Extensive excerpts from a major Globe and Mail article by Mark MacKinnon, fine journalism. One can only feel a pall of almost impenetrable pessimism, particularly now that ISIS has changed the game by mass killings well beyond the immediate territory of its Caliphate:
On the trail of terror
…almost all of the 1.1 million refugees in Lebanon – like the bulk of the 750,000 refugees in Jordan – had fled the Syrian army, not IS (the two million refugees in Turkey are a different matter, since most people fleeing IS-controlled eastern Syria would likely head there). Those were the Syrian army’s bullets, not Da’esh’s, shooting best friends where they stood, and tearing off jaws. The Syrian army, not incidentally, answers to commanders who are Alawite by faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The rage those experiences produce – an anger that the Palestinian experience has taught us will be passed on for generations – is what IS feeds off. While the West debates shutting its borders to refugees over a single, suspiciously intact Syrian passport, the wars in Syria and Iraq are still producing thousands of new refugees and internally displaced people every day. And luring people like the Paris attacker to join the jihad.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, whether they are fleeing IS or Mr. al-Assad’s forces and their Shia militia allies from Iran and Lebanon. The same holds true in Iraq, where refugees I’ve met in the camps of Kurdistan tell chilling stories of IS brutality. But ask them why locals did not resist IS when the extremists arrived in Mosul and other cities, and they switch to tales of how Iraq’s Sunnis were persecuted by Iraq’s Shia-dominated military before IS arrived.
To the West, the IS militants are unqualified barbarians. In parts of Iraq and Syria, they are seen as needed protection against a sectarian foe…
The Sunni Awakening bested al-Qaeda in Iraq, but not [the then prime minister, Shia] Mr. al-Maliki. By 2013, the Iraqi government had disbanded the Sons of Iraq. The Sunni militias were no longer in charge of the streets of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi. Mr. Maliki’s Shia-dominated army was the only force allowed to publicly bear arms. Refugees fleeing the IS takeover of Mosul would later tell me how the Iraqi army would detain and sometimes torture young men simply because they had Sunni names.
Iraq’s descent back into chaos happened as Syria’s civil war – which had begun when Mr. al-Assad’s soldiers opened fire on peaceful (and predominantly Sunni) demonstrators at the end of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 – was entering a dangerous new phase. Proof emerged that his forces had used chemical weapons in the summer of 2013 against something that still existed then: religiously moderate Sunni rebels.
…the refugee children’s parents, in the fall of 2013, saw hope in the expected Western military action against the al-Assad regime. “Everybody is waiting for the strike,” said Mahmoud Hoshan, a refugee who ran a mobile-phone shop in the camp. “We don’t want to be disappointed. People are selling their things, getting ready to go back.”
But the West, as we know, backed down. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered both his ally, Mr. al-Assad, and Mr. Obama an off-ramp from conflict – a deal to remove chemical weapons from the country – and both sides gratefully took it.
The war would continue. The al-Assad regime would use barrel bombs instead of chlorine gas…
To Mr. Obama, it probably looked like he was avoiding Mr. Bush’s mistakes, not to mention keeping a war-weary United States out of another intractable Middle Eastern conflict. But to the Sunnis fighting Mr. al-Assad – who briefly looked to the skies hoping American jets were coming to save them – it was a huge betrayal. After all, imaginary chemical weapons had been enough to trigger the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of a Sunni dictator. Now the use of real ones (against a Sunni population) was being allowed to go unpunished in Syria…
In the fall of 2013, IS was one militia among many in Syria’s conflict. Nine months later, by the summer of 2014, it had largely subsumed the local al-Qaeda affiliate, and had taken over territory from the edge of Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad…
IS has…a pool of anger and resentment to draw on, young Muslims who now see the conflict as civilizational, rather than a beef with the U.S. government and its military. The Koran and its more dangerous interpretations have been with us for centuries. There is nothing new about the ideology of IS, the idea of a caliphate or the need to wage jihad against all non-believers.
…As the Paris attacks demonstrated yet again, refugees are not the worry – at least not yet. As with the Madrid and London attacks in 2004 and 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January [all al Qaeda], nearly all the perpetrators were born, bred, marginalized and radicalized in the European societies they attacked. The kerosene was everywhere; IS only provided the match…
There is no prescription here [this article]. Only a warning, a feeling I picked up during that ill wind that blew me from the Bekaa Valley to Brussels, via Paris.
It’s a simple one: Worse lies ahead down the road that world leaders are currently plotting. A Russian-French agreement to work together to punish IS, while necessarily empowering the remnants of the al-Assad regime to expand back into parts of the country where it is feared and reviled, will not stem the refugee flow from Syria. Nor will it convince the country’s Sunni Muslims that we care about their interests. The same applies in Iraq, where we bolster the Kurds and a hated national army against IS there.
“Why don’t they stay and fight for their country?” is one barb often aimed at the young men fleeing Iraq and Syria.
The root of the problem is, they don’t have one.
Except that some may turn to the Caliphate. And, as the article highlights, it has not been primarily the West’s actions stirring up these Sunni Arabs. Even more important is the Islamic 30 Years War.