By Nacereddine Saleh
Donald Trump has been eager to claim the defeat of ISIS, though this has been disputed by forces on the ground. Either way, its so-called ‘caliphate’ is in its death-throes with militia forces closing in on them in Baghouz, Syria. ISIS has spilt the blood of many different factions within Syria and Iraq, and as this turbulent chapter in the recent history of the Middle East draws to a close, their demise is a cause for rejoicing for everyone around the world, whether Muslim or not.
Recently, the media has focused its attention on returning Western jihadis and the plethora of legal and moral problems which they have thrown up. On the one hand they have been portrayed as evil, treasonous terrorists who remain a threat and must be prevented from returning, even if this means stripping them of their citizenship. Others argue that these people, however much we may disdain them, should be granted due legal process and be tried, convicted and punished for their crimes, the same as for any other criminal. A third, more nuanced view points out that, along with a legal process, there should be a pathway for them to rehabilitate. A number of these individuals were minors at the time of their travelling to Syria and indeed show signs of having been manipulated and brainwashed. This suggests some sympathy rather than a purely punitive approach.
This discussion, interesting as it is, appears to have eclipsed a much more serious and pressing issue, which has been entirely ignored by the media – namely, what has become of the ISIS leadership, the puppet-masters of these misguided impressionable youth?
The origins of ISIS were always murky. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, was an inmate given special privileges in an American-run jail, Camp Bucca, in Iraq. He was allowed access to all parts of the compound, resolving disputes and coordinating between prisoners. The US army then decided to free all of them, including Abu Bakr, without charge in 2009. They regrouped, and within a few years ISIS burst onto the world stage. Bashar al-Assad also had a (blood soaked) hand in this. With the Syrian revolution in full swing he released multiple takfiri jihadis from his jails, to the extent that his secret services facilitated their catching buses unchecked to ISIS territory. This was a practical application of the old Arab maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Assad successfully divided and diverted his opposition and painted himself as a reasonable alternative to the terrorists of ISIS. The West duly stepped in, bombarding ISIS territory from the air (with the resultant deaths of many thousands of innocent Sunni civilians in Mosul and Raqqa) and tellingly, largely ignored Assad’s use of chemical weapons and indiscriminate barrel bombs which together killed many times more people than ISIS could have ever dreamt of.
And now things have come full circle. Of all the toppled dictators in the Middle East, Assad has grimly held on to and maintained his power. Indeed, the West and the Gulf states have pivoted back to him as being someone who they must (reluctantly) do business with. The UAE has now re-opened their embassy in Damascusand there is a push for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab league. Now Assad is tightening his grip on Idlib which, if defeated, will mark the bitter end of an initially peaceful democratic Islamically sympathetic revolution.
But I digress. The imminent fall of ISIS presents a golden opportunity to capture their leadership, bring them to justice and stamp out once and for all their twisted ideology. However, this chance is being squandered. Donald Trump was keen, against the wishes of his advisors, to prematurely pull US troops away from the front-line fight against the remnants of ISIS. Instead, this critical phase of the mission has been left to a rag-tag militia – the Kurdish ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’. Many people have escaped from ISIS territory into refugee camps, several fighters have surrendered and there are even reports that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his close supporters may have escaped to the desert following a coup attempt. Currently there seems to be no clear picture as to where the ISIS leadership is. In reality this constitutes breathtaking negligence on the part of the US and the international community and the silence of the media is deafening. Imagine if Hitler’s henchmen were allowed to wander off unpunished after World War II and imagine if there were no Nuremberg Trials – the world would be appalled.
The major concern here is that terrorism, instead of being rooted out and put to an end, will instead be allowed to metastasize to other locations around the world, perpetuating the excuse for Western interventionism in a never ending ‘War on Terror’.