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The Two Radical Sources of Instability in the Middle East

Author: Ambassador Murat Özçelik, former undersecretary of public order and security in Turkey, former Turkish Ambassador to Baghdad and former special envoy of Turkey to Iraq.
Aug 15, 2014

African Union Expert Brief Militant Islamist fighters loyal to ISIS held a parade in Syria's northern Raqqa province to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighboring Iraq (Stringer/ Courtesy Reuters).


The turmoil in the Middle East points to the resurgence of ultra-radical factions of Islam, Sunni jihadist groups and their Shia counterparts, which exploit sectarian politics as a means to increase their political leverage and influence in the region. These factions, independent of their sectarian affiliations, present violent, expansionist, and distorted views of Islam. Their interpretations of the religion are limited to concepts and means which best justify and suit their purposes. This dual extremism in Shia and Sunni Islam is fomented and further exacerbated by the respective state backing of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Today, these extreme radical factions of Islam pose the biggest threat in Syria and Iraq, but they are also operational in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Egypt. In the Shia case, the hard-learned lesson of the post-Iraq invasion is that the majority of Shia who ended up coalescing to form a government in Iraq came from among those who had sought refuge in Iran during Saddam Hussein's reign. They were not groomed in the West nor were they prepared to adhere to a secular vision of political rule. Consequently, the coalition that was forged on the basis of the new Iraqi constitution between the Shia and the Kurds at the expense of the Sunni Arabs—as though they constituted the only Baathists in the old Iraq—helped to work in favor of the Shia who had nurtured close ties to Iran.

These new rulers in Iraq had little idea about the workings of democracy and were mostly pursuing a sectarian agenda under the tutelage of Iran. This meant that Iran was able to wage a proxy war against the United States in Iraq through the Al Quds Force as well as splinter groups from the Sadr Movement, such as Asaib Al Ahl-ul Haq. Iran also relied on like-minded politicians, including Prime Minister Maliki and the State of Law coalition deputies in the parliament who joined forces with other Shia groups, to get the Americans out. The disenfranchised Sunni parliamentarians also helped. Iran eventually achieved its objective of reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq and making robust U.S. engagement in Iraq unpalatable to the American people by increasing the costs of a large U.S. footprint in the country.

On the other side, the Sunnis had their own reasons for opposing the United States. They were against the U.S.-led invasion as it stripped them of power in Baghdad. Although most of them had suffered at the hands of the ruthless Saddam Hussein, this did not make it any easier to digest the new political system, which, in their eyes, favored the Shia and the Kurds in Iraq. The new constitutional system in Iraq made them feel like outcasts, discriminating against the Sunnis and positioning them as a minority. It appears that they are still unable to accept this new post-war settlement.

The Sunni Gap

Al-Qaeda in Iraq immediately stepped in to fill the gap left by the Sunnis, who had boycotted the January 2005 elections when the Constituent Assembly was established with a mandate to draft the constitution. Sunni turnout was less than 2 percent in this election. On the other hand, Sunnis present in the drafting committee also opposed the new constitution. They approved it only after it was decided that a revision committee would be set up to amend the constitution. This committee was established in late 2006 without a promising start for amendments. In the meantime, a Shia-Sunni war intensified. This bloody war continued until a pragmatic but successful model called "awakening councils", developed by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus and introduced simultaneously with the "surge strategy," helped stop the fighting by distancing the Sunni tribes from the al-Qaeda elements. Today we are witnessing a repetition of this 2006 sectarian war, but there is no external power intervening with ground forces to stop the chain of bloody massacres.

The current bloodshed has been caused by the advance of the reportedly Saudi- and Qatar-funded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which has gained a foothold in Iraq due to Maliki's oppressive sectarian policies and his reluctance to include the Sunnis in Iraqi politics. This has alienated the Sunnis and left them with no choice but to embrace what they view as the lesser evil. Today we see a theater of sectarian war in Iraq, where Iran and the Gulf countries are waging their bloody battle against one another while the Iraqi people suffer the consequences.

There is an urgent need to save Islam from these radical Sunni and Shia factions, which constitute the two main streams of instability in the Middle East. These range from the offshoots of the so-called moderate Muslim Brotherhood, to the radical Salafi terrorist groups, such as Al Nusra ISIS, and to Asaib Ahl al-Haq working as puppets of their Iranian masters in Iraq. The Iranian Al Quds Force operating under Qasim Suleimani is also helping the Shia militants in the region. Neither Iraq nor Syria nor the wider Middle East will see peace until Iran and Saudi Arabia stop interfering in their neighbors' affairs by instigating sectarian violence via their affiliated groups. The Iraqis need all the support they can get from the democratic members of the international community to extricate themselves from this quagmire and become masters of their own destiny.

The Distortion of Islam

Keeping in mind that the success of Iran or ISIS in Iraq will result in a rogue state that would spread instability in the region as well as the West, the understanding of the conflict in the Middle East should be reformulated to deal with the core reasons of the problem at hand.

The main problem is that state and non-state actors in the Middle East have increasingly resorted to using Islam as a means of achieving political objectives. However, the principles they are resorting to in the name of Sunni or Shia Islam have nothing to do with religion. Power is what motivates these groups—not religion that, at its core, values human life above anything else.

The only way to save the people of Iraq and Syria is to introduce a secular system of governance in these countries, so that true Islam returns to center-stage to inspire individuals with moral values, rather than kill people because of their beliefs. The political system should protect every individual against the violation of basic humanitarian law in the name of Islam.

In Need of Pragmatic Politics

The policies to overcome the security impasse in Iraq range from urgent pragmatic steps to longer term structural measures which should be concurrently planned and executed to achieve mutual reinforcement. The immediate objective for the Western and regional actors should be to block the mobility of jihadists, degrade their fighting capability, and facilitate humanitarian efforts.

To impede mobility, anyone who declares jihad and those who are following his orders should be closely followed by Interpol; warrants should be issued for their arrest. Similarly, visa regimes of the neighboring transit countries, in particular that of Turkey, should be brought in line with that of the European Union.

President Obama's decision to authorize airstrikes against ISIS forces attacking the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraqi communities—such as the Turkomen of Tal Afar, the Yazidis of Sinjar, and Christian minorities who have been forced to leave their homes—has already enhanced public morale and showed once again that the people of Iraq will not be left alone in times of difficulty. If need be, to further degrade the fighting capability of ISIS, the United States and NATO could also be asked to take the lead in destroying the arms and ammunition that they had given to the Iraqi army but has now fallen in the hands of ISIS. If necessary, Turkey's Incirlik air base could be used to organize NATO operations with this narrow, well-defined objective.

Another important decision taken by the United States has been to supply the Kurds with arms to fight ISIS. The peshmerga seems to have started to repel ISIS forces from certain positions they had recently occupied. However if need be, a corridor could be considered from the Turkish border down to Mosul and Baiji refinery to facilitate access and provide a safe haven for NATO forces expelling ISIS from the territories it holds. This will also help cut the financial resources available to ISIS. Similarly, a corridor could be opened from the Turkish border down to Aleppo to provide a safe haven for humanitarian operations. International humanitarian organizations should be invited to step up their humanitarian assistance in those areas.

Undoubtedly, there is significant risk involved in expanding U.S. action or getting NATO involved in the current crisis in Iraq and Syria, but it is a necessary risk if there is any chance of restoring the balance of power between those who are for democracy and against terrorism in the region, and others whose only aim is to extend hegemony through the mindless use of terrorist violence.

Winds of Change?

Current U.S. airstrikes are a very encouraging sign. Such a show of force has already helped convince the political actors on the ground to work for an inclusive government. Indeed the new initiative taken for the formation of a post-Maliki government, supported by the United States, between President Fuad Masum and the new prime minister nominee Haider al-Abadi has resulted in the resignation of Maliki. This is a very important political development and increases the hope that Iraq will go forward in a new direction. If this initiative does not hold and if the present situation is allowed to persist, the West needs to bear in mind that no one is immune to the potentially expanding threat of ISIS or other terrorist groups.

The international community should continue to support this move to help set up a new inclusive government in Baghdad that should also embrace secular Shia and Sunni actors. The new government should allow administrative units willing to form regions similar to that of the KRG in Iraq to do so by allowing the true implementation of the relevant articles of the constitution for the formation of loosely arranged regions; the government should not erect artificial barriers like Maliki has done during his tenure. To weaken the hold of the jihadist groups such as ISIS in Iraq, estranged Sunni actors should be represented in this new Iraqi government. Fixing the trust deficit with the Sunnis will be challenging. Getting the Sunni tribes to distance themselves from the ISIS terrorists will take time as—without the U.S. presence—the Iraqi military will have to build confidence that the tribes doing so will be protected and rewarded. The support of Sunni tribes in the fight against ISIS and the return to political normalcy in Iraq is critical.

As for the KRG, following the resignation of Maliki and in view of the increased chances of forming an inclusive government under al-Abadi, one should expect the KRG to cooperate with Baghdad. This is necessary to resolve the issues that Maliki and his State of Law coalition chose to exacerbate with the KRG vis-à-vis the oil and gas issues, disputed territories, and the budget issues. Given the ISIS threat against the KRG's new borders, which now includes an additional 45 percent of its existing territories, the KRG would be willing to help U.S. efforts to set up a new government in Baghdad. Furthermore, Asaib Ahl al-Haq may wage attacks against the peshmerga forces in areas like Kirkuk if Iran so chooses. However, short of a truly lenient government in Baghdad—one that understands and satisfies the rightful demands of the constituent groups of Iraq and learns to govern under secular principles in time (meaning to learn to respect the Shia and Sunni as well as all other minorities as equal citizens)—any government will be short-lived. After the damage caused by Maliki, holding the pieces together in Iraq will indeed be much more difficult.

Beyond the urgent steps for peace and initiatives for political stability, it is imperative that regional actors maintain their distance from sectarian divisions in Iraq if the country is to have any hope of surviving as a sustainable state. Regional players should collaborate and act constructively in finding solutions to mitigate the effects of the sectarian clash. The intensification of such a division will come at a high cost and eventually pose a threat to the territorial integrity and national security of those national actors.

In particular, the international community should warn Iran against taking action through its proxies around Baghdad and Diyala. These potential actions would be aimed at ethnically cleansing the Sunnis from those areas to create a completely Shia area to the south. This would hamper any chance of keeping Iraq as one entity. For the immediate efforts to terminate the fighting and the attempts for political stabilization in Iraq to succeed, the fundamental long-term goal must be to end the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia playing out in this region. The swift military advancement of ISIS in Iraq has shown how developments in Syria and Iraq are tied to one another. Multilateral cooperation is critical to halting the meddling of Iran and Saudi Arabia through their direct or indirect involvement in Syria and Iraq through Al Quds Force, ISIS, or other proxies. In the long term, this is the only way for Iraqi people to take hold of their own destiny.

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