(Graham Flanagan/Business Insider)
Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only person who held that position under two presidents for two different political parties, sat down with Business Insider this week and described what he sees as the two main factors that allowed ISIS to rise in the Middle East.
Gates, who is promoting his new book, "A Passion for Leadership," gave his take on US policy in the Middle East.
He said the Syrian civil war and the policies of Iraq's former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, contributed to the terrorist group flourishing in the region more so than the 2003 US invasion of Iraq or eventual troop drawdown.
"I think the primary reasons for the rise of ISIS are the Syrian civil war and the policies followed by the government in Baghdad," Gates told Business Insider on Monday.
Even before civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad allowed "rat lines" of jihadis to travel back and forth across the country's border with Iraq, fueling the Iraqi insurgency that eventually turned into ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh).
As Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan explained in their recent book, "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror," Syrian authorities reportedly knew about the cross-border flow of jhadis, but did nothing to stop it. And even when the Assad regime did step in and try to make it appear as though it was working to stop extremists from moving between Syria and Iraq, the effort was "eclipsed by rampant corruption" as Syrian authorities took bribes to allow Syrians to cross the border.
While the Assad regime was neglecting to stop the stream of jihadists from Syria into Iraq, Maliki was implementing sectarian policies in Iraq that further divided the population, making jihadist groups seem more appealing to some.
But the US still did perhaps play a role in the burgeoning conflict as well, Gates suggested.
"You can argue all day long whether the absence of US forces had an impact on" the rise of ISIS, Gates said, admitting that "the absence of senior leadership that was able to mitigate some of the sectarian conflicts in Iraq probably had some impact on the willingness of Maliki to follow these wrong policies."
Gates explained that Maliki's sectarian policies, which often benefited Shiites at the expense of Sunnis, made it easier for Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, to recruit. ISIS is a Sunni terror group and bills itself as a great protector during a time when disaffected Sunnis feel like they can't trust the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.
Maliki's "policies were so negative toward the Sunnis in Iraq that I think many Sunnis believed that ISIS would be better for them than the government in Baghdad," Gates said. "They’ve learned, to their sorrow, that that’s not true, but Maliki gave the Sunnis in Iraq no reason to resist ISIS because he was so anti-Sunni."
And while the US certainly didn't encourage these policies, the determination to end the war in Iraq and pull US troops out meant that the country had much less of a US presence on the ground at a time when Americans could have been useful in mediating these conflicts, Gates said.
"Where I think our presence mattered was when we had senior military officers in Baghdad, they were able to get the leaders of Baghdad from all of the different groups together, Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, and mediate some of these disputes and minimize some of the negative policies that were being followed by Maliki," Gates said.
The US leaving may have further emboldened Maliki to continue his anti-Sunni policies.
"When we left, most of the leaders of the Iraqi Security Forces were people we’d had a hand in training, and in some cases selecting, and they were pretty capable people," Gates said, referring to the Iraqi army that US forces helped train and build up.
"Well, Maliki replaced all of those people with a bunch of political hacks who were incompetent and corrupt and no Iraqi soldier was going to fight for them, as we saw in Mosul."
Sectarian divisions in Iraq have made it more difficult for the country to foster a sense of national unity that would inspire people from different backgrounds to come together and fight for the future of the country. In Mosul, Iraqi forces abandoned their posts as ISIS forces advanced on the city. The militants still control Mosul to this day.
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