Following the bulk of western reporting on the Iraq crisis, you’d think the self-styled ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) popped out of nowhere, took the West completely by surprise, and is now rampaging across the Middle East like some random weather event.
The reality is far more complex, and less palatable. ISIS’ meteoric rise is a predictable consequence of a longstanding U.S.-led geostrategy in the Middle East that has seen tyrants and terrorists as mere tools to expedite access to regional oil and gas resources.
In the run-up to the 2003 invasion, oil was of course center stage. While the plans to invade, capture and revitalise Iraq’s flagging oil industry with a view to open it up to foreign investors were explored meticulously by the Pentagon, U.S. State Department and UK Foreign Office – there was little or no planning for post-war reconstruction.
Opening up Iraq’s huge oil reserves would avert what one British diplomat at the Coalition Provisional Authority characterised as a potential “world shortage” of oil supply, stabilising global prices, and thereby holding off an energy crunch anticipated in 2001 by a study group commissioned by vice president Dick Cheney.
Simultaneously, influential neoconservative U.S. officials Cheney and deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz co-authored a hair-brained plan to re-engineer the region through the sectarian partition of Iraq into three autonomous cantons for Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites.
The geopolitical jockeying between the U.S., Britain, the Gulf states, Turkey and Iran, has spawned an Islamist Frankenstein - a movement so ruthless even their parent network al-Qaeda disowned themDr. Nafeez Ahmed
The scheme was described by U.S. private intelligence firm Stratfor, which observed in October 2002: “The new government’s attempts to establish control over all of Iraq may well lead to a civil war between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish ethnic groups… The fiercest fighting could be expected for control over the oil facilities” – exactly the scenario unfolding now as ISIS rampages across Iraq.
Fracturing the country along sectarian lines, continued Stratfor, “may give Washington several strategic advantages”:
“After eliminating Iraq as a sovereign state, there would be no fear that one day an anti-American government would come to power in Baghdad, as the capital would be in Amman [Jordan]. Current and potential U.S. geopolitical foes Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria would be isolated from each other, with big chunks of land between them under control of the pro-U.S. forces.”
Equally important, Washington would be able to justify its long-term and heavy military presence in the region as necessary for the defense of a young new state asking for U.S. protection - and to secure the stability of oil markets and supplies. That in turn would help the United States gain direct control of Iraqi oil and replace Saudi oil in case of conflict with Riyadh.”
This sort of strategic thinking drove the U.S. to covertly arm both sides. As one U.S. Joint Special Operations University report said: “U.S. elite forces in Iraq turned to fostering infighting among their Iraqi adversaries on the tactical and operational level.” This included disseminating and propagating al-Qaeda jihadi activities by “U.S. psychological warfare (PSYOP) specialists” to fuel “factional fighting” and “to set insurgents battling insurgents.”
In early 2005, Pakistani defense sources revealed that the Pentagon had “resolved to arm small militias backed by U.S. troops and entrenched in the population.” These militias were in fact “former members of the Ba’ath Party” trained up by al-Qaeda insurgents, receiving covert U.S. support to “head off” the threat of a “Shi’ite clergy-driven religious movement.” Almost simultaneously, the Pentagon began preparing its ‘Salvador option’ to sponsor Shiite death squads to “target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers.”
Divide and rule
This divide-and-rule strategy has fueled sectarianism not just in Iraq, but across the region. For the last decade, both the Bush and Obama administration have worked with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states to supply arms and military support to groups across the Middle East that could counter Iranian influence. Those most capable of doing so, it turns out, are extremist Sunni groups affiliated to al-Qaeda.
The short-sighted strategy has included extensive financing and training of jihadist groups in Syria to the tune of up to a billion dollars – a policy that began as early as 2009 according to a former French foreign minister.
A glimpse of the end-vision for this strategy was revealed in a 2006 Armed Forces Journal paper by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, former head of future warfare in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence. His paper called for a complete re-drawing of Middle East borders through “ethnic cleansing.”
This would somehow establish the “security” and “democracy” necessary to secure “access to oil supplies in a region that is destined to fight itself.” The plan repeated the Cheney-Wolfowitz scheme to split Iraq into three, but also included breaking apart Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan through “inevitable attendant bloodshed,” from which eventually “new and natural borders will emerge” for a supposedly more peaceful region.
What is playing out now seems startlingly close to scenarios described in 2008 by a U.S. Army-funded RAND Corp report on how to win ‘the long war.’ Recognizing that “for the foreseeable future, world oil production growth and total output will be dominated by Persian Gulf resources,” the document advocated a “Divide and Rule” strategy to cement U.S. access to Gulf oil.
On the one hand, this would involve fostering conflict amongst the jihadists themselves - “exploiting fault lines between the various Salafi-jihadist groups to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts.” On the other, it would entail fostering conflict between Sunni and Shi’a by “shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan as a way of containing Iranian power and influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.”
Although this could empower Islamist terrorists, the report assumed that this “may actually reduce the al-Qaeda threat to U.S. interests in the short term” by bogging them down in targeting of “Iranian interests throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf.”
In reality, the geopolitical jockeying between the U.S., Britain, the Gulf states, Turkey and Iran, has spawned an Islamist Frankenstein - a movement so ruthless even their parent network al-Qaeda disowned them. In turn, ISIS’ rapid ascent is unwittingly playing into the hands of neocon fanatics in Washington and London, eager to seize the new opportunity to bring their dreams of remaking the Middle East to fruition.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization among other books. His work on international terrorism was officially used by the 9/11 Commission, among other government agencies. He writes for the Guardian on the geopolitics of environmental, energy and economic crises on his Earth insight blog. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed.