, and the horrific bombing of urban neighborhoods and other acts of repression by the Syrian regime, gave ISIS -- which has never recognized the artificial colonial-era boundaries between Arab states -- an opening to take over major areas of Syria as well, resulting in foreign intervention and ISIS retaliation. The bombing of ISIS targets by Russia resulted in the downing of a Russian airliner in October. Attacks against ISIS by Lebanese Shia militia inspired the bombing of a Shia neighborhood in Beirut in November. And French air strikes against ISIS led to the Paris massacres soon thereafter.

Whether such terrorist attacks will come to America's shores remains to be seen. And there are no clear answers as to how to best respond to the threat from ISIS. There should be no question, however, as to U.S. responsibility in giving rise to this dangerous violent cult.

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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