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There Are Worse Things Than Dictators

18/06/2014 13:10 BST | Updated 18/08/2014 10:59 BST

Everything they told you about Syria was wrong. The story where the noble, brave resistance were fighting to liberate their country. The story where Assad was the one the world had to worry about. Well, those resistance fighters have shown their faces now. And they are the butchers of ISIS, beheading their way through Iraq towards Baghdad.

Syria and Iraq are the same war. They have been for a long time. ISIS is fighting in both countries, it wants to establish a single Taliban-style state across them. ISIS was born in Iraq. When it was losing against the Shia there it crossed into Syria. Now it has returned to Iraq, hellbent on revenge.

It is a proxy war. It is being fought out in the cities and villages of Iraq and Syria, but it is being directed and manipulated from behind the scenes by men in the shadows.

The governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting their own war to the last drop of Syrian and Iraqi blood.

It is a struggle for the future of the Middle East, and it is being fought out above the largest and most important oil reserves in the world.

But it is a war in which they have unleashed terrifying extremists they cannot hope to control.

Saudi Arabia finances and arms ISIS and their allies. Iran supports the Iraqi government, and finances and arms the Iraqi Shia militia and the Assad regime in Syria.

What we have seen in Iraq in the past week was fomenting while we were still obsessed with Assad and agitating for air strikes against his regime.

If Barack Obama had gone ahead with air strikes on Syria, the US would have become Al-Qaeda's air force.

Assad is a callous dictator who should one day answer for his crimes. The Syrian civil war began as a popular uprising against him. But it was hijacked by ISIS and its allies and rivals in extremism. Only the West didn't notice, carried away with its narrative of the evil dictator and the good rebels. In some wars, there are no good guys.

Our obsession with Assad is our obsession with Saddam Part II. And in both cases our fantasy belief that if you remove the evil dictator all will be well has led to disaster.

When we removed Saddam, we fatally disturbed the balance of power in the Middle East. The Shia of Iraq saw their chance to seize power. That didn't just enrage the Sunnis of Iraq, it sent shockwaves through the region.

Sunni extremists began streaming across the border to join the fight against the Shia. The Iraqi civil war began, and ISIS was born.

Iran backed its Shia brethren in Iraq. With Sunni domination under threat on its border, Saudi Arabia turned to an old tactic. It backed the Sunni extremists.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are facing off across Iraq. Between them, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia control the world's largest proven oil reserves. Already, ISIS are close to the oil reserves of northern Iraq. Already, the price of oil is rising.

If the oil comes seriously into play in this war, it is unthinkable that the rest of the world will stay out.

In the meantime, extremists Saudi Arabia cannot really control are in possession of a huge swathe of Iraq and Syria. They want to set up their own state. If they do, it will be an Al-Qaeda Caliphate on Europe's doorstep, openly hostile to the West.

They are much more dangerous than a smalltime dictator like Saddam or Assad. They are a movement. You cannot stop them by overthrowing an individual. They are not interested in their own survival. They expect their reward in the next world. They are concerned only with imposing their beliefs.

All this has happened because of the decision to topple Saddam. There are more dangerous things than dictators.

Justin Huggler covered the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for The Independent. His novel, The Burden of the Desert, set in occupied Iraq, is available from all good bookshops.