Who’s to blame for ISIS’s rise to power in Syria and Iraq? How do we stop it? What’s the end goal really look like? If you read Gawker’s April interview with badass intel officer Malcolm Nance, you know a bit about these questions. He offers more (depressing) background today in the Intercept.

Nance, a 34-year vet of the U.S. intel services and counterterror adviser who’s worked on Iraq issues since 1987 and spent extensive time in country since Saddam was toppled, waded into Kinja to answer commenters’ questions on the Islamist morass overtaking much of the Middle East in recent years. But in Wednesday’s Intercept dispatch, he fleshes out just how ISIS was born out of Saddam’s Ba’athist loyalists, and how that fact complicates the terror regime’s future, quite independent of action by outside players like the U.S.:

The fall of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, to the Islamic State last month has frayed nerves in Washington, but what few appear to grasp is that ISIS’s May offensive has given Ramadi back to its former owners — the ex-Baathist Sunni terrorists known as the Former Regime Loyalists.

Here are three key takeaways from Nance’s analysis:

1. Yes, this is the Bush administration’s fault. Oh, well.

It’s not just that White House and Pentagon officials didn’t have a solid plan for post-war operations in 2003; it’s that what little of a plan they had was 180 degrees ass-backwards. De-Ba’athification, one of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s main action planks, boiled down to taking the best-educated, best-treated, best-trained, best-connected Iraqis from Saddam’s state and telling them to get fucked. Who knew that would turn out badly? Nance notes:

Recall that from the moment the U.S. Army entered Baghdad, the coming Sunni terror insurgency was manned by almost 100,000 FRL officers from the most loyal organizations. This number included 30,000 commandos from Saddam’s Fedayeen; 26,000 Special Republican Guards; 31,000 spies, analysts and enforcers from five major intelligence agencies; as well as 6,000 seasoned combat officers — all freshly fired by Ambassador Bremer through his General Order #2. These people didn’t vanish into thin air after the invasion; they went underground, as had been planned long before the war, and formed the largest insurgent group in Iraq, the Army of the Mujahideen.

Stuff happens. Rumsfeld’s pushing 83; Cheney’s gonna run out of hearts soon. Yes, it’s their faults. No, they won’t get a comeuppance. Let’s move the hell on, already.

2. The US can’t just “court” Iraq’s Sunni tribes to fight ISIS.

This is a view that’s recently caught on like 2011’s Friday video, in that it is viral, brainless, and likely to be regretted by everybody soon. The pollyanna-ish thesis that innocent Sunni tribes who hate ISIS are just looking for support from America to revolt against their current occupiers is held by parties as diverse as the NYT op-ed team, Washington’s top neoliberal interventionist, and latte-loving chickenhawk Max Boot.

It’s borne out of 1) the allegedly stunning success of the Anbar “Awakening,” aka “the Sons of Iraq”—Sunni volunteers who worked with Gen. David Petraeus’ U.S. troops to fight Al Qaeda in the mid- to latter years of the US occupation; and 2) the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government’s flat-out refusal to arm, pay, or employ those volunteers after we left.

It’s a pleasant fiction, seeing as how the Awakening’s success was largely embellished in US public affairs news releases. I should know; I was employed by the military in 2008 and 2009 to write those sunny reports. But trust between Sunnis, Shiites, and the Americans was always the exception, not the norm, and the tribes’ desires for self-determination (and self-arming, and self-policing) were always going to be nonstarters with the national government. Anyway, the majority of Sunnis have never really cared enough to align with the U.S. Nance notes:

Granted, some Sunni tribes and insurgents grew sick of al Qaeda and cooperated with the Iraqi government in 2007, during the “Sahwah,” or “Anbar Awakening,” but most, like Haji Bakr, kept fighting from their homes or across the border in Syria, and many were eventually incorporated into the framework of ISIS.

Simply put, ISIS today is essentially a Baathist-organized amalgam of virtually every Sunni tribal and jihadist insurgent group the United States has fought since April 2003. It is fueled by the ideology of al Qaeda and is under the nominal leadership of foreign terrorists.

3. ISIS may beat a whole lot of external enemies, but it’s ultimately going to end up fighting itself.

This is all-important, and something I asked Nance about in April. Ba’athists are Muslims, yes—in the same way that presidents are Christian. Individual results may vary. So even if these secular, Arabist fans of a federated military state have some enemies in common with ISIS’s perverse religious fundamentalists, how could the two groups ever govern together? Nance even includes a mystifying chart of ISIS’s goals, all the way to the end of their war and the beginning of their presumed state; emphasis added in red:

How the hell does a religious caliphate billing itself as the global arbiter of all Muslims coexist peacefully with a Saddam-style Iraqi junta? It doesn’t. Nance recounts just how the Ba’ath came to be—a military coup that exploited existing secular bureaucracy and intelligence capabilities—and gives his analysis:

In light of this history, it is reasonable to surmise that the ex-Baathists flying the ISIS flag today are covertly working to undermine ISIS’s caliphate and eventually achieve their own political goals. The FRLs may be allowing ISIS to do the hard work of fighting and carving out a Sunni-dominated tribal nation from Damascus to Fallujah to Mosul. Once that geographic goal has been achieved, it should not take much to depose the caliph and eliminate ISIS…

On the other hand, ISIS did make the FRLs swear oaths of loyalty to the caliphate, and they will certainly take a dim, beheading-filled view of any covert plans to undermine their reign. The FRLs will proceed cautiously. Both ideologies can coexist as long as there is a Shiite-Iranian-American axis to rally against. Baathists are still Muslims, and they have shown that they can feign piety as long as it’s convenient.

How long will it be convenient? Well, as long as American and Iranian hawks alternate between saber-rattling and hand-wringing, the dirtbags of Iraq have a common enemy to make them work out their differences. If we spent less time deciding what the conflict in Iraq says about us and more time subtly exploiting the fissures in a Ba’ath-takfiri coalition of the willing, then maybe the assholes would consume each other.

In the meantime, though, Nance says, “the clock could turn back to the summer of 2005, when ethnic tensions exploded in Iraq, filling the Tigris with bound and blindfolded corpses.” Stuff happens, sometimes with a vengeance.

[Photo credit: AP Images]

Contact the author at adam@gawker.com.
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