Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The Gulf and Iraq

What role have regional countries been playing in the crisis in Iraq, asks Mohamed Said Idris

iraq
iraq
Al-Ahram Weekly

Hatem Al-Suleiman, head of the Tribes Revolutionary Council in Iraq, a local group, has lent his weight to the charge levelled by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki that the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia in particular have been responsible for the current upheaval threatening Iraqi unity and stability.

He said that the Gulf countries, and Saudi Arabia above all, were the ones who stood to gain from the situation in Iraq because it was the Gulf monarchs who had opposed Al-Maliki’s reappointment for a third term as prime minister, despite the fact that the recent victory of his electoral list and Daawa Party in the general elections had entitled him to one.

In a press conference, Al-Suleiman refuted claims that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was a force that could single-handedly defeat the Iraqi army, seize control of the provinces of Al-Anbar and Nineveh, and then swoop towards Baghdad.

“The Tribes Revolutionary Council controls the situation in Mosul,” he said. “But the government, wherever it comes up against any opposition, tries to paint the opposition as ‘terrorists’ and ‘ISIS’.” He added that “our aim is not just to control the Sunni areas. We want the Al-Maliki government to leave. We refuse to allow it to remain in power in Baghdad.”

Al-Suleiman’s assertions with regard to the role of the Tribes Revolutionary Council, its character as an opposition movement, and its aim of not just securing control over the Sunni regions of the country but also of winning back Iraq conform with the account of former Iraqi vice-president Tarek Al-Hashimi who fled Iraq in 2011 and was sentenced to death in absentia the following year.

In a newspaper article entitled “ISIS: the Never-Ending Story,” Al-Hashimi spoke of the “revolution of the oppressed and marginalised in Mosul” and denied that ISIS was behind the movement. It was the Al-Maliki government that had branded the revolutionaries as terrorists and members of ISIS in order to justify its criminal assaults against innocent Sunni civilians, he said.

“The story about ISIS is a fabrication,” Al-Hashimi wrote. “What is happening in Iraq is a war by the Iraqi people against the Al-Maliki government and sectarian rule.”

This has armed the Iraqi regime with the grounds to point the finger of blame at the Gulf countries, which are paying the price for their refusal to recognise the competency of the government in Iraq. Al-Suleiman’s clarifications, Al-Hashimi’s account and other forms of media coverage in the Gulf countries of the ISIS invasions of Mosul, Nineveh and Al-Anbar have been seized upon by officials in Baghdad to lash out against the “sectarian and exclusionist” dimension of the crisis.

The Iraqi cabinet has issued a statement condemning Saudi Arabia for furnishing material support to the “terrorist groups” and their crimes “which have reached the level of genocide.”

“The government of Saudi Arabia must bear responsibility for the grave crimes being perpetrated by the terrorist groups,” the statement said. It called upon the Saudi government “to focus on its domestic situation and to prevent marginalisation and exclusion in its own country.”

 The official Iraqi construction, as reflected in its charges against Riyadh, circumvents the tragic legacy of the post-Saddam period, the US occupation and the positions of Arab and other regional parties with respect to the occupation.

The fact that ISIS has been able to score the advances that it has been due to three events. The first is the US occupation and destruction of Iraq and its introduction of a sectarian-based system of government that opened the window for deep Iranian reach into the Iraqi state and society.

The second is Iranian eagerness to welcome a sectarian system in Iraq, as it offers a historic opportunity to end the persecution of the Shias and an opportunity, unlikely to repeat itself, to end the potential for any threat emanating from Iraq.

The third is the Arab (Gulf-Egyptian-Syrian) reluctance to get involved in Iraq and Arab inclination to side with the US occupation forces and the Iranian-supported Shia militias against the Iraqi resistance factions, most of which have been led by the remnants of the former Iraqi army.

All this has generated a Sunni sense of persecution that has replaced the Shia one. This new Sunni perception has driven the Sunni tribes in Iraq into the embrace of Al-Qaeda and then ISIS, since they have seen these groups as their only way of responding to the injustices meted out against them by the sectarian government led by Al-Maliki and propped up by the US and Iran.

The dilemma in Iraq, with the rise and growing impetus of ISIS supported by the tribes and clans that have allied themselves with the Council of the Revolutionaries of the Clans, concerns Washington and Tehran together, as both must now contend with the alternatives.

These are limited to either ISIS succeeding in imposing the de facto partition of Iraq through the creation of a Sunni region along the lines of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country, or the ousting of the current government and the establishment of a system that is more democratic and fairer to all Iraqis. This would mean ending the quota system and the injustices and sectarianism that have plagued Iraq since the US occupation.

Tehran and Washington are compelled to take responsible and serious action with respect to the mounting danger in Iraq. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated that his country will not stand by with its hands tied if ISIS forces continue to spread through northern and eastern Iraq.

However, he has also said that no intervention by Iranian forces is on the cards. Iran “is prepared to help Iraq, if the Iraqi government asks for it, on the basis of international law and the will of the people and government of Iraq,” Rouhani said.

However, the Secretary General of the Iranian National Security Council, Ali Shamakhani, has been sterner in his language, saying that the ISIS forces in Mesopotamia “have sounded the alarm” and accusing the West of supplying them with lethal weapons. A number of analysts now hold that the occupation of Mosul has added a new dimension to the crisis and that ISIS now threatens Iran and its national security.

While the Iranians sense the danger, they also fear the consequences of intervention. Precisely the same applies to the Americans, who are now asking themselves whether they should step in and if so how.

Questions of this sort have once again placed US President Barack Obama in the predicament of having to take some sort of action or face the charge of lacking credibility and weakness. According to White House spokespersons, he is continuing to deliberate on how to respond to the “extremists” in Iraq and has not ruled out any option except for “boots on the ground.”

But while both Tehran and Washington need to respond to the ISIS threat, the question is whether they can find a way to work together to counter it. Could the nuclear talks between them pave the way to US-Iranian coordination on this and other regional issues?

Is Iran trying to lure Washington into cooperating with it in resolving regional crises, in Iraq and Syria in particular, with an eye to creating a form of regional partnership that could develop the foundations of trust and ultimately eliminate the obstacles to the negotiations over its nuclear programme? Could Washington allow itself to be lured into this “trap” and disregard the concerns and interests of its allies in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in particular?

Some Iranian observers read the situation differently, believing that what is unfolding in Iraq is connected with a US bid to push Tehran into a corner, forcing it to choose between being lured into an artificial Iraqi quagmire or remaining on the sidelines as it watches the inevitable fall of the Al-Maliki regime.

This scenario is based on the dual premise that the US is working in collusion with Saudi Arabia to drag Iran into a sectarian morass in Iraq and that Riyadh, along with Ankara, is supporting and funding ISIS.

The Iranian alarm over this scenario and the dilemma it presents is particularly acute as it realises that the fall of Al-Maliki would mark the end of Iranian influence in Iraq. This would be especially the case if the end of the Al-Maliki regime was brought about within the framework of a comprehensive settlement that would usher in a new and more democratic order to replace the sectarian quota system that has opened the door to Iranian sway in Iraq.

The Iranian dilemma extends beyond the Iraqi borders, as the Iranians see their influence in Iraq as an alternative to their alliance with Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria. The lack of this alternative could jeopardise any diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis that would depend on Tehran’s acceptance of the principle of ousting Al-Assad.

Moreover, it is not clear that Washington really wants a solution to the Iraq crisis. This question is the other side of the coin of whether the system of government that the Americans forced on Iraq was based on good intentions or whether it was chosen in order to keep the Iraqi wound open, bleeding and infectious to the region around it, in order to ensure the perpetuation of sectarian warfare and political fragmentation.

The knock-on effect of this would be to partition the region’s countries into a conglomeration of petty sectarian states.

The question now is what the responsibility of the Gulf countries in all of this is and how these countries should respond to a possible alliance, or conflict, between Iran and the US over the Iraqi crisis.

Will they leave Iraq to suffer its convulsions and then, too late, end up paying the price for the repercussions?

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