In the past weeks, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have conquered several cities in Iraq in a lightning offensive, bringing the already fractious nation to the brink of disintegration. ISIS's rapid gains have left many scrambling to make sense of what appears to be a rapid and inexorable descent into crisis, turning the world's focus once more on Iraq's complex politics.
The WorldPost discussed the current state of affairs with Mohamad Bazzi, an associate professor of journalism at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, where he was the lead writer on the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath. Bazzi was also a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and is currently writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The WorldPost: How surprising is the seemingly rapid rise of ISIS?
Mohamad Bazzi: ISIS's rise is not entirely surprising because the group has been operating for years, emerging out of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But ISIS has certainly been growing in strength since 2012, when it began expanding into Syria and took advantage of the vacuum the civil war left.
In Syria, ISIS's strategy was not to confront the regime directly. They’ve tended to capture territory that had already been captured by other Syrian groups who had been disorganized or mismanaged and hadn’t been able to hold on to the territory very well. ISIS would swoop in and take control.
But it certainly has been surprising how quickly ISIS was able to take over Mosul and Tikrit, how quickly the Iraqi security forces collapsed, and how ISIS has been able to retain this territory for now.
What distinguishes ISIS that allows it to hold control of territory in a way that other groups haven’t been able to?
One of the things ISIS tried to capitalize on early in Syria was a strategy parallel to the early behavior of the Taliban in Afghanistan -- which was to come in and get rid of armed gangs and groups terrorizing the population during periods of lawlessness. ISIS did the same in several cases. They kicked out armed gangs that were extorting the population or terrorizing people in various ways, claiming they were imposing an Islamic form of law and order. They would almost position them as saviors of the civilian population.
But ISIS law would also come with restrictions. In a lot of places, life under the militants became unbearable. They substituted the lawlessness, the kidnapping and all the street crime of the groups they took over from by imposing their own very difficult social conditions.
With the Kurds seizing Kirkuk and territory in Iraq's north, and ISIS taking large amounts of land in the north and center, is Iraq on its way to partition?
Iraq could unravel along the lines of what is happening in Syria, which is almost de facto partitioned. Large amounts of territory there are not under control of the Assad regime but held by various rebel groups.
I think it’s too early to tell whether the events of the past weeks will ultimately lead to a long-term partition of Iraq, since we haven’t seen what level of counterattack the Iraqi government is going to carry out. We also haven’t seen whether the U.S. is going to carry out air strikes to help the Iraqi government. I also think it’s going to be difficult for ISIS and its allies to take and hold territory further south. It’s one thing to be able to sweep through Mosul and Tikrit, but as they get closer and closer to Baghdad it’s going to be much harder.
An important factor will be the role of hundreds if not thousands of fighters associated with the Saddam regime that are allied with ISIS. We don’t know their exact numbers, but they seem critical to this whole operation, and possibly more critical even than ISIS because they’re the link between ISIS and the local Sunnis. They’re the people the local population knows and trusts. While a lot of ISIS's leadership is Iraqi, a lot of the fighters are foreigners and they won’t have the trust of the local population.
Can we assume the territory under the protection of Kurdish fighters will remain under Kurdish control for the foreseeable future?
Yes, I think for the presumable future we’re likely to see the Kurds where they are. Taking over Kirkuk and having more direct control over the oil supplies in their region have been some of the major Kurdish goals since 2003. The Kurds have moved a lot closer to achieving those goals in the past week. In addition, the status of Kirkuk and the oil fields could also be a bargaining chip for the Kurds in negotiations over a new government.
Many have argued that the position of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has become untenable and he will be forced to step down over the crisis. Is there any obvious candidate to replace him?
A couple of names are being thrown around. One is Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was vice president for quite a while. He’s a member of the revolutionary council, which has been close to Iran but also has had good relationship with the U.S. since 2003. Abdul-Mahdi personally has been to the White House several times and the Americans seem to like him. He was a candidate for president in 2006, but some Americans were concerned about his ties with Iran. It's one of the ironies that at the time, Maliki was perceived to be be incorruptible and free of influence from Iran.
It didn’t work out that way.
[laughs] No it didn’t turn out to be the case. I think the capacity of Iran to exert influence over Shiite leaders in Iraq was underestimated. Mahdi is now a strong candidate, partially because he’s acceptable to the west -- he’s a French educated economist.
Another name that’s been thrown around in the last week is Ahmed Chalabi -- a blast from the past. Chalabi was the neocon darling in 2003. One of the reasons he didn't come into power was that Iraqis were very suspicious of him. After having lived most of his life in exile, he never had much of a base of popular support. I think at this point Chalabi is a long shot.
What's Iran's position towards a change of government? They’ve been a significant force in keeping Maliki in power, do you think they are open to a change?
The Iranians often hold their cards very close and it’s difficult to get a reading on what they want from the outside. So far they appear to be behind Maliki, and they want Maliki and his government to survive this crisis. Iran has been doing everything in its power to hold off the ISIS threat, but they may eventually reach the point where keeping Maliki in power becomes untenable.
The Iranians are pragmatic, and if Maliki becomes a threat to their interests they would be willing to get rid of him. I’m not sure they’ve reached that point yet. They have a tendency to refuse to make concessions under pressure, and that may be one of the reasons they are still standing with Maliki.
To what extent do the U.S. and Iran have shared interests in Iraq?
The U.S. and Iran's top interest is not letting ISIS take any more territory. ISIS is probably a larger threat to Iran, because the militants are bent on this battle to wipe out Shiites and pose a threat to Shiite shrines, a threat the Iranians take seriously.
While having a stable government in Baghdad is also a common interest, the positions of Iran and the U.S. on this point differ a bit. It’s in America's interest to have a strong Iraqi government in Baghdad. While the Iranians would like a strong government as well, they want one that is dependent on Tehran. If the Iraqis are too strong on their own that doesn’t serve Iranian interests.
The bottom line is that Iran doesn’t ever want to face a threat again from Iraq like it experienced during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran wants to do whatever is in its power to remove Iraq as a potential existential threat. A strong Shiite government in Baghdad, a government that can easily be influenced by Iran, is one of the ways that it can achieve that goal.
Beyond possible dialogue with Iran over a future government, what are America's options when it comes to Iraq?
The U.S. can send in ground troops, which President Obama has ruled out and is probably the messiest and costliest option. There is also the option of ordering what the administration is calling "targeted airstrikes" on ISIS forces and on some of the equipment that ISIS has captured from the Iraqi military, which would be pretty ironic since the U.S. would basically be bombing equipment it provided to the Iraqis. Targeted airstrikes are also risky because we’re talking about highly urban areas, especially in Mosul. If the U.S. causes significant civilian casualties that would further inflame the Sunni population against the U.S. and the Iraqi government.
Finally, is there anything that you think the mainstream media narrative of Iraq is missing?
One of the things I’ve been a little surprised by is that a lot of the media seems to have forgotten that Maliki promised not to seek a third term. That promise was made during the Arab uprisings and Maliki was worried about the revolt spreading to Iraq. He made a pretty major reversal and has been working towards a third term for quite a while.
Maliki's shift may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important to have some of that history. I wrote an entire piece about how Maliki has been a disaster and should go, but Iraq also has deeper structural problems that go beyond the prime minister.
That won’t be fixed just by a change of government.
Exactly. A change in government and a more inclusive prime minister is a first step towards change, but in reality the communities need more experience and more openness. The Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds need to be more open to working with each other, and that has proven very difficult.
This interview has been edited and condensed from a phone conversation on Friday, June 20.