ISIL as a U.S. Frankenstein: Paul Street Interview with Fars News Agency

First published at the Fars News Agency (Tehran), September 3, 2014:

FNA: Kindly explain about the role of US in forming and bringing ISIL into existence. Is this a plot orchestrated by US and its allies? If so, why?

Street: ISIL is in fact a Frankenstein created largely by US imperialism.  Still, it’s too much and far too simple to say that it is plot or a conspiracy orchestrated by the US and its allies.  To say that it is to exaggerate US power and to unduly deny agency to Sunni Islamists. It is also to misconstrue US-imperial aims in the Middle East.  The menace posed by ISIL and the resurgence of jihadism is not limited to Syria and Iraq.  It also threatens, in the words of the incisive US Left commentator Glen Ford, to “consume the kings, emirs and sultans the US depends on to keep the Empire’s oil safe.” With the rise of the new Caliphate, Ford notes, “The pace of [US] imperial decline just got quicker.” And, of course, many ISIL supporters and fighters see the US as a great Satanic enemy.

The peril ISIL poses to what has always been Washington’s primary concern in the region – the great “strategic prize” of Middle Eastern oil – raises the specter of the US having to re-send large military deployments to the world’s energy heartland. And that is something US policymakers do not relish since they know by now that it has the potential to make the situation worse. Smart US planners have learned that direct US military intervention fuels “anti-Americanism” and strengthens the jihadist movement in the long run.  The US prefers to dominate the region through proxies (including Saudi Arabia, the Arab emirates, and Israel) and divide-and-rule. “The problem is,” Ford notes, “the Pentagon’s proxies are evaporating, in flight, or – in the case of Arab Iraq – growing ever more dependent on Iran and (who would have predicted it?) Russia, which is assisting in reconstituting the Iraqi air force.”

Now, to say that ISIL is not simply a US conspiracy or plot is not to deny that it is very much a creation of US policy.  The US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan pretty much manufactured the global jihadist network in order to bloody the nose of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and 1980s.  ISIL is of course an offshoot of Al Qu’ida, itself largely a product of that US Cold War policy.  Moving into the current century and millennium, it is highly unlikely that ISIL would have emerged in Iraq if the US had not:

  • Invaded Iraq and broken state power there while directly and indirectly killing more than a million Iraqis and displacing millions more.
  • Disbanded the Iraqi army.
  • Stood by while Baghdad was looted.
  • Built military bases all over Iraq.
  • Fueled and exploited sectarian and related ethno-religious divisions in Iraq.
  • Created and left behind in Baghdad the world’s largest embassy, which harbors an army of US military contractors and CIA and other “intelligence” agents.
  • Continued to function as the dominant military power in Iraq through provision of arms, training, and other “support” to Iraq’s forces.
  • Insisted on US troops’ immunity from prosecution for criminal acts by Iraqi authorities.
  • Sponsored an Iraqi regime (Maliki’s) that shut Sunnis out of jobs and political power and shot Sunnis down when they protested.

At the same time, the US has given significant high-tech weapons and training to ISIL and allied groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria.  As the incisive US commentator Arun Gupta notes on the Web site of teleSur English, the situation is somewhat analogous to US policy in Afghanistan during the 1980s:

“U.S. and Israeli policy toward Syria is a cynical balance of wanting to weaken Assad by aiding the armed opposition to his brutal rule but not trying to strike a decisive blow as that would bring unknown forces to power or resolve the conflict through diplomatic or political means as that would leave Assad in power, representing a victory for Hezbollah and Iran. Rebel sources in Syria claimed in September 2013 they were receiving arms such as anti-tank weapons from the United States that were financed by the Saudis. The armed opposition in Syria consists of a staggering 1,500 groups, however, and most fighters are with Islamist or Jihadi forces such as ISIL or the recognized Al Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front. ISIL claimed last year that it was buying anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons from rebels that Washington is allegedly arming.”

“The situation is similar to the Afghanistan War. There have been rumors for decades that the CIA backed Al Qaeda in the 1980s. There is not definitive proof that Osama bin Laden was a CIA asset, but the United States did turn the region into a petri dish for violent religious fanatics known as the Mujahedeen. Some 12,500 foreign fighters ‘were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps the CIA helped to set up.’ The United States paid little concern to its monstrous creation as long as it was tangling with the Soviet Union. It’s nearly as blasé about fundamentalists at war with Assad’s Syria. The United States and its allies, especially the Saudis, flooded both conflicts with guns and cash, guaranteeing Syria would also become a lightning rod for Islamist forces….The Saudis want to pummel Assad’s regime as a way to inflict a blow on Iran, which sees itself as the leader of oppressed Shi’a brethren. “

There, of course, two differences with the Afghan situation near the end of the end of the Cold War.  First, the Soviet Union is gone, leaving the US as the only non-Muslim superpower for jihadists to hate, fight, and dream of bringing down.  Second, as Gupta notes, “unlike Al Qaeda, which needed a patron in the form of the Taliban, ISIL is building its own state in [an oil-rich] region of utmost importance to Empire, not a backwater like Afghanistan.”

This is what Ford rightly calls “the Empire reap[ing] the jihadist whirlwind.  It’s Frankenstein Returns, Bigger and Badder than Before.

Of course, here in the US, the “mainstream” (corporate) media just blames “sectarianism,” paying no attention whatsoever to the critical US role in the creation of the monster.  The US is portrayed as portrayed as a well-intentioned but innocent bystander, a frustrated umpire — at worst  bumbling and befuddled.

2) The terrorist group is equipped with the latest state-of-the-art weaponry. This is so extraordinary. ISIL emerged out of nowhere and now is using modern ammunition without US and NATO satellites detecting this. What is going on?

Street: There’s no mystery here.  ISIL has US weaponry given directly to it in Syria and taken from the Iraq government.  The region is flooded with weapons from the US, the world’s leading arms exporter and manufacturer of high-tech weaponry. As I hope my first answer shows, I don’t really think ISIL “emerged out of nowhere.”  For another example of the same basic thing, look at the basket case that US has made out of Libya – another quagmire where a horrific US attack broke state power, fueled rampant sectarianism, and left US weapons in the hands of both sides, including jihadists.

3) US high-ranking officials have repeatedly claimed that they are fighting against ISIL and that they will uproot them soon. We are seeing double-standards again. Now they say “it’s not easy”. Is this a bogus claim? What do you think?

Street: They will not really fight ISIL in Syria, where US policy is to weaken (officially, to topple) the Assad regime, which is if course allied with US enemy Iran.  Now overthrowing Assad happens to be the declared objective of ISIL and other jihadis in Syria. As the leading Middle East war reporter Patrick Cockburn notes, “There is a pretense in Washington and elsewhere that there exists a ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition being helped by the US, Qatar, Turkey, and the Saudis.  It is, however, weak and getting more so by the day. Soon the new caliphate may stretch from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean and the only force that can possibly stop this from happening is the Syrian army.”

The US and its key ally Saudi Arabia are determined to pound the Syrian government as a way to inflict pain on Iran, which stands up for oppressed Saudi Shias who live in dire poverty above spectacular oil wealth in the Eastern Province of the Arabian Peninsula.

US planners are seriously concerned about ISIL in oil-rich Iraq, however.  “The reality of US policy,” Cockburn notes, “is to support the government of Iraq, but not Syria, against ISIL.” The irony, of course, is that one of the reasons that the ISIL has been “able to grow so strong in Iraq is that it can draw on its resources and fighters in Syria” (Cockburn) – fighters who get material and money directly from the US.

I don’t really think this is a “double-standard.”  It is a contradiction in US imperial policy – one that reflects the single standard of imperial divide and rule.

It will not be at all easy for the US to uproot what Obama calls “the cancer” of ISIL.  There’s no guarantee of US success.  There’s much to suggest the likelihood of US failure in trying to control the monster it created. As the late US historian and foreign policy critic Gabriel Kolko used to remind us, Washington planners’ arrogant belief that they can neatly manage the world’s affairs in US and world interests from the banks of the Potomac has always been a great and dangerous illusion, with disastrous consequences at home and abroad.

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By | 2014-09-12T15:48:39+00:00 September 5th, 2014|Articles|