Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), to give it its current name, has taken over the city of Mosul in the north. Iraqi forces have retreated in alarm. Thus, without warning, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost a major oil-producing region and the central refinery in Baiji. Maliki quickly called on US President Barack Obama to assist by bombing the positions of the rebels as they advance on Baghdad, but Obama only reiterated his policy principles as he had expressed them during his last speech at the West Point Military Academy, when he promised the new cadets they would never set foot in foreign lands. The Nobel Peace laureate keeps himself occupied with interesting theories, but Al Qaeda is busy fighting and has managed to spread from Syria to Iraq, in the process effectively eliminating the border between the two states.
It is hard to describe Obama’s Middle East failures. A quick glance from south to north reveals how his passive policy has affected the region: Libya and Yemen are each on the brink of civil war, Syria and Iraq are disintegrating, and we have not even mentioned the failure of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Let there be no doubt: America’s unwillingness to provide timely military support for the opposition in Syria created fertile ground for Al Qaeda’s growth on Syrian soil. While Obama was busy conducting futile talks with Putin and Assad, the status of the democratic opposition in Syria was undermined, and its place was taken by ISIS. Maliki and Assad are allies of Iran. Confronting them are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who support Sunni extremists such as Al Qaeda, which fights the Alawite regime in Syria and the Shiite regime in Iraq.
In Iraq, the Americans handed over the keys to the Shiite majority, which set up a regime supported by Iran. The immediate result was the division of Iraq into three regions – Kurdish in the north, Sunni in the west, and Shiite in the south. Maliki ousted the Sunni minority that had controlled the state in Saddam Hussein’s day and thus created the conditions for the growth of Sunni Al Qaeda, which exploited the animosity towards Maliki’s regime. Maliki maintains good relations with the US but also supports Assad. The US provides him with arms and makes billions from the sale of weapons that will certainly fall into the hands of Al Qaeda, yet refuses to arm the Syrian opposition with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles on the pretext that they will fall into Al Qaeda’s hands… How do we explain the contradiction? Simple – Iraq is rich in oil and Maliki pays in petrodollars; in Syria there is no oil and the opposition is poor.
Thus in Iraq Obama supports the regime opposed by the country’s entire Sunni population, while in Syria he refuses to aid those opposing the minority Alawite regime which is slaughtering the Sunni majority. Since Assad and Maliki are allies, the Sunni minority in Iraq and the Sunni majority in Syria unite to overcome both in any way they can, welcoming as allies all those willing to spill their blood in the fight against the two corrupt despots. This should not surprise us: those being slaughtered and expelled from their homes each day are ready to join forces with the devil, and in this case the devil is draped in the flag of Islamic fundamentalism.
From the moment ISIS took over northeastern Syria, bordering Iraq, the civilian rebellion began in the Sunni regions of Iraq. The rebels demanded far-reaching political and economic reforms, including the participation of the Sunni minority in governing the country. Prime Minister Maliki’s answer was unequivocal: he sent the Shiite army from the south to suppress the rebellion.
It is worth pausing a moment over the “wisdom” of Assad and Maliki. Both encouraged Al Qaeda’s seizure of regions of Syria in order to undermine the opposition and nudge Western support in their direction, counting on the West’s desire to contain Islamic fundamentalism. A few months ago, 400 Al Qaeda prisoners “escaped” from an Iraqi jail and made their way to Syria, while the majority of the Syrian Al Qaeda leadership was released from jail by Assad. Assad has not attacked or besieged the areas held by Al Qaeda, but unleashes the full force of his army, recruiting Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, to conquer the moderate opposition represented by the Free Syrian Army. Obama’s inaction in Syria, his support for Maliki in Iraq, and the release of Al Qaeda members to fight the democratic opposition in Syria have all united to create the breach by which Al Qaeda has become a tangible threat to all the states in the region, first and foremost to the Iraqi regime itself.
The US has a double debt to Iraq and Syria. Regarding Iraq, there is little need for words: the Bush Administration’s occupation of Iraq was illegal. The US did not invade Iraq to support the Iraqi people, but to impose regime change through military occupation. The price was the fragmentation of Iraq and the establishment of a Shiite regime that led to civil war. The US cannot claim it bears no responsibility, because what is happening today is a direct result of that bitter and fatal invasion. In Syria, Obama’s obligations are above all humanitarian. Here the people have risen up to demand freedom and democracy, and the regime bombs them, destroys cities, turns half the population into refugees, and murders some 160,000 human beings. The “lesson” Obama learned from the Iraqi adventure was not to intervene, even if the despot is massacring his own people.
Today, as Maliki’s regime teeters and the Iraqi army flees towards Baghdad, the dimensions of the catastrophe are becoming clear. Three years of inaction and procrastination in Syria have led to an unexpected result – Iraq too is disintegrating and shaking up the entire region. Al Qaeda is gaining the support of the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria for a simple reason: it is seen as the only force combating the regime while Obama engages in futile diplomacy: he allows Assad to hold fake elections as he continues to destroy the cities of this country; and he supports Maliki even though he knows that his sectarian Shiite policy has alienated the Sunni population. This policy has reached a dead end, and the US and the world have no choice: they will have to take a clear stand. The Middle East is not Africa, and the world’s sources of oil and gas are seriously threatened.
The way to be rid of Al Qaeda is simple and logical. In Iraq, a democratic regime which enables the participation of all the various ethnic and religious groups must be established; and a foreign policy which will benefit all the population must be adopted. In Syria, the answer is even simpler: Assad’s regime must be removed, and the Syrian people must be granted the right to build a democratic state which includes all the various groups, on the basis of a constitution which ensures the rights of its citizens. Al Qaeda has no economic or political program that can offer an alternative to the despotic regimes. In a democratic state, it has no place and will rapidly lose the support it enjoys today.
Al Qaeda is the mirror image of the current capitalist regime, which has created incredible socioeconomic disparities and poverty, causing entire countries in Africa and the Middle East to collapse. The states which enjoy great wealth and create enormous poverty cannot make do with fighting Al Qaeda with drones. They must grant tangible assistance to rehabilitate the limping economies, to combat corruption, and to support the people in their fight against tyranny. The people are paying a heavy price for Obama’s errors in Syria, and the events in Iraq demand immediate action to help the democratic forces which are struggling against Al Qaeda on one front and the despotic regimes on the other.