The Rise of a Caliphate Opportunities and Challenges

GLOBAL CENTRE STAGE

As ISIL announces the establishment of a caliphate with the group’s shadowy head, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, as the caliph, Azadeh Pourzand believes that key players in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kurdistan will need to take immediate actions to protect their own interests

The recent emergence of the Sunni radical group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and their brutal encroachment into Syria, as well as northern and western Iraq has defied any glimpse of hope for immediate stability in the region. This Al-Qaeda-inspired group, arguably more ferocious than Al-Qaeda itself, may or may not reach its ultimate goal of massacring Shias and establishing a Sunni state. ISIL, today, is too radical to become a legitimate force even for those who support its jihad against Shias. Even if the Sunni powerhouses of the region support ISIL, it will be too far-fetched to call the group victorious in the long run.

Nevertheless, ISIL has truly managed to threaten any last hopes for Iraq’s stability and the central government’s ability to hold the country together. Syria, already a failed state in practice, is also not safe against ISIL’s ferocious aspirations. The rise of this radical group is a blow for those who once aimed for status quo in today’s war-torn West Asia. This radical non-state actor has now arguably crept into the territory of statehood and its radical encroachment has forced the region’s key players to take a firm stance and step up actions.

Emergence of Politico-Religious Radicalism

Having ferociously taken over major towns such as Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, the militia-like group has now announced the establishment of a caliphate with the group’s shadowy head, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, as the caliph. ISIL has revealed an alarmingly brutal face of politico-religious radicalism, unlike its predecessors like Al-Qaeda, in structure and approach that seems to have grown exponentially in the chaos of Iraq and Syria. In short, from where we stand today, there seems to be no way out of this medieval regional fright in sight.

The key players in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kurdistan, as well as Syria and Iraq will need to openly or quietly take immediate actions to protect their own interests in the midst of any geopolitical shifts. Given the uncertainties and the fragility of any kind of regional stability in today’s West Asia, countries like India will have to closely watch every move of these key players in the region’s worsening conditions.

The Iraqi central government faces one of the toughest challenges in its history. In the absence of American troops, who had to leave sooner or later, Iraqi security forces were not sufficiently prepared to defend their nation alone. Further, the rivalry between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan in Erbil added to the crisis of governance in Iraq. There is widespread criticism of the Shia head of state, Nouri al-Maliki, who has based his governance on the exclusion of Kurds and Sunnis. In fact, in retaliation of the killings done by the Sunni ISIL, al-Maliki has allegedly ordered the execution of Sunni prisoners in Shia-majority Baghdad.

ISIL’s Rise: Implications for Iran

While the West and its allies, the US in particular, have grown critical of al-Maliki’s style of governance, the region’s Shia powerhouse, Iran, has continued its support of the Iraqi prime minister’s quest in revitalising Iraq as a Shia state. In fact, the head of the Quds Force Commander, the elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who is said to be an old acquaintance of al-Maliki, has been advising him and Iraqi Security forces on maintaining control of Baghdad.1

ISIL’s emergence threatens to undermine the power, influence and security of the Shia hegemon. However, as if having prepared for years for a day like today to confront a major Sunni radical outbreak, Iran’s position is apt to turn this threat into an opportunity. Aspiring to become the godfather for the region’s Shias, whether through military, political or financial support or social services, Iran has compromised the contentment of its own nation to keep Shias of the region content. It has established deep influence in Iraq, a complex relationship with the Kurds, has generously supported Bashar Assad’s government in Syria against Sunni rebels, and its notoriously tactical IRGC has spread its wings across the region. Thus, the rise of ISIL and the power vacuum in the region, if not an imminent threat, is an opportunity for Iran to further its influence. Now, even the US and Iraq’s Kurdistan will have to cut a deal with Iran in order to secure Shia cooperation to achieve any tentative form of unity against radical Sunni rebel groups.

Demands for Leadership Change

Meanwhile, Iraqi Shia clerics such as Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani have called on the country’s leader to choose a less divisive prime minister in the hope of alleviating the deepening sectarian bloodshed.2 Even Iran, which is a major supporter of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, has doubts about his rule. While the Iranian supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants al-Maliki intact, the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani prefers Iran to support a less divisive leader in Baghdad.3 The fact that such disputes about al-Maliki have started to emerge in neighbouring Iran points to the fragility of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s rule. Ultimately, no matter how power-hungry Iran may be, Tehran will have to ensure safety and unity at home.

Kurdistan: The Stabilising Factor

If Kurdistan is able to protect its autonomous borders, it is yet another winner of ISIL’s brutal rise. While much of Iraq is on the verge of a civil war, Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, is said to be safe and stable. Indicating that it is much too late for any hope for a unity government in Baghdad, the Kurdish leader, Masud Barzani, expressed happiness over the ability of his forces to defend the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other towns in northern Iraq against Sunni radical rebels. Denied of any authority over Kirkuk for long, the Kurds have finally established their rule in this disputed and strategic city. Having completed their own pipeline, the Kurds now demand a law to legitimise oil exports from the Kurdish region and to allow them to benefit directly from contacts with foreign companies that manage and extract new finds.4 Further, they want full control over their share of the federal budget, and want the central government to pay the Kurdish military or Peshmerga, which is, in fact, now protecting Iraqi citizens against Sunni rebels in northern areas.5

Even if the ISIL threat fades away tomorrow, the Iraqi central government will be at a much weaker bargaining position with Kurdistan that it ever was in the past. Baghdad will now have to turn to Kurdistan for help to survive. Kurdistan is also Israel’s only hope to contain the crisis away from its borders. At the same time, while not exactly the closest of allies, Kurdistan understands the importance of speaking with Iran in the hope to contain the region’s crisis. As such, even the most zealous of enemies, such as Iran and Israel, have to rely on Kurdistan as a stabilising factor within Iraq.

Saudi Dilemma

Ironically, Saudi Arabia is not exactly a winner of this Sunni radical rebellion in Syria and Iraq. Distressed by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia rule in Iraq, it would be natural for Riyadh to support the Sunni rebellion throughout the country. Similarly, Riyadh cannot possibly be happy with Bashar al-Assad’s resistance to step down despite Sunni rebellion and the spread of civil war. In all of this, Saudi has always been most wary of Iran’s rise in the region as a Shia hegemon. Thus, now Riyadh is caught in a complex irony. While the rise of a forceful Sunni militia that is quickly gaining large parts of Iraq is perhaps good news for Riyadh, the crisis and the vacuum of a central power will simply lend itself to further realisation of the Saudi nightmare – an even more influential Iran in Iraq, Syria and the region at large.6 Thus, as far as speculations go, a regional power as influential and wealthy as Saudi Arabia will not sit and watch Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq. It is likely to seize the moment when Iran’s attention is mostly diverted to Iraq to step up its support of various Sunni rebel groups in war-torn Syria, and to re-energise smaller and more local radical Sunni groups.

The uncertainties are vast. As events rapidly unfold in the region, predictions are short lived in the midst of this turbulence. It is perhaps best for countries with vested economic and political interests in the region, such as India, not to rush into any conclusions just yet. It is conceivably appropriate to closely watch the region’s turmoil unfold and to make cautious diplomatic calculations till this crisis reaches at least a fragile status quo, since long term stability seems like a far-fetched dream in today’s West Asia. As the saying goes, it has to get worse before it gets better, if at all.

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Author

Azadeh Pourzand

Azadeh Pourzand, a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is a US-based commentator on Middle East North Africa (MENA) affairs.

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    References

    1 Analysis: Iran’s double game in Iraq, Aljazeera, June 27, 2014 http:// www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/analysis-iran-double-gameiraq- 201462694820573703.html (accessed on June 30, 2014 at 8:50 PM)

    2 Top Shia cleric calls for new Iraqi government, Aljazeera, June 27, 2014 http://america.aljazeera.com/ articles/2014/6/27/iraq-prepares-fornewgovernmentamidrapidlyadvancingsunnirebellion.html (accessed on June 30, 2014 at 8:55 PM)

    3 Iraqi Shia leaders pushing for al-Maliki’s removal, The Australian, June 27, 2014 http://www. theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/middle-east-in-turmoil/iraqi-shia-leaders-pushing-for-almalikis-removal/ story-fn7ycml4-1226968524366?nk=6f020eb0aee339059128b73382f3af5b (accessed on June 30, 2014 at 9:00 PM)

    4 The Kurds and Iraq: A winning hand, The Economist, June 21, 2014, PP 48-49

    5 Ibid.

    6 ISIL’s advance puts Saudi Arabia between Iraq and a hard place, Aljazeera, June 17, 2014 http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/6/17/saudi-iraq-isil.html (accessed on June 30, 2014 at 9:10 PM)

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