Conflict Forum’s Weekly Comment, 14-21 June

The New Caliphate and its intersection with Middle East Geopolitics 

How to read events in Iraq?  We do now have a few ‘handholds’ of understanding onto which to grasp — ‘solids’ that seem to offer some insights into recent events. But the truth is that – even for those here in the region – there are still more questions than there are answers. And why is this? We suspect that the very opacity to the motivations driving events (Da’ish or ISIS’s lightening thrust into Iraq), we are facing a complex interpenetration of deeply rooted religious psychology (by which we do not mean mere sectarianism) with the geopolitical.  If we look at this solely through the optic of geo-strategic considerations, we see too many puzzles. But if we try to read it in the context of a religious psychology (a psychology in which events are undoubtedly being given meaning to Da’ish members and to its many Sunni sympathisers) then the two spheres – the geostrategic and the psychological – can, and do, intersect.

What are the ‘solids’?  Da’ish ‘walked into Mosul’ without meeting any resistance. On the contrary, their takeover clearly had prior facilitation by significant (formerly non-jihadist) strands of Iraqi society, namely former military officers from Sadam Hussein’s disbanded army – some of whom  were, or are, Ba’athist. The bloodless takeover of a city of 2 million by a mere 1,300 men also enjoyed some degree of acquiescence from members of the contemporary Iraqi army. In short, the takeover had clearly been well prepared beforehand, and no doubt was fertilised with substantial handouts of money too (the ultimate source unknown). Secondly, the establishment of this Da’ish ‘Caliphate’ has drawn approval from many Sunnis in, and beyond, Iraq whose background might lead one to suppose they would fear such a regime.  What would secular Ba’athists and former professional Army officers find in common with Da’ish’s violent intolerance and insistence on unqualified submission to their hegemony?  Are they unaware of the bitter experience of Aleppo’s urban utopian reformists at the hands of the arriving vengeful jihadi revolutionaries?  Nonetheless, the fact is plain (if unpalatable): many Iraqi Sunnis (and Sunnis more widely) – extending far beyond what somehow might have be seen as the Da’ish constituency – are saying that they would prefer to live the precariousness of life under the guillotine and a ‘Jacobin’ revolutionary regime, than under Maliki’s ‘Shi’i’ administration.  This says something profound about the psychology of these Sunnis. (We should note too, that there are also many Sunnis who are fleeing it, and who oppose it too).

Thirdly, the ‘blitzkrieg’ into Iraq has been militarily very well (professionally) executed, and is politically astute. Da’ish has escaped from the ignominy of the impending defeat of its ‘divine’ mission in Syria – with all the overtones from Islam’s early history that this would imply – to boldly strike at the crystalline fragility of Iraq. Imminent defeat has turned into a gesture of audacity, which (so far) has instantly shattered the delicate Iraqi crystal – ruthlessly leaving exposed the raw fault lines of the Iraqi state. Its boldness, and the prospect for Sunnis to imagine the rising of a Sunni sphere (a ‘safe-haven’ statelet) spanning Syria and Iraq plainly has touched on something deep in the Sunni and Gulf psyche. A former Qatari ambassador to the US cautioned the Obama administration against any military intervention on behalf of Maliki: It would be seen as an act of “war” on the entire community of Sunni Arabs, he warned. (But not however in the Syrian Sunni psychology — we found Syrians to be contemptuous of the second Iraqi military collapse, comparing it adversely with their own steadfastness in the face of ISIS)

Can this sudden excitement for Da’ish simply be ascribed to a Ba’athist desire for revenge?  There is no doubt that Ba’athists were ousted from power, politically cleansed from government, expelled from the army, attacked first by the Americans and then by the new Iraqi government’s militia, and that many in Mosul, Tikrit and Anbar hold a deep antipathy for Iran and the new Iran-orientated government in Baghdad — old antipathies, reaching back to the Iranian Revolution. Many Iraqi Sunnis are (with reason) aggrieved and angry.  But Ba’athism per se cannot account for the unlikely Faustian pact between some Ba’athists and Da’ish. Iraqi Ba’athism has largely been emptied of ideological content, and in the wake of 2003 war, has proved insufficient as an ‘identity’. The Ba’athist identity is prone to dissolve at times when sectarian tensions mount, and is most potent when they are stilled.  When sectarian tensions arise, the reality is that these all too easily trump other identities. (This is not to say that everything happening in Iraq can be reduced to the sectarian. Politics and geostrategy are involved too, but it is sectarian tension – not ideology – that is stimulating the Ba’athist attraction for these ISIS takfiris).

Another way to look at events would be to imagine how it would be seen through a religio-psychological optic. This, in any event, would be the way those attracted to the ISIS ‘blitzkrieg’ are likely to be perceiving the unfolding of history. The so-called ‘Awakening’ was seen by most Sunnis as a specifically Sunni renaissance. Initially, the ‘Awakening’ seemed to provide clear victories. It promised, as it were, to be a triumph of the battle of Badr (when a small force of 313 of the Prophet’s followers in 624 defeated a Meccan army three times its size). But then came the setback (contemporary Syria), or to follow the allegory, the Sunni battle of Uhud (in which the Prophet’s forces were defeated in 625 as a result of one key contingent failing to follow its prior instructions).  But after this setback, which seemed to threaten the entire Muslim project, the Prophet’s forces never lost a battle. Da’ish may well see their Syria setback too through a similar prism: as a Shi’i win, threatening the whole Sunni project (especially as the Sunni state models have crumbled during this period).  The surprisingly easy early Da’ish victories in Iraq, therefore, in this way of seeing, might well be taken as as harbinger of the coming defeat of Maliki and of Iran – just as the Prophet went on to victories after his Uhud setback.

This mythology would resonate strongly with Gulf States, but prosaically, Saudis might well feel (in the contemporary battle of ‘Uhud‘ which is Syria today) that Iran has pursued the ‘politics of blood’ – as one interlocutor who knows Saudi Arabia well described it. Sunni blood has been spilled in Syria, and if ‘equilibrium’ is to be restored in the region, blood politics must be balanced in the same vein. If the only tools available are ISIS and the former army of Sadam Hussein, then so be it.  Possibly this might even be seen by some in the Gulf as a way to bring back a geostrategic balance: Iran’s proteges are bloodied (Iran’s vulnerabilities in Iraq are exposed), and something of a Sunni territory emerges (albeit as the ISIS ‘Caliphate’),  Perhaps this (some Gulf leaders may speculate) might serve as a basis for coming to terms with the US rapprochement with Iran, and provide the basis of a political settlement between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Is this realistic?  Likely not: The present Iraqi/Gulf Sunni passionate ardour for ISIS may cool quickly, and prove short-lived (as it did in Syria, when ISIS rule actually was experienced). It is improbable that Da’ish will ‘take’ Iraq militarily (already their incursion has united the traditionally fissiparous Iraqi Shi’i factions against the enemy) and the new ‘Caliphate’ will experience hostility from across all its frontiers: from the Syrian army in the Caliphate’s Syrian extension; from the Kurds; from Iran in Diyala and from the majority of Iraqis. If Iran plays its hand cautiously, as it has been doing so far, by keeping the Shi’i factions united; by ensuring that those Iraqi Sunnis who are aghast at the Da’ish takeover, are not driven into the arms of ISIS, through Iraqi Shi’i over-assertiveness; and if Tehran can manage Maliki’s innate suspiciousness, the Iranians may well avoid being ‘bloodied’ — far from it.  But what could overturn all calculations would be a successful ISIS assault on the shrines at Samarra, Kerballah or Najaf. In that case, we may expect full blown sectarian war.

Of course it is easy for external observers to blame PM Maliki for all Iraqi ills. But it was not not Maliki that set up the Kurdish autonomous region, or who armed the Peshmerga; nor was it Maliki who disbanded Sadam Hussein’s army or initiated de-Ba’athification or who purged the Sunnis from power. It is true that the Prime Minister is neurotically suspicious of conspiracies mounted against him –  a pathology which has deadened and ossified Iraqi politics.  But his caution and suspicions, albeit exaggerated and damaging politically, can hardly said to have been entirely without basis.


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