Meet Kyle W. Orton, for he is the future.
Meet Kyle W. Orton, for it is he. Orton you might recall was one of two analysts getting big ups for telling us exactly whom those 70,000 moderates in Syria David Cameron mentioned were, despite err, the government itself saying it couldn't for reasons of national security. Not many will make the leap from say, Left Foot Forward to the NYT, Orton's former main stomping ground away from his own blog. At least, not unless you have the chutzpah to break out a really big lie, an untruth so humongous it dwarfs everything else you're ever likely to write.
Even better is if your lie overturns an established truth. The vast majority of people think the Iraq war was a disaster. They don't however agree on an over-arching reason as to why it was a disaster. Some think it was a disaster because of the Iraqi loss of life. Some think it was a disaster because there were no weapons of mass destruction found. Some think it was a disaster because it has made subsequent interventions in the Middle East more difficult to sell to the public. Some think it was a disaster because we invaded and *didn't* take the oil. Some think it was a disaster because one of its unintended consequences was the creation of the predecessor groups to Islamic State.
What then if you make the case that, rather than the Iraq war in part being to blame for the desperate situation in the wider region, you instead turn history on its head and say no, we're not responsible, Iraq's leader was at the time and still is now? Isn't that exactly what a whole class of politicos who always have great problems taking responsibility for their actions and those of their immediate predecessors want to hear? Isn't that exactly the message a decent proportion of the public themselves want to hear, that rather than it being somewhat their fault, or their country's fault, it's in fact always been the dastardly workings of a leader long since dead, who was so evil that even in the grave his wicked scheming has come to fruition?
Yes, Orton's big lie is that Saddam Hussein put in place everything Islamic State needed to eventually gain power. Hussein according to Orton created an Islamist state; his Faith Campaign led to a "Baathi-Salafism". Sure, the occupation made mistakes, but the point remains: Islamic State was not created by removing the Ba'ath; Islamic State is the aftermath of the Ba'ath.
It's a lie so huge it temporarily blindsides you. Forget the claims before the war that Saddam was in league with al-Qaida, that he had links to 9/11, and all the rest of it. That was bullshit, but the truth, the real truth is he was using Salafism to maintain power. It all makes sense. It all makes perfect sense. How did no one prior to Orton see this before?
Bit of a shame then that Salafism only bothers Orton when it comes to the Ba'ath's "Salafism", or the IS brand of Salafism. Along with most of the other high profile Syria analysts and aligned commenters, Orton cried into his Christmas dinner over the killing of Zahran Alloush, leader of Jaysh al-Islam, most likely in an Russian airstrike. This is the purest example of Russia's perfidy, went the wail. Russia, allied with Assad, is killing the leaders of the groups needed to reach a deal with the Syrian government! Couldn't it be clearer what they're up to?
That Alloush was a Salafist didn't matter. That Alloush had repeatedly denounced the Shia, Alawites, had called for Damascus to be cleansed, repeatedly allied with the al-Nusra Front (indeed, was apparently killed at a meeting between various rebel groups, including al-Nusra), wanted an Islamic state, just not an Islamic State, was explainable as rhetorical exuberance or understandable in such an atmosphere of war. After having met with American officials, Anne Barnard in the NYT explains, Alloush had "softened his tone". Hassan Hassan (so good they named him twice) writes it would be a mistake "to equate [Alloush's group] with extremist organisations, especially since such statements by no means reflect the group’s intentions or actions." Why, Alloush even reassured a Christian dissident of how the Alawites were victims of Assad. The head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, went so far as say the killing of Alloush was part of the effort to reduce Syria to a false choice between Assad and IS.
Don't get confused. Orton doesn't think Alloush was a moderate, or at least, "never said" that he was. Get it in your head, there's huge differences between Jihadi-Salafism, Ba'athi-Salafism and just plain old Salafism. Besides, Alloush was supremely anti-Islamic State, and that's the sort of thing that matters most. His differences with IS were with mainly over turf rather than ideology, but that sort of thing is what we have to work with in Syria. Don't allow it to be to a binary choice, as Roth said: it's not Assad, or IS. It's far more complex. It's Assad, IS, or rather Ba'athi-Salafist or just plain old Salafist. Those Salafists may be moderates, they may not be moderates. They're better than the alternatives, though, right? How can you not trust a 24-year-old with the wherewithal to get in the NYT, to make discoveries the rest of us can only dream of? Orton's going to go far, that's for sure.