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What in God's Name Is Going on in Iraq? An Expert Explains.
Q&A

What in God's Name Is Going on in Iraq? An Expert Explains. An interview with Olivier Roy

By Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

With Iraq riven by sectarian violence and mass atrocities, I decided to have a short email exchange with Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy, and an expert on political Islam. (Our previous conversation was about Syria and Egypt.) We discussed the state of relations between Sunnis and Shiites, the prospect of wider regional war, and whether the borders of the Middle East are about to change.

Isaac Chotiner: What do you make of ISIS as a group? How do you see them as distinct from other violent Muslim groups?

Olivier Roy: ISIS is an offspring of Al Qaeda, so it is first a globalized international movement which is lacking deep roots in the local society and which does not have a "national" project (contrary to Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Jihad, or the Shia radical movements). Many foreign volunteers don't speak Arabic, and don't care about the local society.  It does not have a project of "civil" society except a reference to sharia. ISIS is an army of militants, not a political party, nor a social movement.  It succeeds because the others failed; and as everywhere it will confront a backlash of the civil society (which happened in Falluja during the "surge" of General Petraeus). But the new element is that some leaders (both of Al Qaeda and ISIS) seem to realize that there is a need to shift from a militant Jihad international group to a local power with a capacity to administrate the "liberated areas." But I doubt it will have the ability or the time to morph into an efficient political organization: Such a project does not correspond to its recruitment strategy or to its global ideology.

IC: How pessimistic are you about Iraq? 

OR: I think that the Jihadist offensive will be repelled, but not because the Maliki government will retake the upper hand. It will be a consequence of the Shia and Kurdish backlash, because both groups know that they are fighting with their backs against the wall, and that the Jihadists just dream about eliminating them. They are the majority and they will fight. But the backbone of the "surge" is not the legal government: it is the Kurdish troops and the Shia clergy who, once again, are embodying the nation in a time of crisis. The Shia will accept a de facto independence for Kurdistan and will not fight to retake Kirkuk from the Kurds. The Sunnis will not be able to retake the central power, and tensions between Jihadis, Baathists and tribal leaders will erupt among Sunnis. The Shias will administrate the South. The problem is Baghdad. I doubt a strong central government will regain power. So at best you will have a loose federation of three entities, and at worst a split into three entities.

IC: How else do you think the borders of the Middle East might change?

OR: There is a real possibility of territorial changes, although nobody, except the Kurds and some Israelis, advocate such changes. But the paradox is that the agents of changes are not the people who want such changes!

The main drive for changes is not the assertiveness of new entities but the collapse of the old national constructions. The main factor that could lead to a reshuffle of borders is the widening of the new strategic fault-line in the Middle East; the divide between Shias and Sunnis.

The first thing would be to have a true independent Kurdistan in Iraq, because of a collapse of Iraq first; Syria might collapse too, but except Kurdistan we will not see new nation-states with precise borders, but vague zones of influence with fluctuating boundaries. The collapse of the existing nation-states will in turn weaken the international borders, even if they are not redrawn. The border between Iran and Iraq and the border between Turkey and its southern neighbors will be de facto open. Goods, people, and weapons will move more easily.

IC: Do you see the Sunni/Shia rift as getting worse? Has it ever been this bad?

OR: The rift has little to do with religion as such. It seldom became a geostrategic issue in history, except when Iran turned Shia in the sixteenth century. During the twentieth century there was no rift at all until the Iranian-Islamic revolution. The rift has been a consequence of the Iranian Islamic revolution that has identified Iran with militant Shiism, and it entailed a religious radicalization of a Sunni fringe (the so-called "Salafis") that has been encouraged by Saudi Arabia both for religious reasons and for thwarting the growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Iraq. And the rift is growing, because the mutual distrust is growing. Shias in the Gulf are systematically perceived as an Iranian fifth column, something they were not seen as in the past.

The Shia-Sunni divide is a war through proxies waged by Iran and Saudi Arabia. But while the Shia axis is relatively coherent (Iran, Hezbollah, Assad and to a lesser extend Maliki), the Sunni front is utterly divided and has no common objectives.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq has just destroyed the main Sunni bulwark against Iran, with two consequences: the solidifying of a de facto independent Kurdistan, the secession of a large Sunni populated area in Northern Iraq that shifted from Baathism to Jihadism and straddles the border with Syria. Saudi Arabia, instead of allying itself with the mainstream Sunni organizations (like the Muslim Brothers), wants to crush them, while it supported for decades the very radicals that are now taking the lead in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Thus Iran is the great beneficiary of the collapse of the dominant order built between 1918 and 1948, with a minimum engagement on the field.

IC: Could this Iraq violence have been prevented by a concerted international effort to contain Syria earlier?

OR: It is clear that Syria has been the springboard for the extension of ISIS into Iraq, but, soon or later, the Jihadists would have made a breakthrough in the Iraqi Sunni areas because of the frustration of the local population. Since the battle of Falluja against the Americans, nothing has been done to integrate the Iraqi Sunnis into the new state.

The problem from the beginning has been what to do in Syria, and the more time is passing, the more difficult it is to define what could be done. Now the conflict is internationalized, so the only issue is an international agreement, where Iran would be a key player; but negotiations with Iran are under heavy criticism in Israel and in the US Congress, while it is obvious that the extension of the battlefield reinforces the role of Iran.

IC: What do you think the West should do, if anything, besides reaching out to Iran?

OR: The issue is not what the West should do, but what it can do. The refusal to act at the beginning of the crisis makes it more and more difficult to intervene now. The first thing is regional concentration, including Iran. The second is coordination with the Iraqi Shias and Kurds to thwart ISIS without sending troops (there is no need). The third is to think about an alternative to Maliki. And finally to try to identify the "good" opponents in Syria while avoiding direct interference, but the precedent of Afghanistan in the '80s shows that it is a real challenge.

IC: What do you think the Turks make of all this, from the Kurdish role to Iranian involvement?

OR: The Turks pay the price of a proactive but incoherent policy. They have no choice now but to cooperate closely with Kurdish authorities, to close their territory to Jihadis, and to cooperate with Iran (which is not a big issue for them because they have "normal" diplomatic and intelligence ties with Kurds and Iranians).

This interview has been edited.

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