WORLD NEWS Opinion/Analysis
By William R. Collier Jr.- While most Western Media refer to radicals who wish to impose a socialist theocracy under the banner of Islam as “Jihadists”, the proper word is Salafist, and MANY earnest Muslims throughout the world, and the Middle East, are as alarmed at the rise of Salafism as anyone else in America. The creation of a Salafist Sunni proto-state in northern Syria and north-western Iraq is not the only problem that the now FAILING Iraqi state is facing.
Reading Arabic press in Arabic, rather than English language news from Arab sources, one learns more about the true nature of what is happening in Iraq. The emergence of tribal militias, which had been largely curtailed prior to the precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011, and the rise of a proto-state among the Kurds in north-eastern Iraq are among the problems faced by Baghdad.
Regional powers are clearly alarmed, and the conflicting interests between them are far too complicated for any simple explanation. There are the interests of the central government, the Kurds and their proto state, the Shia, the Sunni, the Salafist militants and their proto-state, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. There are not “two sides”, there are at least half a dozen “sides”, and alliances are shifting in bewildering ways. As a “for instance”, the Iranian government, concerned about the Sunni Salafist proto-state called “the Islamic State of Iran and Syria” (ISIS) or “the Islamic State Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), has actually expressed a desire to “cooperate with Washington” to push back against this threat. Yes, you read that right, Iran is offering to cooperate the US against ISIL!
The regional powers outside of Iran are none too happy with US policy, and the release of the 5 Talibani leaders into Qatar is seen as “particularly destabilizing.” It is not lost on anyone that the current leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, was actually RELEASED from US custody, under the orders of the current American President, in 2009. ISIL has access to BILLIONS of dollars of hard currency and that means that it can fund sympathetic movements in any regional nation’s borders. This will raise problems wherever it is spread. Cash is hard to stop from flowing into the wrong hands.
While ISIL threatens Baghdad itself, tribal groups are seizing territory, as are the Kurdish forces, and with the failure of the central government it is unlikely that even if ISIL is vanquished that Kurdish forces and the new tribal forces will go back to the status-quo ante-bellum (before the war).
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the government is desperately handing out weapons and the same old Salafist Shia militias, once vanquished by the US, are re-forming, largely with the backing of Iran which is sending them direct aid (arms and money). Arms are even reportedly making their way to Assyrian Christian groups, which operate in the Nineveh Province, a province that is largely over-run by ISIL. The Assyrians, yes THOSE Assyrians, have sought to arm themselves against a policy of genocide on the part of the Salafist forces, both Sunni and Shia, but many Assyrian Christians are fleeing to Kurdish areas or into Jordan. The number of Assyrian Christian martyrs is numbered now in the thousands.
Efforts to stop the fragmentation of Iraq into a dozen proto-states controlled by various tribal and ethnic groups with many long-standing grievances against one another seem to be on the point of absolute failure. Into that abyss enter the Saudi Arabians, who favor the non-Salafist Sunnis, and the Iranians, who favor the Salafist Shia. Both, for now, oppose the same enemy, ISIL, but for very different reasons. The 5 Taliban leaders released by the US into Qatar in exchange for an American Sergeant suspected of deserting his unit, are, like the rest of the Taliban, Salafist Sunni and are natural allies of ISIL. Being positioned in one of the Gulf States, Qatar, these 5 hard-boiled leaders now have access to millions of dollars and a growing support network that could threaten the entire Gulf region.
While both Iran and Iraq have appealed to Washington for aid in stopping ISIL’s advance, as of the time of this report, the US has refused specific requests for air strikes against ISIL forces to help stiffen the backs of the Iraqi forces, which continue to melt away under ISIL onslaught.
This is what President Obama said on refusing immediate military aid to Iraq’s government, including air strikes requested by Baghdad: “Given the very difficult history that we see in Iraq., I think any objective observer would recognize, that, in the absence of accommodations among the various factions inside of Iraq, various military actions by the United States, by any outside nation, are not going to solve those problems over the long term and are not going to deliver the kind of stability that we need.”
There is a certain logic to this assessment in that if the Iraqis cannot and will not stand up against ISIL on their own, or sort out their sectarian differences for a unified state, that any help from abroad will fail in the long term to produce good fruit. But, on the other hand, this logic seems to ignore the more immediate threat and creates a false choice, as if the choice is really between an ideal state of unity or total collapse.
A messy middle ground in which the US and allies have to prop up even a puppet regime and THEN work on the long term problems of sectarian conflict may in fact be preferable to a failed Iraqi state and the emergence of a Salafist Sunni Caliphate. Indeed, the fall of Iraq could presage the total collapse of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf States, a prospect whose consequences few have seriously considered. But such an outcome would prove to be extremely destabilizing and could literally lead to a general war that draws in Arab powers, Iran, and possibly even Israel.
Should this happen, or anything close to it, current US allies will become extremely “independent minded” of Washington in every regard, the entire American alliance system could collapse, leaving the US isolated from the rest of the world. This would also undermine the unity of global trade, particularly free trade, and hail the re-emergence of nationalistic and regional economies that are largely self-contained. While this remains a worse case scenario and is still improbable, it is now “possible”, whereas prior to even this year most analysts would say such a scenario would have been impossible. This in and of itself represents a dangerous paradigm shift.
Regardless of the consequences, the appetite in the US for military intervention to save this shaky ally is rather low, despite finger-pointing between US political factions blaming Bush or Obama for the current state of affairs. In other words, even the President’s opponents may limit their response to using this crisis to diminish the President and his party in the run-up to the 2014 mid-term elections.
The question asked is, “will the Iraqi State fall and be replaced?” More and more the calculus is, “yes, and we have to prepare for the post-Iraq environment.” All the competing regional powers will want their piece of the pie, if at least to protect themselves at home.
But where does the US interest lie?
The US long-term interest always lies with the most secular, tolerant elements, and that would be those elements supported by the Gulf States, which remain close US allies. The leaders, and most all of the people, in those states support a moderate and enlightened form of Islam, they want to see more secular, but still Islamic, governments in which people, even Christians, are free in their own personal lives.
In reality, US policy remains, since 2011 at least, confused and disjointed, driven more by a desire to not offend any power or group than in pursuit of a coherent strategic objective. This has led many in the region to conclude that they must sift for themselves and not rely on the US, which leads to efforts to come to terms with Iran and even the more extreme Salafist elements.