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Aleksandr Aksenenok

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC Vice-president

On June 10, 2014, Iraq was shattered by yet another political earthquake, raising the possibility of another Afghanistan located right in the heart of the Middle East. Within just a very small number of days, the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), known in Iraq and Syria for appalling atrocities and militant fanaticism, was able to occupy the two-million person city of Mosul, the second largest in Iraq, and vowed to march victoriously on Baghdad.

On June 10, 2014, Iraq was shattered by yet another political earthquake, raising the possibility of another Afghanistan located right in the heart of the Middle East. Within just a very small number of days, the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), known in Iraq and Syria for appalling atrocities and militant fanaticism, was able to occupy the two-million person city of Mosul, the second largest in Iraq, and vowed to march victoriously on Baghdad.   

As of writing, the ISIL fully or partially controls Nineveh, Samarra and Salah ad-Din, three northwestern provinces that make up one-third of Iraq’s territory. The movement has proclaimed a medieval theocratic state, or Islamic Caliphate, that spans from Aleppo in northwestern Syria to eastern Iraq.

History Repeats Itself

Preoccupied with Ukraine crisis, the world appears to have misinterpreted the events in Iraq, as terrorist attacks and religion-based armed clashes have persisted there for over ten years and recently intensified even more so. However, it soon became clear that the new escalation in tensions is not just an episode in the vicious circle of violence. Seemingly an Islamic blitzkrieg, the ISIL offensive was hardly a surprise, bearing in mind the trajectory of the conflict in Syria, where the group has grown into a major force over the past year.

Now that the Islamists are advancing, the Iraqi army is falling apart and the country’s governability fading away,[1] the international community is currently facing several serious questions: how did this evolution in the conflict arise, how strong is the ISIL militarily and politically, can the currently decomposing Iraq remain one state, and how realistic are catastrophic prophecies about a looming reshaping of the Middle East.

Some answers can be found by looking at several aspects of the crisis, some dating back to 2003 when Iraq was occupied by the U.S.-led anti-Saddam coalition. Others are related to competition between the major regional powers, and lastly others are connected to the ongoing domestic conflict in Syria.

With Iraq about losing its statehood and plunging into religious civil war, the West is ostensibly still trying to comprehend the aftermath of the American invasion, as more and more analysts have come to believe that it was a disastrous mistake by the previous U.S. administration and that Washington is to blame for the wave of the militant Islamism sweeping the region. Similar to the Suez crisis of 1956, which had whipped up pan-Arab nationalism, the Western coalition's assault on a Muslim country has provided grounds for an unprecedented rise in support for radical Islam and the growth of al-Qaeda. The fragile balance between the ruling Sunni minority and the Shiite majority that had been maintained by the steady hand of Saddam Hussein in no time was broken in favor of the Shiites. The BAATH-based authoritarian regime fell apart, causing the collapse of the entire political system. Confessional strife immediately overwhelmed Syria and Lebanon, and spread toward Pakistan. With a Western-style parliament being imposed atop decades-old enmity between neighboring powers, primarily Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iraq found itself on the verge of breakdown.

ISIL or al-Qaeda 2.0?

In contrast to many other offshoots of al-Qaeda, ISIL from the very beginning has presented a clear-cut and publicly declared strategic goal, i.e. the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate covering not just Syria and Iraq, but the entire historical Levant incorporating Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and even part of Egypt. Thanks to rich combat experience in Syria, where ISIL has been fighting fiercely against government troops, the secular opposition (Free Syrian Army) and Islamists (Jabhat al-Nusra), the organization has developed its own military tactics and skills of building alliances with Sunni tribes by means of material incentives and social support in exchange for the adoption of strict Sharia laws.

ISIL is efficiently using Taliban methods for governing captured territories. Its strength has been assessed at less than 15,000 fighters, of which 2,000, mostly foreigners, make up the strike force. On the whole, the mujahidin army is far from homogeneous, as it includes Kurds, Turkmens (the so-called Naqshbandiya), former officers of Saddam’s army and even BAATH members. While the elite force attacks its enemies, occupied lands are controlled by underground cells and local sheikhs who have sworn allegiance to the Islamists.

The organization is affluent, having received private donations from Persian Gulf states and massive revenues from smuggling, robbery, hostage ransoms (including of Westerners), and Sharia taxes. After capturing production wells in the Syrian northeastern governorate of Al-Raqqah, ISIL’s budget has been also augmented by oil sales. The organization is justly seen as al-Qaeda’s wealthiest and financially independent branch with assets estimated at one billion dollars (Financial Times, June 23 2014. Unrivalled Riches Help ISIS Aspire to Role of State). And it has only become richer after seizing banks and Iraqi military hardware in Mosul.

The latest territorial conquests have provided the ISIL with cross-border opportunities vistas for establishing a Sunni ersatz-state between the Tigris and the Euphrates, from eastern Syria to northwestern Iraq, where combatants and weapons are freely moving in all directions. Iraqi Sunnites are arriving to assist antigovernment forces in Syria, while Syrian and Lebanese Shiites are joining the ranks of the ISIL opponents in Iraq. In view of ties between Lebanon and Syria, we are now facing a situation in which three domestic conflicts have merged in a single religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.

However, it is not only covert financial assistance from other states, something Mr. Al-Maliki blames Saudi Arabia for, which is fuelling the ISIL’s blitz. Domestic conflicts in Syria and Iraq largely stem from the client war between Saudi Arabia and Iran which has strengthened the former’s grip over Baghdad. During his two terms in office, the Iraqi prime minister, outwardly authoritarian and biased towards his own faith, has alienated most of the influential Sunni political and religious leaders and tribal sheikhs. These actions are believed to be main reasons for ISIL’s advances, since Islamists have mobilized Iraqi Sunnites dissatisfied with the Shiites’ monopolization of power and now enjoy the support from the local population.   

The Kurds may end up as the ultimate winners. With full autonomy and the well-armed Peshmerga, they used the capture of Mosul to swiftly seize the oil-rich Kirkuk area, a long-standing issue of discontent with Baghdad. Kurdish leaders have cautiously refrained from separatist statements, hinting that if the things go worse, they may hold a referendum in Kurdistan and other claimable territories. A recent statement of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani made to the BBC is quite inspirational: “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country's living?”. The issue at stake is hardly about an independent Kurdistan, although self-determination has been the perennial dream of the Kurdish people.

Who is to Judge?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki
and the President of Iraqi Kurdistan
Massoud Barzani

The escalation of the Iraq crisis poses another tough challenge to the international community, primarily to the United States who is primarily responsible for the calamity after its withdrawal from the country. However, as is the case with Syria, the Obama administration is facing a number of hard choices, with the overall situation even more delicate because of double standards about terrorism. The White House has labeled the Assad regime illegitimate, so ISIL in Syria has never been properly opposed. While maintaining close links with Iran, Mr. Al-Maliki is considered a U.S. ally. But striking the Islamists in Iraq would mean direct American involvement in a civil war on the Shiite side, which would play into the terrorists' hand. Rejecting Baghdad's appeals for help when the U.S.-made political system is on stake, would severely damage American prestige in the Arab world, which has already been shattered by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

To this end, recent statements by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry (Financial Times, June 23 2014) indicate that the U.S. seems to have chosen a political strategy with parallel preparations for airstrikes made just in case. Direct military intervention is so far unlikely, as Washington is confining itself to sending 300 military instructors to assist the Iraqi army and gather intelligence for possible airstrikes. Mr. Kerry urgently went to Baghdad to persuade Mr. Al-Maliki to form a representative government of national unity that would bring together influential Sunni and Kurdish political and clerical figures in order to deprive the Islamists of grassroots support. In this case, the U.S. military aid to the government forces would not appear as participation in the religious war.

The situation in Iraq is exacerbated by the significantly weakened positions of the prime minister in the midst of the Islamists' offensive. Hence, the future scenario will also hinge on developments within the Iraqi domestic arena, because Mr. Al-Maliki will either participate in the process or be ousted.

The Islamist threat to the Iraqi state is directly affecting the strategic interests of major regional actors, while the outcome will definitely lead the Syrian conflict toward either aggravation or a political settlement.

An agreement on coordinated efforts is sought mainly by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, the three neighboring countries with the strongest influence in Iraq. Despite their cutthroat competition for leadership in the region, which has been shattered by the Arab Spring, all of them regard partition of Iraq as an unacceptable threat with unpredictable consequences. The long-standing interrelated conflict in Syria and Iraq seems to have reached the limit when each side is more clear-headed in weighing the pros and cons, and giving more thought to potential damage to its interests.        

Riyadh stands for a political settlement through forming a national salvation government and absolutely disassociates itself from terrorism, since many of the ISIL combatants with time may threaten the Kingdom. Even before the Islamist offensive, Iranians and Saudis began exchanging signals about a possible resumption of the dialogue on the regional situation. Also very interested in the successful completion of nuclear talks in Geneva, Iran is displaying caution and is refraining from direct involvement, appealing to the U.S. to follow suit, and at the same time taking preventive measures for a worst-case scenario. Turkey also rejects military involvement on any side, including airstrikes, fearing excessive casualties among civilians. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan did not hesitate to say that since the Iraqi army has left its position in the north of the country, the situation has become a war between confessions rather than a war between the ISIL and the Iraqi government, a Sunni-Shiite war that he would neither accept nor approve.  

Gevorg Mirzayan:
Iraq Continues to Disintegrate

The marked aggravation of the explosive situation is questioning the very existence of the new Iraqi state that was hurriedly established under a foreign occupation regime along Western guidelines prescribing liberal democratic values alien to the social psychology and political culture of the multi-confessional and polyethnic Arab community. And this is Mr. Al-Maliki’s misfortune rather than his fault, as he has become part of a failed political system.

The external actors seem to realize the dangers of interventionism in a situation when the internal Iraqi conflict is moving onto an outwardly confessional track. The Arab Spring has proven Russia’s reasoning that the use of military force in the Muslim world will bring only temporary success but no grounds for sustainable development that could prevent the sporadic surfacing of new hotbeds.

What Next?

The ISIL appears to be challenging all parties of the conflict, both inside and outside Iraq. If the emerging interests-based trend of countering the Islamist threat through synchronized international and regional efforts holds, a new regional configuration may appear, with Mr. Assad seen by the West as a lesser evil vis-à-vis the Islamic Caliphate in this strategically vital part of the Middle East. Full-scale coordination between the United States and Iran is unlikely, but the two seem to start comprehending the limits of each other’s unilateral actions. As for the U.S.’s Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf, they should be content with Washington’s assurances about containing Iran’s regional ambitions.     

Concerted action for quelling the crisis has been recently accelerated by positive shifts in relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia, who have launched a high-level political dialogue aimed at advancing mutual understanding in the approach to this international and regional conundrum. During the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Riyadh, Saudi leaders stressed their “profound interest in building the partnership with Russia”.

The simultaneous Russian-Saudi and U.S.-Iranian rapprochement seems quite promising for creating a healthy environment for restoring the Middle Eastern track of diplomacy and the further political settlement of the interconnected conflicts in Syria and Iraq.   

[1] During parliamentary elections last April 30, the State of the Law party led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won its third victory, although with not enough seats to form a ruling coalition; no government was able to be established in time. As a result, the military aggravation has coincided with a political crisis (author’s note).


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