Between Iraq and a hard place

By : Mahir Ali

As Iraq hovers on the brink of a sectarian civil war, raising the prospect of the bloodiest partition since India was divided in 1947, the serially delusional former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has deemed it opportune to leap into the fray with the incredible thesis that the US-led invasion of Iraq 11 years ago had nothing to do with the events unfolding today.

In his blinkered view, the unprovoked aggression that unleashed unprecedented chaos in Iraq was a noble venture that ought to have been repeated in Syria. Sure, the occupation authorities faltered every now and then, but the primary fault lay in exiting too soon — and that can be remedied by intervening militarily once more.

Luckily, his lunacy does not seem to be particularly infectious. At least some lessons have been learned. His key allies in the monumental misadventure — the Bushes, Rumsfelds and Wolfowitzes — have thus far opted for discretion. So has Colin Powell, who in his infamous 2003 United Nations presentation repeatedly cited the presence of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi on Iraqi soil as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s collusion with Al-Qaeda.

The Jordanian militant Zarqawi, a veteran of the US-sponsored anti-communist jihad in Afghanistan, no doubt posed a danger. But his training camp was on Kurdish territory protected by western no-fly zones. He moved in when the invasion offered an opening, wreaking havoc on a scale paralleled only by the western occupiers.
Following his demise in a US military strike in 2006 — coinciding with the advent of Nuri Al-Maliki as the preferred puppet in Baghdad — there were repeated claims that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was a busted flush.

Yet it morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and eventually, under the aegis of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — a veteran not of the Afghan jihad, but of a four-year stint in the American-operated Camp Bucca prison — into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The brutality of ISIL is believed to be responsible for its expulsion from Al-Qaeda, which apparently prefers the offshoot known as Jabhat Al-Nusra.

Not long ago, Ayman Al-Zawahiri is said to have ordered ISIL out of Syria, where it reportedly holds territory taken over mainly from fellow opponents of the Assad regime. ISIL hasn’t exactly complied — reports suggest much of the hardware left behind last week by the 30,000 Iraqi troops who abandoned Mosul when threatened by ISIL forces numbered in the hundreds has found its way into Syria.

In suggesting that western intervention in Syria would have thwarted the aims of ISIL, Blair ignores the likelihood that attacking the Assad regime would have produced exactly the opposite effect. He cites NATO’s role in Libya as a viable template, ignoring the still unfolding post-Qaddafi melee in that country. And he suggests that if the US-UK alliance hadn’t overthrown Saddam Hussein, Iraq would have gone much the same way anyhow in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring — insidiously ignoring the part played by the conquest of Iraq in unleashing that initially hopeful phenomenon.

It is not terribly surprising that ISIL views its role in obscuring the Iraq-Syria border as a crucial blow against the political contours delineated by the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement nearly a century ago. This reminder of the mess left behind by European colonial powers nevertheless allows no room for complacency about the caliphate-resurrecting aims of Baghdadi’s forces, especially when a prototype already seems to be in place.

The prospect, meanwhile, of a loose US-Iranian military alliance — held out on the American side even by some of the hawks who were not long ago salivating at the idea of bombing Tehran — has been underplayed after initially being raised on both sides, exciting much commentary — and, presumably, palpitations in Tel Aviv.

Iran is reported to have contributed both Revolutionary Guards and advisers to Baghdad, while the US has positioned an aircraft carrier named after George H.W. Bush in Gulf, with Barack Obama saying all options are on the table, barring a redeployment of ground troops — but also cautioning Al-Maliki to build bridges to the Sunnis he has alienated over the years. It may be too late for that, amid evidence of Sunni tribals and unreconstructed Baathists allying with ISIL.

There is considerable skepticism about the game-changing potential of US airstrikes. On the other hand, Shiite militias have been bolstered by volunteers following a call to arms from Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, while the Kurdish peshmerga have taken control of Kirkuk. The three-way division of Iraq predicted by some a decade ago may well be on the verge of becoming reality. The potential cost in blood, though, is too awful to contemplate.

And one can hardly overlook the exemplary effect of ISIL-led forays on comparable movements elsewhere in the Muslim world, most notably the Taleban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The former have lately come under attack by the Pakistan Army, with a civilian exodus reported from North Waziristan, but the military action may well be too late to diminish a threat that manifested itself earlier this month in the audacious attack on Pakistan’s busiest airport.

Pakistan is familiar, of course, with the kind of fratricide being perpetrated in Iraq — albeit not on that scale, especially if claims of 1,700 executions by ISIL turn out to be credible. But there’s a much broader danger to be feared if the ISIL turns out to be more than an aberration.



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