Ben Reynolds — The Diplomat August 31, 2014
The Baroness Turner of Camden recently argued in The Diplomat that Iran is the “major driving force” in Iraq’s civil war, and furthermore, that Iran is “central to the broader conflict that has seemingly put the entire Middle East beyond hope of stability.” The Baroness’ article is right about one thing: the Iranian regime brutally suppresses dissidents. But it is not the main party responsible for Iraq’s civil war, or for the broader conflict in the Levant. It may be convenient for dissidents and opponents of the current Iranian regime to blame Iran for the rise of ISIS, but history tells a different story.
The U.S., Western Europe, and their regional allies in fact bear most of the responsibility for the rise of extremist groups like ISIS. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Britain notably supported, was a strategic disaster. Contrary to speculation at the time, Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime prevented Al Qaeda from operating out of Iraq. Iraq had also been supported by the West before the 1991 Gulf War as a counterbalance against the revolutionary Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq War. The U.S.-led invasion changed all of that.
The Iraq War toppled Saddam, destabilized the country, and led to a wave of sectarian bloodshed. It also made Iraq a safe haven and recruiting ground for Al Qaeda affiliates. Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s forerunner, was founded in April 2004. AQI conducted brutal attacks on Shia civilians and mosques in hopes of sparking a broader sectarian conflict. Iran naturally supported Shia militias, who fought extremists like AQI, both to expand its influence in Iraq and protect its Shia comrades. Iran cultivated ties with the Maliki government as well. Over the long term, Iran tried to seize the opportunity to turn Iraq from a strategic counterweight into a strategic ally. The U.S. didn’t do much to stop it.
When the U.S. helped to establish Iraq’s government, it consistently supported Maliki, even going so far as to assist in Maliki’s persecution of dissidents and civil society activists. The U.S. was probably more instrumental than Iran in cementing Maliki’s power in Iraq. Maliki alienated Sunnis in Iraq by cracking down on his opponents and pursuing discriminatory policies in government and the armed forces. When Maliki’s troops stormed Sunni protest camps in 2013, they were armed with U.S.-made weapons. By the time the U.S. and Western Europe finally decided Maliki was enough of a liability to push out of government, fertile ground already existed for an ISIS-led Sunni insurgency in Western Iraq.
The Syrian story is even more important. In 2011 the Assad regime violently suppressed peaceful pro-democracy protests. This civil society movement rapidly transformed into an armed uprising against the Syrian government. Why? In the early stages of the war, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey began funneling arms to opposition forces, seeing an opportunity to destabilize a key ally of Iran and Hezbollah, their geopolitical foes. As the civil war deepened, extremist groups joined the fight against what they saw as an odious secular regime. They also became the beneficiaries of large amounts of arms and funding from America’s regional allies.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey knowingly funded extremist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra quickly became one of the most effective and influential rebel groups fighting against the Syrian government. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have been fighting over doctrinal and practical matters for months, but some al-Nusra elements have also merged into ISIS. The extent of Saudi support for ISIS is uncertain and hotly debated, but many analysts agree that there has been a substantial bleed of funding and weapons between rebel groups.
The U.S.’s own involvement in the Syrian conflict is telling. Early in the civil war, the Obama administration expressed its conviction that Bashar al-Assad’s regime had to go. Given U.S. antagonism toward Iran and its allies, this statement did not come as a surprise. The U.S. offered nonlethal aid to the Syrian rebels and eventually covertly armed them, going so far as to operate a training camp for rebels in northern Jordan.
But the U.S. didn’t appear to expand its direct support for the Syrian rebels beyond this point, and for good reason. When the Obama administration asked Congress for $500 million to train and equip “moderate rebels,” the Pentagon testified that it anticipated difficulties finding moderate fighters to train and arm. In plain English, this means that they don’t really exist. With ISIS’s victories in Iraq, the U.S. strategy of fueling the fire in Syria without allowing either side to win is finally revealing its inherent contradictions.
No one is innocent in the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, but Iran is not primarily responsible for the current state of affairs. The U.S. and its allies destabilized Iraq and Syria in turn, creating safe havens for extremists that previously did not exist. U.S. allies provided the material support that allowed ISIS and groups like it to become threats to the entire region, despite lacking any substantial popular base in Syria and Iraq. It is not unreasonable for Iran and Hezbollah to fight against these groups, which murder and enslave Shia and other religious minorities. Their actions conceivably fall under one of the West’s favorite principles of international law: the duty to protect.
Iran has been the most serious foreign force fighting against ISIS from the very beginning of the Syrian civil war. The Syrian Army is constantly beset by manpower and equipment problems. It is difficult to believe that the Syrian government would have held its own without the assistance of the Iranian Qods Force and Iran’s allies in Hezbollah, much less without Iranian weapons. Contrary to the Baroness’ objections, Iran is the most viable regional partner for a temporary, pragmatic alliance against ISIS.
Western politicians and activists like the Baroness of Camden understandably oppose the Iranian regime’s domestic repression. But Iran and its regional allies are not the cause of ISIS’s rapid and brutal rise. Extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have been consistently aided by disastrous Western interventions in the Middle East and the influence of regional actors like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Responsibility for the rise of ISIS isn’t much of a mystery: the West and its allies just have to look in the mirror.
Ben Reynolds is a writer who graduated from the College of William and Mary. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.