The old Arabic proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" appears to have just arrived in the U.S. Serious American analysts have been promoting Egyptian President el-Sisi as a "moderate" leader who can defeat the threat to the region posed by ISIS. These same analysts are also seriously proposing cooperation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has fueled the growth of ISIS in Syria and emboldened it in Iraq.
If the U.S. decides to partner with Assad to defeat ISIS, they will be embracing a policy that legitimizes a war criminal who gassed his own people, and -- so far -- is the primary culprit in a conflict that has killed some 200,000 Syrians. Clearly, Assad has seen the opportunity to exploit the ISIS threat as his latest means to cling ruthlessly to power.
In the name of realpolitik, Americans are calling for more of the same. America's goals are shifting towards supporting authoritarian stability rather than restoring democratic legitimacy. Al-Malaki's abusive sectarian rule has helped to fuel and engender the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Thus, how can we imagine that an abusive sectarian Assad can be any part of a solution to root out ISIS in Syria? The very seeds of ISIS's creation are directly linked to the international community's inability to prevent Assad's mass slaughters and the resulting loss of hope for Arab democracy.
"America's goals are shifting towards supporting authoritarian stability rather than restoring democratic legitimacy."
Extremists and dictators exist in symbiosis -- they are often viable only by virtue of each other's presence. Together, they form an ecosystem of oppression -- a codependent existence. Even secular regimes rely on their tribes to fortify their power. They use tactics of fear, intimidation and humiliation to enforce ruthless control over their populace. Dissent is met with immediate harsh punishment: torture, death and starvation -- even children are not spared.
In 2011, 13-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb was arrested in Daraa, Syria for chanting "down with the regime." He was then tortured and subsequently killed with three bullets to the head and chest. His neck was broken, and his penis severed. In turn, the Syrian police arrested his father and forced him to accuse the Salafi extremists of having committed this heinous crime. The torture and death of Al-Khateeb triggered a spontaneous peaceful revolution in Syria that was immediately crushed by the Syrian regime, who employed massive air and ground forces.
Assad, in turn, succeeded in converting what had been a peaceful revolution into a civil war. Seizing the opportunity, Islamic extremists (well financed and armed by Gulf States) -- successfully exploited the momentum, using fear and grief to recruit young Syrians, thereby hijacking a revolution that was initially driven by a yearning for freedom and dignity.
At the hands of oppressive dictators like Mubarak, Maliki, Assad, Al Saud and others, unbearable conditions were created for their people. Extremists benefit from the climate of oppression created dictators. They consolidate power by using the state police and the secret service, or "mukhabarat," to kill, torture, rape and crush dissent. The policies of Arab dictators created horrifying side effects of radicalization and extremism.
"Extremists benefit from the climate of oppression created dictators."
It is not a coincidence that ISIS commandos were senior members of Saddam Hussein's former army. Such officers included Fadel al-Hayali and Adbab al-Sweidawi, both of whom were members of the Iraqi military intelligence in charge of identifying and eliminating any opposition to Saddam. ISIS is comprised of many of ex-Iraqi Baathists and ex-military commandos who once were secular but now, having declared themselves Islamists, have essentially retained the same role and core mission -- to regain power via brute violence.
That journey of radicalization is well described in the book that is considered the manifesto of political Islam, Milestone by Saed Qutb. The book has served as the ideological foundation for every Sunni extremist including leaders of Al Qaeda. Today, the number one of Al Qaeda, al-Zawahiri, was brutally tortured in Egyptian prisons and, like Qutb, left jail with the crystallization of one idea: transnational jihad. Currently, the U.S. is contemplating cooperation with the same regimes that birthed this ideology and continue to assure and sustain its growth.
With these factors in mind, it is highly questionable how any intellectual can believe that a dictator, who thrives on sectarianism and acts as a proxy for other nations, can defeat the threat of ISIS.
Waging another war that strikes at the symptoms and not the cause is destined to fail in the long run. Even if ISIS leader Abu baker al-Baghdadi is assassinated, ISIS will likely morph into another entity. This is especially probable given the dire economic situation of many Arab counties, where only about half the population works and nearly two-thirds of the population is under age 30.
"Waging another war that strikes at the symptoms and not the cause is destined to fail in the long run."
Change is inevitable, and the spirit of the Arab spring that demanded dignity, freedom and inclusion is quiet but alive and will continue kicking for years to come. However, this very same spirit is used and abused by extremists to restore their legitimacy. Democracy produces a pluralistic society, which encompasses a multitude of ideologies across the political spectrum -- be they conservative or liberal -- and people are influenced by their culture, including their religion. America can't support oppressive regimes and hope that they can produce a tolerant multicultural civil society.
When moderate Islamists embraced the political process and won elections, there was a brief opportunity to allow the battle of ideas to be settled through politics. America then backed a military coup by which general el-Sisi authorized the killing of about 1,000 moderate Islamists in the infamous massacre of Rabaa. Even now, thousands are imprisoned since that day, including journalists who simply covered the event with critical commentary. America's partner el-Sisi, has a legacy of radicalizing a new generation of Islamists, who began as moderates and after suffering his wrath, will turn to be radical extremists.
"We need to push for an ambitious project in the Middle East that unites Arab states the way Europe united after World War II."
Policies based on fear and manipulation are driving the U.S. to collaborate with those who have created and financed extremists. But if stability is the goal, America cannot bomb its way out of the problem. We need a long-term strategy, which incorporates soft power, diplomacy, investment in education and, above all, a vision for the Arab Muslim world.
We need to push for an ambitious project in the Middle East that unites Arab states the way Europe united after World War II. Economic reform opened the door to cultivating stability in war-torn Europe. Germany and France, once vicious enemies, realized the plethora of benefits cooperation would provide. That, in turn, spurred long-term stability and the most eloquent idea that is the European Union. Arabs are already united under a linguistic, religious and cultural umbrella and suffer through similar economic and political problems. United, they can forge a stronger future for their nations.