ISIL and dimensions of the conflict in the Arab Orient

Mustafa El-Labbad , Thursday 21 Aug 2014

The capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul by ISIL inaugurated a new bloody chapter in the modern history of the Arab Orient, one that could end with the redrawing of national boundaries in the heart of the Arab region

The power vacuum began emerging years ago opened the way to ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), one of the most atrocious non-state powers to extend its influence over vast areas in Syria and Iraq and to proclaim the "Caliphate" in a cheap exploitation of Islamic heritage.

Although ISIL and its threats topped international news headlines, the dimensions of the ongoing conflict in the Arab Orient cannot be restricted to this bloody organisation alone.  

This is due to the fact that a few hundred or even thousand ISIL fighters cannot control an area of 100,000 square kilometres extended in Iraqi and Syrian lands without clear tribal and political support from the inhabitants of the area.

There are seven factors that constitute dimensions of the conflict in the current Arab Orient; namely, provincial, historical, oil, sectarian, national, regional and international.

The provincial dimension is quite obvious in the vast expanse that ISIL controls now, starting from Syria and ending in Mosul, Iraq, or what was historically known as the Syrian Desert (Badiyat Ash-Sham in Arabic). Badiyat Ash-Sham was historically divided after the emergence of the modern Arab state in the Arab Orient. However, incorporating that area in an actual and fair way in the structures and institutions of both the Iraqi and Syrian states was ignored. The result was a power vacuum that always walks hand in hand with social grievances in a way that forms a fertile land for any radical force aspiring to change existing situations and maps.

One cannot ignore the historical dimension of the conflict because the borders of the Arab Orient which were drawn by British intelligence official Gertrude Bell under the guidance of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) and the San Remo Conference (1920) bore the seeds of conflict for deliberate purposes. What is astonishing is that the Zangi state founded by Nur Al-Din Ben Zangi 900 years ago was established on the same historical area that ISIL now holds — the Syrian Desert.

That takes us to the oil dimension. The tribes living in the Syrian Desert did not even once put their hands on the oil of the area. Now, it came under the control of ISIL, in addition to the sum of $400 million stolen from the Central Bank in Mosul. This leaves ISIL with financial resources needed for its war effort in the coming period.

Despite the fact that the sectarian dimension constitutes only one dimension in the Arab Orient conflict, it takes the leading position. This is due to increasingly sectarian incitement sponsored by international and regional powers for different reasons. The new Iraqi regime and Nouri Al-Maliki failed in persuading the Sunni Arabs to enter the political process while their areas are neglected, their demands ignored and their exclusion from government administration upheld. Thus, "Sunni injustices" emerged in Iraq after its occupation in 2003. The biggest part of the tribal support for ISIL is attributed to these injustices following the rule of "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," not out of conviction in its ideas or practices.

The most striking evidence on this is that Tikrit — Saddam Hussein's birthplace — is raising his picture and supporting ISIL, which it views as an enemy to Iran and Maliki, even if Saddam's ideology was Baathist and that of ISIL is condemning others as unbelievers. So, the political solution in Iraq must pass through an obligatory route incorporating all Iraqi constituents and shades of the spectrum in the political process on the basis of citizenship, or else the ongoing and unrestrained sectarian rift will be irredeemable and will be exploited by ISIL or anybody else in the future.

The fifth dimension of the conflict is the national-Kurdish one. Although ISIL did not fight the Kurds until now, this is due to the latter's exploitation of the current confusion to found their state in the north of Iraq, especially after they entered the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and controlled it following the withdrawal of the Iraqi army.

The Kurds cleverly manoeuvred through the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq and they grabbed great political gains in the Iraqi Constitution and finalised agreements with the two parties of the conflict to consolidate the influence of their autonomous region in the north of Iraq. The augmentation of Kurdish gains will heighten the degree of tension in the region, especially in Iran and Turkey, in a way that will further complicate the entire region's crises.  

From here we move to the regional dimension, which comprises the interests of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Arab Orient, with each of them struggling with the other as each has its own calculations and points of strength and weakness.

Turkey is establishing excellent relations with Masoud Barzani, who is aspiring to export the oil of the Iraqi Kurdistan region via Turkish lands to the world. Turkey aims at controlling Kurdish ambitions.

Meanwhile, the core of the Iranian interest in Iraq is preventing any new Iraqi government from confronting Iran militarily as Saddam Hussein previously did. Here there were three constituents that formed an alarm signal for Tehran: the regime's military nature, the Sunni hegemony over it and Western support for it. Hence Iran strived to prevent Iraq from possessing a military striking force after 2003 and fixed its Shia alliances in the Baghdad central authority. It also stopped America from dominating Iraq following its occupation.

After America's withdrawal, Iran controlled Baghdad's central authority. Thus it gained unparalleled influence for the first time since the founding of Iraq. Tehran's present dilemma is represented in two matters: first, ISIL control over the Syrian Desert cut the land route between Tehran and Damascus, and it is a consequence of great significance in Iranian calculations; second, Maliki's troops did not hold their ground against the armed rebellion, which necessitated their supplementation by Shia militias.   

On the other hand, Riyadh attempts to hinder the Iranian interests in Iraq through its tribal relations in the west of the country and Mosul. This enables it to achieve three objectives. First, hitting Iran in a sensitive area. Second, benefitting from the high oil prices due to the events occurring in Iraq, while Iran on the other hand is still suffering from the embargo imposed on its oil and economy through Western sanctions. Third, winning Russia to its side to compensate for the coolness in its relations with the Obama administration. Russia also has in turn an interest in an oil price increase and in increasing US involvement in Iraq, because this will prevent Washington from playing in what Moscow considers as its backyard — i.e., the Ukraine and former Soviet Republics. This is an obvious Russian interest.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi made a speech in Mosul Mosque for more than 20 minutes to announce he is the "Caliph", a recording of which was broadcast worldwide while American satellites scour every inch of the city of Mosul and its surroundings for intelligence. Washington definitely can locate him accurately and easily, and eliminate him if it wanted to.

Moreover, the visual and graphic messages of the tape as well as the symbolic meaning of the place of the sermon (the Great Mosul Mosque which was built by Nur Al-Din Ben Zangi founder of the Zangi Dynasty in the Syrian Desert 900 years earlier) by far surpasses the imaginative and cultural level of the ISIL organisation, which was addicted previously to beheadings and filming it.

This means that the "universal Interests" controlling American policies intend to fix the image of “ISIL” and its "Caliph" in the public mind, hiding the real factors of the conflict in order to prepare the peoples of the region for new maps of the Arab Orient that would be more in harmony with those interests.

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