If the major world powers, especially the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, do not admit to their role in creating the ISIS phenomenon, their promise to fight this group cannot be taken seriously. If these countries continue to be in denial about what it will really take to eliminate ISIS, in terms of its regional alliances, recruitment capacity, and mobilization of Sunni Arabs, then Shia Arabs will find themselves as bait in a trap. The effort to tackle ISIS will thus remain purely Machiavellian and historically shortsighted, and will increase the risk of retaliation against these countries as ISIS grows and metastasizes.
Terror recently struck in California after Paris, and could strike soon in London, Moscow, or even Beijing and Washington if the five permanent Security Council members do not stop burying their heads in the sand and pretend they are innocent of the sin of creating ISIS and similar organizations.
No one is innocent of the creation of jihadist groups and using them as tools for various agendas.Raghida Dergham
Many Arab countries are also responsible - together with Iran, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan and others - for the creation of terror groups, beginning with al-Qaeda born out of the international partnership that fostered Islamic fundamentalism in the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The U.S. role
No one is innocent of the creation of jihadist groups and using them as tools for various agendas. And all sides are fully aware of what it would take to defeat ISIS and its ilk.
The problem is that all major players, regionally and internationally, are comfortable as long as the war is being fought away from their cities – over “there”, in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
The problem is that all players seem uninterested in developing timetables and practical strategies with specific goals for varying reasons.
Some admission of error is useful here to avoid worse outcomes. However, I address today specifically the U.S. role, given the intensifying debate that seems to ignore the background and implications of successive U.S. entanglements.
Trump’s infinite arrogance
The Donald Trump phenomenon is astonishing, not least because of his infinite arrogance and his unnatural popularity. Trump, despite repeatedly crossing the line and engaging in blunt incitement, continues to lead Republican presidential nomination polls.
His popularity stems mainly from the resentment felt by broad segments of the American people towards the political establishment, beginning with Democratic President Barack Obama and presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has been accused alongside the Bush family of trying to create a “political dynasty”.
Yet the fear among Americans of a repetition of the 9/11 attacks is the main issue that Trump seems to be exploiting to mobilize U.S. public opinion and rally it behind him against “Islamic terrorism”.
The terrorist attack by a Muslim couple in San Bernardino was the first major terror attack on U.S. soil since al-Qaeda attacked New York and Washington 14 years ago. Donald Trump saw this as an opportunity not to be missed, and called for a full ban on the entry of Muslims to the United States. Before he made this call, the billionaire, despite having longstanding financial ties to Arab and Muslim business people, had also incited against Muslims by claiming many in New Jersey celebrated when 9/11 struck.
Regardless of whether this ambitious man is a dangerous clown, a gifted actor, or a serious presidential candidate, the fact that a large segment of Republicans enthusiastically supports him is proof of the naivety and denial of many Americans. History did not start with Trump, and time will eventually tell how dangerous the roles played by the U.S. were in creating Islamic fundamentalism and inciting Sunni-Shia strife from the late 1970s to the present day.
The Carter, Reagan years
The peaceful President and Nobel Prize-laureate Jimmy Carter served one term in the White House, from 1977 to 1981. Under his tenure, the Iranian revolution of 1979 took place giving birth to the Islamic Republic ruled by Shia mullahs led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who toppled the Shah of Iran. During Carter’s presidency, Afghanistan was also invaded by the Soviet Union.
Republican President Ronald Reagan then launched several demarches towards Tehran, most notably through the so-called Contra-Iran deal/scandal. But most prominently, Reagan mobilized and trained jihadists using the CIA, in collaboration with Pakistan and various Arab countries against “atheist communism”, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union after its defeat in Afghanistan. But after the jihadists completed their mission, Washington abandoned them – even though they had thought they were allies of the United States. And thus al-Qaeda was born.
Under Reagan (1981-1989), the Iraq-Iran war raged and escalated, with the U.S. supporting the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The U.S. deliberately inflamed a sectarian conflict between the Sunni-led regime in Iraq and the Shia-led regime in Iran. Officially, Washington backed Iraq while unofficially courting the mullahs in Tehran.
From Bush to Clinton
Then under George Bush (1989-1993), the second Gulf War erupted when Saddam invaded Kuwait – some say with a nudge from the U.S. ambassador on the eve of his adventure in 1990.
Under the Democratic President Bill Clinton (1993-2000), Washington officially turned against its former ally and continued to woo Iran.
President George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001 and left in 2009, after waging two wars, which he said were in retaliation for 9/11. But instead of focusing on al-Qaeda, the Bush administration decided to get rid of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq on grounds that turned out to be falsified. What George W. Bush did in Iraq and Afghanistan amounted to getting rid of the enemies of the mullahs in Tehran – and giving them Iraq on a platter of gold.
Thus Washington compensated Tehran for its actions during the Iraq-Iran war, this time playing the Shia card as opposed to the Sunni card it played in favor of Saddam Hussein.
Yet one of the most far-reaching things Bush did was to dismantle the Iraqi army under the pretext of de-Baathification. This unleashed Shia retaliation against the Sunni-led tyranny of Saddam Hussein. This led to the formation of the nucleus of what later became ISIS, and Saddam’s henchmen are probably part of the senior leadership of the radical Sunni group.
Barack Obama’s turn
The Democrat Barack Obama continued the Republican George W. Bush started in terms of the détente with Iran. They both turned a blind eye to the fact that the mullah-led regime was the first theocracy in the region. Barack Obama turned a blind eye to all Iranian violations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. He then recognized the legitimacy of the mullahs’ regime, recognized Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment, and pledged not to intervene in Iranian internal affairs under any circumstances, as well as acknowledging a regional role for the mullahs beyond the borders of their state. All this certainly inflamed Sunni-Shia strife, especially since Iran is fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad in Syria and supporting Shia militias in Iraq.
The purpose of this background is to recall the history of U.S. administrations in the Middle East and with Muslims in general, and not to exonerate Muslims or Arabs from the terror attacks of 9/11 and the terror of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The purpose is to warn against papering-over history and denying U.S. responsibility in creating Sunni and Shia fundamentalism and terrorism.
Sunni Arabs’ role
The continuous fueling of Sunni-Shia strife will backfire on Iranian and Arab Shias, no matter how much Iran and its allies seem reassured by the partnership with the U.S.. For one thing, it will lead to more Sunni terrorism against the U.S.-Russian-Iranian alliance.
It follows that defeating ISIS requires rallying Sunni Arabs against it. However, this is impossible for Arab leaders to achieve, as long as the Sunnis feel that their marginalization in their countries is backed by the U.S., and that they are secondary to the de-facto alliances between Washington and Tehran, and Moscow and Tehran.
No victory can be achieved by allying with the Shia militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. No victory can be achieved against Sunni terrorism without Sunni Arabs.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter seemed very weak as he faced the interrogation Senate committee chaired by Senator John McCain. His answers were superficial and vague, even as he offered U.S. support in the Battle of Ramadi to the Iraqi government. Carter challenged the Gulf states, the official U.S. allies in the international coalition, by saying that Iran is militarily present on the ground, and while they were not.
That was a recognition that U.S. policy is not, as was thought, random. It’s well thought out, which is dangerous.
The problem is that Washington is fully aware of the urgent need for the Sunni element in the partnership against ISIS, but chooses not to do what is needed to convince the necessary partners to join that partnership.
What Washington needs to think about it is to stop propping up the Islamic Republic of Iran to assume a leadership position in the Arab Middle East. By doing so, the U.S. is implicating Iranian and Arab Shias inadvertently, if not deliberately. It is paving the way for terrorism to come to the U.S., no matter how unlikely this may seem today.
Iran is an ancient country with a historic and permanent place in the Middle East map and status. The problem is that Iran is a theocracy being encouraged by the East and the West, which are blessing the exportation of its model to the Arab countries while considering it an alternative partner to the truly indispensable partner if defeating ISIS is indeed a serious goal.
Some acknowledgment of the facts is necessary, and the time has come to refrain from papering over history no matter how comfortable this may be.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 11, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham