ISIS is not America’s fault and airstrikes won’t defeat them
Those recruits offer an insight to ISIS’ geographic and ideological strengths, with Tunisia as a major breeding ground for them
With the start of the “silly season” in the U.S. Presidential elections, the partisan blame game over the rise of ISIS is only heating up between Republicans and Democrats. The GOP candidate Jeb Bush has accused the Democrats’ frontrunner Hillary Clinton of “standing by“ as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared its “caliphate” last year, while the Clinton campaign responded by attributing the rise of the notorious group to George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.
Undoubtedly, the Iraq war of 2003 and the disbanding of the Iraqi army putting 400,000 soldiers out of work, has set the stage for the emergence of ISIS, the same way that ignoring the Syrian crisis prompted its comeback in 2011.
However, it is politically flawed to solely blame the rise of ISIS on successive U.S. administrations while ignoring the internal and regional factors. The realities that converged and led to the ISIS “caliphate” in 2014 are numerous, including the Assad regime crimes and Syria’s implosion, the wave of radicalization in the MENA region, the funding for extremists, and bad governance. It is those elements that collectively share the blame for the rise of ISIS and unless they’re by and large tackled, the air strikes won’t stop the spread of “the pandemic.”
U.S. mistakes in context
Except for former President Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney, the overwhelming majority in Washington’s political elite today has come to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was a strategic mistake. And while the many Pinocchios leading up to the war have been discredited, it’s an exaggeration to say its outcome created the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul in June of last year.
More than outside funding, foreign recruits, or U.S. withdrawal, it’s the internal political paralysis and bad governance in both Iraq and Syria that took under its wings the creation of ISISJoyce Karam
The ISIS “caliphate” did not emerge in 2014 just because Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, it had many godfathers by then and a major lifeline from Syria. The chaos in Syria facilitated ISIS’ comeback to Iraq and offered it the strategic depth to recruit, redeploy and rearm. Were it not for the Syrian war, ISIS could not have reinforced its forces in Mosul or stationed its most senior leaders in Raqqa or used the Assad brutality against the population as a tool for recruiting in the Sunni world.
Those recruits offer an insight to ISIS’ geographic and ideological strengths, with Tunisia as a major breeding ground for them. The Tunisia magnet exposes the problem of youth radicalization that fuels the growth of ISIS, arguably more than a hypothetical number of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq post-2011. Foreign fighters make up a large contingent of ISIS (estimated at more than 20,000), whereas funding for the group continues regionally in particular from wealthy donors in Kuwait and Qatar.
But more than outside funding, foreign recruits, or U.S. withdrawal, it’s the internal political paralysis and bad governance in both Iraq and Syria that took under its wings the creation of ISIS. The failure of both former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq (2006-2014) and President Bashar Assad in Syria in addressing major grievances of their respective populations, and their attempt to lead by marginalization and sheer terror in the case of Assad invited all kind of jihadists to their countries.
Partisan blame game
The partisan blame game for the rise of ISIS inside the United States comes almost a year into the air strikes campaign that the Obama administration and allies started against the group. In one year, more than 900 airstrikes have been carried out in Iraq and Syria, but they did not reverse its major gains nor halted its progress. Just last week ISIS took a strategic town near Homs, and its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul are not threatened. ISIS also added the Iraqi city of Ramadi to its column last May.
Regionally the group has also significantly expanded its presence in Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones estimated its numbers between 3000-5000. In Yemen as well, the chaos since the Houthis took over Sanaa in September has attracted ISIS, and even in Gaza where the notorious group is now a challenge to Hamas while remaining very much a threat in Sinai, Egypt.
The big picture encompassing ISIS’ rise today brings to light the limits of U.S. military action to defeat it. From Iraq to Syria to Libya and Yemen, addressing political grievances is more important than access to airbases in marginalizing ISIS. That translates into establishing a national guard force in Iraq that includes the Sunni tribal force of Anbar, pushing for a political solution in Syria that ends Assad’s impunity, and reaching agreements to strengthen the remnants of legitimate institutions in Tripoli & Sanaa.
Blaming the U.S. for the rise of ISIS or waiting for its airstrikes to destroy the group is a fool’s errand, and misunderstands both the strengths and weaknesses of the “Caliphate”. Unless the political, financial and ideological contingents that are behind the surge of ISIS are addressed, the debate over its “pandemic” will be with us for a long time.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
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