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ISIS-Baathists Alliance Likely to Break Down in Near Future

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with James L. Gelvin
By: Mohsen Farahbar

While Iraq is busy grappling with one of the most acute and most complicated security crises it has witnessed in the past few decades, there are some misunderstandings and misinterpretations around this crisis within certain media circles as well as quasi-scientific analyses, which are trying to show that the crisis in Iraq is, in fact, a religious war between Shias and Sunnis. Such a reductionist view aims to generalize the religious dimension of the violence in Iraq to all other aspects of the current crisis in this Arab country. On the other hand, there are some media circles and so-called analysts that are trying to distort the reality in a different way by blaming the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki for the existing situation in Iraq.

Meanwhile, it is quite clear that the existing problems in Iraq have their roots in a host of deep-rooted factors and cannot be analyzed and assessed merely on the basis of a one-dimensional and simplistic approach. It seems that the crisis in Iraq is a product of a dozen different and complicated causes and factors. Major factors catalyzing the ongoing crisis in Iraq include the colonial legacy of the country, weak national unity, incoherent national identity, absence of powerful leadership, a flawed system of power distribution, existence of centrifugal forces, regional rivalries and conflicts, as well as the spillover of the civil war in the neighboring Syria. Therefore, it seems that any form of one-dimensional analysis of this crisis would be nonscientific and misleading.

This is why the multilayered equations in Iraq need multilayered solutions in which all players would be required to fulfill their responsibilities at various levels in order to find a comprehensive roadmap to get the Iraq out of the existing dire straits. In the following exclusive interview with Iran Review, Professor James L. Gelvin brings us to such an understanding of regional issues.

James L. Gelvin is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of California , Los Angeles. He received his B.A. from Columbia University , his Master's in International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has taught at Boston College, Harvard University, MIT, and the American University in Beirut. A specialist in the modern social and cultural history of the Arab East, he is author of four books: The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2012, 2015); The Modern Middle East: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2015);The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (Cambridge University Press, 2005, 2007, 2014); and Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire (University of California Press, 1998), along with numerous articles and chapters in edited volumes. He is also co-editor of Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print, 1850-1930 (University of California Press, 2013). What follows is the text of the interview:

Editor's Note: These views represent those of the interviewee and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints. 

Q: What is the root cause behind the ongoing violence in Iraq and Syria and the rise of radical Islamic groups?

A: It would be fair to say that the violence that is taking place in Syria and Iraq is the result of the government’s use of force to put down what had started as peaceful protests.  In Syria, the government initially deployed the security services to put down rallies and protests. Although mostly peaceful, protesters had to be protected from the security forces by locally-based deserters from the Syrian army. These deserters later became the core of the Free Syrian Army. In January 2012 the regime changed tactics. Instead of the security forces, it deployed the military which leveled entire neighborhoods to put down the rebellion. This had an effect on the opposition. With their communities under siege or bombardment, local militias were often forced to retreat from their own neighborhoods and regroup and fight wherever they sensed regime vulnerability. The close connection between local militias and their civilian counterparts thus ended, as did any restraint on the part of the military units that grew out of the militias. The political guidance and cohesion of the uprising diminished in importance. As a result, the uprising became increasingly militarized.

The reason for the entrance of takfiri groups into the conflict can also be blamed on the regime. The regime deliberately “sectarianized” the conflict so that the Alawite (and Christian) communities would rally around it. At the start of the uprising the government relied on the formal security services, along with the shabiha (Alawite gangs who were informally attached to the government) to quell the disturbances. It also organized armed “popular committees” to protect Alawite villages, and equipped pro-regime vigilantes with knives and clubs to be used in street battles with mostly unarmed protesters. Relying on formal and informal security groups, along with pro-regime vigilantes, all of which were identified with the Alawite community, had an effect that the government undoubtedly foresaw and cynically exploited: it sectarianized the conflict. By shifting the terms of the conflict away from one that pit regime opponents against regime-loyalists to one that pit radical Sunnis against endangered minorities, the regime secured the unqualified loyalty of much of the Alawite and Christian communities who feared the worst should the regime fall. 

Members of the formal and informal security apparatus also provoked sectarian violence to validate the regime’s claim that those fighting it were Islamists, not democrats. In July 2011, nine died in Homs after an Alawite “mob” surrounded a Sunni mosque in one of the first recorded instances of sectarian conflict during the uprising. Worse was to come: in Baida and Banias, for example, shabiha massacred 248 Sunnis, and in the village of Aqrab opposition fighters slaughtered at least 125 Alawites. 

Within this atmosphere, takfiri groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS had no difficulty portraying themselves as protectors of the Sunni community. Even though ISIS is extremely unpopular wherever it has taken power and has done little to combat the regime (it has mostly fought other opposition groups), the takfiris as a whole have created a mystique about their superior fighting ability and ruthlessness. And Syria became a magnet attracting takfiris from the region and as far away as Europe and the United States to wage jihad against the regime.

Q: Why in the course of the Arab Spring, popular revolutions have been taken over by fundamentalist groups?

A: They didn't. As a matter of fact, according to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project public support for al-Qaeda throughout the Muslim world reached an all time low in 2013: 57 percent of those surveyed held an unfavorable view of the organization and only 13 percent a favorable one. Support for suicide bombings followed the same trend.  To top it off, 67 percent expressed concern about Islamist extremism in their countries.  And it is not just al-Qaeda: After being implicated in two political assassinations, public anger at Ansar al-Sharia of Tunisia reached such a high level that Ennahda had to disavow the organization and declare it a terrorist organization. Likewise, after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, during which the American ambassador was killed, a mob destroyed the Ansar al-Sharia of Libya headquarters and drove the organization underground. The takfiri tendency, which had never really tried to create mass organizations, is extremely unpopular throughout the Muslim world.

Q: A very serious viewpoint is emerging among Arab analysts who believe that the current unrest in the Middle East and the inaction of the United States and the West over it is in line with the theory of constructive chaos proposed in 2006 by the former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. What is your opinion?

A: The American invasion and occupation of Iraq was a disaster and did destabilize that country, but the events of 2010-11 had nothing to do with it. The Arab uprisings were the result of autocratic governments throughout the region which could not provide for the basic needs of their populations and did not respond to the democratic aspirations of those populations.

The United States did not set the agenda for the uprisings. Each uprising followed a distinctive course that was set by the state’s history, institutional capabilities, and structure. Tunisia and Egypt are the only two states in the Arab world that have experienced over two centuries of state-building. As a result, there were institutions—the army, the security services, and the judiciary—which defined the course of the uprisings there. In both countries the military intervened into the uprising and dismissed the president.  In the case of Egypt, the judiciary and security services undercut the protest movement and the Muslim Brotherhood at every opportunity, setting the stage for the second military coup d’état in June 2013. Yemen and Libya are weak states—there were few state institutions and those that existed could not maintain control over much of the country and its population. As a result, what institutions there were simply fragmented when confronted by popular rebellion. Some of the military remained with Qaddafi and Saleh, some joined the opposition. The same with politicians. As a result, the uprisings in both places were long and violent and were only resolved by outside intervention.  In Syria and Bahrain, members of minority communities and the family of the president or king controlled the government, the military, and the security services.  As a result, the military could not turn on the ruler, as it did in Tunisia and Egypt, and did not fragment, as it did in Yemen and Libya. Members of the government, military, and security services understood that if the government did not put up a united front, they would all be dead.  These are the dynamics that defined the uprisings.

So, what was the role of the United States? Instead of announcing some sweeping doctrine, like the “Bush Doctrine” once the uprisings broke out, Obama ordered a response that would maintain American interests while taking into account the on-the-ground situation in each country. Obama thought sweeping doctrines would tie the hands of American policy makers. Hence, the approach taken by Obama was based on a country-by-country assessment of policy needs and American capabilities. 

Since Egypt was a close ally and the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel a centerpiece of American policy in the region, Obama felt it necessary first to support the pro-American, pro-treaty Mubarak. When Mubarak’s position became untenable, the Americans switched their allegiance to his vice president, and when a president from the Muslim Brotherhood took office, the United States tried to maintain a friendly, if wary, relationship with him as well. After the army deposed Morsi, American-Egyptian relations naturally chilled, but less than a month after the coup d’état, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo and opined that the military was “restoring democracy.” 

American interests in Yemen and Bahrain concern mainly counter-terrorism and defense.  Therefore, the Obama administration worked with the Saudis to ensure some sort of resolution to the uprising in the former that did not involve radical change, and looked the other way when troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE put down the uprising in the latter. And a little over a year after that invasion and the beginning of a wave of ruthless repression, the United States resumed arm sales to the island kingdom.

Critics of the Obama administration assert that if the United States had acted earlier in Syria it might have been able to turn the tide in favor of the opposition as it had done in Libya. But what, exactly could the United States have done?   In all probability, the first reaction of the administration to the Syrian uprising was that a return to the status quo, with perhaps a national dialogue or two thrown in, would provide the best solution. Even though Syria was no friend of the United States and was receiving Iranian assistance, the Americans had looked the other way when Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened in Bahrain. And there was something to be said for a stable, if autocratic Syria that was situated in a neighborhood where any spark might set off sectarian fires in Iraq or Lebanon or even conflict with Israel. As a matter of fact, for all their anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Assads had kept the border with Israel quiet since 1973, and up until the outbreak of the uprising Syria was negotiating with Israel for the return of the Golan Heights, Syrian territory the Israelis had taken in 1967. 

No one in the administration could articulate such a stance in public, of course, and once the conflict became militarized in January 2012 American options diminished even further. Every time some civilian suggested further arming the opposition, setting up humanitarian safe zones in Syria, or establishing a no-fly zone over the country American generals would roll their eyes at the naiveté of amateurs. While there was no excuse for the embarrassment caused by the disappearing red line in the Summer of 2013, Geneva II and a hope and a prayer was the best the United States could reach for. 

Looking back at American actions during the uprisings, there is little to make Americans feel proud. Despite decades of preaching human rights and democracy, the United States helped ensure the victory of only one opposition movement—the one in Libya. Then it abandoned that country. In Yemen and Bahrain the United States did nothing when the powers that be ensured the independent opposition would not be included in a national dialogue, and in Syria the United States views a clear victory by the opposition with as much, if not more, fear than a clear victory for the government.  

Q: Why instead of modern social movements, reactionary and radical movements have emerged in the Middle East? What is your opinion about major obstacles facing empowerment of modern social movements in this region?

A: I do not agree with those who state that modern social movements have been absent from the Middle East and instead all there is is extremism. All one has to do is look at the history of the region to see how mistaken that view is. 

I do not like the term “Arab Spring” for a number of reasons, including the fact that it tends to isolate events that took place in 2010-11 from earlier events. Those events indicate that modern social movements are not only alive in the Middle East, but have been alive for the past thirty years.

The demand for human rights, democratic governance, or both lay at the heart of the “Berber Spring” of 1980, the fight by Algeria’s largest ethnic minority for their rights.  Eight years later, the Algerian “Black October” riots led to the first democratic elections (subsequently overturned) in the Arab world. The Bahraini intifada of 1994-99 began with a petition signed by one tenth of that island’s inhabitants demanding an end to emergency rule, the restoration of rights revoked by that rule, release of political prisoners, pardons for political exiles, and the expansion of the franchise to women.  Petitioners also demanded a restoration of the 1973 constitution, which provided for a parliament in which two-thirds of the members were elected. The death of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad in 2000 spawned the rise of political salons throughout Syria.  Participants in those salons expanded their movement through the circulation of the “Statement of the Ninety-nine,” then the “Statement of a Thousand,” which made many of the same demands made during the Bahraini intifada, along with multi-party elections and freedom of speech, assembly, and expression.  Even after the “Damascus Spring” turned into the “Damascus Winter,” aftershocks of the mobilization continued, as did the cooperation of the secular and religious opposition in a common demand for democratic rights.

These movements were only the tip of the iceberg. Kuwait experienced two “color revolutions”—a “Blue Revolution” from 2002-05 which won for Kuwaiti women the right to vote, and an “Orange Revolution” in 2006 to promote electoral reform. A number of secular and Islamist Egyptians banded together in 2004 to form a group called “Kifaya” (Enough) which called on Mubarak to resign. In Morocco, popular agitation led to the establishment of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 to investigate human rights abuses that had occurred during the previous thirty years—the so-called “Years of Lead.”  Lebanese took to the streets in 2005 in the so-called Cedar Revolution, demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces from their country and parliamentary elections free from Syrian interference. In 2004, 2008, and 2010 Kurdish citizens protested for minority rights in Syria. And the list goes on. 

Agitation for social and economic justice—issues central to many of the current uprisings and protests—also has a venerable history in the region.  There were the “IMF riots” of the 1980s, when populations from Morocco to Jordan resisted the introduction of neo-liberal policies. There was also the surge of Egyptian labor activism from 2004-2010, during which two million Egyptian workers and their families participated in more than three thousand strikes, sit-ins, and walkouts.  The growing militancy of Egyptian labor set the stage for the strike wave that spread throughout the country on 8 February 2011.  It was this strike wave that probably convinced the military to depose Mubarak three days later. 

No modern social movements in the Middle East?  History indicates something different.

Q: How do you see the future outlook of the ongoing crisis in Iraq?

A: The caliphate established by the Islamic State now stretches from Raqqa in north central Syria almost to Baghdad. This caliphate came about as a result of a lightening military campaign that surprised everyone. But IS did not accomplish the takeover of Mosul and areas further to the south alone. It had two sources of help. The first was former Baathist officers who planned the assault, in large measure to take revenge on the Shi’i-dominated government and on its policy of excluding those who had worked for the former regime from active participation in political or military affairs. The alliance of IS and Baathists is likely to break down in the near future and spark confrontations between the two groups.  After all, why should the former prisoners (IS) be expected to get along with their former jailors (the Baathists) except when it is expedient for both?  The second source of help was Nouri al-Maliki, whose regime is so unpopular among the Sunni population of Iraq that many Sunnis welcomed their “liberation” by IS while others stood on the sidelines and refused to help the government retake territory. Among them are important tribal groups that had been fighting the government for about a year. In addition, the Iraqi army simply melted away rather than risking their lives for the immensely unpopular government of Nouri al-Maliki.

But IS has proven itself to be more adept at taking territory than holding on to it. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. First, wherever they have taken over, IS has imposed a particularly harsh salafist agenda. It has rigidly enforced the separation of men and women in public places, mandatory veiling and dress codes for men. It has also reinstated hudud punishments, included lopping off limbs, for offences that range from theft to smoking cigarettes to possessing alcohol.  It has even reinstated crucifixion as a punishment. IS keeps none of this secret. As a matter of fact, part of its strategy in Iraq is to post images of the worst atrocities to frighten both soldiers and civilians. When Jabhat al-Nusra, a rival al-Qaedist group, has retaken villages in Syria, they were greeted as liberators. Rather than continue IS’s policies, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken a less harsh approach to governance, and when it controlled Raqqa it even allowed women to go out in public unveiled. And the more IS attempts to take territory, the easier it is for their opponents to target them. Should they mass for an attack on Baghdad, they will be susceptible to attack from the air. The French campaign in Mali last year demonstrated how vulnerable groups such as IS are when confronted by a modern military equipped with helicopter gunships.

It is important to remember that IS is a small organization, probably no more than 10,000 fighters (although with its recent string of victories it will undoubtedly attract more recruits and non-IS allies).  Even if they were to double their numbers, they would still be bringing into Iraq only one quarter of the number of trained soldiers the United States initially deployed there—and even with 80,000 troops in Iraq the United States soon lost control of the situation. But IS is not only present in Iraq, it is stretched out over a large territory in Syria where it is fighting on multiple fronts against multiple enemies—the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, and Jabhat al-Nusra. This caliphate will not last six hundred years like the first one.

Key Words: ISIS-Baathists Alliance, Violence, Iraq, Syria, Radical Islamic Groups, Arab Spring, Middle East, United States, Social Movements, Gelvin

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