Middle East

Jun 17, 2014

The deadly cast of characters in Iraq’s lethal ISIS game

What is Turkey's end game? What with the European Union do? Crikey's writer-at-large introduces the motivations behind the stakeholders in the current crisis in Iraq.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


The great game is full of tension, ancient rivalries and potentially lethal exchanges. It matters more than anyone can say … but enough about the World Cup, let’s take a look at the ever-flourishing crisis in the "Middle East" -- an expression one suspects is about to be retired for ever. When last we tuned in, ISIS, the virulently anti-Shia, Sunni Islamist group, had taken over the city of Mosul, thus putting it squarely in the middle of Iraq and essentially abolishing the Syria-Iraq border. To the north, ISIS militants are close to the essentially autonomous unit of Iraqi Kurdistan, threatening Erbil, the capital. To the east, they are advancing on Baghdad. Much has been made of ISIS’s capture of a few hundred million of the billions of dollars lying around Iraq, since the US shipped development, bribery, etc, money there in pallets of hundred-dollar notes. But the organisation's real money comes from shadow networks in Sunni-Wahhabist territory, and dwarfs any windfalls. In captured areas ISIS militants would appear to be executing captured members of the Iraqi armed forces in large numbers, allegedly tweeting photos of such, although both photos and accusations are hard to verify. But such an act would not be outside their beliefs, or their previous conduct. The situation is so complex that I’m not even going to try to synthesise some current thoughts. Instead, I'll just run through the table of dominant interests, as it were: Iraq: The dominant interest for Iraq -- i.e. for the Shiite state gathered around Nouri Al-Maliki -- is in continuing to exist. That may sound trite, but the point is that Iraq will exit history altogether if it stops existing as a functioning state for very long. Some places, like the Congo, can go for decades without being anything resembling a state. No one else wants, or can take, chunks of it. Iraq, by contrast, can be balkanised -- ha! -- and carried off in the space of a few weeks. Iran: Iran has a vital interest in propping up Maliki’s state, not least because it has no desire to take over Shi’ite territory. Persians ruling Arabs for any length of time would be impossible and would create its own insurgency. But there is no way it wants ISIS on its borders, since the latter sees Iran as the centre of global apostasy, the great abomination. Bashir al-Assad and the Syrian government: Syrians obviously want to restore their borders and retake their own territory. ISIS has slowly overwhelmed elements of the diverse resistance in Syria -- the end of the organisation's name, mistranslated as "… and the Levant" (the Levant?), is actually Al-Shaab, which refers to Syria. But how much would or could Assad commit to the fight against ISIS in Syria? The Kurds: The Kurds are Sunni, not Shia, so they may be able to create some sort of accommodation with ISIS, who would want to maintain stability of oil production. Nor, perhaps, do they want to be on the Turkish border. If ISIS fighters do challenge Kurdish northern Iraq, they will find themselves going up against the well-trained forces of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, Stalinist and secular, who would see ISIS as a greater enemy even than Turkey. With the disintegration of Syria, the Syrian Kurds have set up a quasi-autonomous state on the Syrian-Turkish border -- in keeping with their current strategy of creating an autonomous federation within states, rather than a separate state itself, in the Turkey-Syria-northern Iraq "focus". Turkey: Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Sunni and soft-Islamist government gave support to ISIS in its early days -- allowing all comers to maintain bases in Turkey, across the Syrian border, in order to overthrow Assad. They may well be regretting that decision now, since ISIS militants have built their politics in the vacuum created by a decade of sleazy deals and positioning -- a radical opposition to such nationalist and client-nationalist strategies. Even the leaders of ISIS might not be able to control their own groups, just as al-Qaeda could not control ISIS. This suggests the possibility that Turkey might invade part of northern Iraq as a means of forward defence --or, even more radically, co-operate with the PKK in defence of northern Iraq (although if that occurred it’s possible the PKK would split). Russia: As any glance at the map shows, Russia has a dog in this fight. Having lent support to Assad in crushing Western-sponsored groups and Islamists, it might not be able to stay out of Iraq if the United States does not reinvolve itself. The last thing it wants is an Islamist Sunni state on its doorstep, having spent a decade, and hundreds of thousands of lives -- not Russian -- suppressing any opposition, with enthusiastic Western support. Unencumbered by domestic opinion, Russia would step in if it felt it needed to. Israel: Israel, it must be said, is rather irrelevant in all this, and that is a sign of changing times. No one is going to use it as a base for operations, and it is unlikely to extend itself in involvement. The country is consumed with its own problems, even without occupied territory issues -- the corrupt collapse of its entire elite, for example, and the concomitant growth of both Jewish and Zionist fundamentalisms (two quite different things). But curiously, it might make it more likely that the government would be willing to deal with Hamas. The latter has gone into coalition with Fatah because of the mutual weakness of both. ISIS-like groups will emerge as a conduit for frustrated Palestinian interests. But of course, the Israeli leadership could go the other way and double down on repression, turning the region into a Jewish-supremacist apartheid state. Or it could do both. The European Union/European NATO: Turkey is a NATO member, so having ISIS at a NATO border would be an alarming proposition. Its domestic populations, especially in the West, are resolutely anti-war, even anti-airstrike --though fears could be stirred up to turn that around. The Libyan engagement has suggested to European powers that limited airstrikes can be effective, and low cost politically -- less so to those under them. The Hollande-Merkel-whoever-that-19-year-old-running-Italy-is political centre would be amenable to a series of airstrikes as a very "rational", European, and social/Christian democratic way of doing things, and I’m pretty certain that’s what will occur. The United States: Airstrike intervention in Iraq would not be the political or military disaster it is being presented as. Indeed, it would mark the consolidation of the Obama doctrine, of the US using its immense firepower in situations of minimal risk to its own troops. This is simply a return to the Eisenhower doctrine (who won power promising a curtailment of military involvement, after Harry Truman’s commitment to the Korean War, a shockingly lethal and wasteful conflict), with everything from Vietnam to Iraq being a long detour. In Iraq and surrounds, such strikes would act as a fresh recruiting tool, but US President Barack Obama’s drone warfare appears to be a continuation of a containment strategy, not some idea of destroying violent Islamic fundamentalism. One fundamentalist movement not doing so well is the Republican movement and the Tea Party. The latter has now become anti-war -- in part because Obama is so identified with it -- while previous Tea Party heroes like Rand Paul have knuckled under and endorsed airstrikes. Australia: Tony Abbott will fuck it up. That’s a given. And it’s only Tuesday ... get ready for a big geopolitics fixture ...

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21 thoughts on “The deadly cast of characters in Iraq’s lethal ISIS game

  1. DiddyWrote

    A lot will depend on how the Sunni population in Mosul and the other occupied areas respond to ISIS.

    With only 10,000 men (allegedly) ISIS have made huge gains in territory but this now leaves them dangerously over extended. They would be hoping to recruit extra manpower from the Sunni population they have “liberated” but this may not necessarily occur. For many Iraqi Sunni’s, during the American occupation, they discovered that the fundamentalist fighters were a mixed blessing and often a curse.

    Without extra manpower and airstrikes by the US, the ISIS occupation could collapse as suddenly as it occurred.

    It should be noted that the US could easily shoot itself in the foot by engaging in indiscriminate bombing and missile attacks, killing civilians and thereby encouraging local support for ISIS.

    It is also worth pointing out, that this is yet another almighty failure by Western Intelligence Agencies. Who have shown yet again, that whilst capable of sucking up industrial quantities of data about its own citizens, seem incapable of finding out anything about our supposedly deadliest enemies.

  2. John Hamer

    what a truly ridiculous comment to make about Tony Abbott and Australia. Rundle’s bias shows no bounds. Crikey’s credibility is much diminished by drivel like this outpouring of vitriol by Rundle.

  3. AR

    Comprehensive as always, but I’m puzzled by “But how much would or could Assad commit to the fight against ISIS in Syria?“.
    Perhaps as much as he’s been doing for several years now and more if he could.
    Why did/doesn’t the US lean on Saudi & Qatar, the long term funders & providores of the insurgency, to cease & desist?

  4. extra

    Guy- I don’t know where you got the idea that in the acronym ISIS, the latter ‘s’ means’al Shaab’ which means Syria, but it doesn’t. It means ‘al sham’, not a nation state, but a region usually characterised as ‘Greater Syria’, or what we usually characterise as the Levant, ie east of the Mediterranean, west of the Euphrates etc. That’s why ISIS sometimes gets called ISIL. Al Sham is an older arabic/islamic term that, as you would expect, is loaded with symbolism- hence its use by the group.

    It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the USA and Iran to start cooperating against ISIS. And how long before this extended to cooperation with Syria to strike at ISIS headquarters in Raqqah.

  5. mikeb

    Just think – but for a few dodgy votes in Florida this might have all been avoided.

  6. David Hand

    I’m with bikeb. The fact that a few hundred insurgents armed with little more than AK47s and the odd rocket propelled grenade can take over half a country including its second biggest city is the ultimate conclusion of the fiasco that has been the US involvement in Iraq. Though some, including me, were happy to see the demise of Saddam, the utter incompetence of the whole 10 year campaign and the billions of dollars and lives has resulted in a country that has no ability to maintain its territory integrity.

    It doesn’t deserve to survive in its present form.

  7. David Hand

    The Tony Abbott insult is so predictably infantile. It shows that lefties, including the supposedly intelligent ones, are no longer commenting on Australian politics objectively but taking part in a country wide lefty group wank.

  8. SusieQ

    All Abbott and colleagues have said so far is that we will follow America. Is it possible that for once, we will think for ourselves and stay out of this? Apart from anything else, if we have a ‘budget emergency’ can we afford it?

  9. Andybob

    Gulf Wars I and II occurred in the context of US dependence on imported oil; making freedom of navigation through the Straits of Hormuz a vital US interest.

    That has changed. The US is now nearly energy sufficient and keeping the Straits of Hormuz free for oil tankers is merely desirable, not necessary.

    This means Obama can play a spoiling game, launching airstrikes, or even selective assassination by drones, to avoid unacceptable outcomes such as a Russian puppet government. History has shown the US to be largely indifferent to whether Sunni or Shia control Iraq. They have even tolerated an Iranian puppet in the form of Malicki.

  10. fractious

    Thanks Guy. It’s useful for an ignoramus like me to have some kind of potted summary to work with, though I’m aware yours will be no more nor less biased than anyone else’s. One reason for my continuing ignorance of ME affairs is the number of, and complexity of relationships between, parties involved, not to mention the history and what appear to be long-standing grievances and rivalries – just getting my head around the Sunni v Shiite conflict is difficult enough. The more I read the less clear things become – so many versions of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” in play, and that’s without the added FUBAR that is intervention by “the West”, Russia and so on.

    The one factor you don’t mention that many others do is the Saudis – from what I can gather they have a fair amount of skin in the game, and there are many who suggest Saudi money is bankrolling civil war in Syria.

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