The scourge of ISIS: Where is collective responsibility?

The appalling terrorism linked to ISIS is mostly Arab and Muslim in origin and that this is principally our scourge...

Raghida Dergham

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It will be said that this is not the time to talk about the root causes of the spread of ISIS inside Europe or for fixing responsibility, especially if international powers and policies, including the US, Europe, and Russia, are partially to be blamed for it. In the beginning, it must be said out aloud, and with shame, that the appalling terrorism linked to ISIS is mostly Arab and Muslim in origin and that this is principally our scourge.

However, pretending that powers in the West and the East have nothing to do with it is evasive. It not only makes the Middle East a more dangerous place but also Europe, the US, and Russia too. In order to have a real chance to eliminate this scourge, it is healthy and relevant to admit to certain facts that have contributed to the rise of fundamentalist terrorism to pre-empt threats from hotspots created by policies, interventions as well as neglect.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, should remember what his predecessor once said: “If you break it, you own it”. Successive US policies in more than one part of the world have long avoided owning what they break, avoiding both responsibility and cost. Then the terror attacks of 9/11 struck and the world changed. President George W. Bush decided to hand out lessons in revenge and took this to a new level, pursuing his signature doctrine of pre-emptive strikes.

The President Barack Obama doctrine, meanwhile, denies the US role a in destruction overseas during his term and it has had its repercussions. The various European leaders played a key role in tearing countries apart, like Britain did in Iraq alongside the US under Bush, and France did in Libya before dodging its responsibility for state and institution-building there after helping topple its regime.

The case of manufacturing fundamentalism comes from Afghanistan, where a US-Saudi-Pakistani political and intelligence partnership sought to defeat communism and the Soviet Union. As a result, the CIA reportedly oversaw the mobilization of thousands of Muslim volunteers from around the world, especially North Africa. The Soviet Union collapsed following the Afghan war, as the rise of Sunni fundamentalism coincided with the rise of Shiite fundamentalism with the Mullahs in Iran taking power in the 1979 revolution that brought back Ayatollah Khomeini to Tehran.

In Afghanistan, the extremists thought they were permanent partners of the US, but soon turned enemies when Washington abandoned them. They thought they would be going to Bosnia with US blessing, but they were banished from there. Now an army without a war, they turned to a systematic campaign of terror aimed especially at the US; in Afghanistan, the US refused to own what it broke, until al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks came and forced it to.

Dismantling of Iraq

Bush’s war in Iraq was planned in advance, and the events of 9/11 helped activate it. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were supposedly intent to dismantle Iraq, and 9/11 gave them several pretext, from the need to spread democracy to supporting the defense industry. This was before other justifications were summoned. US president then said the goal of the Iraq war was to invite terrorists there to be fought away from American cities and streets.

George W. Bush accomplished what he set out to do. Fundamentalists and terrorists flocked to Iraq to fight and defeat the US there, in their view, fulfilling the predictions of Bush’s pre-emptive wars. Bush carried out his promise and kept terrorism away from US cities. But there in Iraq, “you break it you own it” was again neglected. George W. Bush summoned terrorists to Iraq and dismantled the Iraqi army, radically contributing to the rise of ISIS that is terrorizing Europe today.

President Obama decided to avoid involvement in others’ wars directly and dissociated the US from the Syrian war. This policy allowed Russia to paralyze any measures in the Security Council to stop the regime in Damascus from turning a civil war to a war on terror. The regime thus systematically sought to allow terrorist groups to grow and thrive in Syria.

If ISIS and similar groups strike in US cities, Obama’s historic legacy and doctrine of denial will receive a fatal blow, and Donald Trump could well become its next president

Raghida Dergham

Eventually, ISIS grew in Syria in the shadow of Russian obstructionism, US absenteeism, arbitrary support for rebels, Turkish miscalculations, a destructive partnership between Iraq’s former PM Nouri al-Maliki and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and direct and proxy intervention by Iran in the Syrian war.

Libya, meanwhile, is a European mess more than it is an American mess. France in particular is to be held responsible, thanks to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who sought to involve NATO in a military intervention there. The guise was to stop Muammar Gaddafi from staging a bloodbath in Benghazi as he vowed amid the muddled march of the Arab Spring. But what happened in the end was the fulfilment of oil-related agendas, foiling the Libyan experience. Libya is NATO’s “you break it, you own it”, and Europe could now reap what it sowed in Libya.

Terror in Brussels

The horrific terror that struck in Brussels recently must set off all alarm bells in Europe, and draw attention to the misguided policies Europe has pursued in Libya and Syria. It is time to rectify these mistake; Europe and the US must stop pretending to have the high moral ground while turning a blind eye to the tragedies of innocent people in Syria and Libya.

Among the first few places where Western policies should be rectified in North Africa should be Tunisia, whose democracy must be protected, and Libya, which must be rescued from becoming a spawning ground for terrorism.

Syria, meanwhile, is an international responsibility. If recent Russian policies meant to support political efforts and pressure Damascus continue, there could be some positive developments on the horizon. But if Russia’s policies are just a manoeuvre – as Moscow and its ally Tehran seek to gain the upper hand on the battlefield in support of the Assad regime – Syria will become Russia’s version of “you break it, you own it”, bringing harm to the Russian homeland just like it is doing in European cities now.

If ISIS and similar groups strike in US cities, Obama’s historic legacy and doctrine of denial will receive a fatal blow, and Donald Trump could well become its next president.

The Arab responsibility is on par with others’. The ISIS scourge will haunt generations to come, not only because the Arabs will pay the price for the terrorism being exported from their cities to Europe, the US, Russia, and elsewhere, but also because these terrorists equally target Arab aspirations to join modernity. Allowing ISIS and similar groups to grow further also entails “owning” what ISIS is “breaking”.

Perhaps the madness called ISIS will become – as it should become – an impetus for an international consensus for a serious and practical tackling of the roots of this scourge. This begins with acknowledging all parties’ roles in creating it and not ending with the policies needed to eliminate it completely.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Mar. 25, 2016 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

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