Donald Trump just accused Barack Obama of being the „founder of ISIS“ while calling Hillary Clinton its „co-founder.“ Although he did not go into detail, his remarks once again highlight the need to revisit the US‘ role in the region in general and the rise of the „Islamic State“ in particular. Unfortunately, Trump’s remarks are not completely off the mark.
ISIS can indeed be described as an unwelcome by-product of the „war on terror“ initiated under George W. Bush after 9/11. It benefited tremendously from the seemingly arbitrary and loose application of the „moderate“ label when it came to supporting armed groups in Syria. What counted was that they shared the same enemies (above all, Assad himself) and the same goals, not their mindset or political/religious views. Patrick Cockburn for instance argues that the policy of trying to weaken and ultimately overthrow Assad in Syria by supporting Sunni fighters „has created a situation in which ISIS can survive and may well flourish.“ In so doing, the US allowed advanced weaponry to fall into the hands of Jihadist groups and ultimately ISIS.
It thus does not come as a surprise that a pengaton report allegedly predicted that Western support for Islamist groups as a tool to overthrow al-Assad would create a „Salafist Principality“ in Syria. The emergence of such an entity was seen as a strategic necessity in achieving the overriding goal of weakening Iraq. To adapt an older saying: „They’re sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches.“
On the basis of this report, Seumas Milne (writing in the Guardian) argued that
[a] year into the Syrian rebellion, the US and its allies weren’t only supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups; they were prepared to countenance the creation of some sort of “Islamic state” – despite the “grave danger” to Iraq’s unity – as a Sunni buffer to weaken Syria.
That doesn’t mean the US created Isis, of course, though some of its Gulf allies certainly played a role in it – as the US vice-president, Joe Biden, acknowledged last year. But there was no al-Qaida in Iraq until the US and Britain invaded. And the US has certainly exploited the existence of Isis against other forces in the region as part of a wider drive to maintain western control.
Seen from this perspective, Donald Trump is not entirely wrong. The US and its failed strategy of supporting Islamist groups on the ground indeed ultimately contributed to the rise of the „Islamic State.“ A deus ex machina, so to say. The law of unintended consequences struck again.