Middle East Analyst Kyle W. Orton was recently appointed as an Associate Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. The HJS is a British based think tank that aims to “fight for the principles and alliances which keep societies free–working across borders and party lines to combat extremism, advance democracy and real human rights, and make a stand in an increasingly uncertain world”. The HJS has its critics, but their statement suggests a post-ideological approach. Christopher Hitchens (drinks be upon him) claimed to have gone through such a transformation in his support for the 2003 Iraq War. Hitchens was accused by many of flip flopping, from extreme leftist to neo-con hawk, most inarticulately by George Galloway–who incidentally has a shameful record of praise for the [Assad] Regime–in their infamous 2005 debate. Hitchens’ rebuttal speaks to the post-ideological point “yes it’s true I was an opponent of the last Gulf war …I don’t know why anyone thinks that is a point against me…I wouldn’t have been invited here if it wasn’t known that I was probably mistaken…I began a process of re-examination of which I can’t really say, or be expected to say, I am ashamed”. Rather than viewing everything through ideological lenses and espousing mass produced positions labelled: left or right, it’s best to develop the ability to (re)examine, and adapt to, information objectively, it gives one a far more comprehensive and illuminating account of the challenges facing civilization. It is in this post-ideological spirit Orton’s appointment with HJS–someone whose resume also includes contributor to Left Foot Forward “Britain’s No.1 left wing blog”–should be viewed by its critics.
Orton’s first paper for the HJS: Destroying Islamic State, Defeating Assad: A Strategy for Syria, is a fantastic read. I won’t replicate Orton’s strategies. I will simply comment on what I feel about the contents of the paper. Firstly the nuances and increasing complexity of the Syrian civil war, and IS’ growth and exportation of jihad to its neighbors and Western societies, as evidenced by the attacks in Paris in November, and in San Bernardino California this week, makes a strategy for Syria quite urgent. Orton writes with clarity and conciseness in his paper and demonstrates just how difficult a project that is, and for me, it shows just how inept the West has been with its foreign policy, particularly the Obama administration, and how cunning Syria, Iran, Russia, IS and others have been in setting the stage for this conflict and responding to Western ineptitude. From the foolhardy concentration on IS in Iraq instead of Syria, arguably IS’ most valuable territory, to the failure to support the removal of Bashar al-Assad–before rebel groups became largely displaced and/or infected by Islamist groups–helping IS’ propaganda ring true in the ears of Sunni Muslims. Orton makes clear whatever the plan for IS, the regime must end because that end will aid the ideological fight against IS’ propaganda. The complications in ending, both the regime and IS, are plentiful. Some are touched on in Orton’s paper, others I will mention here.
Orton does a great job describing the scandalous–and to my mind largely unknown–mutually beneficial relationship, between the regime and IS. Orton describes how the regime sabotaged Iraq, prior to and during the uprising in Syria, by “funnelling foreign Salafi-jihadists into Iraq to join IS’ predecessors, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq in their fight against American and British troops and the elected Iraqi government” and “released violent Salafist prisoners early in the uprising”. These facts, no one ever cares to mention, when the blame for IS’ growth and invasion of Iraq are being thrown at the feet of the United Sates (US). He also points out that, it’s not the case that the US surge had no successes, but by December 2013, there was a recommencement of the Iraqi civil war, and ISI–not yet ISIS/IS–had set about undoing much of those successes, undoubtedly aided by the regimes aforementioned sabotage, which enabled IS’ “de facto control of large areas of Iraq” prior to the capture of Mosul in 2014, which of course, led to the declaration of the caliphate, headed by IS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This scandalous relationship also plays a role in IS’ revenue collection, and in the functionality of the area’s they rule over. It is well known that oil is a major source of the group’s income, but perhaps less known, is the trade of “crude for imported refined fuel and natural gas for utilities supplied by the [Assad] regime”. Another not so widely known source of IS’ revenue is the “mafia-style” taxation of the population in Raqqa city and other territories in which IS has gained a foothold. This makes halting their expansion an absolute must.
Orton suggests “rolling back IS’ physical control of territory would deprive it of its main income—from taxes and oil—and would also assault its ideological legitimacy. IS’ famous slogan is “remaining and expanding”; if that can be disproven by events, it would severely dampen IS’ appeal to foreign fighters and embolden those living under its rule, thus weakening IS”. The strength of the Caliphate is indeed central to IS’ propaganda, and when you get down to it, the West is in a no win situation here. As McCants pointed out in November, IS’ foray into global jihad is a show of strength, and attempt to distract from its weaknesses. Therefore, we know, unequivocally, that the more territory IS loses as a result of Western airstrikes, ground troops or arming of Sunni tribes and/or Kurdish forces, the more terror attacks the West will suffer. On the other hand, if the West allows IS to expand, continue to extort funds from the populations they subjugate, and collect revenue from the spoils of war, the more powerful and attractive they will become to Islamists worldwide. Perhaps, even incorporating other Islamist and Jihadists groups’ overtime. Because, in their mind, the end game is a showdown between Christianity and Islam, this will see the West dragged into a war one way or the other. If IS hadn’t of started their Western jihad in Paris, I believe they would have done so eventually, once strong enough to provoke their grand finale. In saying that, IS is unlikely to get there, considering the other players involved here, like Iran and Russia, who once they’ve used IS for their agenda will seek to deal with them. Nor do I think, if the West withdrew from the conflict today, terrorism perpetuated by those loyal to IS would drop to zero, but in any case, surely it is better to defeat the enemy as it is, as opposed to what it could become?
There is another thing to consider in this however. If we’re to accept that civilians in the West will be targeted for jihad, more so if we increase our activity against IS, then we must do what we can to minimize the risk and harm of such attacks. Are we willing to increase surveillance efforts to detect home-grown jihadists, which is extremely difficult as this week’s attack in California again proves? And what about the refugee crisis? Orton writes that IS wants to construct a “utopia as a prelude to the apocalypse”. This is why they’re not solely trying to persuade Islamists to wage armed jihad, but also calling for “doctors and engineers, to make hijra (emigration) to the Islamic State to help in its functioning”, and it is “IS’ belief that it has created utopia for Muslims that makes it so opposed to refugees leaving: it is very damaging for their brand”. If correct this puts the West in a precarious position on the refugee question. Increased activity in Syria will displace more people, that will seek to flee to Europe. IS wouldn’t be worthy of their brand if they didn’t capitalize by sending war-hardened jihadists through those channels, to connect with their European sympathizers, and orchestrate terror attacks like we saw in Paris this November. Anyone who thinks this is ridiculous or racist is guilty of donning those ideological lenses referred to earlier. If attacks lead Europe to close its borders, and the Gulf States continue to shun refugees, they have little option but to remain, which may bolster IS’ claims of a “utopia for Muslims”, attracting more foreign fighters. No matter what any government or party thinks at this point, Western civilians will not escape this foreign conflict, without blood being spilled on their streets.
Of course the sectarian nature of this conflict can’t be ignored, any more than the religious underpinnings that enable Islamist groups like IS in the first place. As Orton points out the ruling family in Syria are Alawi, a branch of Shi’a Islam, whilst the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims. In most places where Islam holds sway, the Shi’a and Sunni divide causes problems, and it has done since time-immemorial. True to form the regime sought to utilize religious tensions and committed atrocities against Sunni Muslims in Syria to intensify sectarian tension, thereby taking attention off the desire of its own expulsion. Also Iran has taken control of the conflict on behalf of Syria, and on behalf of its own interests, and imported Shi’a jihadists–approximately 20,000 at last estimate–which plays into IS’ narrative, which claims among other things, that IS is the “protector of the Sunni’s”. Moreover, US foreign policy has never really focused on the ousting of the regime–not least because of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which he thinks will be his defining moment–and the money Iran stands to acquire through their dealings with the US, can be used to support the regime, who as mentioned, have been squeezing Syria’s Sunni majority. Ipso facto the US is perceived to be aligned with Iran and Syria–Shi’a Islam–in a war against Sunni Muslims, whose only defender is IS. The propaganda almost writes itself doesn’t it? This refusal of the Obama administration to support Sunni tribes against the regime means they will not be our ally against IS, and may end up joining them. I think these foreign policy blunders will be Obama’s legacy, not the nuclear deal with Iran.
Perhaps the most unnerving part of Orton’s paper is on the Kurds who are held up by many, including Maajid Nawaz, as the side to back against IS. I have not yet heard anyone that supports the Kurds today, give a moment’s consideration to the issues raised in this paper. Even Kurdish champion Hitchens, said in reference to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) “Many of us who are ardent supporters of Kurdish rights and aspirations have the gravest reservations about the PKK…This is a Stalinist cult organization”. It is this group Orton argues, that has too much presence and influence in Kurdish forces fighting IS writing “the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the militant Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (designated as a terrorist organization by the United States) which has historical ties to the Syrian regime”. Moreover, Orton suggests the Kurds cannot be relied on to help in any plan to remove the regime writing “the PYD’s focus is on building a proto-state in the Kurdish-majority areas of north-eastern Syria, not forcibly removing the government in Damascus”. And of course, a Kurdish state project also feeds IS’ narrative, that they’re the protectors of Sunni Muslims. As Orton points out the vast majority of Sunni Muslims would oppose Kurdish expansion and rule over them in those areas, citing Amnesty International’s documentation of war crimes committed by the PYD, “ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkomen, and even some Kurds” and “the PYD threatening to call in US airstrikes against people who would not leave” for example. If backing of Kurdish forces in Syria doesn’t fuel the US/West backed conspiracy against Sunni Muslims I’d be surprised. This is a problem for those that would hold the Kurds up as warriors of justice in this conflict.
Another wholly depressing fact about the regimes opposition; is that so many groups are in bed with Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nursa. Even the ones described as moderates are usually described as “moderate Islamists”. Even if, as Orton hopes, the West can “peel some of these groups away from Nursa”, if any of those groups came to power after the fall of the regime, Syria would still not be a country that many of us would care to live in. So anyone thinking we can solve this conflict and the result will be a democratic, free, and equal society is going to be hugely disappointed, as we all were after the so-called Arab spring in Egypt. Even if such a benevolent group–there are none that I can see–came to power, its neighbors would quickly drag it into their conflicts and destabilize the country once more. Because no matter ones strategy for Syria or for IS, there is no strategy for the region, and as yet no strategy to combat the Islamist ideology, a conversation we are starting to have, but is still in its infancy due to centuries of shielding religion from criticism, and today’s Islamists and regressive leftists attempting to silence that conversation, in so doing, providing cover for the ideas that lend credence to Islamist/jihadist groups like IS. For me, realistically no matter what course we take, action, inaction; we will be indicted for our mishaps and our victories will not be celebrated.