Washington's three mistakes and the rise of ISIL

By Jin Liangxiang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, June 18, 2014
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The last week witnessed an abrupt turn in Iraq's security situation. The forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) took over Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and marched toward Baghdad. The challenges and risks are not only for Iraq, but also the whole region, and the world at large. And the United States should invest more efforts and resources in combating ISIL both for the mistakes it made and its responsibilities as a world leader.


• Iraq – failure of US policy

• ISIL: The new face of militancy

The recent triumph of ISIL in Iraq with its black flag astonished the world. The ISIL phenomenon is actually nothing new. The branch of Al Qaeda in Yemen also declared an Islamic state in southern Yemen shortly after 9/11. And just like what happened in Yemen, ISIL, currently led by an Iraqi veteran named as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is also ideologically based on a violent interpretation of Islam. It is a part of, or at least linked with Al Qaeda.

According to people fleeing ISIL controlled areas, ISIL fighters would go into pre-schools to segregate the boys from the girls, and check whether the girls were wearing a black chador from head to toe. They banned smoking, music and any mingling between men and women unless they were familiar members or relatives. They forced Christians to pay protection taxes, tortured those captured, and beheaded men in public squares.

The rise of ISIL triggered another round of discussions on U.S. policy in Iraq. For instance, Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post on June 12 that George W. Bush's administration should be partly responsible for losing Iraq. He argued that it is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's failure to adopt an inclusive policy in a sectarian society that strengthened the position of ISIL, but Maliki was chosen by George W. Bush.

It is true that the U.S. policy does have something to do with the current security and political situations in Iraq. But Fareed Zakaria has missed the point. In fact, in the last eleven years since 2003, the United States has made at least three mistakes, and each of these has contributed to the rise of ISIL.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq with the obvious purpose of regime change but under the pretext of removing Saddam Hussein's WMD program. The war might have removed a dictator, but also destroyed Iraq's vulnerable security and political order. It is the chaos as a result of the dismissal of Iraq's Baathist party and security apparatus that has provided a fertile soil for the budding of extremism. Therefore, Al Qaeda could find its step in Iraq.

The U.S. policy toward the political crisis in Syria provided another opportunity for the growth of ISIL. Washington has been encouraging Syria's opposition forces out of geopolitical reasons since shortly after the breakout of anti-government movements, though Barack Obama's administration was reluctant about another military intervention. Washington's dissatisfaction with Bashar Assad is mainly because of its alliance with Tehran.

Despite being cautious, Washington's political and financial support and military assistance also served to enhance the recalcitrance of the opposition, which greatly increased Syria's security and political tensions. And the military competition between the government and the opposition provided for conditions for the growth and development of ISIL.

It is by joining in Syria's civil war in the name of fighting against Bashar Assad that ISIL has been able to rally and collect global Islamic extremists, though the priority of ISIL is to set up an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East and on the doorstep of Europe, rather than fight the Assad supporters, according to Reuters. While hard information is scarce, one expert estimates that al Qaeda used to have 25,000 fighters in Syria. Foreigners number 10,000, of which 2,000 are from Europe.

Washington's third mistake was its failure to provide sufficient military assistance to Maliki's government. In early November 2013, Maliki visited the United States, his main purpose being to seek military assistance from the United States. Shortly before the visit, Maliki published an article in the Washington Post on October 29, 2013 clearly stating that Iraqis "urgently want to equip our own forces with the weapons they need to fight terrorism, including helicopters and other military aircraft so that we can secure our borders and protect our people. Hard as it is to believe, Iraq doesn't have a single fighter jet to protect its airspace." By making that request, Maliki certainly understood the tough challenges he was facing at home.

Had President Obama seriously considered Maliki's request, and had he offered meaningful military assistance, the Iraqi government should not have missed the best moment to combat the extremists. But unfortunately, besides paying lip service to Maliki's efforts to build an inclusive government, which actually suggested a kind of criticism of Maliki for not being inclusive, the White House actually didn't promise any meaningful military assistance.

There are a number of possible reasons for Washington's reluctance to offer assistance. Barack Obama openly laid Iraq's construction of an inclusive government as a precondition for more military assistance. He suggested the intention both when meeting with Maliki at the White House on Nov. 1, 2013 and in his speech shortly after the fall of Mosul on June 12, 2014 in the hands of ISIL. It is always right to push for the building of a broadly-based government. And Maliki might have not done enough in that direction.

However, the White House's dissatisfaction is in fact about Maliki's regional policy. Elected as Prime Minister in a country dominated by Shiite population, Maliki was regarded as a staunch ally of Shiite Iran. And the United States, in particular, is dissatisfied with Iraq's potential role as a secret conduit to transport weapons between Tehran and Damascus. John Kerry even made a special trip to Baghdad for that purpose in March 2013.

All in all, the United States cannot escape the blame for the rise of ISIL. The budding and the growth of ISIL can be respectively attributed to Washington's policies toward Iraq and Syria. The United States also failed to provide military assistance for Maliki's government for geopolitical reasons.

The Middle East will remain a pivotal region in global energy security. The encroachment of ISIL on Iraqi territory will further undermine the security situation in Iraq and the region.

It is never too late to remedy mistakes. And this is also an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its role as a global leader.

The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://china.org.cn/opinion/jinliangxiang.htm

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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