My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I found this to be an excellent book – even though I am very much a novice in this particular field and know little of the details on the topic. The authors were extraordinarily well researched and the writing was clear. The complexity of the tapestry of individuals and groups that are fighting for power and control of Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle East is astounding.
The book does a great job in providing the origins of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (al-Sham is the Arabic word for the Levant and given that its name is actually that it has finally made sense to me why the Obama administration kept calling it ISIL versus Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The origins pre-date the second Gulf War but really take a massive injection of energy with the existence of one man: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…a Jordanian low-level thug who turned to religion at the prodding of his mother who hoped it would keep him out of trouble. It was Zarqawi (a name I had heard and knew about since the early days of the second Gulf War when he became the source of agitation against American troops and efforts to rebuild Iraq) who helped drive the effort to start a sectarian civil war among the Iraqi nationals. The catalyst for a lot of this though was the American blundering into Iraq and to a great extent getting rid of the structures that Saddam Hussein had in place to control things. Iraq – according to Weiss and Hasan – was pretty much ruled like a mafia state by Hussein. He gave specific tribes what essentially amounted to monopolies in certain areas and to certain resources and they then pledged allegiance to him. Additionally, he kept the Shias in check – albeit brutally. By eliminating all that and then trying to stand up a democracy – a concept that didn’t fit with the tribal mentality that Hussein leveraged to his advantage we essentially “broke” the Iraqi model.
In so doing we opened a Pandora’s box of issues and suppressed hatreds that continue to plague the region till today. On top of that Iran – seeing an opening – has played the US for fools by encouraging the Iraqi Shia and supplying them with money and armaments.
On the other side – in Syria – the collapse of the al-Assad regime has been just disastrous. When the Arab Spring began to sweep through the Middle East Assad did what he knew he had to do in order to maintain power (how could he not do what he did – he saw the results of what happened in Libya). He also was involved in sending terrorists to Iraq to try and destabilize the American efforts there – all the while claiming that he was fighting terrorism. When things spun out of control and the Free Syrian Army – along with a large number of other rebel groups including the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front – began to take him to town the inevitable intervention of the Russians was the only thing that saved him.
The Russians – as much as they claim to be there to help Assad against ISIS are actually spending the majority of their time bombing Syrian rebel groups and even Syrian civilians and then claiming that ISIS is the one doing it. This is an old tactic that the Soviets used so well in WWII – when they got close to Warsaw towards the end of the war the Free Polish Army rose up against the Germans thinking that the Soviet Army would help them. The Soviet forces stopped short of Warsaw, waited for the Germans to brutally suppress and destroy the Free Polish Army and then rolled in after it was all done. The Russians are pretty much trying to do the same thing here. Given how ISIS and the anti-Assad rebel factions hate each other – the Russians are letting them fight it out (while also attacking the rebels as well) with the idea that once they’ve expended their resources on each other then the Russians and the Syrians will go in and clean up the mess and re-establish Assad’s control over all of Syria.
The book covers so much more than just what I’ve mentioned above – I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m eagerly waiting to see the next edition of this book (this edition was published in early 2016) as the events are still quickly unfolding over there and the authors definitely have excellent insights into what is happening. I highly recommend this book – even if you’re a neophyte like me on this specific topic – it is an excellent resource and gets you up to speed very quickly on these things.