US campaign against ISIL brings flashes of deja vu

Seven years ago Washington defeated the predecessors of ISIL by engaging Iraqi allies, but is what they have done since that has created the problem all over again.

ISIL fighters in their Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, in a photo released by the extremists’ Raqqa Media Center on June 30, 2014. Raqqa Media Center / AP Photo
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It was around 2007, when the predecessors to ISIL had reached the peak of their power, that US military commanders acknowledged airstrikes and ground troops alone could not defeat the group.

The Americans, at the time still deployed in Iraq, asked the Sunni tribes of the western deserts to help get the job done. And it was – with a ruthless, low-tech efficiency.

Iraqi tribal forces, handed rifles and modest salaries by Washington, swept through areas that had been held by Islamist extremists – often with those same tribes’ connivance – and cleared them out.

US forces quietly admitted that Sunni tribesmen knew much better than they did where the most hardline members of the Al Qaeda franchise were based, and that they were able to deal with them in a currency both sides well understood.

No drones, no courts, no trials, no secret renditions or embarrassing publicity from Guantanamo Bay.

Instead, a bullet in the back of the head, a shallow grave – and no questions asked.

In a surprisingly brief, unsurprisingly brutal shadow conflict, the precursors to ISIL, then known by various other names, were comprehensively beaten back.

That US-led victory in the shooting war was, however, followed by a dramatic defeat in the less glamorous, more complicated business of peace and nation building.

Those Sunni tribal allies were cut adrift by Washington and, aided by a narrowly sectarian, corrupt government in Shiite-majority Baghdad, they slowly, inevitably retreated back into the extremists’ fold.

Just as the tribes in Iraq felt abandoned by the US and watched their marginalised, impoverished, angry young men return to an extremism they had forsaken, so too have growing numbers of Syrians moved away from their moderate centre of gravity towards the radical fringe.

Chemical weapon attacks by President Bashar Al Assad’s forces on rebel-held districts around Damascus in August last year most dramatically symbolise that shift, and sense of abandonment felt by Syria’s mainstream opposition.

The West issued statements and threats, but took no action over the poison-gas strikes, while radical Muslim militants from across the world continued to turn up on the battlefield, ready to fight and die in order to topple the Syrian autocrat.

Syrians, even moderates, would shrug and ask to whom they should be more grateful: the democracies of the West that had done so little to protect them from being gunned down, bombed and poisoned, or the Al Qaeda militants who were willing to give up their lives to fight a ruthless regime.

Iraq’s drift to extremism became a part of Syria’s own movement in the same direction, pushed by a perfect storm of regional upheaval, dysfunction and mismanagement.

As a consequence, Barack Obama announced this week that Washington is, once again, embarking on a war against radical Islam, a conflict that US actions, and inactions, have inflamed rather than extinguished.

Compared to Iraq seven years ago, the battlefield today is arguably larger and more complex. ISIL, still a fringe group with little broad popular support, is nonetheless driving events and setting a US foreign policy agenda.

With the start of this latest war, Washington’s credibility is at an all-time low with the allies it will need on its side if it is to win.

Iraqi tribes are not clamouring to join the US effort and, in Syria, rebel commanders and activists alike have reacted to the latest policy pronouncement in Washington with, at best, indifference, at worst, incredulity that ISIL will be hit by US air power while Mr Al Assad’s forces, whose brutality has done so much to fuel ISIL’s rise, will not be touched.

There is a well-founded cynicism in the Middle East, particularly in today’s Syria and Iraq, when it comes to headline-making announcements by US presidents. Mr Obama has promised a sustained effort to rout the Islamist militants, but words are not actions and there is no real indication that, this time, Washington will follow through on a well-planned, genuinely long-term strategy.

If the US is able to rally these jaded, reluctant allies – including European and Arab states who, like the Americans, sincerely do fear and oppose ISIL – they should, again, collectively be able to defeat the extremists on the battlefield.

US air power, local tribal knowledge, Middle Eastern intelligence agencies and resources, coupled with regional popular sentiment – Sunni and Shiite alike – comfortably outmatch ISIL, if united in a common cause.

Yet, as in Iraq in 2007, battlefield victory is only one part – and perhaps the easiest part – of the job. Real victory against ISIL, the sentiments it represents and the disaffection that fuels it, can only come in peacetime, not war.

It will require addressing complex underling issues, among them the very problems created by shortsighted, divisive, unenlightened western foreign policies over the decades. That is much more difficult than dropping bombs or handing money to tribes.

Until that lesson is learnt, the US, its regional allies and an unfortunate, ill-served Middle Eastern public, which bears the brunt of the suffering, are doomed to fight this war again and again.