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What keeps ISIS alive, conspiracy theories or complex politics?

Many people in the Middle East consider ISIS a U.S. creation, but others reject such explanation

Dina al-Shibeeb

Published: Updated:

Many people in the Middle East consider the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a U.S. creation.

This sentiment is perhaps felt most strongly by Iraqis, who have since last year seen vast parts of their war-torn country overrun by ISIS militants. A recent Washington Post headline read: “Iraqis think the U.S. is in cahoots with the Islamic State, and it is hurting the war.”

The article followed an interview with Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iran-backed paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, who accused Washington of not wanting to take on ISIS so as to divide and redraw the map of the region.

Some Iraqis believe the U.S.-led coalition could defeat ISIS swiftly if it wanted to. Others cite U.S. policy mistakes.

“What’s especially bizarre about this is that after all these years of Western errors in the Middle East, no one should pause to wonder whether this is yet another colossal blunder rather than intended policy,” said Justin Marozzi, a strategic communications expert at NATO. “These things are invariably best understood as cock-ups, not conspiracies.”

London-based Ghassan Attiyah, president of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, lamented U.S. support for religious rather than secular and nationalist parties when it toppled the regime of late President Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“If Americans supported the moderate, liberal, secular Iraqis, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” Attiyah said, citing the lack of a coherent vision.

In a recent interview with Al Arabiya News Channel, Iraqi Shiite cleric and politician Ayad Jamal al-Din called for secularism in Iraq, and also said the calamity started with U.S. backing of religious parties.

Liberation

An Iraqi pilot who carried out airstrikes against ISIS told Al Arabiya News that the United States could liberate the second-largest city Mosul “in two or three days.”

However, “if they want to liberate a place, they have to make sure a strong force is able to take control. This isn’t available currently, not in the army or any other ground force.”

The pilot said the United States did not see Baghdad as a dependable partner due to its sectarian polices and rife corruption, which has weakened the Iraqi army.

“I worked with Iraqis and with the Americans - the U.S. role is strategic and long-term, as opposed to the Iraqi army,” he said, accusing Baghdad of “handing Iraq to Iran.”

[They all] hate ISIS, but they make sure its defeat won’t result in victory for their enemies

London-based Ghassan Attiyah, president of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy

Conflicting agendas

While all local, regional and international players want to see ISIS defeated, their opposing interests continue to derail the process.

Attiyah said Iraq’s competing factions - such as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds - all “hate ISIS, but they make sure its defeat won’t result in victory for their enemies.”

Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis have accused Kurds of a land grab in disputed areas. Last month, the town of Tuz Khurmatu witnessed deadly clashes between Kurdish and Shiite forces. There are also tensions among Kurds, Attiyah said.

Similarly, Turkey wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, but it is in “their own interests for ISIS to weaken [him] first,” Attiyah added.

On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi joined other countries linking Turkey with ISIS’s financing, when he said most of the oil smuggled by the group goes through Turkey.

Also the same could be said regarding Americans “who do not want to defeat ISIS for the benefit for the Iranians,” Attiyah said.

Attiyah’s analysis comes on the backdrop of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), mostly made up of Shiite militias, emerging as the most effective force against ISIS since Iraq’s army abandoned Mosul last year.

Militias in the PMU thwarted Abadi’s bid to pass the National Guard Law, which was meant to bring all pro-government armed groups under a unified command.

The legislation was supported by Washington, which was growing frustrated with Baghdad for what it felt was a tilt toward Tehran.

“It’s in [Iran’s] interest to try to... discredit our work to help the Iraqi people,” a U.S. State Department official told Al Arabiya News. “There is a very powerful Iranian-backed propaganda machine in Iraq that propels these kinds of conspiracy theories,” he added.

Conspiracy theory supporters also question airdrops of U.S. arms for example the ones intended for Kurds in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani which ended up in the hands of ISIS militants in late 2014.

“Americans are highly organized especially when it comes to respecting time, and the military organization,” the pilot said in defense, but acknowledged that “mistakes do happen.”

The pilot said during his nine months in service– from February to September - Iraqis mistakenly dropped aid constituting of water bottles and biscuits to ISIS.