|The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham|
Since its inception, how has the Syrian civil war affected Iraqis politics? How has its development interacted with the destructive policies pursued by Maliki? Likewise, what impact has the Syrian crisis had on Iraq's Kurdish provinces, that comprise the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)? Has the combination of sectarian rule and the blow-back from the Syrian crisis intensified sectarian identities and could it lead to a breakup of Iraq?
Perhaps most disturbing is the inroads that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (Levant) - the ISIS - has made in Iraq's western al-Anbar Province. During the height of post-Saddam sectarian violence, al-Anbar had been a hotbed for al-Qa'ida activity led by the notorious Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. With the rise of the "Anbar Awakening" ( al-Sahwa), al-Qa'ida was sent running and stability returned to the region. Prior to the 2010 parliamentary elections, the province was prospering and it appeared that its Sunni population might be integrated into the new Iraqi political system
Nuri al-Maliki's sectarian policies changed all that. His fear of and increasing reliance on Iran for support alienated large segments of the Iraqi population, especially the Sunni Arab minority. As matters got worse, especially after Iraqi helicopter gun ships attacked peaceful Sunni protestors in Hawija, near the city of Kirkuk, this past April 23th, and Maliki continued to harass Sunni Arab leaders, such as the moderate former Finance Minister Rafi' al-'Issawi, ISIS began to make inroads in al-Anbar and elsewhere.
The logic of the uptick in anger in al-Anbar and throughout the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle is understandable given the the political marginalization of the Sunni Arab population. What is less clear is why there has likewise been a recent increase in violent activity in the KRG.
When US forces invaded the Kurdish region in 2003, it quickly dispatched the Islamist Ansar al-Sunna group with the help of Kurdish Peshmerga forces. At that time, estimates of support for the Ansar al-Sunna, whose influence was limited to a small region near the city of Halabja,, were between 1-2% of the Kurdish population and then only along the border region with Iran due, in large measure, to Iranian financial support.
Arguments have also been offered that the strong tribal nature of Kurdish society cross-cuts religious identities. The widespread membership of Kurds in Sufi orders, including the Kurdish Regional Government's political leadership, such as the Naqshibandiya and Rifaiya, and the diversity of religious minorities, such as the Yazidiya and others, have been thought to have promoted an atmosphere of religious tolerance in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Thus it has been a great shock to the Kurdish political elite and much of the Kurdish population to find Kurdish youth attracted to Islamist groups fighting the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria. Recent reports indicate that youth returning from the Syrian conflict have organized local Islamist groups that have planned and carried out terrorist attacks within the KRG.
This month, the KRG Interior Ministry moved to ban the use of mosques for any non-religious activities. Fearing that mosques were bringing together radical clerics and youth influenced by Islamist groups in Syria, efforts have been made to root out Islamic radicalism before it has a chance to spread (see al-Hayat, December 20). The secret police realize that in the KRG, as throughout the Middle East, radical Islamists possess a significant advantage over other political forces ,namely the ability to use the large infrastructure of mosques as an organizing tool.
The reasons why youth in al-Anbar might support the ISIS are fairly clear. However, why have Kurdish youth come to give support to radical Islamist organizations? The answers are complex and cannot be reduced to one cause. First, there has been a long-term antagonism among Kurdish youth who do not possess the necessary wasta (influence) that would allow them to find employment as a result of ties to one of the two main political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Second, the Kurdish political elite is not in as strong a position as once was. The unraveling of the PUK, especially now that it has lost its leader, Jalal Talabani, and the rise of the Gorran (Change) Movement that began in 2009 have eroded its strength and demonstrated that it vulnerable to political challenges. PUK weakness and the Gorran Movement have encouraged Kurds to mount more challenges to the Kurdish elite.
A third and very important reason for the rise of radical Islamist sentiments is the ideological vacuum that exists in the KRG and throughout much of the Middle East. Arab nationalism has collapsed, Western liberalism is seen as suspect and unable to deal with social needs such as employment , education, housing and health care, and communism is viewed as an archaic and historically irrelevant. Radical Islamism is thus "picking up the ideological pieces," as it were, of failed and discredited ideologies.
Political elites have been unable to articulate alternative ideological visions. Those parties that have proposed moderate Islamism such as the Nahda Party in Tunisia , the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey appear to many youth as impotent, incapable of generating economic growth that helps the less fortunate of society and unable to meet the aspirations of the under 30 generation, a very large demographic in the contemporary Middle East.
Radical Islamism, whether of the Sunni or Shi'i variety, offers a well articulated vision of the future, however unrealistic it appears to outside observers. Radical groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) offer action and immediate results through armed struggle. Those youth who feel that their lives are stagnant see in these movements a way to escape from the feeling of having no hope in the future, not to speak of the meaning many find in becoming "true believers," committed to the cause of building an Islamic state and ridding the Middle East of those who exploit political power for particularistic ends.
It is not so much the strength of radical Islamism as it is the failure of corrupt and sectarian political elites to articulate an inclusive political vision that offers social justice and at least a modicum of democracy. The failure of elites, such as the Iraqi political class in Baghdad, and the Kurdish political class in Arbil and Sulaimaniya, to negotiate and compromise with rivals only serves to radicalize youth still further as they see that no solutions to the problems they face will be forthcoming.
Unless there is a change in the structure and political disposition of the two political elites that control Iraq - Arab and Kurdish - the security situation will only worsen, especially if the Syrian crisis drags on, which it almost undoubtedly will. The Italian political theorist, Antonio Gramsci, noted many years ago that, to be successful, a political class must exercise "moral and ethical leadership."
The Maliki-Barzani axis exercises no such leadership. Instead, it offers corruption, nepotism, authoritarian rule, and a lack of government services. Arab and Kurdish rule in Iraq is devoid of ideological content. Now it cannot even invoke its "fallback" position - support us because at least we offer you, the citizens of Iraq, security from terrorism. Arab and Kurdish rule is political minimalism at its worst.
Education of Arab and Kurdish youth is key to fighting support for radical Islamism and their fellow travelers, the numerous criminal syndicates that have proliferated throughput Iraq. However, a successful pedagogy would involve inculcating in youth values that are antithetical to the political rule that currently prevails in Iraq. Tolerance cannot develop alongside sectarianism. Negotiation cannot develop alongside authoritarian rule. Civic engagement cannot develop alongside corruption and nepotism.
What are forces outside the region doing to address the spread of radical in the Arab East (al-Mashriq al-'Arabi)? Very little in terms of policies that will,have ab impact on the long term stability of the region. Conforming to the adage that "better to support the devil you know than the one you don't," the US, the EU, and international NGOs and funding agencies turn a blind eye to the self-destructive policies followed by the Maliki and KRG regimes.
The only positive development has been the refusal of the US to become involved in saving the Maliki regime. It will not commit any significant military resources to the central government. Likewise, the US refuses to play favorites with the KRG or establish any military bases there. It continues to scold the KRG for its thinly veiled threats to leave Iraq and declare independence in its struggle with Baghdad over the extraction and sale of oil and natural gas in the KRG.
Realizing that neither Iran nor the US will come to his rescue, Maliki has been forced to reach out to the remnants of the Arab Awakening in al-Anbar Province. This has least forced him to soften his sectarian policies and pursue a more cross-ethnic agenda. Likewise, the Kurds realize that they cannot afford to anger the US - their main foreign ally - and thus need to tone down their hostile rhetoric towards Baghdad.
Still, these short-term strategic calculations by the Arab and Kurdish political elites do not address the underlying problems in Iraq - the need to use revenues from hydrocarbon wealth to solve the country's myriad problems, implement democratic reforms and pursue cross-ethnic alliances - at the political social, cultural and economic levels - that will lay the basis for long-term stability and national reconciliation.
While the international community cannot solve Iraq's problems, it can at least keep up the pressure, in a more open and public manner, to force Iraq's political class to begin to offer the country's citizenry the rule they deserve. This represents the only way in which disaffected youth will be drawn away from supporting political extremism in the region.
How does the emergence on 2011 of demonstration against the al0Aada regime in Syria leading to demoinstartion and then violence again st the central governmentand