What to make of the recent explosion/implosion of Iraq over the last week? First Fallujah, then Mosul, Tikrit, and now Tal Afar have fallen to the forces of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Sham which has thus far blown away the better armed and more numerous Iraqi military forces in what looks, superficially at any rate, to be a sort of jihadist blitzkrieg. On current trajectory, the next sacking of Baghdad may not be far off. The interwebs are already afire with talk of who lost Iraq?, why the Iraqi army collapsed, and the degree to which this is a game changer or not a game changer at all. FWIW, I have found this backgrounder on ISIS by Alex Berger of the Institute for the Study of War ISIS Reports Reveal a Metrics -Driven Military Command (pdf), just about everything by Aaron Zellin, for e.g., The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has a Consumer Protection Office, and this International Crisis Group report Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain (pdf), to be extremely helpful. Ultimately, though, it is profoundly difficult (for me at any rate) to get a ground and sound sense of what is going on. That’s why I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to speak in our first Kings of War posdcast (KOWcast) with Dr Victoria Fontan, currently Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Duhok University in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Victoria, as you will hear, has been kicking around Iraq in one capacity or another for over a decade now and is currently working on her second PhD with us in the War Studies Department (having turned to the dark side) researching ‘slow insurgency in Iraq’. She has been studying ISIS since 2010 and has done more and more intimate interviews with them than any other researcher I know. Some key points which emerged from or struck me in the conversation:
1. The connection between the social movements that have been present and building in Sunni parts of Iraq for a long time and the popular support that has generated for ISIS. The sense of abandonment by the international community and of victimisation by the government is such that they have resorted to the lesser evil, which is ISIS.
2. If one misses this point then it is rather easy to talk about a ‘jihadist spring’ (something I have done and am glad to be corrected) and to resort to seeing ISIS as an al-Qaeda/ISI offshoot–which, as Victoria suggests is plain wrong at this point. Al-Qaeda’s beef is with the West, and ISIS’s is with Shi’ites. There are paradigmatic differences between ISIS and AQ. In my view, in today’s Telegraph David Blair makes this mistake as well as the one above: ISIS moved too Far, too Fast: Al Qaeda’s Folloers have Made this Mistake Before. Isn’t it more sensible to credit ISIS’s success to Iraq’s Sunnis being totally alienated from their own government and Iraq’s Shi’ite army being unwilling to fight outside of its own regions and neighbourhoods?
3. ISIS has not emerged from nowhere. They were not ‘fading away’ before the onset of the Syrian civil war; rather, they were regrouping, cleaning up their house (imagine the rooftop discussion between Ali La Pointe and Ben M’Hidi in The Battle of Algiers when he declares that before they take the fight to the French they’re first going to sweep up the pipes and dope dealers in the Casbah). Up to July 2013, at least in Salaheddin province, ISIS’s attacks were paid for by the Turkish government, not private donors from the Gulf as is commonly mistaken. ISIS’s presence in Syria did not ‘just happen'; rather, it was orchestrated by Turkey, which then decided to back up the wrong horse–Nusra, in the Spring of 2013. This last aspect of Victoria’s strategic diagnosis is, in my view, the most worrisome.
What we are seeing is not ‘just’ a civil war but an incipient schismatic war with thick tentacles linking it abroad in a patently ominous manner–Iran manipulating one (on which Dexter Filkins’ New Yorker pieces on The Shadow Commander (Qassem Suleimani) and, more recently, The Crisis in Iraq are important reads), Turkey another, the Gulf States another one still, while the West having dropped the slimy thing a few years ago wrings its hands at the prospect of needs grasping it again. While speaking with Victoria the first thought of the near future of the Middle East which sprang to mind was one akin to the Balkan tragedy of the 1990s–only on a larger scale, with more money for weapons and willing suppliers, and with even less scope for external mitigation. But then it occurred the situation is probably worse than that, with a little perspective. I was reminded of this passage from Philip Windsor’s Strategic Thinking: An Introduction and Farewell which comes towards the end of a chapter the just war tradition where he ruminates on the import of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War:
It is perhaps permissible in a book of this kind (which does not purport to be a book of history) to select certain historical ‘moments’ as representative of a more complex historical process. The reformation was one such moment. It was not the cause of the Christian challenge to the authority of the universal church, but the outcome of developments within the church itself and of many years of social as well as intellectual change. It was not an event, but a complex and long, drawn-out process. Yet one might say that the Reformation epitomised the collapse of the ecumen and led to a new kind of conflict in which Christianity was at war with itself. That conflict came to a head in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which was one of the most brutal and horrifying in European history. It brought together many forms of power struggle, both economic and political, but it was also a war of religion, of Protestant against Catholic. It represented the politicisation of religion, which was nothing particularly new (the Protestant Henry of Navarre had already declared that Paris was well worth a mass), but it also represented a religious definition of politics. In those terms, it was a war about everything, which is no doubt why it was so difficult to conclude. And it was also a moral war. A war that is fought about the nature of God and of belief, about the eternal destination of one’s immortal soul, is obviously difficult to conclude in a compromise peace. The combatants cannot simply sign an agreement that God shall be a Catholic on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Protestant on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The war must be fought to an end or else terminated by sheer exhaustion–as ultimately it was. It is also a moral war in the sense that the moral nature of the cause is invoked to justify even the most brutal and ruthless means of destruction.
You can read more of Victoria’s perspectives on her own blog–in particular ‘ISIS, The Slow Insurgency‘. But for now have a listen.