Reese Erlich discussed the rise of ISIS

By Brendan Deady


Reese Erlich, an award-winning freelance journalist and bestselling author, discussed the incentives behind the U.S. led airstrike campaign against ISIS and the negative consequences of escalating military involvement in Iraq and Syria at the Integrative Learning Center Thursday.

According to Erlich, the reasoning behind U.S. intervention in northern Iraq, assisting the Yazidi and other minority populations to combat ISIS, are justifications to re-establish presence in a region vital to the government’s political and economic interests.

Erlich is known for being a member of the “Oakland Seven,” a group of students who were arrested after organizing anti-Vietnam protests in California. He was hosted by the communications and journalism department at the Communication Department Hub where he discussed his new book, “Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their War and what the World Can Expect,” and provided clarity to a situation that he believes is wrongfully portrayed to the American public. He spent months in Syria and along its shared border with Iraq in the highly contentious Kurdish region of the Middle East to report on many of the conflicts that have dominated media attention for the past six months.

In an introduction preceding the lecture, Professor Sut Jhally of the communications department described Erlich’s reporting within the region as “truly indispensable to a functioning democracy, even more so during a time where investigative reports are under siege in this country.”

Erlich sought to debunk some of the misconceptions that are circulated in popular media about the purpose of U.S. actions and the dangers posed by ISIS’s attempt to establish an Islamic state in the Middle East.

“I’d just like to begin by stating that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, they are using religious rhetoric as a way to rally forces and justify committing humanitarian crises,” Erlich said. “ISIS’s end goal is power, Military and economic power. It is control they are after and the branch of Islam they are championing is by no means representative of the religious beliefs held by a vast majority of those who practice Islam.”

The U.S. government has justified the reescalation of military involvement by depicting ISIS as a serious threat to regional stability. According to Erlich, the State Department exaggerates ISIS’s capability to legitimately establish itself in the region and the reasons cited for the airstrike campaign that began in September are mostly just for public justification.

Government officials have stated their goals are to protect Yazidi and minority populations, protect Kurdistan and to protect U.S. military personnel in the area. Instead Erlich argues that the true goal is to regain a presence in Iraq lost at the end of the war and to protect oil reserves in Northern Iraq that are vital to foreign policy interests.

“In reality there is zero chance of Kurdistan region being overrun. ISIS knows they cannot convince religious minorities into submission so they use violence to drive opposition out. There is a unanimous opposition to ISIS in the region and the Kurds would never support such a radical group,” Erlich said.
“The United States had the opportunity to evacuate its personnel, I passed through the very airport that they claimed was inaccessible. In reality, the fact that Iraq has the third largest oil reserves in the world can explain the attention.”

According to Erlich the failure of the Iraq war largely influences the United States’ current goals.

“We lost the war in Iraq. Now you may be saying but the U.S. never loses wars. Well, we lost in Iraq. Bush signed an agreement in 2008 to withdraw troops and cede military bases. And by the end of the war, Baghdad was more friendly to Iran than Washington. I’d say that’s losing a war,” Erlich said.

Erlich also believes the failure to resolve much of the conflict in the Middle East isn’t a lack of understanding of its culture, but a flaw in policy. The State Department only considers solutions that involve military intervention and are structured by an entitlement that assumes a right to open access in the Middle East according to Erlich.

“Our currents efforts are to regain some of that presence lost at the end of the Iraq war. And this is clear – there are already U.S. troops in Iraq. They’re just referred to as advisors,” Erlich added.

He supports a non-interventionist approach that focuses on political and diplomatic pressure.
Resolution of the threat posed by ISIS and resolving the Syrian Civil War will require a restructuring of general policy in the Middle East, according to Erlich. However he believes resolution is not the end goal of our government.

“There are all these players, the U.S., the Russians and the Kurds and they all have separate interests and none of them include consideration of the actual citizens of Iraq or Syria,” he said. “None of these situations reflect much consideration for citizens of any country. When I discuss United States desires during conflict I do not mean its people. I am referring to the policies made by the corporate and business elite. They are the voices that are heard when determining policies of the United States.”

Erlich also questioned the government’s rationale in arming rebel groups in Syria and Iraq to combat ISIS and the Assad regime. He said it has little to do with letting citizens determine the outcome of the conflict, but is rather an attempt to support groups that will be pro-U.S. once the situation is resolved.

“You’ll come find that when a rebel group is described as moderate, it means they are pro-United States. Some of the groups receiving military aid were at one point recognized by the United States as terrorist organizations,” Erlich added.

The involvement of outside powers and the choice to provide military assistance to many conflicting groups is only escalating the violence, according to Erlich. It is also generating further anti-American sentiments among Iraqis and Syrians.

“The more the U.S. escalates its military involvement, the more it will reaffirm opinions of the country as an imperialist occupying power,” he said. “The U.S. is hurting its own interest by alienating local populations and has actually contributed to the radicalization that it is trying to fight.”

Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected]