The war in Syria is exploding in Iraq. The most dreaded al-Qaeda offshoot group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a.k.a. Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), in a surprise move captured two key cities in Iraq’s largest province, Anbar, last week. The Shiite-dominated Nouri al-Maliki government, which is accused of being on a witch-hunt against the country’s Sunni minority, is fighting hard to take back the two cities – Fallujah and Ramadi -- even as the United States rushes sophisticated weapons such as Hellfire missiles and drones.
In an address to the nation, Maliki on Wednesday vowed to eradicate al-Qaeda/ISIS fighters and predicted victory as his army prepared to launch a major assault on Fallujah. He urged al-Qaeda/ISIS members and supporters to surrender, promising clemency. His appeal came after US Vice President Joe Biden advised him to work with local Sunni tribal leaders – a formula that had worked for the US during its fight against al-Qaeda from 2003 to 2006.
According to reports, the Sunni Iraqis in Anbar are divided with some supporting ISIS and others backing the “Awakening” movement comprising local tribal chiefs. Despite this division, the Sunnis are by and large united in their opposition to the Maliki government which they accuse of favouring the Shiites.
Whether the Maliki government’s battle for Sunni-dominated Ramadi and Fallujah, cities which offered the stiffest resistance to US occupation, will succeed or not, the developing scenario indicates that West Asia is like a circuit with many switches for flashpoints but no trips. The Syrian switch has caused explosions in Lebanon, Turkey and now Iraq. The new clashes in Iraq and the ISIS derring-do have taken the Western powers by surprise and they now see the truth in the warnings that if they militarily intervene to bring about a regime change in Syria as they did in Libya, they would only be triggering a region-wide war.
West Asia is a one big battlefield with too many hidden hands and agendas. In this imbroglio, all world powers and regional powers have stakes which sometimes lead to cooperation between them and at other times to conflicts. But who is cooperating or clashing with whom is what makes West Asia one of the most-intrigue-ridden places on earth. Once the land of peacemakers, West Asia is a violent hell hole today, with many stakeholders pushing their economic, religious, sectarian and power-politics agendas. Being victimised in these selfish power games are millions of innocent civilians. One after another and wave after wave, mass-scale violence visits them. Take for instance, Fallujah. Even before they could settle down after years of violence associated with the US invasion of Iraq, they see they are caught up in yet another war -- this time between al-Qaeda and Iraqi troops. The United Nations rang alarm bells yesterday over a looming humanitarian crisis in the Anbar province. Describing the humanitarian situation in Anbar as critical, the UN said in a statement, “The situation in Fallujah is particularly concerning, as existing stocks of food, water and life-saving medicines begin to run out.”
But the adage ‘violence begets violence’ holds true in West Asia where non-violent resistance has only aided the oppressor, as evident in the policies or pacifism of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Resistance has become a way of life in the region which has been in the grip of colonial and neocolonial forces for the past two centuries.
Thus the people of Fallujah were at the forefront of the resistance movement to free their country when the US was occupying Iraq. The US, by its heavy use of depleted uranium, could only silence them but could not defeat their resolve to resist.
War crimes apart, the US move to win the war in Fallujah at any cost generated public support for hardline Islamists who later regrouped as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. When the US found the going was tough, it bribed Sunni tribal leaders lavishly and got them on board. Al-Zarqawi was killed, but the movement he led lives on. Now led by the elusive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the movement has expanded to cover not only Iraq’s Sunni regions but also whole of Syria.
Al-Baghdadi’s rise in the jihadi circles is phenomenal. One of his many talked-about attacks was the daring jailbreak at Abu Ghraib in July last year. Tens of thousands have been killed in bomb attacks attributed to his group, ISIS. The victims are largely Shiites, Iraq’s majority community which for the first time in Iraq’s modern history, has been put in the seats of power, courtesy the US-introduced democracy.
When the Syrian crisis reached a stalemate, al-Baghdadi sent a small band of foot jihadists to Syria. Their success won them many recruits. Within months, much of northern and eastern Syria came under al-Baghdadi’s ISIS control. The group also controls several cities and towns close to Syria’s border with Turkey. Al-Baghdadi, it is said, leads a 10,000 strong rebel force in Syria alone. Its members include foreign jihadists. However, latest reports say ISIS is losing ground in Syria to rival al-Qaeda groups such as Jabhat-un Nusra, Liwa al-Islam and the Islamic Front.
ISIS’s early success in Syria where the group has set up mini Islamic emirates with women being given a dress code and co-education banned and government supporters and members of the Alawite minority group beheaded in public has prompted the group to re-launch a war against Iraq. Probably its goal is to carve out an Islamic state in Iraq’s Sunni region and set off the balkanization process.
Strangely, in the move to balkanise Iraq, the policies of Saudi Arabia and Israel see a point of convergence. Zionist extremists believes that, by balkanising Arab States, they could weaken the Arabs’ resolve to resist the expansion of Israel or the creation of Eretz Israel -- Greater Israel stretching from the Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates in Iraq. The Saudis, on the other hand, believe that breaking up Iraq into three – a Sunni state, a Kurdish state and a Shiite state – could weaken the Iran-led Shiite power bloc which also includes the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia, like the United States, had been an ardent supporter of Iraq until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Riyadh sent money and weapons to Iraq during Iraq’s nine-year war with Shiite Iran to protect Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime and prevent the spread of Iran’s Islamic revolution. When George Bush Senior defeated Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War in 1991, it was largely Saudi pressure which prevented US troops from marching to Baghdad and toppling his regime, for Riyadh did not want a Shiite regime coming to power in Iraq through a US-imposed democracy process.
Twelve years later, when George Bush Junior decided to invade Iraq, Saudi Arabia resisted the move for the same reason. But for oil-thirsty Bush, Saudi concerns about the possibility of an Iran-friendly Shiite government coming into power in Baghdad were secondary. Since then, the two allies’ Iraq policies have diverged -- with Washington striking working arrangements with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad despite its pro-Iran inclination, while Riyadh has embarked on a path of destabilising Iraq.
Given the policy differences, it is no surprise that Washington supports the Maliki government’s fight against the jihadists, while Riyadh supports those groups whom US Secretary of State John Kerry last week described as “the most dangerous players in the region”.
Some West Asian analysts and US intelligence believe that ISIS gets its arms and money from Saudi sources. Many Iraqis and Syrians join jihadi groups not for the cause they believe in but for the salaries they are paid. The richer the jihadi group, the bigger the army of rebels it commands. Foreign money plays a big role.
In leaked diplomatic cables, going back to 2009, Christopher Hills, the then US ambassador to Iraq, claimed that Saudi Arabia was financing and arming al-Qaeda extremists in Iraq and inciting sectarian violence. “Intelligence sources reported that Saudi Arabia is based in the effort to destabilize the [Iraqi] government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,” his cable read.
According to WikiLeaks, the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in 2010, sent a note to US embassies stating “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support for Al Qaeda, the Taliban, al Nusra and other terrorist groups … worldwide.”
It is alleged that some of the weapons the Saudis buy from the United States are diverted to jihadists, probably including ISIS. Thus some analysts quip that Washington is arming both sides in the latest Iraqi clash in the Anbar province. Irrespective of who is supporting whom in the wars in Iraq and Syria, the US weapons industry makes huge profits.
However, the US which sees ISIS as the most dangerous player in the region does not see it as evil when it fights Assad’s forces in Syria. Some analysts say Washington is shuffling the board now and wants to isolate ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. They say it deliberately paints ISIS black so that it can whitewash the other al-Qaeda groups that fight ISIS in Syria. This will help Washington to project these groups as lesser evils -- or good terrorists -- and arm and fund them, in spite of their al-Qaeda credentials. So much for big powers’ principled politics!