Much ink has been spilled this past fortnight, since the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) swept through and occupied a large swathe of Iraq.
While it seems doubtful that the al-Qaeda-linked extremist group can hold all the territory it just took, there is no doubt it has made significant headway towards its goal of an Islamic super-state comprising as large a chunk of Greater Syria as possible.
Sham is an Arabic term for Syria, but a Syria on a far greater scale than the modern state bearing that name, something often missed by commentators. A successful ISIS Caliphate would be comprised of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and historic Palestine (including “Israel”).
But despite ISIS’s spectacular blitzkrieg, the large and important territories it holds in both Syria and Iraq, the oil resources it controls, and the huge amount of weapons and cash it now has to hand, such a vision is (thankfully) a long way from realisation.
The historic and current reality in Greater Syria is ethnic and religious diversity. Arabs, Kurds and and other ethnicities have long lived together, for better or worse. Muslims, Christians and (before the rise of the anti-Semitic ideology of Zionism) Jews, all of of many different sects, have lived closely together.
The overbearing impression of the current mainstream media narrative is that the ISIS war against Iraq is part of a sectarian conflict of Sunni Muslims verses Shi’a Muslims. ISIS is currently bearing down on the capital Baghdad, we are told, and meanwhile the Shi’a militias gather their forces, ready for a repeat of the horrific civil war that plagued Iraq in the years after the 2003 US-UK invasion.
Or so we are told.
There is no question that the spectre of sectarian bloodshed is a grave danger to the region right now. Since the high-jacking of 2011’s popular Arab uprisings by Western imperialism and reactionary Gulf oil and gas monarchies, sectarianism has been on the rise.
But if one believes everything told to us on the BBC and in the newspapers, you’d come away with the impression that such sectarian bloodshed is something innate to Iraq’s people – indeed to the Arab world in general. “Those people over there” just love to kill each other. It’s a centuries-old Islamic civil war, don’t you know?
Turning away from such racist stereotypes and back to the actual historical record, it might be helpful to remind oneself of certain basic realities of the last decade or so.
As I have previously emphasised in this column, it was the 2003 invasion that destroyed the country. Very deliberate policy devised by US imperial planners in the direct occupation phase played up sectarian differences between Iraqi Shi’a and Iraqi Sunnis. In the grand bloodthirsty tradition of empire, divide and rule was the order of the day.
Sectarian death squads were established under the guidance of James Steele, a US special forces colonel and veteran of US dirty wars in Central America. They mostly recruited from Shi’a militias who then set about settling old scores after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
This in turn led to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq – the forerunner of ISIS. Al-Qaeda set about targeting Shi’a civilians, blowing up one of Shi’a Islam’s most holy mosques in Samarra in 2006. Dead bodies littered the streets and road-side ditches.
And yet, before 2003, al-Qaeda never existed in Iraq – despite the desperate propaganda Bush and Blair’s underlings peddled in 2002 suggesting otherwise.
From 20 March 2003 until this day, Iraq’s turmoil has not ceased. The spectre of “Islamic extremists” returning from Iraq to bomb the streets of London, Paris or New York has meant that media attention is once again now turned towards Iraq.
But the cause of all this that goes back to 2003 is deliberately omitted.
As one academic who advised Tony Blair on Iraq in 2002 told Mehdi Hassan in an interview this week, there is a direct link between the 2003 invasion and the rise of ISIS. Blair bears “total responsibility” for the group’s current upsurge, Professor George Joffe of Cambridge University said. Joffe had warned Blair that an invasion could lead to the rise of such fanatic armed groups – but he was ignored.
When it was western bombs and imperial policy that helped birth ISIS, then, it is pathetic that the same old bomb-happy usual suspects, including Blair, are being wheeled out by the media to not only defend the invasion, but to suggest more Western bombings of Iraq.
This weekend, Arab American broadcaster Jamal Dajani told Al Jazeera’s excellent media monitor programme The Listening Post that it was like a bad sequel to a bad movie. The same could be said of the media here.
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.