A terrorist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has controlled vast swathes of land in Iraq and the major cities of Tikrit and Mosul are in their hands. The Sunni militant group is more radical, authoritarian and religious fundamentalist than al-Qaeda. Though it is described as a breakaway faction of the al-Qaeda, it can merge with it anytime. It is a spillover from the neighbouring conflicts in Syria. The ISIS is one of the groups opposing the Assad regime in Syria. It is well equipped with the latest lethal weaponry, stolen from captured military bases.
The ISIS has ambitions to capture power in the region. The international community is worried because of the humanitarian crises, rise in oil prices, growing fundamentalism and terrorism. To address this new conflict its root cause will have to be tackled. The traditional geopolitical rivalries will have to retreat or terrorism will raise its ugly head again.
Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who leads a weak coalition, a corrupt government and polarised country, could not get the required quorum to declare emergency to confront the terrorists. The US-trained Iraqi Army is demoralised and beset with internal problems, but the Iraqi Kurds have been fighting back. As the ISIS advanced, this army melted away.
Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent (UK, June 14) that the Sunni militia is funded and supported by the Saudi Wahhabis and Kuwaiti oligarchs. The Saudis had a policy of releasing imprisoned hard-core al-Qaeda elements to fight alongside such groups. The US supports the Saudi regime and has turned a blind eye to its games.
Iraq thus is a repeat of the Syria story, except that in Iraq the US opposes the ISIS rebels, but supports rebels in coalition with the ISIS in Syria. This duality was officially expressed by US national security adviser Susan Rice, who said on CNN on 7 June that Washington was providing lethal and non-lethal support to the Syrian rebels. The Iraq-US Strategic Forces Agreement allows for US intervention. But the US will not oblige until Iraq accepts conditions of internal inclusive politics and external distance from Iran. For the US, regime change in Iran and Syria appears more important than saving Iraq from terrorism.
Iraq’s terrible internal governance records are also reasons for its collapse. The Maliki regime discriminated against and excluded the Sunnis since 2003. For example, seven lakh Sunni soldiers were dismissed from the Iraqi army, and others removed from government service after the Americans left. Promotions in the army are allegedly sold. Such corruption, politicisation and exclusion on the basis of religion have destroyed institutions. Iraq is polarised with sectarian conflicts and hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to terror and sectarian attacks.
In response to the current takeover by the ISIS, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has promised assistance and has sent 2,000 advance troops for this crucial fight against terrorism. The Iranian revolutionary guards’ head is in Baghdad. The much revered Ayatollah Sistani has given a call to arms. The ISIS is at loggerheads with the Hezbollah, allegedly run by Iran. Iran will be crucial in resolving this conflict.
Terrorism in Iraq is a post-Saddam, post-US intervention phenomenon. Iraq has 30,000 American troops and yet terrorist attacks have increased. According to a RAND report, between 2011 and 2013 alone, jihadist groups grew by 58 per cent, their fighters doubled and their attacks tripled. Terror groups are expanding their base in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen.
It is obvious that the American war on terror has failed because it was a war to expand US interests in West Asia. Why then did the US leave Afghanistan and attack Iraq in 2003, on the pretext of nuclear weapons that were never found? Similarly, the NATO overthrew the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 on grounds of humanitarian intervention and then departed. Libya today has escalating violence, and another civil war is possible as sectarian politics is on the rise.
Clearly, countries where intervention took place were neither protected nor stabilised or liberated. Moreover, terrorist groups are hurting Americans and others and know that the US has little staying power. Demonising Islam and using drone warfare has not controlled the terrorists. The US is spending $500 billion for its base budget. Even if one fifth of that went into peace, accountable governance and human security in regions where there is fear of terrorism, it might be a better way to build international security.
In the current scenario, even though the Iranian and US interests have been at loggerheads, this is a time where there is a small window of opportunity that they come together to save Iraq. If they allow competitive geopolitics to prevail, it will be at the cost of Iraqi people and international terrorism will grow.
This is the time to build on the 2013 Geneva deal reached between Iran, the West and Russia on Syria. Stabilising Syria is the key to peace in Iran as Russia, China and India have argued. The recent elections in Syria showed that Assad still has support from the Alawites, the Shias, Christians, secularists, and some Sunnis. The Western slogan that Assad must go should stop. The region needs stability, inclusive politics, basic rights, as opposed to regime change where one set of dictators is taken over by another or by militias and people suffer even more. The dream that US trained “moderate” Islamists will fight both the regime in Syria and the Islamist militia including the ISIS is warped and unreal.
The late Christopher Hitchens called the al-Qaeda “partly a corrupt multinational corporation, partly a crime family, partly a surrogate for the Saudi oligarchy and the Pakistani secret police, partly a sectarian religious cult, and partly a fascist organisation”. It is this body and its affiliates that need to be defeated by a Shia-Sunni alliance, regional Arab alliances. India should support any proposal that advocates this.
The writer is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.