Can ISIS hold what it has conquered?
Interview with Reinoud Leenders
“I think the success of ISIS might be the source of its downfall. From that perspective, it is only a matter of time before the Iraqi armed forces can launch an effective counterattack”
Troels Boldt Rømer of TQT speaks to Dr. Reinoud Leenders, Kings College London
TQT: Many people have been surprised that ISIS – a group that only few people knew about a couple of weeks ago – is now controlling an area the size of Jordan in Iraq and Syria. What state and non-state actors have supported ISIS and enabled them to progress this fast?
Leenders: I think the surprise doesn’t so much lay with ISIS itself, but rather the fast implosion and disintegration of the Iraqi forces. They are in a much worse state than what was generally assumed. Before the conflict, we knew that Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, had his little power games going on. He tried to erode the power of the Iraqi armed forces by placing his allies on important positions. Actually, the recent developments are mostly related to this – the fact that ISIS has been trying to cease town etc. is not new. It is the speed at which it has occurred recently which is unprecedented and the reason for this lays in the weakness of the al-Maliki policies vis-à-vis the Sunni community in Iraq and the neglect of the Iraqi armed forces.
When it comes to the fractions involved, there are many. These developments aren’t just about ISIS or al-Qaeda. All sorts of different groups have now established alliances of opportunity, of necessity and mostly motivated by intense frustration towards the al-Maliki government for neglecting the Sunni community as a whole. Many of these groups were actually established in the wake of the US invasion in Iraq and were active in what you can call the first Iraqi civil war, post-2003 and until 2007. After this, they went through a rather sleepy period where some of them tried to integrate into politics or just stopped operating. In addition, you have the rival groups that have been at odds with ISIS in the past – for example the group of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former Saddam Hussein adviser – who is now allied up with ISIS. On the other hand, you have the Awakening Councils that started popping up in 2007 in response to al-Qaeda and ISIS-like groups taking control of provinces in Iraq. These councils consist of roughly 100.000 fighters and are now in alliances with the Americans. Some of them are now fighting against ISIS.
TQT: But going back to the question of support – some people have argued that what is happening in Iraq now is actually just a proxy war between the Saudis, who support ISIS, and the Iranians, who support the al-Maliki government. Does the evidence on the ground back this up?
Leenders: Yes, there is heavy interference and involvement of all the neighboring countries – and arguably, all these countries have been trying to manipulate groups and fractions to their own end. Iran is banking on al-Maliki, Saudi Arabia has been involved in supporting ISIS – but I think all these states are now getting a wake-up call. They are figuring out that a lot of their policies have been counter-productive. This is the case in particular for the Saudis. If they significantly supported ISIS in Syria and Iraq, they have helped create a threat to themselves. The Saudis are getting worried. The same goes for Iran and Syria – the regimes have spared or even supported ISIS in Syria and they now face an even more formidable enemy than they did before. But I don’t think this is a proxy war – it has gone beyond it.
TQT: Simply because the conflict is too chaotic for anyone to control and the anarchy might overspill from Iraq?
Leenders: Yes – ISIS has grown far too big for anyone’s liking.
TQT: So what are the likely scenarios for the conflict in Iraq? Dialogue between the government and the rebels, some sort of U.S. intervention or a state of continuous civil war like in Syria?
Leenders: On the last point, there isn’t actually much hot fighting going on in Iraq – right now it is more a question of moving armies and militias back and forth. The most people who are killed are not killed in combat, but are executed after being arrested. When that is said, it is very hard to even look beyond the next 2-3 weeks.
However, on the future of ISIS, I think one should take into account that for many Iraqi Sunnis, it is not ideological conviction that has led them to support ISIS – it is utter frustration with the Iraqi government and the exclusion of Sunnis in politics.
Secondly, ISIS is not learning from its mistakes – remember that after The Islamic State in Iraq was more or less defeated in Iraq in 2008, some of the remaining al-Qaeda affiliated people thought that things had to be done differently. Amongst these people were the founders of Jabhat al-Nusra (the group that ISIS originates from) who realized that it is impossible to hold on to an area without local support – so they abandoned the ruthless Salafi policies and the implementation of Sharia. Jabhat al-Nusra practiced this strategy and gained a lot of Syrian support.
When ISIS split from Jabhat al-Nusra in early 2013, ISIS decided to abandon this strategy. In all areas ISIS controlled in Syria, they implemented ruthless policies and tried to establish an Islamic state. This caused a lot of anger and resulted in demonstrations and revolts against ISIS in for example Aleppo. So ISIS is an effective military force with good command structures and a lot of American-made weaponry – in other words, it is dangerous militarily. But ISIS is very bad at holding on to areas and takes roots in the cities they conquer. That may also be worsened by the fact that they are now controlling such vast areas in Iraq and parts of Syria. I think the success of ISIS might be the source of its downfall. From that perspective, it is only a matter of time before the Iraqi armed forces can launch an effective counterattack. Then, ISIS will not have the advantage anymore of being fully supported by the local population.
TQT: On the question of U.S. involvement – Obama decided to send 300 security advisers to Baghdad lately. Are we going to see more involvement from the U.S.? Or are the Americans going to pull out of the conflict and say “the Iraqis have to solve this themselves”?
Leenders: Well, you just summed up Obama’s dilemma – and sadly, I cannot solve it for him. But if there are reasons not to intervene in Iraq, the U.S. won’t. Sure, from the political side, they will try to persuade al-Maliki to form a national coalition government, appease the Sunni community and pull away the Sunni tribal chiefs from ISIS that way. But this is not very likely to be successful. When it comes to military action, there are many reasons not to get involved for the U.S. – mainly that Obama has pledged to withdraw from Iraq. I would wait and see – Baghdad is not going to fall tomorrow. I suspect that in the coming weeks it will become much more clear whether ISIS can manage and control the territories they have conquered – and that might actually do the work for the Americans.
TQT: The Obama administration has just given $500m to the opposition in Syria while no particular action has been taken in Iraq. Has the Americans simply given up on their foreign policy in Iraq?
Leenders: Well, John Kerry was in Iraq – so I don’t think they have given up. But they are in a catch-22. They don’t want to be seen as corrupt and supportive of al-Maliki. They don’t want to be military involved beyond sending drones and the occasional military airstrikes. So they have few options left. In the last few weeks, the statements from the U.S. have therefore been contradictory – one day they welcome cooperation with Iran and the next day they won’t allow any cooperation. One day they won’t send military in, the next day 300 Special Forces are sent. You name it. There is no U.S. policy on Iraq. All they want to do, rather naïvely, is to pull their hands off Iraq, not get involved in Syria and hope for the best. Clearly, that non-policy is not resolving anything. They will have to get more involved and start to give some lethal weaponry to whatever remains of the Free Syrian Army as the least they could do – and in fact, they should have done that two years ago. That would have prevented a lot of what we see.
TQT: Why do you think so?
Leenders: Without any well-armed opposition force, there was no one to make sure the regime in Syria didn’t unleash its oppression on the civilians. It was a luxury debate at the time to wonder about what will happen if the weapons fell in the wrong hands. Of course there was a risk, but what we see now – with the benefit of hindsight, I must admit – is much fewer choices and fewer groups that you can actually do business with. The Free Syrian Army hardly exists. The chief general was just fired because of corruption and it only confirms its irrelevance. So I am actually not sure to whom they will send these $500m.
TQT: So you are saying that the disintegration of the Free Syrian Army and the rise of groups like ISIS is a result of lack of American support to the Syrian rebels two years ago?
Leenders: Yes, partly so. There are other factors – but U.S. could have stopped the tide by helping to put in place a credible fighting force for the Free Syrian Army. They might not have been nice, liberal democrats, but you could at least talk to and do business with them. As a result of failing to support the Free Syrian Army in mid-2012, al-Qaeda allied groups grew in leverage and fighting forces. This shaped many hardened and experienced fighters that now return to Iraq and capitalize on the weaknesses of the Iraqi forces.
TQT: So what could be a roadmap forward from here?
Leenders: Well, I am not suggesting we just wait and see whether ISIS breaks down. It will help if the Sunni groups that now “host” ISIS are pulled back into default and made allies of the government. That might speed up the drifting apart of ISIS. I am all in favor of Kerry’s visits to Iraq and the pressure put on al-Maliki, but more serious measures have to be put in place. The American government could for example stop all military support for the al-Maliki regime as long as it fails to put together a national coalition government. That is important. At the same time, they might have to intervene to prevent things from happening – such as the takeover of key oil installations. Furthermore, it is often forgotten that the drama unfolding has real victims. A significant amount of Iraqis are now internally displaced – and what will happen to them? The request for aid to the Syrian refugees has been more or less ignored. It is a disgrace. It causes further instability, which might be used by the very likes of ISIS and other groups.
TQT: So more funding to help refugees is an important tool to prevent future conflicts like what we see now in Iraq?
Leenders: I think it is a moral responsibility. It will not solve, just manage, the problem. I just came back from Lebanon and the sheer burden of refugees is unbearable. I think Europe needs to wake up and put our money where our mouths are much more than what we do now. And then we need much more U.S. pressure on the al-Maliki government – maybe pressure to leave. Soon, al-Maliki will not be acceptable outside his close network. ■
Dr. Reinoud Leenders is a reader in Middle East Studies in the world-renowned War Studies Department at King’s College, London. In his work, he focuses on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – in particular authoritarian governance, the political economy of corruption and conflicts. He formerly worked at the International Crisis Group in Beirut.
Troels Boldt Rømer (born 1994) is a member of the editorial boards of both The Question Today and RÆSON. Graduated from United World College of South East Asia (Singapore) with an IB diploma in 2014. Has previously worked in the office of the Danish Minister of Education (2012), served as the chairman of the National Union of Danish Students (2008-2011) and has been involved in a range of social and political projects across South East Asia and in Denmark
ILLUSTRATION: During his visit to Iraq U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flies over the Arch of Triumph in Baghdad [March 24, 2013] [Photo: US Dept. of State]