Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Whose chickens are coming home to roost in Iraq?

As Islamist fighters seize swathes of territory and key cities in northwestern Iraq while edging closer to full control of the country’s largest oil refinery in Baiji, the emergence and rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) requires not only a careful assessment of the political landscape in Iraq, but impartial scrutiny of Western and Gulf strategies to bolster opposition forces in neighboring Syria.

There is much evidence to suggest that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government have politically and economically marginalized the country’s Sunni minority, using punitive measures to violently crackdown on protests and engage in mass arrests. While its true that there exists a broad Sunni opposition to Maliki’s rule, this alone cannot explain the recent developments in Iraq.

The unraveling security situation in the region, as well as the overtly sectarian nature of post-Saddam Iraqi politics, cannot be divorced from legacy of the US occupation of Iraq and policies undertaken since by the Obama administration in Syria, in coordination with partners such as Saudi Arabia. Despite the trillions spent by Washington to fight terrorism, ISIS has emerged as the most efficient, discipline, and well-funded jihadist group in history.

ISIS, the organization now making rapid advances toward Baghdad, formed following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The group likens itself as an ideologically superior alternative to al-Qaeda, due in part to its efficiency and gains on the Syrian battlefield. The group’s central purpose is the creation of an Islamic state that encompasses both Syria and Iraq into a borderless caliphate.

ISIS is said to have around 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, many who previously fought with al-Qaeda, and others who are former Ba'athists and soldiers of the Saddam-era army that fought against the US occupation. The organization is known for targeting Shiites, Christians, and other religious minorities, garnering a brutal reputation for carrying out crucifixions, beheadings and amputations.

According to the Iraqi government, ISIS has looted banks and captured military supplies since taking the northern city of Mosul, and now controls around $2 billion in cash and assets. The jihadist group has also produced professional propaganda videos and a sleek public relations campaign designed to attract private investors and new recruits.

Iraq’s Sunni community has long felt alienated by the Shiite-dominate government in Baghdad, and its true that a wider Sunni revolt against Maliki is taking place, with ISIS serving as the strongest component. Voices from the US political establishment accuse the Obama administration of contributing to the crisis in Iraq by formally withdrawing occupation troops from the country in 2011, under an agreement made during the Bush administration.

These problems are not a product of a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, but rather the results of Washington’s flawed attempt at nation building by the notorious neoconservatives following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The US occupation that began in 2003 entirely dismantled Iraq’s central government, state institutions, and armed forces. To offset the influence of Sunnis loyal to the Ba’athist establishment, the US empowered the Shiites.

The Bush administration’s nation building efforts fueled sectarian divisions by favoring certain groups and religious sects that were seen to be more advantageous and amenable to US interests, effectively restructuring Iraqi society based on the suggestions of intelligence analysts and think-tanks in Washington. Tribal groups and sects were armed by the US to fight forces that resisted the US occupation. It is essential to note that al-Qaeda didn’t exist in Iraq prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein.

A similar argument being made is that the Obama administration failed to do enough to aid the ‘moderate’ elements of the armed opposition in Syria since the war began in 2011, which empowered radical forces like ISIS. The proponents of this argument clearly overlook the millions spent by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sanctioned by the Obama administration to bolster various rebel groups inside of Syria.

Its no secret that Washington and its allies would prefer to see the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and it is the massive funding of radical groups from US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar that has destabilized Syria, providing the ideal environment for extreme jihadist militias to train and multiply. The Obama administration has looked the other way as its Sunni allies empowered radical groups, primarily because these organizations proved the be the most effective fighters.

Wealthy donors from the Gulf countries have also fuelled the growth of jihadist groups, but the backing from US-aligned Sunni monarchies has been significant enough to warrant warnings against doing so from the Obama administration, which is now somewhat more cognizant of the blowback that such policies incur. The brutal rise of ISIS and the unraveling of Iraq and Syria are principally the result of outside attempts to shape the politics and resources of the region through force and covert operations.

Some disillusioned members of Iraq’s Sunni population, who are a majority in the northwestern regions of Baghdad, view the advance of ISIS as a positive development, but any further advances into the Shiite-dominated south and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in the north – where three-quarters of Iraq’s strategic oil fields lay – will be met with stiff resistance by Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

In Syria, the black flag of ISIS hangs over the northern provincial capital of Raqqa, from where it has secured several key oilfields in the eastern regions, providing further revenue. The jihadist organization, by attempting to capture the key oil refinery in Baiji, is attempting a similar strategy in Iraq. The fighting has caused oil prices to shoot up to a nine-month high, trading above $114 a barrel. If fighting bleeds further south, oil markets will experience even more radical price volatility, which some analysts suggest will see crude trading at above $120 a barrel.

The ironic miscalculation of US policy in the region is that Damascus and Baghdad look towards Iran for assistance, and in truth, Washington may need to collaborate with Tehran if it intends to contain the spread of ISIS and radical Sunni militias. Iran may provide Baghdad with the kind of training and assistance that allowed the Syrian army to consolidate and make gains against ISIS across large swathes of Syria.

This crisis now unfolding may the be catalyst that forces Maliki and the Shiites to work more closely with the Kurds and nationalist forces, as both the Iranians and Americans have been suggesting. Rather than more overt foreign intervention, all elements of Iraqi society must come together under the banner of a multi-sectarian force to face the menace now attempting to redefine borders and radically reshape the region.

This article appeared in the June 25, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper. 

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.