North Africa, West Asia

A lasting presence for IS in Iraq and Syria: interview with Romain Caillet

On 29 June, after the spectacular takeover of Mosul and other Iraqi cities, the Islamic State (IS) declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. How can the sudden rise to power of IS be explained? What is the future of the caliphate, and of the region as a whole? Romain Caillet provides an assessment. Interview.

Romain Caillet Christelle Gence
13 August 2014

Iraqis in flight from their homes in Mosul, July 2014. Joseph Galanakis/Demotix. All rights reserved. Christelle Gence conducted the following interview with Romain Caillet in French, originally published on 15 July 2014 by SaphirNews under the title  L’Etat islamique va s’installer durablement en Iraq et en Syrie. Due to the dynamic nature of the situation in Iraq, the author later added some paragraphs in August. 

Saphirnews: How do you explain the rise of the Islamic State in recent weeks, particularly since the capture of Mosul?

Romain Caillet: The Islamic State (IS) – initially the Islamic State in Iraq, then the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and now the Islamic State – has been a state within a state in Iraq for years. It has the support of the majority of Iraq's Sunnis, who feel marginalised by the Shiite regime of Nuri al-Maliki, which they see as sectarian. There was some evidence to suggest that Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, was a fiefdom of IS, so it was no surprise to see them take Mosul. 

S. What does this indicate about the situation in Iraq?

RC. The collapse of the regime of Nuri al-Maliki, which allowed IS to take many cities, not only in the region of Nineveh, but also in the regions of al-Anbar, Kirkuk, and Diyala, shows two things: the failure of al-Maliki to govern Iraq on the one hand, and the total failure of the Americans to remove the Sunni Arab elite from Iraq’s governance and army. We see the results of this today. Despite the billions of dollars sunk into Iraq, the Americans have been unable to form either a government with the Shiite community or a new army – a strategy that has resulted in the marginalisation of the Sunni community.

S. You say that the majority of Sunnis support IS? 

RC. The overwhelming majority of Sunnis supported insurgency against the al-Maliki regime. It turns out that this insurgency is led by IS. Maybe it will not last, maybe people will eventually refuse literalist applications of sharia by IS or find them too authoritarian. However, virtually all Sunnis today support this insurrection. Without an air force, helicopters or any real heavy weapons, and with the means that they do have, IS would have been unable to take all these cities if they did not have the broad support of the population.

It is particularly significant that during a speech on 12 July, one month after the takeover of Mosul, ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, formerly close to Saddam Hussain and current leader of the Iraqi Baathists, paid tribute to IS, characterising its fighters as heroic knights at the forefront of the battle. Never has an Arab nationalist spoken of a jihadi group in such glowing terms, which demonstrates IS’s popularity amongst Sunnis regardless of their ideological affiliation. Following an ultimatum from IS to either convert to Islam or accept the status of dhimmi or non-Muslim citizen (entailing the payment of jizya, a special tax, and accepting an inferior status to Muslims), the Christians of Mosul left in droves on 18 July. This mass exodus has been condemned by the Baathists. However, this development still does not imply a rupture with the Islamic State, since it is the exodus of the Christians that is being condemned; the condemnation at no point explicitly mentions the Islamic State itself.

S. Where does IS derive its means? Who pays for it?

RC. They are self funded. Before taking the oil wells in the region of Mosul, they levied about $100 million per year in tax (extortion, revolutionary tax). Then, there are also the [resources from] the operating oil wells in Syria and Iraq, and the taking of western hostages. IS has virtually no foreign support. Just reading its literature, it’s clear that its worst enemies are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf regimes, which they vilify regularly. Remember as well that most rebel brigades fighting IS in Syria today are financed, armed, and sometimes trained by the Gulf regimes.

S. Why are IS and Saudi Arabia worst enemies? 

RC. One of the most famous works in the contemporary jihadist corpus is a treatise entitled, The Shameful Actions Manifest in the Saudi State's Disbelief. The author of this book, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Jordanian sheikh of Palestinian origin, outlines three elements justifying the takfir or exclusion of this state from the sphere of Islam, namely: its military alliance with the United States (especially since the Gulf War); Saudi participation in international institutions (as Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the UN); and finally, the increasing use of more systematic positive law in the Saudi court system. 

S. For now, IS is accepted by the Sunni population. What could reverse this state of affairs?

RC. The Al-Jazeera journalists were surprised to see people cheering on IS in Mosul; they could not believe their eyes. The allegiance of the tribes in the Syrian Euphrates valley is more volatile [The recent revolt by the Shu’aytat clan, which took hold in a dozen villages between Mayadin and Bukamal in the Deir Ezzor region, confirms the volatility of Syrian tribal allegiances. The revolt seems to have been triggered by IS’s ban the evening before on tobacco and the water pipe for the entire Deir Ezzor region]. But for now, IS is massively supported by the Sunni population of Mosul, which prefers IS to al-Maliki’s Shiite regime.

S. So could IS settle permanently in Iraq? 

RC. Yes, I think IS will settle permanently. Sunnis know that IS is their only hope of becoming masters again. They certainly have a demographic disadvantage in Iraq (where they are a minority), but ISIS’s goal is to merge these territories with Syria to reverse this demographic relationship and have a Sunni state straddling Iraq and Syria. Perhaps eventually, more moderate people than those of IS will take their place. But I think the Middle East as we know it is finished; the regional boundaries from the Sykes-Picot agreement (signed in 1916 between France and Britain to define the borders of the Middle East) no longer exist. 

The idea that the borders will disappear is not new. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, already expressed this idea when the revolution started in Syria in 2011. Robert Fisk reformulated it in an article for The Independent a few weeks ago, when IS bulldozed a wall of sand that served as a border between Iraq and Syria.

S. Will IS manage to establish itself in a lasting way in Syria? 

RC. Certainly. Currently, they occupy more than 90 percent of the area of Deir Ezzor (in eastern Syria). Generally, the Euphrates valley, where the population is culturally very similar to Iraqi Sunnis, is clearly under the control of IS. So there is a historical coherence in a state like that. In Syria, the Euphrates valley is inhabited by tribes that were forcibly settled when the borders were only faintly outlined, and these nomadic tribes were straddling territories in Iraq and Syria. I did interviews with people who are not close to IS, but feel they belong to a tribe, who feel more Bedouin than Syrian. They have always felt closer to Iraqis than to the Syrians of Damascus or the coast – and that’s without even touching upon the religious question. Beyond that, they also share a common culture. 

So, does IS have the option of establishing itself further beyond the valley of the Euphrates? I do not know. To the west of Aleppo and in the region of Idlib, where people very much feel themselves to be Syrians, and not at all close to the Iraqis, there is a wholesale rejection of IS.

S. What are Nuri al-Maliki’s responsibilities in the current situation?

RC. He has practiced sectarian policies marginalising Sunnis. He also led many to believe that the fight against IS is a fight between Shia and Sunni. He even said that ISIS was the army of Yazid [who killed Hussein, the son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet during the battle of Karbala in 680], which was shocking even if Yazid is not a positive reference in the Sunni tradition. Nuri al-Maliki systematically refers in his speeches to the Shiite memory and the fight against the Umayyads. This has antagonised the Sunni Arabs, who were the elites of Saddam Hussein’s regime. For decades, they were used to being dominant, but then found themselves in a humiliating situation which they reject. This is rather different to the case of the Sunni Syrians who were subject to 40 years of Alawite power, which explains the resignation of many vis-à-vis the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In contrast, until 2003, the Sunni Arabs in Iraq were the undisputed masters of the country.

Since then, all observers agree that the Sunni community has been marginalised. Until 2003, the army and the intelligence services were held by Sunnis, and all these people were overnight excluded from power, leaving many with a desire for revenge. They had skills, and many joined the ranks of IS. For the first time in history, a jihadist group has leaders at its helm who are former high-ranking officers and former officials of the intelligence services. This organisation has real strategists at its helm. This is key. These are not mere religious [extremists] who have been radicalised and want to blow themselves up. These are professionals of war, intelligence and strategy.

S. Is western intervention feasible? 

RC. Western intervention could stop them. But in the current configuration, the west can not intervene in Iraq because all Sunnis are with IS at the moment. If the west intervened in a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, it would be accused of taking sides. 

On the other hand, Syria is more complex than being simply a war between Shiites and Sunnis. Since western countries have refused to intervene against the [Alawite] regime of Bashar al-Assad, if the west intervenes in Iraq against the Islamic State which is Sunni, then, Sunnis in the region will view this move as systematically intervening against Sunni interests and always favouring the Shiites. The west would also be accused of playing Tehran’s game, disqualifying the west in the eyes of Iraqi Sunnis, and radicalising Syrian Sunnis. Generally speaking, the Muslim world would have the impression that the west supports Iranian expansionism.

Just as the United States’ unconditional support of Israel feeds anti-American sentiment, the west’s unconditional support for Iranian expansionism would feed Sunni resentment well beyond the case of Iraq.

In Iraq, the overflow of the Islamic State's offensive towards Kurdistan, an area of importance to Washington and other Western countries, has forced the US to intervene militarily, striking the positions of jihadists near Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where many American and European companies are established. Moreover, in Erbil, only the jihadists oppose the Kurdish forces, making things simpler for the US than in the rest of Iraq, particularly in the Sunni Arab areas.

In those areas, the Americans would like to obtain a political solution by bringing together certain actors of the insurgency into a national unity government, which would initially involve the departure of Nuri al-Maliki, and then open up to independent Sunni tribes and different Islamist actors. Will these actors accept abandoning their alliance with IS in favour of the promise of a new place in Iraqi institutions? While the emergence of a new sahwa or awakening movement in Iraq is a case not to be ignored, key stakeholders feel they have been abandoned by the Americans. After being used to fight the jihadists in 2007, these stakeholders were put under the tutelage of al-Maliki without any political autonomy when the Americans left Iraq in 2011.

S. Who then could intervene?

RC. As soon as the population is no longer on IS’s side, there could be an intervention by the Kurds, assisted by other anti-IS forces within the Sunni community. This could take many forms: through perhaps considerable western support to the Iraqi government involving continuous aerial bombing; or simply Sunni forces revolting against IS with support from the Kurds. However, in both cases, intervention would require that the Sunni population is no longer on the side of IS, and I do not know if that will happen.

This translation is by Laura Mitchell of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF).

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