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From Blair to Assad, responsibility for Islamic State must be widely shared

IS owes its rapid expansion to a range of factors and players, some of whom are sworn enemies

When asked on CNN recently whether the invasion of Iraq had been the "principal cause" of the rise of the Islamic State (IS), former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said there were "elements of truth" to that, adding: "Of course, you can't say those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015."

To draw a direct link between the two is to state the obvious - it only made headlines because of who was stating it. The invasion made the rise of IS possible, but that does not mean it was inevitable, particularly after the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq years later.

Blair's half-hearted admission is being jumped on by those who want vindication of their view that the rise of the Islamic State (IS) can be attributed to a single cause or political camp. There has been fierce political mud-slinging over who created the organisation, but culpability must be shared more widely than most would like to admit.

IS owes its rapid expansion to a range of factors and players, some of whom are sworn enemies. To overlook this fact is politically expedient, but it hinders understanding of the group's origins, growth and appeal, which is crucial to tackling its military capabilities and ideology. 

Iraq, where IS originated, was the scene of widespread Sunni protests from December 2013 against the increasingly authoritarian and sectarian rule of Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. His violent and uncompromising response exacerbated sectarian tensions, and gave birth to an alliance of Sunni militant forces.

Maliki and Assad

Some, such as IS and Baathists, had no ideological common ground, but came together in opposition to a government and political system that was disenfranchising the Sunni community. As such, the resentment and subsequent militancy caused by Maliki's iron-fisted approach - which eventually proved unpalatable even to his domestic and foreign allies - contributed to the lightning expansion of IS in Iraq in the summer of 2014.

That expansion was aided by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Prior to Maliki's opposition to the revolution against the Syrian president, the Iraqi prime minister said in September 2009 that "90 percent of terrorists from different Arabic nationalities infiltrated Iraq through Syrian territory". This was a deliberate strategy by Assad, as described by Iraq's former national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie in an Al Jazeera documentary aired last month.

"I went and met ... Assad twice, and presented him with material evidence, documents, satellite pictures, confessions, all sorts of evidence that his security forces were involved in active [sic] and transporting jihadist from Syria to Iraq," Rubaie said. "Also, there were training camps with names and locations. He was in total denial of that. I remember telling him that this will - in no time - backfire on Syria."

And so it did, with jihadists supported by the Assad regime becoming IS leaders. Their organisation was able to significantly expand in Syria, flush in money, weaponry and morale from their gains in Iraq, particularly their capture of the city of Mosul.

However, Assad had already laid the foundations for IS's presence in Syria from the outset of the revolution against him, having let jihadists out of his jail cells in an attempt to subvert the popular uprising. Some of those freed were to become senior IS figures.

Until the summer of 2014, fighting between IS and the Assad regime was conspicuously absent. For several months prior, it was Syrian rebels who were taking on IS, at a cost of several thousand lives.

At times, the regime bombed rebels who were in mid-combat against IS. The latter was also able to cross regime territory without hindrance, and sold oil from captured fields to the regime. The extent of collusion between the two have been highlighted by regime defectors, leaked documents and IS fighters themselves.

Western bombing, Shia militias

IS ranks have been swelled by the involvement of Western air forces and Shia militias in Syria and Iraq, as well as the recently launched Russian air campaign, which is directly benefitting the group by mainly targeting Syrian rebels opposed to both IS and the regime. Furthermore, Hezbollah's active military involvement in Syria has led to IS infiltration in Lebanon.

Elsewhere in the region, the humanitarian disaster caused by the Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the Gaza Strip has allowed IS to develop a presence in the Palestinian territory. The group has carried out a series of bombings there this year, and this summer threatened to topple the governing Hamas movement.

IS has also benefited from the turmoil in Egypt itself since the overthrow in 2011 of then-president Hosni Mubarak. In November 2014, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis - the most active militant group in the country - pledged allegiance to IS. Cairo's draconian crackdown on dissent, and its mass displacement of Sinai residents to build a buffer zone along the border with Gaza, among other repressive policies, have fuelled extremism and militancy.

IS has also taken advantage of the conflict and resulting power vacuum in Yemen to establish itself there, attacking both Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised government and its allies.

Similarly, the turmoil engulfing Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 has allowed an IS presence there. The group has targeted both the government in the east and its rival administration in the west.

The causes of IS's regional presence and expansion vary by country, and are not necessarily interlinked. This is because, like al-Qaeda, it operates as a franchise rather than a monolithic organisation. Its footprint in Libya, Egypt, Gaza and Yemen, for example, have no direct link to the Iraq invasion, so had the latter not taken place, the regional turmoil of recent years would still have provided fertile ground either for existing jihadist groups or new ones.

As such, attempts to tackle IS and its ideology are doomed to fail if they are based on narrow, simplistic outlooks designed for political point-scoring. The Iraq invasion has influenced current events, but just as the Arab Spring would have occurred regardless, the invasion is one of a number of contributing factors to the rise of the biggest jihadist brand in the world today. Denial of responsibility is a far easier option, but it solves nothing.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting" on the Middle East. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: An Islamic State fighter carries the group's flag in Northern Iraq (AA).

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