Notes From the Margins…

The ISIS Caliphate: A Strategic asset?

  • May 22, 2015
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I have yet to see any reference in the mainstream media to Monday’s publication by the conservative foundation Judicial Watch of previously classified US intelligence documents obtained as the result of a freedom of information lawsuit   This inattention is alarming, because one of these documents provides some disturbing background behind the nightmarish caliphate that is now being carved out across Syria and Iraq.

Consider these observations contained in an information report on Syria by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) dated August 12 2012   on the “general situation” in Syria in the summer of 2012:

  • Internally, events are taking a clear sectarian direction
  • The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.
  • The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition, while Russia, China, and Iran support the regime.
  • AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media.
  • AQI had major pockets and bases on both sides of the border to facilitate the flow of materiel and recruits.

In a section on ‘the future assumptions of the crisis’, the report put forward the following hypothesis:

Development of the current events into proxy war: with support from Russia, China, and Iran, the regime is controlling the areas of influence along coastal territories…On the other hand, opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar), in addition to neighboring Turkish borders.

Western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey are supporting these efforts.   This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command center of the temporary government.

So in the summer of 2012, opposition forces in which Salafi/AQI elements were the “major forces” were seeking to control territory in eastern Syria with the support of the Gulf States, Turkey – and Western countries.    And the DIA was suggesting that such assistance might take the form of a safe haven, constructed under the rubric of a Libya-style no fly zone.  What would these ‘safe havens’ be like?  The DIA offered the following possibility:

If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).

Might the world’s leading democracy have a problem with a ‘Salafist Principality’ for sectarian/strategic reasons?   Not as far as we can tell from this document, at least in Syria.   Iraq was another matter, however, because such an enclave so close to the Iraqi border would benefit al-Qaeda:

This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the assumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters.

This might even result in “The renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi arena.”

The DIA’s assessment was “unevaluated intelligence”, so we don’t know how other agencies or the administration itself responded to the information that it provided.   Nevertheless the published document tells us that some elements in the US government at least, knew:

  • That al-Qaeda/Salafism was the dominant element in an opposition that it was still insisting at the time was largely ‘moderate’
  • That its allies regarded a ‘Salafi Principality’ as a potential strategic asset in order to combat and reverse the ‘Shia expansion’ and bring about regime change in Syria.
  • That the US might be prepared to support these developments through the construction of a ‘safe haven’ protected by western air power.

In the event, the no fly zone proved politically impossible. But the proxy war prediction proved to be horribly accurate. And so did the Salafi Principality scenario – in the shape of the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, a ‘Salafist Principality’ that now makes al-Qaeda seem like moderates.

At the very least, you would think that these documents might provoke a wider discussion about American foreign policy in Syria and the Middle East and the use of jihadist/Salafist groups as strategic instruments – not to mention the morality and the wisdom of supporting a ‘Salafist Principality’ while claiming that you were seeking to promote a moderate democratic opposition.

Questions might also be asked about Western collusion in a proxy war aimed at reversing ‘Shia expansion’ across the Middle East, and more widely about the essential premises behind a ‘war on terror’ in which al Qaeda can be an existential enemy in one country and a strategic asset in another.

But that would be an uncomfortable and unpleasant conversation to have.   So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that these revelations so far passed largely unnoticed.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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