Researcher at Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Professor at Bar-Ilan University
Violence in the Middle East has intensified and drawn the attention of the global powers. That is why I want to discuss this topic with Professor of the Bar-Ilan University, Dr. Alexander Murinson.
After the Arab Spring uprisings, the Middle East was threatened by chaos and anarchy, which is still ongoing in Iraq, Syria and Libya. While these high tensions in the Arab world have not subsided, there is a menace of a new regional war. Could the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) precipitate it?
A lot of confusion persists about the structure and leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS) terrorist movement, currently known as the Islamic State (IS), despite its quick expansion and grandiose plans to re-construct the Caliphate abandoned with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. What is certain is that the core of this organization has split from the Jabhat al-Nusra (the Front of Assistance), a radical Muslim militant organization and Al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Assad regime in Syria. Initially, despite its claims to the universal authority for all Muslims, ISIS was a phenomenon of Sunni nationalism struggling against the Shia rule in Baghdad and Damascus.
The Iraqi faction of ISIS, even if it is defeated, will cause further fragmentation or dissolution of Iraq along ethno-religious lines because of an entrenched Iranian influence is only growing stronger in Iraq. Iran will not be willing to give up its control over the Baghdad, and Sunnis, in their turn, would put up resistance against the Shia dictate. In the meantime, PKK would agitate for the Kurdistan’s independence countered by Barzani, concerned about his political survival and his alignment with Turkey.
ISIS militants already have taken control in one of the largest provinces of Iraq – Mosul- and aimed to seize power in Baghdad in order to give fight to the Takfirs (apostates). I would like to ask you opinion about the latest developments:
– In your opinion, what is the composition of ISIS and what role it is the organization is playing in the current situation?
– With the aid of some scarce but valuable reports, a tentative picture has emerged of the IS demographics and its recruiting catchment geography. A June report by the New York-based intelligence organization The Soufan Group describes the MENA region transformed into an “incubator for a new generation of terrorists,” with more than 12,000 foreign fighters from at least 81 countries stationed in Syria alone. Of that number, approximately 2,500 are from Western nations, including the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany and Great Britain. Among them are 400 British citizens, 700 Uzbeks, 1000 Russian citizens, primarily from the North Caucasus, mostly former members of the Imarat of Caucasus and 100 Azerbaijanis.
The original nucleus of ISIS was based in Iraq. The manpower consisted of disgruntled and marginalized Sunnis and organized former Baath army officers. There are media reports that many ex-Baath military intelligence officers serve as Amirs (division commanders). In the Spring 2014, a large group of fighters split from the Front of Assistance (Jebhat al-Nusra) in Syria and joined ISIS. Currently, ISIS reached more than 31 thousand fighters. At the initial stage, ISIS was funded by the Gulf States, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Turkish Islamists served as middlemen for delivering supplies and small arms. Now, ISIS is funding their military operations by selling Iraqi oil on the black market and cash from the banks ISIS robbed in Mosul.
– Local mass media claims up that Nuri al-Maliki was able to prevent ISIS factor inside of the country but did not do it. Is it a convincing claim?
Obviously, if the Sunnis were not completely marginalized in Iraqi society by the Shia majority and al-Maliki’s government, there would not be such a massive local support for ISIS as an expression of the Sunni frustration with their inferior situation. This argument cannot wholly discounted, but more likely the Iraqi army did nothave any allegiance to the al-Maliki regime either and fled from ISIS without a fight.
– During the current crisis, a national leader of regional Kurdistan state, Masud Barzani accused the central government in Baghdad of impotence and began to fight ISIS on his own. How could you comment this issue?
– Due the mentioned above failure of the US-trained Iraqi army, Kurds werecompelled to forget their internal division. The threat posed by ISIS united all factions of Kurdish society in Iraq. Both Barzani’s DPK and PUK, led by Talibani, united with PKK and PYD (a Syrian branch of PKK) and came together to defend the Kurdish autonomous region.
The most war-hardened forces, who emerged victorious were the PKK-PYD forces, who are fighting in northern Iraq, but not Barazani’s Peshmerga units, who lost Sinjar and Zumar and the strategic areas near Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil.
– As we know earlier, the US was working on project which aimed at strengthening the Iraqi government, but, at the same time, Americans extended an armed deal to Erbil. What is your opinion?
The KRG-controlled region remains the most stable and dependable as a US ally in Iraq and is less beholden to Iran than the central government in Baghdad. US forces also needed an airbase in Erbil for its air force deployment while Turks declined an American request to use the Incirlik base. A combination of these factors made US to cooperate closer with Kurds.
– There is a steady feeling of that ISIS militants are going to put pressure upon Erbil until it will be able to create its efficient national army. What can you say about it?
Yes, in view of a continued military pressure from ISIS, the Kurdish forces representing different political streams would cooperate and eventually form a Kurdish force with integrated control and unified command.
– Will the ISIS factor be able to unite official Ankara and Erbil against common threat? If yes, what kind of benefits could Ankara take from it?
– This very much depends on Barzani. It depends on his political priorities. If his priority is the control over his political competitors within the Kurdish national movement, he would align even closer with Erdogan and follow the Turkish interests (oil, political influence and a free trade zone in the KRG territory), if, however, Barzani will pursue a Kurdish national agenda, it might cause a crisis in Turkish-KRG relations. Thus, the second option is less likely.
– Leader of the Regional Kurdish government Masud Barzani in his latest interview to CNN made a strong nationalist statement that “It is time for Kurdish people to gain independence. We do not want to survive and exist with Iraqi government anymore.” Is he calling for a major change in the Middle East map?
– As it is, Iraq today is functionally divided between a Shii zone, the Sunni triangle and the Kurdish north. Even if Iraq will be maintained as a unitary state, it will be set up constitutionally as a loose federation in the near future.
I am grateful to you for your productive answers Professor.
Interview by Fuad SHAHBAZOV
Master of Arts on Political science and Diplomacy