A new country is gradually emerging on the map of the world. Its borders are still in flux, and it is unlikely to enjoy much in the way of diplomatic recognition for the foreseeable future. Its capital city has yet to be identified or named. But its polity has already established several distinctive features.
It is homicidally intolerant of any and all who do not subscribe to Wahhabism, the puritanical Saudi strain of Sunni Islam. Its religious adversaries, if captured, may find themselves strung up and crucified, as happened recently in the city of Raqqa, in eastern Syria. Once established as a functioning state, amputations, stonings and beheadings are certain to become regular punishments. The commercial enslavement of girls and women will become commonplace.
This putative new nation we are describing is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and it occupies a huge swathe of land between the shores of the Mediterranean and Baghdad. Out of the north of Syria and the east and north-east of Iraq the jihadi fighters of Isil, Jabhat-al-Nusra and other like-minded groups of ultra-violent extremists have carved their own domain.
There could be endless discussion of the reasons for the emergence of such a dynamic and ferocious force of medieval barbarism out of the crucible of what was fondly called the Arab Spring. The economic might and proselytising zeal of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have played a large part in it. The failure of the Ba’athist tyrannies to give their people the rudiments of a decent life and hope for the future, let alone the civilities of democracy, prepared the ground.
But a heavy share of the blame rests with successive American and British governments. By going to war against Saddam Hussein on a false premise, the “coalition of the willing” may have destroyed an evil regime – but by pulverising Iraq’s institutions, it fatally damaged the cohesiveness of this flimsy, artificial state and let loose forces which, 10 years on, it has no power to control.
In Syria, by funnelling military aid to “moderate” rebels whom it naively imagined would obey their paymasters’ whims, the West has added to the sophisticated firepower in reach of the fundamentalists, helping them achieve their atavistic goals. In each case, as also in the case of Libya, the West has intervened just enough to displace the existing government but not nearly enough to establish control. At no point did anyone in Washington or London wish to see the Holy Fascists, as they have been dubbed, marching backwards through history to the time of Saladin, but that has been the most conspicuous result of Western policies.
With his speech at West Point last month, President Obama shows that he gets it, at least in part. “As the Syrian civil war spills across borders,” he said, “the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.”
But even that is only part of it. It is not merely because they pose a terrorist threat to us in our affluent cities that these “battle-hardened extremist groups” are a problem; it’s because they are driving the Middle East back to the Dark Ages, with all the fatal implications of that for Shias, Sufis, Christians and all other minorities. And, in a globalised world, their problems will rapidly become ours.
We will not defeat these forces by ignoring them and hoping they will go away. But how will we defeat them, given that our recent attempts have been so catastrophically counter-productive? It is a debate that needs to begin.