I have no doubt that Bashar al-Assad welcomed ISIS’s rise in the insurgency. An Alawite family does get to rule over Syria for decades by failing to recognize opportunities that land on its doorstep.
And while I disagree with aspects of Reynold’s piece, his argument that the U.S. did far more to facilitate ISIS’s rise than Iran is virtually undeniable. To briefly recap: In 2001 the U.S. was attacked by al-Qaeda, a Sunni Jihadist group, which claimed that America’s support for corrupt and insufficiently Islamic governments in the Middle East was preventing it from recreating the Islamic Caliphate. The U.S. responded by launching a global war on terrorism. After forcing the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, the U.S. turned its sights on Iraq, a country without a terrorist problem that was led by Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni Baathist leader that al-Qaeda was bent on overthrowing.
After toppling Saddam, the U.S. dismantled the entire Sunni-dominated Baathist state, including dismissing the military and security services and firing even low level civil servants. It then put the long oppressed Shiites in power, the leadership of whom had dedicated their lives to opposing Saddam and the Baathist. While only get mixed results most of the time, the U.S. devoted most of its military resources during the Iraq War to combating the Sunni insurgency that inevitably followed these decisions.
A Wall Street Journal profile of ISIS’s leadership this week erases any linger doubt over whether or not these decisions were instrumental to the group’s rise. The article notes that many of ISIS’s top leaders– including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi– spent time in an American military prison during the occupation. Like countless terrorist and militant leaders in other countries, this only served to further radicalize them and strengthen their resolve. Furthermore, the article notes that at least two of its top operational leaders are former generals in Saddam’s army. In other words, they were among the professional soldiers who found themselves without work when the U.S. disbanded Saddam’s military. Neither of them are known to be particularly radical or knowledgeable about Islam, suggesting they weren’t motivated to join the group because of their religious beliefs.
Still, while the U.S. did much to facilitate ISIS’s rise, it still had the opportunity to avoid directly incurring the costs of this outcome. To be sure, ISIS’s rise is tragic for the Middle Eastern region, particularly those living in Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria. Nonetheless, even as it expanded throughout the Middle East over the last three years, ISIS showed no interest in targeting the United States. This was not surprising as Jihadist groups have plagued the Middle East since the 1960s, and nearly all of them have focused exclusively on toppling local governments.
The one exception, of course, is al-Qaeda, which has focused nearly all its energies on attacking the U.S. and the West. As noted above, this strategy is rooted in al-Qaeda’s belief that Sunni Arab leaders are only able to maintain their grip on power because of their alliance with the United States. Thus, al-Qaeda believes– or at least used to– that the only way it could reestablish the Islamic Caliphate is by forcing America to abandon the region. ISIS, like nearly every other Jihadist group in modern history, rejected al-Qaeda’s view on targeting the “far enemy.” Instead, it focused on exploiting existing sectarian tensions in the region as the best way to seize power.
There’s another reason this is not surprising. Namely, as many of the people most concerned about ISIS’s rise have pointed out, the group appears to be consciously trying to avoid repeating many of al-Qaeda’s mistakes. Attacking the U.S. was surely one of the biggest mistakes al-Qaeda made. Although the 9/11 terrorist attacks were undoubtedly a huge tactical success, they were a strategic blow from which al-Qaeda has never recovered. It is therefore not surprising that ISIS hadn’t been targeting the United States, given that attacking America is irrelevant to its goals, and the group has seen firsthand how the U.S. decimated al-Qaeda.
Nonetheless, American leaders deemed the group a direct threat to the security of the United States– if not now, then in the future. Accordingly, early last month President Obama ordered airstrikes against the group in Iraq, ostensibly on the grounds of protecting Iraqi minorities and U.S. personnel (the latter of whom could have been evacuated).
Less than two weeks later, ISIS released an appalling video of one its fighters beheading an American journalist who had been covering the Syrian civil war. In the video, which was titled “A Message to America,” the ISIS fighter explained that the beheading was retaliation for the airstrikes. He also threatened to kill Steven Sotloff, another American journalist taken hostage in Syria, if the airstrikes continued.
ISIS made good on that threat earlier this week in another disgusting video in which Sotloff is beheaded. Before being murdered, Sotloff is forced to say: “Your [Obama’s] foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be about the preservation of American lives and interests. So why is it that I’m having to pay the price of your interference with my life?” The video ends with an ISIS fighter promising that “Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
Thus, after not targeting the U.S. for years, ISIS has now beheaded two Americans in less the month. Although the tactics used are quite medieval, ISIS’s strategy should be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Cold War. Namely, ISIS is engaging in a strategy of deterrence by punishment. Unable to forcibly prevent the U.S. from conducting airstrikes (i.e. defense), ISIS is retaliating against the U.S. for them. In both videos, it tries to deter the U.S. from continuing the airstrikes by threatening to continue targeting Americans if the sorties don’t cease. The flip side of this threat, of course, is that it will not target the U.S. or Americans should the airstrikes stop.
That is unlikely to happen, however. American elites– both political and those in the media– are nearly united (never a good sign when it comes to Middle East policy) in arguing that the videos have demonstrated the necessity of expanding the air campaign to Syria, and intensify the one already underway in Iraq.
This may indeed be the right policy, if the threat ISIS poses to America’s interests in the Middle East is considered significant enough. Still, there should every expectation that ISIS will respond to a more extensive air campaign by increasing the severity of its retaliation. That is the nature of the strategy the group has adopted. If it has or later acquires the capability to do, this retaliation very well may come in the form of attacking the U.S. or Europe at home. All of this must be considered by the Obama administration as it debates how best to proceed.
Regardless of what Obama ultimately chooses, the main point is that U.S. “counterterrorism” policy was not only essential in creating ISIS, but it has also transformed it into a direct threat to the United States. It bears noting that the U.S. policies that led to these outcomes– namely invading Iraq in 2003 and initiating air strikes last month– both had strong, bipartisan support in Washington, just as bombing ISIS in Syria currently does.