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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.


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.

  11. klewso

    “Abbott’s Lore”?

  12. Steve777

    The Australian Government should adapt its approach on climate change to this issue: don’t deny it exists but don’t do anything.

  13. Rais

    A lot of Sunnis realise that ISIS and its ilk aren’t Sunni, they’re Wahhabi and quite hostile to actual Sunni belief and practice. On the other hand Nouri al Maliki has been giving them such a hard time they might see ISIS as the best of a bad lot.

  14. Dogs breakfast

    “Australia: Tony Abbott will fuck it up. That’s a given.”

    Worth the price of admission alone. 🙂

    Good to see David Hand arcing up at something so axiomatic.

    Regarding western intelligence (wtf!) I suspect there is a whole section in the CIA devoted to working out whether it’s ISIS or ISIL, and what the hell is a levant.

    “I just tell people that I’m in the CIA so that they think I am in the CIB, but really I’m in the CIC.”

    MASH pretty much covered this 30+ years ago.

    Thanks Guy, I wouldn’t even attempt to deconstruct this black hole of stupidity and incompetence.

  15. Dogs breakfast

    “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.”

    Pay that, Mr Diddy.

    ‘Clusterfuck’ hardly does this one justice.

  16. Mike R

    Don’t you just love Guy Rundle when he lets it all hang out. As per usual Guy cannot resist the reflexive urge for yet another a rant(mercifully brief) re Israel. After stating that Israel is irrelevant to the situation in Iraq for a variety of reasons he then proceeds to provides a selection of slogans that could be used as the basis for a drinking game.

    Make them small nips as you could get totally pissed in a very short time just for his “ Jewish- supremacist apartheid state” turn of phrase . I will ignore the Jewish supremacy line as I assume Guy has had a brain fade and has not become an advocate of David Duke (see http://davidduke.com/category/jewish-supremacism-2/). As an aside you can get from the preceding link an illustrated version of the “Protocols of Zion”- perfect gift for the kiddies.

    The only immediate relevance for Israel that Rundle identifies, is that ISIS like groups may arise that are more extreme than Hamas (or even Islamic Jihad , the Abu Ali Mustapha Brigade, the Tawhid and Jihad Brigades, the late (after being massacred by Hamas) Jund Ansar Allah (Arabic for the army of the Supporters’ of Allah) and its latest incarnation Jund Ansar al-Jihad wal Sunna, etc..

    Guy may not be up with very latest in Gaza but it seems there is already a small startup group in Gaza known as DAESH (Arabic acronym for ISIS). Interestingly enough the aforementioned Jund Ansar Allah profess the same ideals as this offshoot of ISIS i.e. a caliphate in all of Palestine and Sharia Law enforced by the usual methods.

    Clearly there are already more than enough likewise minded groups in Gaza that cater for the terrorist demographic, so the local franchise of ISIS will have some difficulties distinguishing itself from the other competing groups in Gaza. Product differentiation, especially with regard to dealing with infidels and techniques for enforcement of Sharia Law will clearly be of utmost importance.

    Fortunately ISIS has some experience in this field with modern media. As a branding exercise It is hard to beat the ISIS Twitter video of mass executions. Hopefully in the future they could avoid the blood and gore and instead commission an episode or two of the Gruen Transfer.

  17. Kevin Herbert

    David Duke speaks only common sense about the cancer of Zionism, so much so that his latest views are supported by the UK Jewish liberal commentator Paul Ries, and a growing number of informed commentators globally.

    It’ll be interesting to discover which part of Duke’s views on Zionism & the ethno-religious apartheid State of Israel, are considered wrong.

    Finally, with Israel having murdered 1405 children since 2000 (see below link),it’s very hard to understand why right wing commentators are shocked at the kidnapping of 3 Israeli illegal settler children. Our own ABC radio reported in hushed tones that prayer meetings were held nationwide, for their return.

    One hopes that these meetings also offered a prayer for the return of the 4800+ Palestinians currently held without charge & without trial, some of whom have been in Israeli gaols for more than 20 years.

  18. Mike R

    Incroyable! Who would have thought that among the readership of Crikey you would find an ardent admirer of David Duke. But if there was anyone silly enough to run with this, it could only be good old Kevin.

    David Duke has had an impressive career as a white supremacist (former Grand Wizard of the KKK) who in his spare time has created the racist, neo Nazi web site Stormfront.org where he has regular gig.. Needless to say he has spent a lot of time with the holocaust denial community and is a particular mate of Ernst Zundel (also known as the auteur and composer Franz Liebkind) whose first publication was ‘The Hitler we Loved and Why’ (he should have sued Mel Brooks). David Duke and Zundel also shared a platform with our very own Frederick Toben at the Holocaust Denial festival held in Teheran.

    Another pet project of his includes being a spokesman for an anti- gay organization called Straight Pride, also run through Stormfront.

    You can find an extensive and fascinating history of David Duke at the wiki- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Duke. Sounds like a charming man.

    By the way, there appears to be no evidence of someone called Paul Ries commenting on David Dukes opinions. In fact there is no evidence of a person of that name (or any alternative spelling of Ries) who is a UK Jewish liberal commentator. The only Paul Ries’s who comes close are an accountant in Queensland, a crash repairer in Chicago or a Pastor Paul Ries of Calvary Calvary Chapel Golden Springs . There is also a tree pruner in Oregon.

    Kev,are you making stuff up again or perhaps you are off your meds?

  19. Kevin Herbert

    The only good thing about rusted on Zionist bigots is that they continually offer themselves as soft targets, not having had a new thought in many years. And to think that such monumental lightweights try to patronise legitimate critics of the apartheid, ethnic cleansing, ethno-supremacist Israeli Government!!!
    A Zionists bigot’s take on David Duke, clearly has been formed by reading Zionist controlled MSM, who don’t like Duke’s challenge to their former unrivalled political influence globally up until the net arrived. Since around 2004, his net driven, factually-based campaign against Israel & the Zionists who also currently control both Houses of the US Congress via the odious AIPAC organisation, has attracted a mounting wall of propaganda from the US MSM, for daring to tell the truth about Israeli/Zionist control of US politics. For the record:
    • David Duke founded the Louisiana-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKKK), a Louisiana Ku Klux Klan organization & reformed the organization, promoting nonviolence and legality, and, for the first time in the Klan’s history, women were accepted as equal members and Catholics were encouraged to apply for membership. Duke has repeatedly insisted that the Klan was “not anti-black”, but rather “pro-white” and “pro-Christian, in the very same manner as is done to this day by the great Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who has exactly the same views on US Zionists & Wall St bankers as does David Duke. I share their views, as do an increasing number of people globally, including the leading English Jewish commentator, Paul Eisen, who appears on David Duke’s radio programs. When an Australian Zionist bigot can’t identify a high-profile UK Jewish anti Zionist, even when given a strong clue, it’s clear evidence that the bigot knows nothing about world Jewry apart from his ECAJ talking points…..bigots don’t have to do any research. So much for Duke’s label of race supremacist. And for the record, Duke’s IS NOT a Holocaust denier. Like Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, and the gutsy Jewish Rabbi Dovid Weiss of Neturai Karta, he’s one of the growing number of free thinkers globally who question why the details of the Holocaust, are not allowed to be studied…that’s right…there exists a ban for the past 69 years on anyone reviewing the Shoah documentation.
    • Duke’s rejection of Jewish supremacism mirrors that of many other moderate commentators globally. Duke says his views on Jewish supremacism have been vindicated with the 2006 publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which is says exactly what Duke has said. Even our own former Foreign Minister Bob Carr has evidenced that Australian far right Zionist Jews make up a shady, ethno religious supremacist group. I challenge any free thinker to view the following You Tube post by Duke, and not largely agree with him:
    Duke’s website has articles by various authors claiming that American Jewish loan-sharks own the Federal Reserve Bank and that Jews control Hollywood and the US MSM, an increasingly widely held view globally particularly since the ‘End the Fed’ campaign was launched by Congressman Ron Paul, and since there have been no criminal charges laid against any Wall St banker for their central role in the 2008 GFC. Therefore it’s clear that Duke’s been right all along about Zionist’s key role in the control of global finance, as well as the MSM & the US Congress via AIPAC.
    Duke’s views on the controversial “Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ make perfect sense to me…have a look at what he actually says & make up your own mind, particularly given the post GFC scandal re no-one on Wall St being made responsible for it.
    Globally prior to the emergence of the internet early last decade, far right Zionists & their bigot shills, operated their anti-democratic propaganda sleaze away from public gaze…..not any more, and it’s clear that their control of the respective narratives re the US Federal Reserve & Israel, is slipping away very rapidly. With bigots & ethno -supremacists as their only supporters, both Zionism & Israel have begun their inevitable slide to total failure.

  20. Mike R

    Kevin, you have outdone yourself. Clearly your piece-de-resistance above is a masterpiece and I am sorely tempted to let it stand without comment.

    My only quibble is that you only require a few additional items required to complete your marvellous satire of the outpourings of the mind of an anti-Semitic bigot (I know it’s a tautology).

    For the sake of completeness and in light of how enamored you are of the writings of David Duke, could you add further to your penetrating comments and discuss the following,

    1. David Duke’s obsessional views regarding the Jewish supremacist promotion of homosexuality (http://davidduke.com/jewish-supremacists-homosexuality-and-divide-and-conquer/ ).

    2. the Zionist left wing/communist banker collaboration bit (http://davidduke.com/dr-david-duke-on-the-rense-radio-show-blood-brothers-communism-zionism/).

    3. and finally, last but not least, summarize the following from David Duke’s epic tome “My Awakening” at http://www.martinlutherking.org/ma-chapter18.html (interestingly the web site MartinLutherKing.org was established by David Duke’s StormFront to discredit Martin Luther King).

    Chapter 18 is a great read in which we find out how the Jews invented communism, notions of racial equality and anti-racism, promoted the civil right movements in the U.S while simultaneously inventing sexual promiscuity and feminism etc..

    Kevin feel free to use for your references any additional materials at your disposal such the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (any edition, illustrated or otherwise) or Mein Kampf.

    If you continue on in the same vein, your comments here on Crikey can be used as a one stop shop for those who have similar anti-Semitic proclivities. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.

  21. Mike R

    As a postscript to the above I was highly amused by Kevin’s reference to the “ UK Jewish liberal commentator” referring to a Paul Reis when he now says he was referring to someone whose actual name is Paul Eisen. This was a cunning ploy, assuming he was not referring to a Paul Eisen, the dentist from Hackney.

    However I am also at fault as admittedly I do not have Kevin’s in depth familiarity with the entire gamut of right-wingnuts the inhabit the alternative universe of his favourite web sites . I am sure he could readily dig up more from the crypt if required.

    But if we are perchance on the same page with regard to the Paul Eisen, the one that is David Dukes “bestie”, then this is the one who proudly proclaims that he is a holocaust denier and unabashedly recycles the infamous Ernst Zundel’s claim of the non existence of gas chambers (he also talks glowingly elsewhere on his blogs about his visits to Zundel in jail) .

    Eisen runs with the “Sergeant Schultz“ defense for the Fuehrer but takes it further, even than David Irving, and claims that the Nazi hierarchy had no plans to exterminate the Jews. So not only Adolf had no idea but Joe Goebbels, Himmler, Goering and the rest just got bad reviews by the Zionist controlled MSM (and the judges at the Nuremberg trials).

    Eisen also makes a claim stating that significantly less than 6 million Jews were murdered in the holocaust without specifying a number. It is puzzling that he accepts that 3 million were murdered in Poland alone.

    In this case he must believe that the Jews of Russia, the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, France, Belgium, Holland, Greece and the Balkans got off lightly with maybe a handful casualties in each country. There seems to be a real disconnect with reality.

    Look our engagements have, as per usual, drifted way off topic (what was it again?) but Kevin’s predilection to dump his material glorifying his latest Fuehrer on Crikey rather than StormFront or the National Vanguard sites is remarkable. Kevin you do realize that there appears to even be a Down Under forum on StormFront that would lap up your material?

    Finally I will leave Kevin with a similar cryptic problem similar to that he posed , but much easier than his, as the answer has actually the same number of letters as the clue.

    It is a 6 letter word starting with r, third letter c and final letter m. To make it even easier here are two solutions. The first describes the nature of Kevin’s contributions above and the other an anatomical term for the region where his obnoxious material emanates from.


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