World powers have failed to account for new realities, much less attempt to grapple with them. Instead, they are huddling around Middle East tyrants in hopes of continuing as usual
A startling trove of leaked documents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence detailed Iranian activities inside Iraq in 2014 and 2015, during the first months of the war against Isis. As outlined this week by The Intercept, which obtained the documents some three years ago, and The New York Times, the documents showed how thoroughly Iran had penetrated the country in the years after the US withdrawal from the country, including its successful recruitment of cashiered Iraqi CIA operatives looking for work.
But the leaked documents also chronicled one dimension of a broader trend: the vast changes the Isis war has wrought on the region.
After all, it was Isis’s takeover of Mosul and its lunge eastward from Syria that drew Iran to engage so deeply in Iraq in the first place, reinvigorating the Shia militias that had been largely sidelined by President Nouri Maliki. Those armed forces now lord over Iraqis, representing a powerful political and military force that is violently suppressing a pro-democracy movement.
The Isis conflict, which lasted nearly five years, thoroughly changed regional dynamics, leaving behind a swath of human and material devastation. Entire cities were levelled, including Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
For five years, Arab leaders used the threat of Isis to tighten the security state and crack down on dissent. It’s probably no coincidence that as the war has wrapped up, demands for democracy across the region have re-emerged in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan.
Policymakers have mostly failed to account for the new realities, much less attempt to grapple with them. Mostly, across western capitals, they are closing their eyes, covering their ears and huddling around Middle East tyrants like Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in hopes of continuing business as usual.
Writers and scholars have done a better job. The Atlantic magazine’s Mike Giglio, a friend and former colleague, details the rise, fall and consequences of the Isis war in his recent book, Shatter the Nations.
Early on, he describes how Isis came up with innovations that included car-bomb factories and drones as tools of guerilla warfare in ways that have been emulated across the region.
“The same drones sold at Target or on Amazon were being used by Isis to conduct surveillance and coordinate mortars and car bombs,” he writes in his gripping and detailed account. “I learned later that the coalition was trying desperately to stop the drones, to jam their communications, but Isis had technicians too, and they kept changing the frequencies the drones were flying on, staying a step ahead.”
The conflict has left myriad security worries that have yet to be addressed, from the physical devastation and lack of governance in wide spaces of Iraq and Syria, to foreign fighters held by various forces in both countries.
Another friend and colleague, the Spanish journalist Pilar Cebrian, is wrapping up a lengthy project, funded by the Spanish banking group Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, on European Isis fighters left in Syria and Iraq. She is writing a book chronicling the odysseys of the mostly young European men and women who left to join Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ill-fated caliphate and are now languishing in detention.
Despite pressure by the US administration of Donald Trump, European governments are refusing to take responsibility for the detainees, which Cebrian describes as a purely political decision by short-sighted leaders.
“It’s because they are afraid of the far right to take benefit of any repatriation,” she says, adding that many of those who joined were young, impulsive, and not even particularly extremist, which could change if they remain in harsh detention centres in Iraq and Syria.
“The risk is that all these people will eventually radicalise. They are in jail in touch with high-ranking Isis members. A French Isis fighter is with German, Spanish and Tunisian fighters. There is an international terrorist [network] developing in Iraq and Syria. A future caliphate is being designed in Syrian camps and Iraqi jails.”
Despite Europe’s refusal to take back, try and jail its fighters, and even threaten to strip them of citizenship, they can easily find their way home. Towards the end of Giglio’s book, he describes his meetings with smugglers who found themselves taking huge sums to transport Isis fighters to Turkey and then onto Europe. Senior Isis members were rich after years of running extortion, oil and antiquities rackets. “It’s easy for Isis people to escape,” one smuggler told Giglio.
The west, led by the US, has a habit of starting wars only to quickly walk away. It did so in Vietnam, prompting the destabilisation of Cambodia and the entirety of Indochina. It did it again Afghanistan, leaving a years-long civil war that led to the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It did so in Libya, moving on after helping to topple the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi even as the country is gripped by a war over its capital right now.
And it is in danger of moving on from the Isis war now that the territorial caliphate has been defeated.