What in God's Name Is Going on in Iraq? An Expert Explains.

Roundup
tags: Iraq, Olivier Roy



With Iraq riven by sectarian violence and mass atrocities, I decided to have a short email exchange with Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy, and an expert on political Islam. (Our previous conversation was about Syria and Egypt.) We discussed the state of relations between Sunnis and Shiites, the prospect of wider regional war, and whether the borders of the Middle East are about to change.

Isaac Chotiner: What do you make of ISIS as a group? How do you see them as distinct from other violent Muslim groups?

Olivier Roy: ISIS is an offspring of Al Qaeda, so it is first a globalized international movement which is lacking deep roots in the local society and which does not have a "national" project (contrary to Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Jihad, or the Shia radical movements). Many foreign volunteers don't speak Arabic, and don't care about the local society.  It does not have a project of "civil" society except a reference to sharia. ISIS is an army of militants, not a political party, nor a social movement.  It succeeds because the others failed; and as everywhere it will confront a backlash of the civil society (which happened in Falluja during the "surge" of General Petraeus). But the new element is that some leaders (both of Al Qaeda and ISIS) seem to realize that there is a need to shift from a militant Jihad international group to a local power with a capacity to administrate the "liberated areas." But I doubt it will have the ability or the time to morph into an efficient political organization: Such a project does not correspond to its recruitment strategy or to its global ideology.

IC: How pessimistic are you about Iraq? 

OR: I think that the Jihadist offensive will be repelled, but not because the Maliki government will retake the upper hand. It will be a consequence of the Shia and Kurdish backlash, because both groups know that they are fighting with their backs against the wall, and that the Jihadists just dream about eliminating them. They are the majority and they will fight. But the backbone of the "surge" is not the legal government: it is the Kurdish troops and the Shia clergy who, once again, are embodying the nation in a time of crisis. The Shia will accept a de facto independence for Kurdistan and will not fight to retake Kirkuk from the Kurds. The Sunnis will not be able to retake the central power, and tensions between Jihadis, Baathists and tribal leaders will erupt among Sunnis. The Shias will administrate the South. The problem is Baghdad. I doubt a strong central government will regain power. So at best you will have a loose federation of three entities, and at worst a split into three entities...

IC: Do you see the Sunni/Shia rift as getting worse? Has it ever been this bad?

OR: The rift has little to do with religion as such. It seldom became a geostrategic issue in history, except when Iran turned Shia in the sixteenth century. During the twentieth century there was no rift at all until the Iranian-Islamic revolution. The rift has been a consequence of the Iranian Islamic revolution that has identified Iran with militant Shiism, and it entailed a religious radicalization of a Sunni fringe (the so-called "Salafis") that has been encouraged by Saudi Arabia both for religious reasons and for thwarting the growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Iraq. And the rift is growing, because the mutual distrust is growing. Shias in the Gulf are systematically perceived as an Iranian fifth column, something they were not seen as in the past.

The Shia-Sunni divide is a war through proxies waged by Iran and Saudi Arabia. But while the Shia axis is relatively coherent (Iran, Hezbollah, Assad and to a lesser extend Maliki), the Sunni front is utterly divided and has no common objectives.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq has just destroyed the main Sunni bulwark against Iran, with two consequences: the solidifying of a de facto independent Kurdistan, the secession of a large Sunni populated area in Northern Iraq that shifted from Baathism to Jihadism and straddles the border with Syria. Saudi Arabia, instead of allying itself with the mainstream Sunni organizations (like the Muslim Brothers), wants to crush them, while it supported for decades the very radicals that are now taking the lead in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Thus Iran is the great beneficiary of the collapse of the dominant order built between 1918 and 1948, with a minimum engagement on the field...




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