Qarawee: The Strength of ISIS is Related to the Weakness and Ineffectiveness of the State in Iraq and the Region

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
The Journal of Turkish Weekly
January 16, 2015
By Ă–mer Faruk Topal

JTW Interview with Harith al-Qarawee

The Journal of Turkish Weekly has conducted an in-depth interview with Harith al-Qarawee on political and social developments in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qarawee is fellow at Radcliffe Institute- Harvard University. His research focuses are the state-society relations, political transitions, and identity politics in Iraq and the Middle East.

1.What are the challenges to enduring reconciliation between Iraq’s feuding factions and thereby the establishment of a durable political foundation of a stable, inclusive and sovereign Iraqi state?

Any discussion of reconciliation in Iraq should start by clearly identifying the problem. I think the major problem has been the failure to integrate the majority of Sunni Arabs in the political system established post-2003.

But this problem is also one related to the rules the “new Iraq” was built on. What happened in 2003 was not only a regime change; it was the beginning of a state re-formation process that has entirely changed the nature of Iraqi polity. 

For a long time, Iraq had been a highly centralized state dominated by Sunni elites; those elites adopted policies and narratives of homogenization that considered sub-national identities a threat that should be eradicated.

After 2003, these identities became the main categories that decide representation and organize politics. Sunni Arabs were always told that there are three main evils threatening Iraq: foreign occupation, Kurdish “nationalists” that were described as proxies of foreign enemies, and Shi’a islamists, portrayed as a reactionary group controlled by the “Iranian Mullas”. In 2003, Sunni Arabs were shocked as they saw those three, namely the occupiers, the Kurdish nationalists and the Shi’a islamists, sitting together and setting the rules of the new Iraq!

Both Shi’a and Kurds were able to quickly adapt to the new realities. The Shi’a had their own institutions and parties; the hawza “Shi’a religious establishment” maintained its autonomy and a high degree of legitimacy and therefore was able to organize collective action and define the communal interests. The Kurds had their autonomy, government and parties; they had well-defined interests and relatively clear demands.

The problem was finding a Sunni leadership that genuinely represents a community that actually did not exist. Sunni Arabs lacked of any important institutions outside the former regimes structures; the word “Sunni Arab” was just a name, a category imposed on people who shared very little outside the state they had dominated before. To a large extent, Iraq’s conflicts and instability since then were caused, first, by the Sunni resistance to the idea of ethno-sectarian power sharing, which required them to become a minority “community”; second, by the Shi’a-Kurdish dominance in the processes that shaped the new political system; and, third, by the intra-Sunni competition for leadership.

2.What political transformations does Iraq need in the short term?

First: the urgent task today is to fight ISIS and this is not an easy job. In order to defeat ISIS, there is a need to find credible Sunni partners, genuine representatives of Sunni communities that challenge ISIS’s narrative without losing the support of these communities. There has to be a vision more appealing than the Khilafa state that ISIS seeks to achieve. 

Second: Following that, serious negotiation on the future of Iraq and its communities should start. Although I hope Iraq moves to a political paradigm that emphasizes citizenship rather than communal identities, I admit that this is very unlikely. Ethno-sectarianism was institutionalized and national identity has been greatly weakened. Therefore, any debate on the future will be very likely to focus on the management of the relationship between the three major communities. There is a need for a “new compact” that clearly defines the relationship between communities, management of resources, and governance framework. 

Third: I think Iraq need not return to centralization; decentralization will help to deescalate inter-communal tensions, but this needs a clear formula, because ambiguity will keep on causing more problems, as we saw in the case of Kurdistan and its relationship with Baghdad. 

But our debate on decentralization should take into consideration some important details: 

- First: Iraq is the most oil-dependent state in the world; oil rents account for 95% of the governmental budget and almost 69% of the country’s GDP. It is in the nature of resource-dependent states to empower ruling elites; therefore, finding a good formula to share resources is very challenging since, geographically, these resources are not distributed evenly; and as we saw after the last agreement between Baghdad and the KRG, there will be voices refusing the idea of funding a Sunni region or Sunni regions from the revenues of oil exported from Basra. If oil prices keep plummeting (falling), the issue of resource sharing will become more problematic, because there will be less money and more competition to get a share thereof. 

- Second: Some Sunni Arabs mistakenly think that having a Sunni region will give them autonomy from the Shi’a-dominated government, as seen in the case of Kurdistan…. That is very unlikely. Sunni Arabs lack the level of unity and the established leadership the Kurds enjoy, and they have less power to bargain with Baghdad. In addition to that, if there are Sunni and Kurdish regions, this will inevitably lead to the formation of a Shi’a region; in another word, each region trying to turn itself into a state leads to further institutionalization of ethno-sectarian politics and more inter-communal and intra-communal disputes. 

I think a better option is to give more powers to the existing provinces if we need to achieve more decentralization without dividing the country. It might be difficult to accomplish this balance, but it is also easier than the other options. 

3.What role can the tribes play in the fight against ISIS? Can Sunni tribes be persuaded to fight against ISIS? If so, how?

Tribes might be important partners in the fight against ISIS for two reasons: first, because this approach has been tried before and was successful as seen in the experience of the “Awakening groups”; and second, because the tribes, by their nature, provide a definition of identity that challenge ISIS’s attempts to impose its own sectarian and puritanist definition. However, we should also be aware of the limits of this option. Tribal politics are very oscillatory and unstable. 

Tribal chieftains might compete for patronage and become vulnerable to political interventions; ISIS already managed to convince some tribes to ally with it. In addition, not all Sunni communities are tribal communities; the authority of tribal chieftains in the urban centers is weak and so is the appeal of tribal culture. Therefore, it would be useful if the Iraqi government and international community looked for tribal allies in the fight against ISIS, but this should be part of a broader strategy that understands the limits of this option. 

4.What are the reasons behind ISIS’s rapid military success in Iraq? How can ISIS fight against the Iraqi army, Shiite militias, the Peshmerga and various tribes simultaneously? 

This issue has recently been addressed by many observers and analysts. It is clear now that even ISIS was surprised by the level of success it has achieved. Apparently, the lack of morale and rampant corruption in the Iraqi military forces, in addition to the hostile environment, led to the quick collapse of the units deployed in Mosul. It is equally true that the ISIS media campaign managed to portray the organization as extremely brutal toward its enemies, therefore many soldiers, lacking trusted leadership, decided to flee fearing the acts of revenge that may have been perpetrated. 

International media unintentionally contributed in exaggerating the efficiency and strength of ISIS, which also led some local populations to accept ISIS control and rules. However, we should remember that all these factors are related to the increasing weakness and ineffectiveness of the state in Iraq and the region. Jihadist groups such as ISIS have a declared strategy to take advantage of internal divisions and the state’s fragility. The heightened sectarianism in Iraq and the region has provided them with fertile land to expand their project. 

5.Is there a reliable moderate Syrian opposition group?

The problem starts with finding a good definition for the word “moderate”. What is happening in Syria today is a civil war. During civil wars, societies become polarized, the most extremist groups on the two sides become powerful, and the room for plurality and moderation narrows. In this context, moderate forces who tend to adopt inclusive visions and cross-communal perspectives lose a great deal of their influence and become marginal. Therefore, the Syrian regime preferred the militarization of the Syrian uprising because it wanted to create conditions to weaken moderate forces and make groups such as ISIS its only alternative. Unless the dynamics of this conflict significantly change, it is hard to rely on the idea of having moderate opposition fighting both the regime and ISIS, and much less managing to defeat them. 

6.How do you think that the fight against ISIS should be planned? How should authorities (local, regional, global) deal with ISIS?

Militarily, there was a threefold strategy adopted, although imperfectly, by local, regional, and global actors. First, the Western airstrikes were very instrumental in stopping ISIS from achieving more territorial gains and in making its ability to control and govern areas it managed to invade more difficult. Second, Iraqi security forces and Shi’a militias backed by the Iranians managed to fortify their areas as did the Kurdish Peshmerga. In the military operations, Shi’a and Kurdish forces seem to think that this conflict might end up drawing the borders between the three main communities in Iraq. Third, the US and Iraqi governments were looking for Sunni tribes and groups that can fight against ISIS and form a local force that can fill the vacuum if ISIS were to be forced out the provinces it now controls. This is still the most problematic aspect of this strategy. On the one hand, ISIS managed to deeply infiltrate some Sunni areas and made inroads to local populations in these areas. Many militants in the “Awakening groups” joined ISIS while others simply put down their weapons as a result of their distrust in the Iraqi government. The Sunni political class is divided, weak, and its representation of Sunni communities is questionable. Finding Sunni partners in the war against ISIS might prove to be the most difficult part. 

7.How does ISIS exploit local struggles? What can be done to prevent ISIS’s involvement in local problems?

ISIS feeds on conflicts, sectarian tensions, and the lack of efficient governance in Iraq. In the textbooks of Jihadist groups, it is stated that infiltrating unstable areas and investing in the chaos is an important element of their strategy. 
They take advantage of local grievances and try to legitimize themselves and spread their ideology in order to recruit more fighters and expand their area of control. The weakness of national identities has been very useful for them. Islam is still the major shaper of people’s perceptions and identities in this part of the world and such groups build on that by presenting their version of Islam as that which can both “save” and “prevail”. Their discourse revolves around two main themes: protection and prevailing. This reflects the nature of the organization as both a sectarian and Jihadist movement. 

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