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    Posted June 21, 2014 by

    ISIS and the Iraq War: Regional and International Dimensions - Christopher Davidson

    Some early observations:  1) Regarding who 'funds' ISIS, there is a sort of fantasy in some of the mainstream media outlets that it is now largely self-funded. Ie. that, as a roaming medieval-style army it can now simply loot, pillage, and continue bankrolling itself from treasure and ransoms along the way.  As far as I can gather, there is some truth to this, but at the same time I see signs of sustained, continuous funding far and beyond any initial 'start-up' funds, quite apart from the sophisticated weaponry in many of ISIS's videos that look brand new, rather than 'liberated' from a crumbling army.   Fingers, naturally, have been pointed at certain GCC states, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.  Maliki has of course already publicly blamed Saudi Arabia for being behind ISIS.  But this is much too simplistic, and if the new Iraq War is part of a broader struggle with considerable strategy and planning behind it (more on this later...), then this would also be a needlessly stupid way for both ISIS and its backers to arrange financing.  At present, the more sophisticated commentariat, along with - most likely - the humint-starved Western intelligence agencies, seem to have settled on 'private individuals from the Gulf monarchies' as the main source of funding.  This provides something of a small shield for these monarchical governments, but not a very strong one, and one which will probably soon break under increased scrutiny leading to some very inconvenient 'smoking guns.'  This is because in many cases (especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but less so Kuwait) these are not really 'states' that conform to international definitions, as powerful, wealthy figures (whether princes, sheikhs, or members of the merchant elite) usually wear multiple hats, often slipping in and out of governmental positions in something of a neo-patrimonial state where seemingly modern institutions are grafted onto traditional powerbases underpinned by powerful families, tribes, and clans.  Thus the claim that 'private individuals' are the source of the trouble is problematic at best, and bogus at worst.  2) Regarding the situation in Iraq itself, it seems, just like Syria, that ISIS's modus operandi is to identify already disaffected communities (in Iraq's case a rag-tag of former Saddam loyalists, various Sunni militias, etc.), and form temporary alliances, likely forged out of a mixture of shared hatred for incumbent governments, cash payments, fresh weapons, promises of power over various 'liberated' cities, etc.  This helps us understand why what must still be a relatively small force of hard-line extremists fighting under the black flag have seemingly carved out a de facto state out of the ruins of the Sykes-Picot mandated territories of Syria and Iraq.  The reality is, of course, that they have many thousands of local sympathisers, who come behind them in battle (ISIS seemingly as the 'stormtroopers' leading the way) and - equally importantly - maintain occupation of entire cities after the ISIS forces move on to their next conquest.  This helps us understand why ISIS has invested so heavily in its use of social media, tweeting, and 'selfies' featuring killings, massacres, etc. - the aim is to strike fear into remaining government troops ahead of ISIS advances to ensure quick 'blitzkrieg' victories.  The most recent example being the (very likely photo-shopped) images of the ISIS massacre of 1700 Iraqi Army soldiers near Mosul.   3) Regarding ISIS's aims and objectives.  For outside observers, there are some very strong inconsistencies in ISIS's statements, which make it difficult to understand their game plan.  There appear, for example, to be no strong statements made about Israel or supporting the Palestinian people.  One would have imagined the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of a Western-backed client to have been top priority.  But it is clearly not.  One would have also imagined the Gulf monarchies, in particular Saudi Arabia, with its heavily manipulation of Islam for mortal, realist political gains, to have been major targets.  But at present they are not.  Noticeably, when ISIS began its major offensive in Iraq, a Saudi govt official presented a story to the Western media about leaflets appearing in Riyadh as part of an ISIS recruitment drive.  The story was likely bogus, despite Bloomberg and other outlets reporting on it, uncritically and seemingly with just this single source.  Firstly, Saudi officials would ordinarily be very reluctant to release such panic-inducing information to the public.  Secondly, 'leaflets' do not seem to be ISIS's main recruitment tool these days, instead social media is leading the way.  We are not in the twentieth century any more.  But why such a bogus story?  Likely it was a foil, allowing the Saudi government to present itself to the world at a critical time as a fellow ISIS target.  This is not to say that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies will not themselves soon become legitimate ISIS targets - ISIS has certainly already made threats to the Sunni rulers of Jordan and Kuwait.  But at the present time it seems that ISIS has very realist objectives: geography dictates that its best chance of carving out an integrated state is by currently concentrating its operations in the Levant and the northern Gulf.  Moreover, given its likely sources funding, it is probable that some form of loose 'deal' is still in place, with ISIS thus far having only targeted enemies of the Gulf monarchies.  Lebanon could easily be a next target, but ISIS may still seek to test any 'deals' they have in place, perhaps by making a stab at Kuwait or northern Saudi Arabia before quickly retreating.    4) Regarding the geopolitics of ISIS.  ISIS's main targets so far have been governments of the 'resistance front' - Syria's Assad and Iraq's Maliki.  Both have been openly aligned with Tehran and, in a Middle East context, have been on the opposite side of a sectarian fault line running through the region.  As such, the openly pro-Western Gulf monarchies, or at least most of them, appear to be gaining by the very existence of ISIS.  Not only because a very welcome and well-timed spike in oil prices is allowing them to stave off soon looming public spending deficits, but also because highly confrontational governments in Damascus and Baghdad have been brought to their knees.  Moreover, regional instability and chaos is more evident than ever before in major Arab states which have tried to follow a proper political process (regardless of what one thinks of the democratic credentials or the political process in Iraq and Syria, these governments at least use the language of democracy, however cynically, as opposed to unabashed authoritarianism and increasing totalitarianism in Saudi Arabia, for example).  This allows the Gulf monarchies to continue to project themselves across the region as the most 'stable' entities (and thus supposedly legitimate polities) and cast fear into their own populations lest they attempt political reform or any 'rocking of the boat'.  In this context, if a well-planned petro-dollar financed 'counter-revolution' to the Arab Spring is indeed taking place, then chaos or civil war in Arab states that do not conform to the Gulf monarchies' line of thinking is perhaps a useful 'plan B' in case friendly hardman governments cannot be installed where elections have earlier been attempted (notably Egypt in 2013, and Libya ongoing).  The clues that ISIS is performing such a Plan B 'agitator' role in Syria and Iraq are certainly there.  Quite apart from ISIS's current shying away from Israel or Gulf monarchies, there is also stark inconsistency in Riyadh's pleas to the West: pleading for US military intervention in Syria and against Iran, with airstrikes if necessary, but yet warning no 'meddling' in Iraq against the Iraqi 'rebels', despite some of the Arab world's most precious shrines and historical sites now lying in immediate danger.  As it stands, the incredibly expensively equipped Saudi Army is just standing there, while a neighbouring Arab state and its ancient cities are being engulfed by ISIS.  The miscalculation for Riyadh, of course, may be that Iraq is a much more complicated case than Syria or indeed most other countries in the region, given the highly politicised earlier Western interventions: too many powerful Western politicians have invested heavily in the notion of a stable, pro-western Iraq someday, and of course they will be sensitive to the many Western soldiers and their families who were involved in the 2003 war.  None of these western constituencies would take kindly to Iraq being left to go up in smoke because a Western client regime in the region preferred it that way.5) Regarding the global dimensions of the Iraq War, there are a number of ways to look at the current conflict.  One argument would be that the people of Iraq and Syria are being manipulated into a conflict that is no longer just local, sectarian, or even regional (ie. Arab Spring vs Counter Revolution, Saudi Arabia vs Iran, etc.), but is instead becoming yet another battleground in an international struggle, perhaps one in which past-their-prime capitalist states are now increasingly engaging in 'imperialism by proxies' rather than just peacefully opening up new markets, as in the recent past.  In this context, the Syria/Iraq conflict has some similarities with the situation in Ukraine and Venezuela, and the earlier situations in Libya and elsewhere.  Putin's offer of full support for Maliki and his government seems to indicate that the Kremlin has identified such a possible effort from the West and its clients to remove an unresponsive and uncooperative Maliki with a 'compromise' government.  Such a government, most likely, would give the Gulf monarchies, notably Saudi Arabia, a seat at the table in Baghdad which it currently does not have.  This helps us to understand why Obama's offer for support to Iraq is much more conditional and much less favourable to Maliki - in fact, it smacks of being made after having sought blessing and approval from Riyadh.  One significant problem for Putin and perhaps even Maliki, is that Iran may have sensed an opportunity to gain significant concessions from all parties concerned, given its relatively strong position in Iraq (arguably the only power that can really project enough force quickly enough in Iraq in order to stop ISIS advances).  If Iran begins to also call for Maliki's removal, this should not come as a surprise, but nor should it mean they are conceding to the West and its clients.  Rather, perhaps, that Tehran sees an easy and quick way to ensure that its US nuclear deal, sanction-lifting, and general rapprochement with Washington can go ahead.      Further notes soon, as the situation develops.  Christopher Davidson, 21st June 2014.
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