Jane Kinninmont writes: Isis’s viciousness makes it all too easy to portray the group as an evil force that has come out of the blue, which could be defeated by decisive western military action. But it is essential to remember the recent history of Iraq and Syria, and the west’s involvement there, and to understand the factors that have enabled the group to expand from a few thousand extremists to a wealthy movement controlling swaths of territory.
There are two factors. The first is the chronic deficit of government legitimacy in Iraq and Syria, where systematically marginalised and excluded people create a supportive environment for radical groups promising change. The second is the brutality of recent politics in both those countries, which has been fuelled by regional and international proxy wars and by decades of coalition of support from disaffected tribes and de-facto disenfranchised Iraqi Sunnis. Outgoing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki bears much of the blame for this; Iraq’s Sunni tribes were his best ally against al-Qaida militants, but he squandered this by treating them as terrorists and locking up their sons.
But pinning all the blame on Maliki conveniently absolves the US and UK of responsibility for helping to create a political system where violence and sectarianism are the usual mechanisms for staying in power. Over the past 30 years, the west first supported and armed a genocidal dictator, then crippled the country with sanctions that failed to remove him, then invaded the country and dismantled the state and army. After 2003, the US and UK helped design a system of sectarian “power-sharing” where “power-sharing” means carving up government ministries – made extremely lucrative by raging corruption – between a tiny elite drawn from each ethnicity and sect.
Meanwhile, anti-western sentiment has been spiralling in Syria, not only among supporters of the government, but among the opposition. By saying Assad had to go, the west promised them change, but it did not stop Assad staying in power and killing many thousands of people. Western policymakers may doubt their capacity to resolve the crisis, but in the region, where the US in particular is seen as incredibly powerful, people simply think it lacked the will. [Continue reading…]