House of cards

Print edition : August 22, 2014

The Prophet Younis mosque after it was destroyed in a bomb attack by militants of the Islamic State, in Mosul on July 24. Photo: STRINGER/IRAQ/REUTERS

Abu Baker al-Baghdadi in his public appearance on July 4, when he delivered a sermon at the Mosul mosque after Friday prayers. This image is taken from a video recording posted on the Internet the day after. Photo: REUTERS

Iraqi Special Operations Forces looking for Islamic State militants, in Ramadi on July 22. Photo: REUTERS

Iraqi children who fled with their families the violence in the northern city of Tal Afar at the Khazer refugee camp near the Kurdish checkpoint of Aski Kalak, 40 km West of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on July 27. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the goddess Isis had a multifaceted role, but principally, with a throne as her headdress, she symbolised the pharaoh’s power. The ISIS in Iraq is not very different: it stands for the Islamic Army of Iraq and [Greater] Syria, a fierce jehadi militia that seeks power across the Arab and Islamic world. In early June, the world watched with shock and bewilderment as ISIS militants marched across west and north Iraq, capturing town after town with no resistance.

The fall of Mosul was particularly bewildering: this mixed community town, with a population of nearly two million, had a functioning civil administration and armed forces personnel of over 20,000. Patrick Cockburn, in a recent article, has said that the capture of Mosul was facilitated by a “popular uprising”. A soldier quoted by him has said that, with the ISIS outside Mosul, many residents threw stones at the Iraqi troops, calling them “Maliki’s sons”, “Safavids”, and “the army of Iran”, clearly affirming the deep sectarian divide in the country, with the army being detested, in Cockburn’s words, as a “foreign occupying force of Shia soldiers”.

These successes were crowned by another dramatic development: on June 29, on the eve of Ramzan, a spokesman announced the establishment of a “caliphate” in the territories occupied by the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which would henceforth be referred to simply as the “Islamic State” under the leadership of the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the ISIS. With the financial resources, weaponry and territory now under its control, the ISIS constitutes a dramatic intervention in the complex tapestry of West Asian politics, with far-reaching implications for Iraq and regional affairs.

Emergence of the ISIS

The ISIS has as its immediate ancestor the fierce jehadi of Jordanian origin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Like many modern-day jehadis, Zarqawi gained exposure to jehad in the battlefields of Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Following the United States’ assaults on the Taliban and Al Qaeda after the events of 9/11, Zarqawi came to Iraq, where he was associated with various jehadi organisations, but he was not a prominent figure at that time. His defining moment came after the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 when he acquired a reputation for extreme ferocity and violence, not just against occupation targets but also Shia shrines and individuals. In October 2004, he pledged his formal allegiance to Osama bin Laden, cementing, according to Aaron Zelin, “a marriage of convenience” in that Zarqawi now obtained access to Al Qaeda’s donors and recruitment and logistical networks, while retaining the independence of his organisation, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Zarqawi was killed by the Americans in June 2006. However, his organisation, which continued on its violent path under its new leadership, in October 2006 was renamed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to emphasise its distance from Al Qaeda, its new focus on Iraq, and its ultimate goal to set up an Islamic state.

The unabated violence of the ISI, particularly the zealous punishment of individuals on the basis of a narrow reading of the Sharia, led to a new initiative to confront it: the Sunni tribes of Iraq’s Anbar province, deeply concerned about the destruction of their nation and the emerging sectarian divide, now organised themselves (with U.S. help) into armed militia. This movement, known as Sahwa (Awakening), fought the ISI in 2006-09, and inflicted convincing defeats upon it. The ISI now indulged in random acts of violence in Iraq, including car and suicide bombings, kidnappings and targeted assassinations.

The civil conflict in Syria from 2011 gave a fresh lease of life to the ISI. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who had taken over in 2010) sent jehadi fighters and experts in guerilla warfare into Syria. These fighters, headed by Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, named themselves Jabhat Nusra (Support Front) in January 2012, and, by the end of 2012, had emerged as the most effective fighting force against the Bashar al-Assad government. At this point, al-Baghdadi decided to enter the conflict: he renamed his organisation the Islamic State of Iraq and (Greater) Syria (ISIS), and in April 2013 announced the merger of the ISIS with Jabhat Nusra. This merger was rejected by al-Jolani. This brought the ISIS into conflict with Jabhat Nusra and the other anti-Assad militia, so that, in the second half of 2013, a few thousand fighters were killed in this internecine fighting. In early 2014, the Salafi militia in Syria came together to form the “Islamic Front” and, in association with Jabhat Nusra, took on the ISIS. In this fighting, the ISIS was pushed out of most territories occupied by it in Syria, and it returned to its home base across the border in the Anbar province in Iraq. In February 2014, Ayman al Zawahiri ended all affiliation between Al Qaeda and the ISIS.

In Iraq, in January 2014, the ISIS took the town of Fallujah; from this base it attacked Samarra and then Mosul in early June, and by the middle of the month stood at the gates of Baghdad. The shadowy Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made a dramatic public appearance on July 4, when he delivered a sermon at the Mosul mosque after Friday prayers. He described himself as al-Quraishi by lineage, al-Samarrai by birth, and al-Baghdadi by upbringing. His descent from the Quraish tribe, the tribe of Prophet Muhammad, is particularly important since caliphs, in Islamic tradition, can only come from that tribe.

Al-Baghdadi’s early history is vague: he is said to have been a doctoral student when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, and was briefly arrested by the Americans in 2005. After his release, he was an adviser to the then ISI chief, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and took over the ISI after Abu Omar’s death in 2010. In a recent article, Bruce Riedel has said that in the late 1990s, al-Baghdadi was in Afghanistan with Zarqawi and was possibly involved with Zarqawi’s group, Jund al-Sham (Army of Greater Syria), which operated from Herat and Kabul. Riedel believes that this association with Zarqawi in the Afghan jehad shaped al-Baghdadi’s fierce sectarian outlook and also instilled in him a sense of independence from Al Qaeda.

After its successes in Iraq, the ISIS (now shortened to Islamic State, or the IS) has once again turned its attention to Syria. The IS seems to have made good progress in fighting against Jabhat Nusra and the militia of the Islamic Front, with reports that several members of the latter two groups have come over to the IS. After taking some of the crossings at the borders with Turkey and Iraq, observers believe the IS could target Aleppo, and, over time, seek to consolidate its presence in the territory in Syria and Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, thus controlling the region’s most fertile lands and major towns.

ISIS’ constituents

The ISIS has a well-organised military structure and a clear political vision—the realisation of a caliphate across the Arab and Islamic realm, redolent of the early years of Islam. Its core membership is of about 15,000 jehadi fighters, with several foreigners, including about 2,000 from Europe. It was funded in the past from private sources in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, but in Syria it boosted its resources through oil smuggling, kidnappings and, above all, taxing local businesses, which perhaps generated $8 million a month.

The jehadis make up just about 15-20 per cent of the ISIS membership, with other constituents being Sunni elements alienated from the Nouri al-Maliki regime. These include members of Sunni tribes which have set up a unified central command, the Military Control of the Tribes of Iraq, which has over 40 armed militia, including soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s army. Another element is the Jaish Tariqa al-Naqshbandi, set up in 2006 by Saddam Hussein’s interior minister, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri; it includes several thousand Baath party members, and Sufi and Muslim Brotherhood adherents. According to the website of the Naqshbandi Order, the organisation has several brigades and regiments across Iraq’s provinces in the north and in the Kurdish territories, making it perhaps the largest anti-government force in the country. Whatever the support that jehadis might get from other sources, as of now they remain the dominant influence in the ISIS, leading Bernard Haykel and Cole Bunzel to conclude that “violent jehadism is now an entrenched feature of the Arab political landscape”.

How the U.S. divided Iraq

Iraq has hardly any history of a sectarian divide; in the 80 years since it was set up in 1921, in Fanar Haddad’s words, “its default setting was coexistence”, with all its state organisations being secular. Every one of its towns is a mosaic of diverse groups and communities, brought together over several centuries. Thus, over a million Kurds live in Baghdad; 20 per cent of Basrah’s population is Sunni; though Samarra has two of the most important Shia shrines, its custodians are Sunni clerics. In fact, every Iraqi tribe has Sunni and Shia members.

The origins of the sectarian divide, which has now become central to the country’s politics, lie in the U.S. occupation of Iraq when its officials justified their war as empowering the Shia community, clearly as part of the divide-and-rule policies of the invader. As Haddad has noted, the U.S. forces “enshrined identity politics as the key marker of their politics”. At the outset, the Iraqi armed forces were disbanded, followed by the policy of de-Baathification, in terms of which Iraqis associated with the former government were debarred from employment. These two initiatives destroyed two principal pillars holding the nation together. This was followed by the enforcement of policies that were explicitly sectarian. For instance, the Iraqi Governing Council set up by the U.S. occupation authorities was based on a sectarian apportionment, providing 13 seats for Shias, and five for Sunnis, followed by five for Kurds and one each for Turkmans and Assyrians.

The Sunni boycott of the 2006 elections further encouraged Shia ascendance. This Sunni aloofness from the new dispensation slowly honed a distinct Sunni identity, primarily anchored in a deep sense of victimhood. This was exacerbated by the sectarian policies pursued aggressively by Nouri al-Maliki, who was Prime Minister for eight years from 2006. First, he went back on his commitment to absorb large numbers of Sahwa fighters into the national army. He followed this up with a systematic purging of Sunni and Kurdish personnel from the professional non-sectarian armed forces set up by the Americans before their departure in 2011, so that only a small Shia element was left, poorly officered, trained and armed, and quite incapable of serving the country’s interests in a crisis.

The ground for the recent jehadi assault had been prepared for over a year. After excluding Sunnis from employment in government and academia, al-Maliki turned against prominent Sunni politicians, first his Vice President, Tareq al-Hashem, and then the Finance Minister, Rafie al-Issawi, who were both accused of backing terrorism. This led to non-violent Sunni protests in the shape of demonstrations and sit-ins in several towns. Even Shia groups, the supporters of Muqtada Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, backed the Sunni demonstrators. However, al-Maliki adopted a tough posture: there was firing on demonstrations in Hawija, in which 50 Sunnis were killed. The sectarian divide was now complete.

Al-Maliki is now seen as the principal cause of the country’s economic and social malaise, the alienation of the Sunni and Kurdish communities, the ongoing violence, and the systematic deterioration in the quality of the armed forces that have led to the recent debacle. Cockburn has quoted a former Iraqi minister describing al-Maliki’s eight-year rule as “an institutionalised kleptocracy”. He also speaks of the “pervasive corruption” in the upper echelons of the armed forces. Now, six weeks after the fall of Mosul, there are no indications that the Iraqi armed forces are capable of mounting a counteroffensive.

Partition of Iraq?

The imparting of a concrete territorial dimension to the caliphate has raised concerns relating to Iraq’s integrity. Considerable literature has already emerged about a possible three-way partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish territories. The setting up of an “Islamic State” across the Iraq-Syria border, the assertions of “independence” of the Kurdish community in Iraq, and the deep cleavage between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities, these developments taken together would suggest that Iraq’s partition is a real possibility. Ali Ibrahim, an editor of the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, fears that Syria and Iraq are doomed to become “failed or weak states” owing to their inability to maintain their borders. Hassan Hassan has seen the ISIS functioning in Syria: providing autonomy to towns under its control; extending public services; attacking corrupt warlords, and gradually expanding its space and influence in the rebel landscape; he is convinced it could emerge as the “winner” from the ongoing regional confusion. An Egyptian think tank believes that, even if formal partition does not take place, the three-way fragmentation of Iraq will certainly occur, but that these quasi-states will experience increased sectarian conflict, religion-based killings, assassinations of leaders, mutual migration, in short a repetition of the present-day conflict.

Besides the sectarian divide that is tearing the country apart, Kurdish separatism, with a century-old history of thwarted national aspirations, has now been further encouraged by the ISIS’s recent successes: seeing the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces, Kurdish troops moved quickly to occupy oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Their leader, Massoud Barzani, who is the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Arbil, has affirmed that Kurdish forces will not withdraw from the occupied areas; he has also announced a referendum on freedom in a few months, thus enhancing the prospects of Iraq’s partition on sectarian and ethnic basis.

However, a number of observers disagree with these apocalyptic prognostications and believe that Iraq’s cleavages can still be repaired. Daniel Benjamin has pointed out that “the strife in Iraq today is less the mystifying product of primordial grievances than the predictable result of very modern power politics”. An important Sunni leader now representing a major constituent of the ISIS has called for a “fresh start” in inter-sectarian accommodation. Another commentator has emphasised the importance of “a radical reconciliation in Iraq” with “new transitional justice mechanisms” to encourage the process.

Given Iraq’s ground realities, fresh map-making is likely to prove quite difficult. First, large areas of Iraq are mixed in sectarian terms, and it will be a daunting task to carve out areas specifically defined as “Sunni” or “Shia”. Second, there is not much support for such a clean break: the sense of Iraqi nationhood has been firmly consolidated over the last hundred years or so. Many of the ISIS’ Sunni partners favour a united Iraq which is non-sectarian and accommodative of all communities. On the same lines, the clans and tribes on the Syrian side of the border, whether backing Assad or the insurgent militia, remain focussed on Syria; even those who back the ISIS have not shown much interest in a cross-border Islamic state. Finally, in spite of their rhetoric, the Kurds are not likely to upset regional geopolitics with the declaration of a sovereign state, given the difficulties it will face as a landlocked entity acutely dependent on the goodwill of its neighbours. There are already divisions within the Kurdish groups on the question of formal independence, while the neighbouring countries, with large Kurdish populations of their own, remain unenthusiastic about an independent Kurdistan in their midst. For now, the Kurds are likely to find that their best interests lie in obtaining an autonomous status in a united Iraq.

However, though new lines are not likely to be drawn on the West Asian map, Iraq’s integrity will remain under stress and will require a new “unity” government that can overturn al-Maliki’s sectarian policies and give all sections that make up Iraq’s national order a sense of belonging. This will bring into play Iraq’s neighbours that exercise considerable influence in Iraqi affairs.

The Regional Dimension

Events in Iraq are closely linked with events in the larger West Asia-North Africa region and the policies adopted by the principal regional players to cope with emerging challenges and safeguard their own strategic interests.

Iran saw an important opportunity for itself in the U.S. intervention in Iraq, with the Shia authority in Baghdad providing an opening for the extension of its regional influence. For the same reason, the GCC regimes felt that the U.S. assault that empowered the Shia also transformed the regional balance of power to the benefit of Iran and to their own strategic disadvantage. From their perspective, West Asia is now dominated by Iran whose influence extends to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (through the Hizbollah). The last straw for the GCC was the call for “reform” in Bahrain in 2011, in the context of the “Arab Spring” then sweeping West Asia and North Africa. Seeing in these demands Iranian “interference” in GCC’s domestic politics, the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, has given up its hitherto quiescent approach to regional affairs and has robustly challenged Iranian influence in the region, commencing with promoting regime change in Syria. This, when achieved, will have three advantages for the GCC: it will bring Syria back into the mainstream Arab fold; it will snap Iran’s outreach to the Mediterranean and limit its influence to the Gulf, and it will dilute Iran’s capacity to fund and arm the Hizbollah, so that Lebanon, too, will have political stability, with new leaders beholden to the GCC.

At the same time, there is little doubt that the GCC regimes’ support for Sunni elements in the Syrian insurgency against the Shia “Alawi” regime of Bashar al-Assad has aggravated the sectarian divide in the region. Initially, most GCC countries backed the moderate secular Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, the FSA’s failure to garner local support and obtain military success led the GCC countries to nurture and support the Salafi militia, which, with Saudi support, consolidated themselves into the Islamic Front (IF) at the end of 2013. The GCC was anxious to ensure that its support in funding and arms for the Salafi forces in Syria did not embrace the jehadi entities—Jabhat Nusra and the ISIS. However, observers now believe that the groups that make up the Islamic Front work closely with Jabhat Nusra both in conflict and in governance activities in occupied areas. Studies have also revealed that the Salafi militia in Syria are imbued with a deep sectarian outlook: according to a recent U.S. think tank study, their leaders see “the Shia and Alawite communities as monolithic blocs, subservient to Iran and outside the Muslim community”.

The ISIS may not have been a direct beneficiary of GCC largesse (though some observers suggest otherwise), but it has merged the sectarian divides in Iraq and Syria by consolidating the Sunni surge across the two countries, liberating Sunni territories for its “Islamic state” and exposing all of West Asia to the sectarian virus. Its successes have led to finger-pointing among the region’s political players: Saudi Arabia has attributed the ISIS’s expansion to al-Maliki’s “sectarian and exclusionary policies”, while the Iraqi Cabinet has accused Saudi Arabia of encouraging the rise of the ISIS and its “appeasement of terrorism” and holds the Kingdom responsible for “the resulting crimes, which are tantamount to genocide”.

Iran has also not emerged unscathed, with some Iranian scholars criticising their country’s policies in the region (obviously mainly directed at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since Hassan Rouhani became President only in June 2013). One analyst has said: “Iran’s geopolitical policies have failed. We have lost Hamas, overstretched the Hizbollah in Lebanon, and now have Al Qaeda spilling from Syria to Iraq.” An unnamed adviser in Tehran’s foreign office has been quoted as saying that Tehran went too far in extending unconditional support to the governments in Iraq and Syria. Of course, other Iranian observers have defended their country, pointing out that it had to back its allies in the face of active support to Sunni rebel groups by neighbours such as Saudi Arabia. Recent reports suggest that Iran might be looking at a change in approach in Iraq, promoting a post-Maliki scenario with a more accommodative political authority in Baghdad. Iranian commentators are pointing out that Iran would prefer a united Iraq rather than have to cope with enclaves on its border quarrelling with each other, whose conflicts could in time destabilise all of the Gulf and West Asia.

Turkey is the third principal role-player whose policies will have a significant impact on the regional scenario. While earlier it had been quite accommodative of the Salafi role in effecting regime change in Syria, the strengthening of the jehadis in the Syrian imbroglio and the proliferation of ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, which is threatening the integrity of both states, have compelled a policy review in Ankara. Now, Turkey has adopted a tougher approach against jehadis moving freely across its border with Syria. The emergence of a de facto jehadi state on its border with Iraq has also encouraged Turkey to look more favourably at maintaining the integrity of Iraq under a unity government in Baghdad. While it backs Kurdish autonomy, it discourages Kurdish aspirations for an independent state. It will countenance Kurdish sovereignty in Iraq only if Iraq fails to set up a “unity” government; in that situation, it will welcome free Kurdistan as a buffer between itself and the Islamic state. Given the rapid changes in the regional scenario, Turkey is now consulting more closely with Iran to develop a common approach on both Iraq and Syria.

The recent developments in Iraq are a source of considerable alarm for Iran and for the GCC regimes; while Iran is concerned about jehadi elements and the loss of its influence in Baghdad, the GCC countries face a double jeopardy: a hostile government in Baghdad and fierce jehadis who have no affection for the GCC monarchs. Thus, for both Iran and the GCC rulers a “unity” government in Baghdad and the military defeat of the ISIS are matters of immediate interest and call for some unconventional initiatives. Overall, West Asia presents a picture of acute insecurity, with the new developments threatening the regional geopolitical balance and political order.

This grim scenario calls for a Saudi-Iranian dialogue and, in time, rapprochement. Only on the basis of this engagement can an effective front be set up to address issues relating to regional security which would promote stability in Iraq and Syria, combat jehad, and promote accommodation and respect between Islam’s various communities. The challenge before Iran and Saudi Arabia, as leaders of their respective sects, is to unitedly construct this new architecture.

Talmiz Ahmad is India’s former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

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