Renad Mansour is an Asfari Academy Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, in London. His research focuses on Iraq, the international relations of the Middle East, the state and state-building in the Middle East, and the politics of the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Prior to joining the Royal Institute of International Affairs, he was an El-Erian fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. He is also a research fellow at the Cambridge Security Initiative based at Cambridge University and senior research fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. In this interview, Mansour talks about his father’s homeland, after ISIS captured Ramadi – and conquered Palmyra, in Syria. (Read more..)
Let me begin with a personal question. Are you from Iraq?
My father is Iraqi. I was born in Iran. In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, many people who politically opposed the regime [of Saddam Hussein] crossed the border to the neighbouring country. I still have some relatives in Iraq. They used to live mainly in Baghdad and Mosul, but they moved to Kurdistan, in the North.
Were you born during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88)?
Yes! It was complicated situation back then, almost as it now.
So, you are a son of one war and a scholar of another war. In 1980-88 it was a bloody war involving the use of chemical weapons, but we can define it as “conventional”. What about the new war involving ISIS/Daesh?
One of the biggest differences is that, in Iraq, at least, we have now a very weak central government, which really makes a centralised military force almost impossible. There are internal divisions in Baghdad. And, inside the prime minister Haider al-Abadi‘s own party [Dawa], there are people actually working against him. In Ramadi and elsewhere, there are people trying to topple him, like a silent coup.
One of them is former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, and his allies. One of the problems are certain militias, predominately Shia, which are not commanded by the prime minister or the central government, but by proxies who are very loyal to Iran. This is, probably, one of the biggest differences when comparing with the 1980-88 war.
Mr. Maliki has been identified as a “big problem”, but before him there was the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 with disastrous policies such as the dissolution of the Baath Party and the Iraqi Army. George W. Bush is mostly blamed for the chaos created after Saddam’s fall. What is your assessment?
Of course the initial invasion created a political and security vacuum that led to the emergence of certain jihadi and Salafi groups, al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] for examples, but they were largely defeated by 2007-08. Afterwards, there were prospects that Iraq could move towards a better future, in terms of Sunni re-inclusion a more inclusive government.
In 2010, Maliki completely went back and violated all the promises of progress. Largely what we have today is a consequence of a more immediate alienation and oppression of certain communities, mainly in Sunni areas. People are reacting to Maliki’s of power and the total marginalisation of those groups.
He is no longer the chief of the government but remains a force to be reckoned with inside Iraq, isn’t he?
Let’s keep in mind that he is still the vice-president, so even institutionally he has a position. Outside the institutions he is actually even more powerful.
One of the most fearful militias, Sahwa [or Awakening] is very loyal to him and it is essentially under his command [since it joined forces with U.S. combat troops to defeat al-Qaeda in 2006-07].
Also a segment of the Special Operations [a counter-terrorism force created in 2009, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence] remains very dedicated to him.
His connections with Iran are still there and very strong. Two months ago, he went to visit Ayatollah Khamenei [in Teheran]. So he is still a very strong element in Iraq, since he also leads an ultraconservative faction in his party, Dawa. He is the leader of the party as well.
Institutionally and extra-legally is a huge figure that intends to delegitimize the current prime minister, and I have no doubts that his aspirations are to come back and stay in power. I believe that this will never happen, but it is the track that he is setting for.
Another powerful Iraqi personality but commanding much more respect is Ayatollah Ali Sistani. What have been his moves in the present situation?
He is very powerful. The al-Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces, [an alliance of around 40] Shia militias, are technically under his command, and there hundreds of thousands of fighters that are actually against Iran and supporting Sistani, even if we what hear more in the news is about the Iranians.
What is also interesting is the rivalry between Sistani, the center of religious Shia, and Khamenei, who presents himself as the political center.
It will be interesting to see if, in the future, Sistani decides that the Shaabi militias have to completely disbanded and disarmed, what will be the sections more loyal to Iran or to Sistani’s call.
Another protagonist is the United States. How do you evaluate their role?
The US is part of an international airstrikes coalition. I think the prime minister went to Washington, a month ago or so, to get the United States a little bit more involved, not only by supplying weapons but also to wide the scope of attacks in other areas.
I think that Mr. Haidar al-Abadi is a little bit lost, especially when he sees that Iran is becoming more influential in Iraq.
Are you confident that the country will remain united or is there the risk of a fragmentation in three regions: Sunni, Shia and Kurd?
I am not too sure that, in the near future, that will be the scenario. At the moment, particularly the Shia and the Sunni are competing for the definition of who is Iraqi. The Kurds are a different story. Well, they can independence but they know that they cannot get it.
At the moment the red lines defined by America do not permit that. Saying that, the fragmentation of Iraq is very possible, if in economic terms, the Sunni populations can benefit in their areas like what is happening with the Kurds.
If the central government does nothing, the tribal and other Sunni leaders could rule as the real local authorities. In the short time, though, it is difficult to see Iraq to be divided in three different countries.
The solution to the current situation, according to some analysts, is in the hands of the Iraqi Sunnis who should offer an alternative. They are deeply divided, so how to achieve a coordinated position?
That is absolutely correct. The problem is not only their divisions and lack of coordination but also different perspectives on matters, such as what the government should look like, the economy or the security… They are divided at many levels.
They do not have a united strategy to be on the front lines battling the Islamic State to defend their own regions and civilian populations. It will be very difficult to beat the Islamic State only with foreign troops. We need the Sunni communities to be empowered.
How important were ISIS conquests of Ramadi, in Iraq, and Palmyra, in Syria? [The group lost both cities em 2016] Is there any risk of the jihadists entering Baghdad?
I do not think that Iran will allow them to enter Baghdad. So, the risk is still not that high. Ramadi was, very clearly, a tactical blunder by the Iraqi security forces and by the militias aligned with them. The Islamic State needs these victories to feed its narrative.
They need to say to their followers that they are still relevant and still expanding, because that’s what gives it legitimacy. That’s what happened in Ramadi. And in Ramadi there is also an internal Shia struggle that emphasizes the weakness of Abadi central government at the moment.
ISIS/Daesh has been attracting lots of volunteers, not only in Iraq and Syria but also from all over the world. Why, if the images they propagate are so vicious?
I think that there are different reasons that motivate people to join ISIS. Local activists, like in Syria and Iraq, join for more practical and pragmatic reasons, because they feel that their governments never served them.
The reasons of the foreigners might be ideological or religious, people who have their own grievances in their countries in the West, for instance. They find appealing the call of an Islamic Caliphate, a kind of divine mission that will put God on their side.
Everything has to do with a narrative. For example, why was the battle for Kobane [in Syria, on the border with Turkey] such a big deal?
When the city fell under ISIS control, there used to be three hundred people per week joining their ranks; when the Kurds defeated the Islamic State, the number of volunteers was reduced to around 5 a week. This means that their legitimacy on the ground is falling, and they need to show that they can keep on conquering new territories.
For a long time the main enemy was al-Qaeda. Now, ISIS/Daesh looks far more dangerous. What are their main differences?
There are a couple of mains differences. One is that ISIS is focused on a near enemy, like the Shia. Al-Qaeda ‘s main enemy is the United States. Al-Qaeda thinks that an Islamic State will take hundreds and hundreds of years to be created while ISIS believes that this goal can be achieved now.
Another important difference: al-Qaeda really prioritizes popular opinion in the cities where it is active. They don’t appreciate methods like beheadings because this is a tactic to use fear to obtain legitimacy.
Al-Qaeda is not a government but a network of organizations that depends on funds and donations from their sponsors, while ISIS is trying to build a state, create ministries, infra-structures an become financially self-autonomous, through oil and other sources. Finally, al-Qaeda seems to have scholars whose opinions are valued and from whom they get legitimacy on the ground.
Speaking of a “financially self-autonomous” body, a plurality of voices claim that ISIS is “the richest terrorist group in the world”. Some say that most of their funds come from oil smuggling and antiques trafficking, others point to millions of dollars in ransoms paid by foreign countries to free their national hostages as being nowadays the biggest chunk of income. Allegedly, the organization is using millions of dollars to rule as a government but in reality it has been unable to attend the basic needs of the populations under their domain. What is your assessment?
I sincerely believe that they are not getting as much money as in the beginning. Moreover, they are demonstrating a great inability to collect taxes that would benefit the populations, so they are losing legitimacy.
Is it possible to run a country with cash and without a bank system?
Their state’s project is not functionable. They have facing a lot of difficulties in providing services and funds, because they are basically managing a war economy.
Is there any chance of a popular revolt against ISIS?
For the moment, I do not foresee that, because the populations are not presented with a ‘better option’, any other option.
Is the situation in Iraq worse than in Syria?
In Syria the situation is much more complicated, because currently there is no viable scenario. I believe that it is needed a compromise – which has been very difficult to attain – that will take Bashar al-Assad out power in Damascus.
Is Daesh an indestructible force that came to stay?
I don’t think the group is invincible in military terms, but in what concerns the ideology – jihadi and salafi – it is possible that it will have a greater appeal than the doctrines of the mainstream.
This interview, now updated, was included in an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on May 30, 2015