Of the many tales about late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from his “days of secret activism,” one has it that a group of Baathists were ordered to execute Communist enemies. As everyone shot their rifles, Saddam did not. Instead, he dropped his gun, walked up to his victim, pulled out a knife and severed his head.
Lacking political skills, Saddam was made chief of the Agriculture Committee of the Baath Party. He turned that irrelevant party organ into a formidable killing machine, naming it the “Honein Agency.”
Another story about Saddam is that while heading to a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council, a member—who was diabetic and had probably started suffering from hypoglycemia—sneaked a peek at his watch. After the meeting, an offended Saddam took the minister to an adjacent room and shot him point-blank.
The stories of handling executions personally was recycled and later told about Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi who, during his tenure as interim prime minister, allegedly executed a senior Sunni insurgent, “using his own revolver.”
Whether true or not, Iraqi leaders do not mind such stories because they give them an appearance of being strong and help instill fear in the hearts of their opponents. We know now that Saddam had given up his WMDs long before 2003. In Ronald Kessler’s book The Terrorist Watch, Lebanese-American FBI investigator George Piro quoted Saddam as saying that he gave the impression of maintaining his WMD arsenal as deterrence against Iran. In his just-released book The Great War of Our Time, CIA’s former Deputy Director Michael Morell reaffirmed Kessler’s account.
Iraq’s strongmen, whether from the Baath Party or the Islamic State (ISIS), maintain a brutal image that is often exaggerated.
In their book The State of Terror, Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger correctly identified ISIS as a low threat to the West. ISIS might look as dangerous as Saddam once did, but apart from military prowess on its own turf in Iraq’s Sunni areas, it is much less capable.
ISIS might be an offshoot of Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, but severing heads on video has never been Al-Qaeda’s thing. Public brutality—like when a mob mutilated the bodies of the Iraqi royal family and paraded them down the streets of Baghdad in 1958, or when another mob killed American security contractors and hung their burned bodies from a Fallujah bridge in 2004—looks like more of an Iraqi practice than international terrorism.
And as ISIS reflects Saddam and his Baath Party, Jabhat al-Nusra re-embodies Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party. What we see in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are tribal configurations that once acted secular, in line with trends of the time, and are now Islamist in keeping with a changing culture.
Neither the Iraqi nor Syrian Baath Parties were serious about or capable of reviving the “great Arab nation.” And neither ISIS nor Nusra are genuinely interested in the creation of an Islamic state, just as Hezbollah scrapped plans of creating an Iran-style Islamic republic.
Like radical Baathists before them, fundamentalist Islamists are busy terrorizing the local population while causing regional and international trouble to get attention and win legitimacy. The politics and policies of both ISIS and Nusra predate them, and will probably outlast them. Neither ISIS nor Nusra endorse Al-Qaeda’s conviction that after having defeated one empire, the Soviet Union, now is the time to beat the second one, America.
And because for ISIS and Nusra all politics are local, hatred between the two is a continuation of the Saddam-Assad rivalry, which was probably a continuation of animosity between the Damascus-based Umayyads and their successors, the Baghdad-based Abbasids in Medieval times.
As has been the case in the past, the Iraqis are more resourceful and violent, the Syrians more nuanced and shrewd.
In fact, Al-Jazeera’s interview with Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani showed the many aspects that set him apart from the average Al-Qaeda leader.
First, unlike headline-hungry Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri and Al-Zarqawi, by hiding his face Jolani wanted to keep the door open for his coming back in from the terrorism cold. Second, while most Al-Qaeda leaders organize in exile, Jolani—judging by his native northern Syrian dialect—is no foreigner (which makes him an insurgent as per Washington’s definition). Third, despite his announced allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s nominal leader Zawahiri, Jolani broke one of the main tenets of the terrorist organization by declaring that his focus was toppling Assad and promising not to attack Western targets. In the documents that US Navy seals collected after killing Bin Laden in Pakistan, the terrorist leader expressed frustration that Zarqawi was going after Iraqi Shiites instead of targeting Americans.
Like their predecessor Baath parties, ISIS and Nusra are brutal. They are Islamist in line with the dominant regional trend. And unlike Al-Qaeda, they are local, territorial, and are seeking to rule their own states.
America might not like the Islamic states that ISIS and Nusra seek to create, but America is no longer in the business of telling sovereign nations how to run their governments, whether in Islamic Iran or in Communist Cuba.
Meanwhile, it is unfortunate that Washington’s understanding of terrorist groups has not evolved, even though the Obama administration absurdly changed the word ‘terror’ to ‘radical extremism.’
ISIS, Nusra Front and Hezbollah are all on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. All three are Islamist. Their sponsor countries are not liberal democracies. They are locked in a bitter and bloody war for control of territory. Their fight is the continuation of millennia-old vendettas.
But none of the three currently pose significant threat to the West, which means it is not in Washington’s interests to side with any of them in particular.
For a political solution like the one Washington wants, ISIS, Nusra, Hezbollah and their respective regional patrons have to sit down together and talk while America leads the world in restoring the Sunni-Shiite balance that was shattered in 2003. The only other alternative to such a scheme is a drawn-out war of attrition in which many more hundreds of thousands will be injured and killed.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Alrai newspaper. He tweets @hahussain