Leaders such as David Cameron and Barack Obama have spoken extensively on the human rights violations committed by Isis and the group’s growing threat to “the West.” Simultaneously, it seems that the two have overlooked their own role in catalysing the rise of what has been dubbed by one US Senator as “one of the most barbaric and well-financed terrorist groups of our time”.
The group, which aims to establish a radical Islamist state across Iraq and Syria, ruled according to the creeds of Sharia (Islamic law), has doubtlessly committed unjustifiable atrocities in recent months – as well as over the last twelve years. But, according to a number of commentators such as Thomas Freidman of the New York Times, the spread of Isis must be understood in relation to the context from which it arose.
The targets of Isis brutality
Besides the high-profile beheadings of Euro-American citizens, the list of Isis human rights violations are extensive, and have been committed against a whole host of ethnic and religious strands. They include the massacre of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, abductions and forced conversions, slavery, trafficking, decimation of religions and cultural sites, sexual abuse, and ethnic and sectarian annihilation of communities.
Politicians deny the role of the 2003 Iraq war
European and American leaders plead with the international community not to trace the emergence of Isis back to its origins. “We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history,” Barack Obama said in a statement. “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” Tony Blair, British Peace Envoy to the Middle East, stated that we should, “liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this.” David Cameron, meanwhile, has completely denied that the rise of Isis might stem from the Euro-American occupation, suggesting: “Let’s be clear about the source of the threat that we face. The terrorist threat was not created by the Iraq War ten years ago.” Evidence, though, reveals that such statements are deeply problematic.
Blame is laden on Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi Prime Minister, who endorsed the massacre of dozens of Sunni protesters in April 2013, and legislated on policies which granted Iranian-backed Shiite militias the freedom to kill Sunnis as they pleased. However, it was the U.S who appointed him in the first place. On the one hand, the former PM abetted the escalation of violence between Sunnis and Shias, opening the gateway for Isis to enter Iraq from Syria. On the other hand, Guardian investigations into the occupation of 2003 show how American military officials triggered civil war in Iraq by recruiting Shia militia who sought revenge against Sunni supporters of the former regime.
Journalists and pundits dispute colonialist causes
The political facade of amnesia surrounding the war a decade ago is somewhat akin to playing down of the role of colonialism in the Middle Eastern conflict. Roula Khalaf, for the Financial Times, has attributed the plight of Iraq to the latter-day actions of postcolonial Middle Eastern politicians rather than to old colonial powers. Yet her argument, that the 1916 Sykes-Picot accord (an Anglo-French agreement that carved up the Arab territories) is the lesser of multiple causes of the current offensive, jars somewhat with the stated aims of Isis. The organisation’s leader, Abu bakr al-Baghdadi, claimed in a speech in July that, “this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes’ “Picot conspiracy.”
Finding support in Khalaf’s article, meanwhile, Reider Visser has focused on the particularities of Sykes-Picot and the extent to which the accord drew on previous territorial Ottoman divides. But the historian appears to overlook the significance of who issued the ultimatum and how they behaved. Colonial authorities’ disregard for local inhabitants was displayed fittingly by Winston Churchill, during his Downing Street tenure, when he used Iraqi uprisings as opportunities to test out newly invented weaponry.
Iraq today and tomorrow
A litany of Euro-America errors have, at the very least, aided the the spread of Isis in recent years. Following the 2001 attacks on New York by al-Qaeda, the U.S established secret training camps in Jordan for would-be Isis fighters to build resistance against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
A circle of commentators, then, assert that Europe and America should not take any military action in Iraq. Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, has contemplated the consequences of refraining from intervention, suggesting that the absence of the US in Iraq would possibly incentivise regional powers in the Middle East to deal with Isis themselves. Others in the Euro-American print media have suggested likewise. These opinions expose the unflattering record of failed foreign policy in the Middle East. But, with news of Syrian airstrikes emerging in the early hours of Tuesday, it is Barack Obama who will seemingly have the final word: “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”