Litany of errors by West that led to scourge of Isil
Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30
Of all the catastrophes that have followed the West's ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003, the recent rise of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and its seizure of large swathes of northern Syria and Iraq is easily the most calamitous.
Before Tony Blair's decision to commit British forces to the US-led coalition to overthrow Saddam Hussein (inset below), radical Islamist groups such as Isil and al-Qa'ida barely featured on the political terrain of either country.
Indeed, Saddam's Ba'athist dictatorship waged a merciless campaign against the few pockets of al-Qa'ida that did exist in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, in particular crushing cells that had taken root on Iraq's northern border with Iran.
But the situation in Iraq changed dramatically after Saddam's overthrow, with the Bush administration's disastrous policy of de-Ba'athification, whereby anyone who had served in the Ba'athist regime lost their jobs.
As most of those holding senior posts in the Iraq government and military were, like Saddam, Sunni Muslims, this laid the foundations of the bitter sectarian divide that pitted Sunnis against the Iranian-backed Shias, who now dominated the government.
As the Sunnis battled to defend their interests, they increasingly turned to Islamist militant groups such as al-Qa'ida in Iraq, the ideological forerunner to Isil. Al-Qa'ida, though, was ultimately defeated in Iraq after its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by US special forces in 2006.
While Blair and Bush's incompetent handling of post-Saddam Iraq undoubtedly contributed to the introduction of Islamist-linked militants to Iraq, it would be unfair to blame them entirely for the emergence of Isil.
The movement first emerged in Syria two years ago as Islamist militants filled the vacuum created when a new generation of Western leaders, David Cameron and President Barack Obama, naively backed the so-called Arab Spring and demanded the overthrow of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
This error was compounded by Mr Obama's decision, in 2011, to shut down America's remaining military presence in Iraq, handing over control of the country to Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki who, encouraged by his Iranian backers, made no serious effort to reconcile the country's disaffected Sunni tribes.
This led the Sunnis to seek protection from their more fanatical co-religionists in groups such as Isil and al-Qa'ida. The result was that by last summer most of Iraq's Sunni heartlands had fallen under Isil's control and Iraq was plunged into yet another cycle of sectarian conflict.
Mr Blair, as he has admitted, made significant errors during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq - not least his over-reliance on "dodgy" intelligence and his failure to provide adequate post-war planning.
But it would be unfair to blame him and Mr Bush entirely for the subsequent rise of Isil. While Mr Blair has conceded in an interview with CNN that there were "elements of truth" to claims the invasion of Iraq caused the rise of Isil, the real blame lies with a more recent generation of politicians who failed to grasp the importance of maintaining stability in both Iraq and Syria.