To defeat ISIS we must understand that despotism is the disease, not the cure

On Sunday, Richard Clarke, a former top counterterrorism adviser in the Bush administration, said:

If we want to eliminate this ISIS we are going to have to deal with people we don’t like. The president said we wanted Assad out. Well, we are going to have to say something to the Syrian government if we are going to start bombing in Syria. And if we are going to get rid of ISIS, we are going to have to start bombing in Syria.

This is one of the latest examples of the movement inside Washington which views a working relationship with Assad as a practical necessity — a form of realism which implies there is no alternative.

It is also an expression of a typically American view of what it means to be practical, which is to say that practicality is often viewed as a way of dispensing with the need for analysis. Just do it — don’t think.

Ziad Majed, a Lebanese political researcher teaching Middle East studies at the American University of Paris, has a response to Clarke and those making similar arguments:

Those who think that they should be impartial toward or even support tyrants like Assad in the fight against ISISism fail to realize that his regime is in fact at the root of the problem.

Until this fact is recognized — that despotism is the disease and not the cure — we can only expect more deadly repercussions, from the Middle East to the distant corners of the globe.

Majed sees ISIS as the progeny of six fathers:

ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region. Therefore, it is no coincidence that we see its base, its source of strength concentrated in Iraq and Syria, where Saddam Hussein and Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad reigned for decades, killing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying political life, and deepening sectarianism by transforming it into a mechanism of exclusion and polarization, to the point that injustices and crimes against humanity became commonplace.

ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed. Specifically, it was the exclusion of a wide swath of Iraqis from post invasion political processes and the formation of a new authority that discriminated against them and held them collectively at fault for the guilt of Saddam and his party, which together enabled groups (such as those first established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) whose activities have been resumed by ISIS to get in touch with some parts of Iraqi society and to establish itself among them.

ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years — taking Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as its backyard, feeding (directly or indirectly) confessional divisions and making these divides the backbone of ideological mobilization and a policy of revenge and retaliation that has constructed a destructive feedback loop. [Continue reading…]

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4 thoughts on “To defeat ISIS we must understand that despotism is the disease, not the cure

  1. Syd

    It sounds nice to say that despotism is the disease, but you’ve said several times that ISIS must be fought now, and to do that you need ground troops. The only troops willing to fight ISIS at the moment are sectarian militias led by despotic leaders. (Granted Assad is probably the worst of these, but the Shia army is pretty brutal as well.) We can weaken ISIS militarily by helping these anti-Sunni extremists, but at the same time this helps strengthens ISIS’ ideology among the Sunnis.

    The more I think about it the more uncertain any course of action becomes. No wonder we Americans choose pragmatism!

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    The war against ISIS began in earnest in January 2014, but ISIS had already effectively declared war on the Syrian uprising in April 2013 when al-Baghdadi made the unilateral declaration that al Qaida in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra had merged to form ISIS. That wasn’t just an attempted hostile takeover; it was essentially a rejection of the Syrian revolution because al-Baghdadi was rejecting the idea of “Syria.”

    Apart from ISIS, all the other opposition groups in Syria (including the Islamists) seem to varying degrees to be pragmatic nationalists. They want to overthrow their rulers — not redraw the boundaries of the state. ISIS on the other hand wants to do away with the nation state.

    Obama now calls ISIS a cancer, which is an appropriate metaphor in as much as cancer does not usually go into remission when left untreated.

    Assad created the conditions in which the cancer could develop and Obama watched it grow and now everyone’s declaring that treatment is urgent. The urgency however, is the result of the prevailing attitude that Syria has become such an intractable a problem that it’s hard to envisage effective remedies. But Americans shouldn’t indulge in the self-serving belief that doing nothing has no effect. Inaction can be just as harmful as ill-conceived action.

    Having said that, I don’t think there’s any excuse for politicians trying to manufacture hysteria by claiming that ISIS may be plotting attacks on America.

  3. Chet

    “Assad created the conditions in which the cancer could develop and Obama watched it grow and now everyone’s declaring that treatment is urgent.”

    Really? Saudi Arabia and Qatar (most likely with U.S. approval) took demonstrations against the Assad government and by funding and arming foreign fighters created a civil war (not sure if you can call it a civil war since it seems most of the fighters are foreigners). These “conditions” that Assad created are no worse and probably better than those in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Egypt but you don’t see a war developing there. Only because the U.S. doesn’t want to overthrow those governments. Since a populist government would probably be anti-American, the U.S. is quite happy to support despotic governments as long as they fall in line with U.S. policy. I wonder how many ISIS fighters were trained and armed in Jordan by the CIA and how much of the millions in funding eventually found its way to ISIS. The long lines of identical Toyata pickups with armed Jidhadis in matching outfits didn’t just magically appear. All the equipment was ordered a long time ago. As a former Marine, I know supply lines are critical to any combat effort and this ISIS “surprise” was long planned and the CIA/NSA/DIA had to know what was happening.

    Despotism isn’t a disease, it’s a tool. It’s the way those in power control the masses. If you want to end this “disease” the first despotic government you need to overthrow is the U.S., the rest will fall in time.

  4. Paul Woodward Post author

    When I say Assad created the conditions in which ISIS could grow, I’m not making some vague political statement. Creating the conditions meant focusing his air strikes and ground attacks on every militia group except ISIS. While ISIS was provided this operational flexibility it’s focus was on consolidating its control over territory rather than engaging in battles with Assad’s forces. Here’s how the strategy and its goal have been reported:

    Earlier in the three-year-old Syrian uprising, Mr. Assad decided to mostly avoid fighting the Islamic State to enable it to cannibalize the more secular rebel group supported by the West, the Free Syrian Army, said Izzat Shahbandar, an Assad ally and former Iraqi lawmaker who was Baghdad’s liaison to Damascus. The goal, he said, was to force the world to choose between the regime and extremists.

    “When the Syrian army is not fighting the Islamic State, this makes the group stronger,” said Mr. Shahbandar, a close aide to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said Mr. Assad described the strategy to him personally during a visit in May to Damascus. “And sometimes, the army gives them a safe path to allow the Islamic State to attack the FSA and seize their weapons.”

    “It’s a strategy to eliminate the FSA and have the two main players face each other in Syria: Assad and the Islamic State,” said Mr. Shahbandar. “And now [Damascus] is asking the world to help, and the world can’t say no.”

    Assad learned his lessons from Bush and Cheney: cast your enemy as “terrorists” and the West is then compelled to side with the opponent of terrorism.

    Internet polemicists have no hesitation about making assertions such as that most of the fighters in Syria are foreign. They do this because they know they are addressing an uncritical audience that soaks up a message which resonates with their worldview. But show me a single source that backs up this assertion with some credible evidence.

    It’s strange that so many Americans, growing up in a country that had to fight for its independence, have a hard time grasping the idea that people could start off by peacefully protesting and then after getting shot at decide that they would need to pick up weapons.

    There’s no question that the influx of foreign fighters coming to Syria has steadily grown, nor that most of them are now being drawn by ISIS. But from what I’ve seen, even within ISIS itself the largest number of fighters are still Iraqis and Syrians.

    The number of Syrian fighters trained by the U.S. in Jordan has been miniscule – a few hundred. Might a few dozen have later ended up joining ISIS? It’s conceivable but highly improbable. ISIS will be vigilant about infiltration. Anyone who revealed they’d be trained by Americans would probably first be used as a military instructor and then killed.

    Chet, you say the first despotic government that needs to be overthrown is the U.S.. Really? Are you about to lead the revolution?

    If one could gauge revolutionary fervor in the U.S. from the comments angry Americans leave on websites, decrying what they see as the politically corrupt and despotic nature of this country, it might appear that revolution was just around the corner. But you and I know that the vast majority of this talk is idle ranting from people whose self-righteous outrage can conveniently be dissipated through a keyboard.

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