Have Western bombs revived Islamic State in Syria?

A brutal civil war in Syria allowed Islamic State to thrive. Copyright:iStock
A brutal civil war in Syria allowed Islamic State to thrive. Copyright:iStock

By Dean Smith

On April 7th, a chemical weapon attack inflicted heavy civilian casualties in the town of Douma, the last rebel-held stronghold in the Eastern Ghouta region of Syria. Speaking on Twitter the next day, US president Donald Trump bluntly referred to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad as an "animal" and claimed there would be a "big price" to pay.

That price was made clear over the weekend, when air strikes by US, British, and French aircraft targeted chemical weapon storage and research facilities. Immediately afterwards, US defence secretary General Jim Mattis declared that "this wave of air strikes is over".

All eyes have understandably been on the escalating tension between the US and Russia. As a result, very little attention has been paid to the implications of such intervention on the virtually-defeated Islamic State and its client organisations in the region.
Mattis statement suggests the US has no intention of pursuing further strikes, but arguments for regime change have been ongoing for a while in Washington. Last year, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley insisted that there can "be no peace in Syria until Assad is ousted". The prospect of US intervention in a Middle Eastern conflict zone, following the accusation of the possession and use of chemical weapons, is one that invokes an ominous feeling of déjà vu.


After seven years of brutal civil war between government forces and various insurgent groups, the general consensus is that Assad has won the fight to stay in power. At the offset of the conflict, defectors from the Syrian military broke off to form a rebel group that styled itself as the Free Syrian Army. Assad countered in 2012 by releasing jihadi prisoners. It was an attempt to taint rebel groups with Islamic radicalism, thereby giving his violent repression of rebel groups an air of legitimacy and making it more difficult for foreign powers to back his opponents.

It was also around this time that an al-Qaeda splinter group set up shop in Syria, calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra, further increasing the presence of radical jihads. Most groups that originally manifest secular aspects have now been tinted with Islamic radicalism, including the Free Syrian Army, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Islamic State grew during the conflict from a marginal paramilitary force in Iraq to a transnational organisation that, at its height, controlled territory the size of the United Kingdom. Mercifully, it has now been declared defeated by military leaders from Syria, Iraq, and Russia.

But this is not the first time the organisation has been dismissed. The group's previous iterations in Iraq during the last decade faced similar adversity and it has often been able to make use of political instability to re-emerge as a major threat.

Astute observers of the current situation in Syria will see parallels between the current state of Islamic State and its predecessor organisations in Iraq.  Before the US-led invasion in 2003, international jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had already attempted to set up an organisation comparable to Osama bin Laden's branch of al-Qaeda. But where Bin Laden found success, al-Zarqawi's movement faltered. Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and its authoritarian domination of Iraq gave little quarter for al-Zarqawi organisation.

Following the US overthrow of the regime, Iraq descended into the chaos of sectarian violence and civil war. Sunni militant groups carried out attacks on the majority Shia population and were met in kind by their Shia opponents. As with Iraq, Syria is rife with sectarian tension between Assad Alawite sects and the predominantly Sunni rebel groups.

Al-Zarqawi was killed by a US airstrike in 2006. In the aftermath, al-Qaeda in Iraq lost much of the momentum the organisation enjoyed after the initial coalition invasion. It was pushed to the margins of the Iraqi conflict and appeared to have been defeated.

But then something changed. The outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 allowed the group to transfer its operation to Syria and move freely across international borders. This new theatre of operation and the ability to operate, at least initially, without mass opposition, allowed Islamic State increase in strength and eventually launch an invasion back into Iraq, capturing a large swath of territory in the process.

This is the long, depressing, complicated story of this strand of jihadism in Syria and Iraq. Between 2011 and 2013, the group that was called al-Qaeda in Iraq and soon became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had a resurgence due primarily to the effects of the Syrian civil war. The lack of any initial major opposition in Syria allowed the group to consolidate its power, re-equip and recruit, as well as expand its territory. Political destabilisation fuelled the rise of Islamic State.

It is clear that the lessons from the Iraq war still haven't been fully absorbed by western policy makers. There is currently only the vaguest concept of what intervention in Syria hopes to achieve. Theresa May seems to put solidarity with the US ahead of an argument on the merits of intervention, just as Tony Blair did during Iraq and continues to do now. Criticism of this position is widespread. There are fears that the RAF would become "the airwing of Islamic State" by strategically weakening the Assad regime, allowing the group and other jihadi groups to operate with impunity.

Syria could be destabilised all over again, just as the civil war seems to be nearing its end. This is akin to the way in which Iraq was destabilised after the 2003 invasion and then again in 2011. History would be repeating itself.

In those previous cases, radical groups such as Islamic State and its predecessor organisations took full advantage of the chaos caused by lack of central authority and the resulting civil strife. A broader western intervention into Syria to combat the Assad regime would likely result in a similar scenario. it would be a practical coup de grâce for the faltering Islamic State, allowing it to regain lost territory and resources.

It seems practically cliché at this point to quote the writer George Santayan in his famous aphorism: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." However, the parallels between the state of militant jihadi organisations in Syria and their predecessors in Iraq are alarming.

Policy makers should exercise extreme caution before advocating a more aggressive form of intervention in Syria. It could be the saving grace Islamic State needs to recover from its defeat.

Dean Smith is a freelance counter terrorism analyst living in Glasgow. He graduated from the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence and specialises in counter terrorism, intelligence, and political violence.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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