Mark Twain once ventured that “history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Amid images of mass executions and talk of a new fundamentalist state emerging in the Middle East, it seems that the initial verse of contemporary Syrian history is barely to be written before its analogue in Iraq is hastily cobbled together, repackaged, and broadcast to an astonishingly uninformed Western public.
For Iraq – as for Syria – the same tired rehash of events dominates the news cycle. In a warped portrayal of the situation on the ground, ISIS has been cast as a behemothic force for evil with the power not only to spontaneously generate, but to snatch vast swathes of Mesopotamia: first, from an irritating little optician-turned-despot; and second, from a tolerable, if undesirable, Iraqi Government.
Needless to say, the narrative which has taken hold is deeply flawed.
ISIS, contrary to popular opinion, has not has appeared in the last week. The group – or rather forces which wish to be seen as ISIS – has been operating in Iraq and Syria for over a year now. Yet rather than the unstoppable menace hysterical commentators have talked it up to be, ISIS is merely a highly effective tool in Tehran’s war in the Middle East.
The reality behind the nonsense is that Maliki has been using ISIS as a scapegoat to allow him to abuse Sunni communities across Iraq for months; debuting in Anbar province, where the Iraqi Government’s indiscriminate brutality culminated in the bombing of a single hospital for seven days in row, and left Fallujah a ghost town. Since this year began, 500,000 people have been displaced from Anbar as a result of government-directed violence, with thousands killed – all of whom, rather conveniently, are members of ISIS.
Indeed, opposition to Shiite oppression automatically makes one a member of ISIS, it seems. Ali al-Shalah, a member of Maliki’s State of Law Coalition recently let slip that, “to avoid confusion, we look at all those who fire at the military forces as members of ISIS, regardless of what they call themselves.”
Mounting evidence of the indiscriminate killing of Iraqi Sunnis has largely been brushed aside by Western governments, who are more concerned with a nuclear deal that will never happen than the suffering of thousands. By branding all Sunni fighters as ISIS, Maliki made this process all the easier.
Indeed, the demonization of the Sunni community in Iraq around the world was the main pillar of Maliki’s election campaign; to him, the events in Anbar – orchestrated and executed by forces loyal to his masters in Tehran – were merely a warm-up to the April elections. By pummelling the Sunni communities of Iraq, Iran’s man in Baghdad forced several parties from that side of the sectarian divide to shy away from standing, thereby paving the way for him to steal the election.
The parallels between the conflict in Iraq and Syria are striking. In both, the government is guilty of false flag operations to demonise external enemies while eliminating internal ones. In Syria, it is now clear that ISIS has largely been armed and funded by the Assad regime itself, while both sides have teamed up to wipe out Syrian moderates. In Iraq, there are growing concerns that Iranian forces deployed to Baghdad, ostensibly to stabilise the city, are gearing up for an attack on Iranian dissidents at Camp Liberty. Indeed, the Iranian propaganda machine has already attempted to equate those detained at the camp (who are secular, democratic, largely Shiite and – most importantly – unarmed refugees in a concentration camp, effectively sealed off from the world) and ISIS as a pretext for an attack.
None of this will matter much to the press, which has whipped itself up into a delirious frenzy from which it cannot now back down. Indeed, media outlets seem to be trying to outdo one another in their portrayal of the menace, with The Independent reaching new levels of hyperbole today by pronouncing the organisation to be “the most powerful and effective extreme jihadi group in the world.”
Of course, ISIS has packaged the horrific execution of its stated ideology into quotable soundbites and YouTube-ready clips for digestion by lazy journalists. With hard-hitting news handed to you, what’s the point of research? As colleague Jacob Campbell has written:
“The misattribution of armed activity to ISIS is invariably reinforced by ISIS itself, which frequently exaggerates the size of its membership and the scope of its operations by recycling old videos and faking new ones.”
In casting ISIS as the bogeyman of the Middle East, Iran, Maliki, Assad and ISIS itself have achieved in Iraq what they have already achieved in Syria; it has turned us against the legitimate, moderate opposition to a Tehran-backed despot and has handed Iran Western support – as well as a convenient excuse – to extend its reach ever further and ever deeper across the Middle East.
There is, however, some hope for the Iraqis and Syrians trying to wrest themselves from Tehran’s grasp. The European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA) – launched earlier this month – has already shown itself to be one of their most high-profile allies. One of the EIFA’s founders, Struan Stevenson, himself characterised the uprising as “the eruption of years of popular loathing and disillusionment brought on by Maliki and his clique.”
With ISIS, Maliki and the Iranian regime will attempt to discredit legitimate protest as Assad and the regime did in Syria. History shouldn’t be allowed to repeat itself.