ISIS and the Middle East: An Interview with James CorbettDevon Douglas-Bowers I Geopolitics I Interview I October 24th, 2014
The following is the transcript of a recent email interview I did with independent journalist James Corbett of The Corbett Report. We discuss the origins of ISIS, the current situation in the Middle East regarding Syria, the possibility of Turkish intervention, and what the West's endgame is.
What are the origins of ISIS? They seem to have popped up from nowhere?
ISIS can trace its roots back to a group that was founded as "Jamā-at al-Taw-īd wa-al-Jihād" ("The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad") in Jordan in 1999 by a Sunni militant named Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Originally founded with the intention of overthrowing the Kingdom of Jordan and replacing it with a religious government, the group was transplanted to Iraq in the wake of the US invasion in 2003. In 2004 Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Bin Laden and the group became "Al Qaeda in Iraq" (Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn or "AQI").
Since that time, the group has undergone so many name changes that one would be forgiven for losing track of its connection to the current "Islamic State," including: al-Qa'ida Group of Jihad in Iraq; al-Qa'ida Group of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers; al-Qa'ida in Mesopotamia; al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers; al-Qa'ida of Jihad in Iraq; al-Qa'ida of Jihad Organization in the Land of The Two Rivers; al-Qa'ida of the Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers; al-Tawhid; Jam'at al-Tawhid Wa'al-Jihad; Tanzeem Qa'idat al Jihad/Bilad al Raafidaini; Tanzim Qa'idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn; The Monotheism and Jihad Group; The Organization Base of Jihad/Country of the Two Rivers; The Organization Base of Jihad/Mesopotamia; The Organization of al-Jihad's Base in Iraq; The Organization of al-Jihad's Base in the Land of the Two Rivers; The Organization of al-Jihad's Base of Operations in Iraq; The Organization of al-Jihad's Base of Operations in the Land of the Two Rivers; The Organization of Jihad's Base in the Country of the Two Rivers; al-Zarqawi Network.
Reporting on the group has always been unreliable at best, with both Zarqawi and his successor (Abu Omar al-Baghdadi) having been reported as dead and/or captured on multiple occasions. Amazingly, a Washington Post report in 2006 published leaked documents revealing that the Pentagon was engaged in an admitted PSYOP campaign to make Zarqawi and AQI seem more important to the Iraqi insurgency than they really were. Even more amazingly, a 2007 Reuters report confirmed that the US military believed that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was in fact a fictional character. The group is currently led by "Caliph Ibrahim," about whose history and background almost nothing whatsoever is known.
The issue of where the group has gotten its support in recent years is not even controversial. Aside from all of the weapons, aid, money and other assistance they have taken from other Syrian "opposition" groups (supplied, of course, by the Gulf states, the US and Turkey, primarily), but they have also received and are still receiving direct support and cooperation from various foreign governments. It has also been revealed that some of ISIS' fighters were trained at a secret military base in Jordan that was being used by the CIA and affiliated groups from various countries as a base for training the Syrian "opposition." The latest story about the foreign funding of ISIS comes from a recent report that NGOs and humanitarian groups, including USAID and its associated allied agencies, are paying bribes to ISIS in return for entrance into Islamic State territories, and that ISIS members are even on the payroll of some of these organizations.
What do you think the purpose of attacks on ISIS is? I have two theories on the issue. 1) The US wants ISIS contained to Syria as to make hell for Assad or 2) The US actively wanted ISIS to go into Iraq as to provide an excuse for renewed US involvement.
The purpose of the attacks on ISIS is manifold. The US has been eager to have an excuse for becoming more militarily involved in Syria since the foreign insurgency began destabilizing the country in 2011. Last year's false flag chemical weapons attack in Ghouta failed to unite the American (or British) public around air strikes, but ISIS seems to be the convenient excuse.
At least part of the motivation for these attacks seems to be the disruption of the so-called "Islamic Pipeline" seeking to feed Iran's South Pars gas reserves to Europe's energy-hungry markets via Iraq and Syria. The memorandum of understanding for the deal was signed in July 2011, precisely as the wave of foreign-funded "protests" in Syria began to boil over into all-out war. The pipeline would have cut out Turkey and other NATO members completely as middle-men for supplying Gulf gas to Europe.
The Gulf states have been heavily involved in supplying, funding and training the Syrian insurgency since its inception as well, motivated by traditional Sunni/Shia rivalries as well as more nuanced geopolitical motives. Syria has been a key ally of Iran without whom Tehran's ability to wield regional power is greatly diminished. The Saudis and even the Qataris see a potential to step into the power vacuum created by a destabilization of Iran/Iraq/Syria, and thus are happy to help with the current air strike campaign.
Israel, meanwhile, is dedicated to a strategy first formally proposed as the "Oded Yinon plan" in 1982 that called for, amongst other things, splitting Iraq and Syria up along sectarian lines: "Lebanon's total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precendent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track." This strategy is furthered by exacerbating the conflict and further inflaming tensions, an inevitable result of the current round of air strikes.
What are the larger regional effects that ISIS has had?
The fundamental effect that ISIS has had on the region is to further inflame Sunni/Shia tensions, further radicalize and polarize religious elements in the region, undermine attempts at secular/inclusive governance (both in Syria and Iraq), and to destabilize a key section of the so-called "Shia crescent." It is interesting to note that the area claimed by the Islamic State overlaps completely with a significant portion of that Shia crescent, which was the primary motivation for a lot of the private monetary support that ISIS (and other jihadis in Syria) have received from the Gulf states via Kuwait.
The Kurds of the region have also been deeply effected by both ISIS and the response to it, with the majority of the fighting taking place in Kurdish areas. This could play into Turkey's hands and explain its enthusiasm for supporting ISIS (i.e. hoping that ISIS will wipe out the Kurds and thus take a political problem off of Ankara's hands), but could backfire if the response to the threat brings these geographically and politically distinct Kurdish groups like the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) and the Iraqi Kurds together. Recent developments in Kobane reveal that this may in fact be starting to happen, which in the long run may give hope to the Kurdish nationalist movement.
There have been reports that Iran and Syria are somewhat working with the US to eliminate ISIS. What do you make of these?
It should be no surprise that Iran and Syria, recognizing the ISIS threat as a dagger pointed at their own hearts, are looking to cooperate in any way with the military response to that group. It is surprising that these groups would be willing to talk to or even support a US-backed military coalition in Syria and Iraq, but only if we consider this situation apart from the current crisis. The cooperation that is taking place at the moment is obviously only an alliance of convenience, and presumably as soon as the US starts living up to its threats to bomb both ISIS and Syrian government forces the cooperation with Assad will be over.
Increasingly, Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has been making mentions of a Turkish intervention in Syria. Do you think one will occur and if so, will it grow to a much larger intervention by the West?
Thanks to leaked recordings that emerged earlier this year, we know that high-ranking Turkish government and military figures have been conspiring for years on plans to stage false flag events in order to justify a Turkish incursion into Syria. There are Turkish targets in Syria that could plausibly incite a military response from Ankara if attacked, and the recordings show that powerful people in the Turkish government are not above staging an attack on these targets themselves in order to provoke that response.
We also know that the Turkish border is becoming porous in those areas under bombardment. Turkey has just agreed to allow the Iraqi Kurds to cross into Kobane to help participate in the defense against ISIS that is currently being staged there. It is unclear what Turkey may receive in return for this action, but the idea that Turkey would watch as a town on its border fell to ISIS is unlikely at best.
The danger of Turkish involvement in the situation is that any attack on Turkish forces can be interpreted, via the articles of the Washington Treaty, as an attack on a NATO member requiring a NATO response under the terms of the "self-defense clause." This could greatly raise the stakes and be the type of event that could turn this from a bombing and supply campaign into a full, boots-on-the-ground military endeavour.
What are some of the economic effects that this whole ISIS attack has had?
The rise of ISIS and the other jihadi groups in Syria over the past few years have obviously decimated that countries' economy. The fighting in Syria has decimated the infrastructure in large parts of the country and set it back be decades. It has also, as discussed above, frustrated the countries' efforts to use its northern territories as a gateway for Gulf gas to Europe, an idea that would have greatly enlarged Syria's economy.
In Iraq, similarly, the fighting that is now taking place has largely undermined the already-fragile government in Baghdad and sent the northern areas of the country into turmoil. It has also specifically undermined recent efforts by the Iraqi Kurds to carve out their own economy independent of Baghdad. In recent months the Iraqi Kurds have begun selling oil via their own independent oil pipeline network that connects with Turkey, but that has been disrupted by the fact that several key oil fields and pumping stations have been taken over by ISIS fighters.
Although events in Iraq and Syria have certainly grabbed the attention of the US military, it might not be accurate to look at the Pentagon's reach as a zero sum game. Just because more resources are being pumped into the fight against (and covert support of) ISIS does not mean that resources are being taken out of the Asia-Pacific region. Happily for the American military-industrial complex, Washington has never backed away from increasing military and operational budgets as new threats arise, rather than reducing or pulling back operations in other theaters in order to "maintain a budget." Also happily for the US military, the Asia-Pacific pivot relies largely on naval power, which is less involved in the current campaign against ISIS.
Also, it should be noted that there has been a campaign in recent months to suggest ISIS is setting up branches or franchises in the Southeast Asia region. This threat of increased Islamic militant activity in that region could always be seized upon by the US to re-balance their attention on the Asia-Pacific region when and if it becomes convenient to do so.
Talk about the myth of 'moderate' rebels.
The idea that there is a magic dividing line between the so-called "moderate" rebels in Syria and the more extreme groups like Al-Nusra or ISIS has always been a myth. It is a convenient myth for the US and its partners in the invasion of Syria to sell that invasion to the public, but after years of failed coalitions, partnerships and alliances claiming to speak for the Syrian opposition, and after years of opposition aid ending up in the hands of the most extreme groups, even large sections of the public are now aware that the idea that "moderate" rebels are differentiable from their extremist counterparts is nothing but fantasy.
Do you think that the Assad government will fall and if so, what will happen?
It is rather remarkable that the Assad government has lasted this long, a testament to his enduring popularity with vast swathes of the Syrian public (despite what we are being told in the Western media) and the continuing strength of the Syrian military (despite the "waves of defections" that we were being told was going to topple Syria from within). All things being equal, there is no doubt that Assad could (and indeed almost did) defeat the "opposition" forces entirely. All things are obviously not equal, however, and given the very fluid nature of the current situation it is entirely plausible that the current air bombardment campaign will morph into attacks on Syrian government forces.
This is still a dangerous political situation, however. Even though the US and its allies certainly could take on the Syrian military (although not without significant losses due to the countries' significant anti-air defense capabilities), such a direct conflict still brings with it the specter of Russian military involvement in defense of its ally. It would also further incite and inflame tensions with Iran. In short, there is almost no question that a forceful toppling of Assad by outside military intervention would threaten to ignite a much wider regional or even global conflict.
The alternative--the idea that ISIS or other "opposition" groups could finally succeed in overthrowing the Syrian government--brings with it its own problems. The destabilization of another secular government in the region and replacement by some form of Islamic theocratic government would further divide the region and further inflame religious sectarian strife. It would have knock-on effects in Iraq, struggling with its own deeply divided Sunni and Shia population, and threaten Iran, with whom Syria is a key regional partner.
What do you think is the end game with all of this?
The end game, as described in point (2) above, is different for the different players at the table. But it is important to note that for some of the players (notably the US, Israel, and the NATO allies), the idea of a deeply divided region, with neighbours pitted against neighbours and no clear regional power able to rise above the sectarian fray, plays directly into long-held plans to exert greater power over the region through divide-and-conquer tactics. For those players, simply keeping the chaos in the region going may be the end game, and sadly that is a remarkably easy thing to do, especially when they are funding, arming, supplying and training both sides of the conflict.