As we enter the fortieth month of Syria’s ordeal, and with the renegade Zarqawi’ite network in Iraq finally declaring that its virtual ministries are being uploaded into a fully restored Caliphate extending from Raqqa to Tikrit, the most depressing thought of all is that it did not have to be this way.
After four decades of tyranny, and the mass-murder at Hama that secured the quiescence of the population, the Syrians finally rose up in March 2011. By the end of that year, when it was clear that if they did not defend themselves they would be slaughtered, they fought back. This was a “secular revolt against autocracy” but revolutions are never kind to moderates, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its masters in Tehran and facilitators in Moscow did all they could to tip the balance. Repeated provocations were staged: violent Salafi-jihadists were released from Syrian prisons as secular protesters were murdered, videos of mosques being sacked and soldiers drinking alcohol in them while torturing pious Sunnis into declaring Bashar god were disseminated, bombings were fabricated to rally the minorities round the regime, and as the conflict dragged on the rebellion was devastated from the air while the takfiris were left to roam and massive payments from the oil industry helped them secure power, being able to feed and pay their fighters and wage a vigorous dawa (missionary) campaign. By the end of 2012, the Salafists had caught up to the seculars among the insurgency, and by 2013 they were a majority. The regime would try to face the world with the choice of itself or people who are too extreme for al-Qaeda.
In Iraq, something awfully like victory had been achieved by 2008. The Sunni Arab tribes, the backbone of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, angry at their fall from power, incensed that the Shi’a should have been delivered to a primacy dictated by their numbers in their own country by American arms, had welcomed the then-al-Qaeda forces they believed could be used for a restoration. Realising the folly of this strategy, they turned on the jihadists. When the Shi’a-led government also took on the Shi’a militias, it looked as if national reconciliation was proceeding. It was a time “full of promise” with “tantalizing prospects of establishing a new political environment and creating a stable state”. The lion’s share of the blame goes to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for throwing this chance away, a sectarian thug and autocrat, Maliki had begun dismantling the professionalised, non-sectarian army as far back as 2008 and replacing it with the sectarian squad that has now been loosed on the Sunni areas. But the Obama administration does not escape blame. Told by the military to leave 16,000 troops in Iraq beyond 2011 to balance the internal factions and restrain Iran, Obama offered 5,000, a force that could barely defend itself. Adding in a legal issue that they have suddenly decided isn’t all that big a deal, the Obama administration made the Iraqis an offer they were meant to refuse. The President’s team said the failure to keep troops in Iraq was “not a setback … because the White House never considered it a requirement.” Obama went to the country in 2012, able to say, “I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did.”
Obama had publicly called on Bashar to quit—rather to the annoyance of his closest advisers—but as early as December 2011, Obama had told Maliki: “We have no intention to intervene militarily” in Syria. Thus everything since then—the “red lines,” the training and arming of the moderates—was a bluff and means of running down the clock, and everyone knew it. Even if Obama had not told this to Iran’s ally in Baghdad about Iran’s ally in Damascus, Obama had directly signalled it to the Iranians, opening secret channels with the theocracy. While trying to secure an ostensible agreement on Iran foregoing nuclear weapons, which is actually an attempted détente with the Islamic Republic, a way of securing a new balance in the region between America’s traditional Sunni Arab Gulf allies and the Persian theocracy, so that America can leave, “the last thing Obama want[ed] … [was] direct military intervention in Syria that would lead to a proxy war,” as one of the administration’s “realist” apologists put it. So when that “red line” was trampled with the massive chemical attack in Ghouta, Obama looked every-which-way to avoid living up to the responsibility he had taken upon himself. Unwilling to get entangled in another war, Obama did not want to upset Iran, which had been tacitly promised a free-hand in Syria in exchange for delaying “breakout”—something even the Syrians in the country understood. Obama needed a fig-leaf, and the Russians were only too happy to oblige. The “Hands Off Syria” crowds who poured into the streets of the West in August and September 2013, many of them openly pro-Assad with the credulous having just discovered that Syria existed, got what they wanted: the West did not intervene, but the war did not end. To the contrary, we gave the regime a “license to kill with conventional weapons” and nearly destroyed the moderates.
The spillover of this terrible policy into Iraq was quite obvious as far back as 2011. The networks of jihadists came from Syria initially, and that porous border was easily reversible. Without the American troops to buffer Iraqi internal relations, Maliki took the chance to witch-hunt non-Shi’ites out of the government and Iraq’s airspace, which it couldn’t have defended if it wanted to, was opened up to Iran to re-supply the barbarous regime in Syria. Under threat from Baghdad, the Sunni Arabs saw the Zarqawi’ites as a means to an end: whatever else the “Islamic State” is doing, they are destabilising Maliki’s autocratic government. This was the exact situation, the existential fears of a minority Sunni community tainted by dictatorship and worried about a triumphalist majoritarian regime, which the surge and the American presence had pacified by 2008; that victory was liquidated for the cheapest of campaign promises.
But here’s the thing: this is exactly what the isolationists wanted. A withdrawal from Iraq, staying out of Syria, and trying to make-nice with Iran. The Obama administration has doggedly followed the script, and now we have the harvest. Some of the more extreme anti-interventionist types, who are more blatant in their anti-American animus, have tried to blame the minimal assistance of the U.S. to the Syrian rebellion for the escalating crisis. Nice try. But given the scale of the economic and military help Iran has given to the Syrian regime, as well as that of Russia, this simply is not credible. We never get to see what is behind the historic door we don’t take but it would take a dogmatic ideologue to suggest that a residual U.S. force in Iraq and serious help to the Syrian uprising when the secularists were still dominant would have produced a worse outcome in the Fertile Crescent. The chances of Iran standing down on its quest for nuclear weapons always seemed vanishing small: with the sanctions dismantled and the regime able to run the security sectors of both Iraq and Syria, the chances seem non-existent. But that too could have been different: with U.S. troops to safeguard constitutional order in Iraq—which had shown signs of destabilising Iran, rather than the other way around—and Iran’s one true Arab ally in Damascus overthrown, their hand would have been much weaker. Now instead Iran gets to pose as a potential ally against the “real” threat, which is of course Sunni militancy—its own jihadist character and export of terrorism apparently forgotten.
The “anti-war” movement’s accolades include: 200,000 dead Syrians, more than nine million displaced Syrians, a rate of deaths now reaching more than 2,500 per month in Iraq, and a theocracy that hangs homosexuals and stones adulterers triumphant in the region and on the threshold of nuclear weapons. It might imagined this would make the “anti-war” forces rather modest. But it doesn’t, just as the Rwandan genocide, the terrible carnage in Bosnia and Kosovo, the misery of all those years we left the Saddam regime in place, and the mass-murder in Darfur seem to have inspired no reflection from an “anti-war” movement whose sole achievement for as long as it was listened to in all these cases was to allow the powerful to take their way with violence. It’s the description of such advocates as “liberals,” “progressives,” and even “humanitarians” that is the most perplexing.