Syria Girl’s ISIS

A colleague sent me a link to a youtube interview of Syria Girl, where she analyzes Isis. I strongly recommend it. She’s brilliant, and I agree with most of what she says. But here I will just go into where I think her analysis is weak.

She does not understand a few things about the US Empire and its limitations (see below for more on this). Also, she seems (at least in this video) to come from a “nationalist” point-of-view. Understandable, considering the nightmare that has resulted from the collapse of Iraq and the revolution in Syria, but these nations are very recent colonial inventions in many respects. Their borders depended more on the interests of French and British and then US imperialism than local history. What relation do they have to the existing cultures of that area? Many people living there clearly don’t have loyalty to the nation-states such as Syria, Iraq or Lebanon (a good case study of this kind of fracturing actually).

Look at the collapse of Yugoslavia into warring ethic groups, right at the heart of Europe. It isn’t enough to blame outsiders (like the Russians who are benefiting from the balkanization of the Balkans). When I was in Yugoslavia the first time, in 1971, I met two best friends, a Croat and a Serb, who predicted the wars that followed Tito’s death. They told me their families would try and kill each other. They admitted they might even fight each other, even though they knew it was madness! Haters are going to hate, especially in conditions of great fear that come from the collapse of old artificial organizations. Of course, all nation-states, and ethnic or religious units, are “imagined communities.” That is why this is all so volatile. Human imagination is a major factor. Anger, hope, fear, and despair are the drivers of atrocity. We must imagine something better than nation-states, ethnic enclaves, bloody religious nightmares. I would love to know what Syria Girl hopes for politically, in her most utopian dreams. I will follow her now on Twitter and Youtube. Hers is a very, very important voice.

But when she said “Turkey takes orders from the US” I laughed out loud. Turkey operates within certain constraints because it is part of the US sphere of influence and is in NATO, but it doesn’t “take” many orders. Certainly not since the Kemalistas have lost power, but even then, it is to diminish the Turks to think they easily take the orders of outsiders. The obligations of NATO fit Turkey’s geo-political needs (resist Russia’s desire to control Turkey, closer integration into the Euro-American economy) but Turkey has its own interests that go way beyond why it is in NATO. In fact, the two countries that probably want continual war in Iraq and Syria are Turkey and Israel and NATO does not. I think Syria Girl has good evidence on Turkey’s involvement in Isis. Israel is benefiting most, but no one has much proof for their role. They must be fostering this nightmare in every way they can but since they have long experience in such operations (Lebanon), and close proximity with good intelligence assets, they are hard to catch at it.

Other players are either pursuing their own goals (the Kurds, the largest nationality in the region without a state until recently) or have overplayed their hand. The Saudi’s think they are supporting Sunnis (and a conservative theology) but are actually creating groups that want to overthrow the House of Saud (Al Queda and now Isis) and the US, which backed Shia death squads until it became clear that they were destabilizing the US puppet regime in Iraq. That’s when Clinton called for the removal of Maliki, although by then the damage had been done.

And the damage was forcing almost all Sunnis into an alliance that is now led by Isis. Search for “Baath Party and Isis” and you’ll see there is convincing evidence that a big part of the strength of Isis is that the old Sunni Baath networks joined it. Isis is only strong in Sunni areas, except where panic and incompetence has spread it. Syria Girl is quite right that it isn’t as strong as most people think. But here again, when she thinks the media storm about them is a conscious policy I think she is wrong. Our media is always attracted to these kinds of stories (“if it bleeds, it leads”) and the beheadings (of ‘MERICANS!!!!) is what pushed Isis into the headlines in the US.

There was a real revolution in Syria. Tens of thousands died in nonviolent protest and among the first to take up arms were secular activists (called “hippies” by some). But Syria Girl has convinced me that what I have feared for the last year or so is true. They have been absorbed or killed and it is all various religiously framed ethnic groups now, of varying levels of insanity. War does this. Fanatics do better at war.

But to think the US has orchestrated this is nonsense. The US empire is not so clever and where it is smart, it realizes that this is not good for the Empire. From the first invasion of Iraq some US analysts called for breaking up the countries in the area into ethnic statelets, but the actual goal (totally a fantasy) was to make Iraq a client state, a sub-imperial power, like the Shah’s Iran was for decades. Trying to make that happen led to the Shia death squads and other stupidities that have collapsed Iraq and led, in large part, to the current crisis. And, of course, the brutality of the dictatorships in Syria and Iraq (and Libya as well) played a major role. But we can see again, that overthrowing a dictatorship is much easier that replacing it with something significantly better, as the Egyptians are learning as their revolution has been stymied by a new face for the old military regime.

While most elements of the US empire clearly want a perceived terrorist threat to continue what I call the 2nd Cold War (this one against “terrorism” as is explained in my book _Peace, War, and Computers_). I am sure only a minority want to foster a real threat on any level. A real threat isn’t necessary to maintain the national security state and trying to make one up becomes a problem when you start believing your own lies. Compare the two US invasions of Iraq by daddy Bush and baby Bush. Daddy Bush knew that a land war in the Middle East would weaken the US empire, not strengthen it. His son and his son’s advisors were so stupid they thought otherwise. No doubt some elements in the US imperial system are directly fostering Isis and similar groups hoping for chaos. These are Christian fanatics, the many corrupt officials who loot the money poured into these crisis zones, and the same kind of stupid analysts who thought Iraq could be made a sub-imperial power. But more sophisticated imperialists (Obama, Clinton, mainstream Democratic leaders and what is left of the Republican leadership that isn’t bat-shit crazy) realize that blowback is real and can get very out-of-control very quickly. In a world of WMD’s any real terrorist threat could possibly kill tens of thousands of Americans. This would be a major defeat for the US Empire, because (I know this is hard to believe), one of its great strengths is that most Americans don’t even know the US is the world-dominating empire. 9/11 changed this a little. The Iraq invasion changed it somewhat more (the largest protests in US history, in 350 cities). Now the US people are very tired of war and another large percentage is asking today, “why is Isis our problem?” The answer, of course, is that it is a US problem because we are the dominant imperial power in the world, (not “the world’s policeman”). The facade of US democracy and (small “r”) republicanism will collapse in another land war in the Middle East. Then, many Americans who ask how can the US escape this cycle of permanent war will find that what Alaa Al-Aswany, the great Egyptian novelist, wrote again and again before the fall of Mubarak is true: DEMOCRACY IS THE ANSWER. And that is real democracy, not the imperial shadow show.

One thought on “Syria Girl’s ISIS

  1. CHG’s analysis is pretty good, although I struggle to conceptualise the US as an empire in the traditional, monolithic, colonial sense. It is an incredibly complex state with a huge variety of often-competing interests that was initially created as a buffer to colonial expansion. Obviously, it is showing some rather colonial characteristics now, albeit minus the financial efficiency seen of the British empire. The war in Iraq was not logical for financial gain by the US, rather for paranoia by the US leadership at the time. The damage was compounded by the post-invasion incitement of sectarian warfare, neoliberal policies dispossessing Iraqis of their land and property and a sense of impunity by the (largely private) occupiers.

    I’ve heard from a few on the aid circuit that worked in Syria before the crisis about the initial protests and armed uprising. In many cases they felt it was a mistake not to arm the rebels in 2011, as they were mostly secular and Syria was the only largely secular state in the region. Other suppliers moved to fill in the secular gap, encouraging various degrees of religiosity with ISIS and Al Nursa benefiting from this the most.

    Interestingly, the theory that ISIS is controlled by Mossad or the CIA is not only in the realm of “batshit crazy US republicans”, to borrow an appropriate term from CHG, but common here. ISIS is pretty well disliked amongst the people I’ve spoken to, but the US’ history of massive, complex invasions and intricate espionage creates the impression that they can do anything. While the west has had a substantial role in creating ISIS by not supporting alternate groups and sectarian policies in Iraq, to argue that ISIS is our creation is accurately described as absurd.

    I do think, sort of, that Australia has made a reasonable response to ISIS in part. Bombing runs aren’t going to do anything beyond forcing ISIS to adopt better tactics, cause massive civilian damage, feeding perceived injustices and cost a lot of money. However deploying trained ground personnel to mentor the Iraqi army is crucial, not only for improving military skills but to mitigate their institutional sectarian tendencies (See John Cantwell’s book Exit Wounds, particularly the chapter about Iraq in 2006). It’s a pity the Australian army is so heavily privatised and reliant on the US for logistics plus the overprotective nature of our public debate around soldiers doing what they’ve signed up to do so we can’t deploy more mentoring teams.

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