Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan on the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS)

Presentation S. Azmat Hassan on the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) on October 22, 2014

Thank you for inviting me to talk to you today on ISIS. Let me begin by suggesting that not much is known about the leadership structure or the way ISIS administers the large swath of territory it has captured in northern Syria and northwest Iraq since June last. What is known is that it is headed by a person calling himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He led an insurgent group in Iraq opposed to the US presence in that country.  Baghdadi was arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 but was released after some time.  Apparently he shifted his operations to northern Syria-against the instructions of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda. The two fell out, leading to the expulsion of Baghdadi and his group from al Qaeda.  The group commenced operations from Raqqa in Syria, which became its headquarters. His group gained strength at the expense of the other anti-Assad oppositionists. From the very beginning ISIS concentrated on capturing income-generating assets such as oil refineries, etc. which added to their financial clout. The group also ran a sophisticated media campaign which garnered for it disaffected young Muslims from Europe and other areas. It appears that its superior fighting capabilities seemed to have marginalized the other anti-Assad rebel groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others.

ISIS astonished the world last June by marching across the Syrian-Iraqi border and capturing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. This feat gave it a considerable amount of weapons besides augmenting its oil resources. Most of the Iraqi soldiers defending Mosul fled the city after shedding their uniforms. ISIS followed this military triumph by attacking Iraqi Kurdistan and coming uncomfortably close to the latter’s capital of Erbil. The United States, which had a number of its diplomats stationed there, plus a sizeable contingent of its special forces aiding the Kurds, could not countenance the eventuality of ISIS capturing Erbil and worse, from the US point of view, making US diplomats and soldiers captive. President Obama really did not have much option except to authorize air strikes against ISIS positions. He also launched a concerted effort to mobilize an anti-ISIS coalition comprising the EU countries and Arab allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Jordan. While the Arab League also made condemnatory statements at the brutalities ISIS was committing on the captive population, including beheadings, crucifixions, forced conversions and other depredations, these statements hardly cut any ice with ISIS. In fact, it perpetrated the despicable beheadings of Westerners after the airstrikes by Britain and the U.S. in an attempt to stop these countries from using this weapon. Also, it is worth recalling from history that westerners had been beheaded in Iraq by al Qaeda after the international media published the Abu Ghraib atrocities. Whatever the sequence of events, there is no justification for such gruesome acts, which caused revulsion worldwide, including in many Islamic countries. The religious leaders in these countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others, roundly condemned ISIS actions, calling them the very antithesis of Islamic norms and behavior.

The astonishing success of ISIS is obviously related to an amalgam of factors, chief among them state failure in both Syria and Iraq, for different reasons. In Syria, peaceful protests in the south by impoverished farmers and some youth was responded through an armed response by Assad’s army and security forces. This totally unacceptable repression which led to a number of deaths and injuries among the peaceful protestors, from an authoritarian regime, eventually snowballed into a full-fledged uprising across the length and breadth of Syria. The more the authorities cracked down on dissent amongst the population, the more determined was the oppositions’ reactions. The ordinary civilians have paid the price.200, 000 persons have been killed in the civil war and millions have sought refuge in neighboring countries. To the chagrin of President Assad and his minority Alawite inner circle, he kept losing more and more control of territory and his brutality toward his fellow Syrians continued unabated. The US has called for his removal from power to end the civil war. Also almost all the neighboring countries turned against him, and wanted him defeated and ousted. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, and Turkey were prominent opponents who provided financial and material help to the rebels. Many young persons from the Arab countries, Europe, and elsewhere joined the jihad against a president who was considered an oppressor and therefore fit to be opposed and ousted.

However Assad has clung to the presidency. About 18 months ago the media was prophesying his imminent political demise as the rebels were successful in attacking even the capital Damascus. Assad seems to have weathered this onslaught. Although he has lost considerable territory mainly in the north, the rebel momentum seems to have waned. Assad’s saviors, apart from his Alawite clan, some members of the merchant community, Syrian Christians and some other secular –minded persons, undoubtedly are fellow Shia soldiers from the Hizbullah militia from neighboring Lebanon plus staunch financial, political and military support from Tehran and Moscow. For Iran and Russia, Assad’s fall would represent a big setback as Assad represents a reliable outlet for them to the eastern Mediterranean.

In Iraq, with the benefit of hindsight, one can make the case that President Obama, while keen to pull out his troops from the Iraqi quagmire, should have left a few thousand troops to oversee the political transition in that war-torn country. Although he could not get a status of forces agreement from the Iraqi government, some critics suggest that he did not try hard enough. We should remember that Obama was still calling the shots in Baghdad till the end of 2011, and had he leaned harder on Nuri al Maliki, the American-supported and anointed prime minister, he could conceivably have gotten the agreement enabling a few thousand American troops to be still there as we speak. It is not difficult to visualize how different the situation in Iraq would have been. Instead, Obama having washed his hands off Iraq,  probably did not give that country the attention it deserved. Also Maliki was a questionable choice as Prime Minister. He was sectarian to the core of his being. Surely the Americans should have been more alert to his background and his views. Some other Iraqi contenders for the Prime ministerial slot, such as Iyad Allawi were considered more secular and broad-minded. Throughout his tenure Maliki made the persecution of the sizeable Iraqi Sunni minority one of his chief goals. Thousands of Sunnis were arrested without due cause, to languish in Iraqi jails. The Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, was accused by Maliki of terrorist activities and, as he was about to be arrested, he had to flee the country. Similarly Maliki also annoyed the Iraqi Kurds through his apparent inflexibility toward their demands. It appears that the U.S. was not sufficiently attuned to the fast-deteriorating internal conditions in the country during the Maliki era. Maliki has been replaced recently by another politician from his party Haider al Abadi, but the damage to Iraq’s national unity has been immense. Whether the change of guard in Baghdad will result in a more inclusive atmosphere is an imponderable at this stage. It could well turn out to be another case of too little, too late.

In his recent book, Pay Any Price, the noted journalist James Risen has catalogued in vivid detail the mis-steps committed in Iraq during the Bush years. Risen says, “We are plunged into an unsettled noirish world in which scam artists and thieves swarm government agencies, peddling phony software and other novel tools for the war against terror. The Bush administration was throwing money at the terrorist problem, and plenty of people were willing to catch a few bundles.” Mr. Risen begins by following about $2 billion from the United States to Baghdad, which was then stolen, with much of it ending up in a bunker in Lebanon “in what may be one of the largest robberies in modern history.”  According to the New York Times review of the book, Risen portrays the ex-army life of one Damien Corsetti, a soldier who by Risen’s account engaged in torture at the Abu-Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. He suggests that the US army should have known before going into Iraq that torture has two victims: the one who suffers it and the one who inflicts it.  Risen states “he’s one of the first veterans known to have been given full disability based on PTSD suffered while conducting harsh interrogations in the war of terror”.  Quoting an expert on terrorism Risen states “we have scared the hell out of ourselves”.  He concludes that America has lost much in its lashing out against terrorism and the “Congress and people need to wake up and ask more questions about the political, financial, moral and cultural costs of that campaign”.

I have given these snapshots as a prelude to the emergence of the ISIS phenomenon. I feel that unless we have a better sense of the main contours of events in Syria and Iraq, it becomes difficult for us to visualize how an irredentist group like ISIS has emerged. The US is not responsible for what happened in Bashar al-Assad’s decade and a half of power in that benighted country. The one chance that Obama had to change the calculus in the Middle East which he did not take, was to make good on his promise to respond if Assad used chemical weapons against his opponents. Assad did that in the summer of 2013. Obama did not retaliate militarily settling instead for a Russian brokered agreement where Assad would dismantle all his chemical weapons.

However on Iraq, the US’ decisions for it’s almost decade long control of that country did in my view contribute to state failure. State failure is both a necessary and sufficient condition in which an organization like ISIS can come to power. Today ISIS is on the outskirts of Baghdad.  The Iraqi army’s performance in countering ISIS so far has been poor. While the outcome of military engagements is notoriously difficult to predict, I would like to conclude by quoting from an article by journalist Philip Stephens which appeared recently in the Financial Times:

“In military terms, it [defeating ISIS] does not look like an absurd proposition.  For all their looted cash and military kit the 20,000 or so fighters occupy a landlocked space surrounded by hostile forces.  Destroying ISIS, however, demands more than western air strikes or, for that matter, boots on the ground.  It requires a single-minded political as well as a military commitment on the part of regional powers to a post-ISIS settlement.  For Turkey and Saudi Arabia regime change in Damascus and settling scores with Iran take precedence over any such accommodation between Shia and Sunni.  Yet the moderate Syrian opposition ready to replace Mr. Assad is a threadbare fiction.”

I think Stephen’s assessment is fairly close to the mark.ISIS appears to have opened too many fronts in Syria and Iraq. If the regional powers aided by the US and the EU countries with air power, can set aside their different agendas, they can unitedly see off the ISIS insurgency.

Thank you.

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