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Jun 17, 2014 | 20:01 GMT

Conversation: Jihadists Encounter New Challenges After Initial Successes in Iraq

Paul Floyd: Hi. I'm Paul Floyd, a military analyst here at Stratfor, and today I'm joined by Kamran Bokhari, via Skype, who is our vice president of Middle East and South Asian affairs. Today we'll be talking about the situation in Iraq. As we know, we have seen a ground offensive predominantly spearheaded by ISIS and some other Sunni elements within the Sunni region of Iraq that has taken large swathes of territory and several towns in this region. So Kamran, the first question that everyone is asking is, "Is Iraq going to fall apart?"

Kamran Bokhari: Well, in many ways the intended Iraq, or the intended Iraqi Republic, is falling apart. But "falling apart" is a relative term. Most people think that all-out civil war is imminent, and I don't think that's the case. I mean, we have a central government that's not able to project power into the Sunni provinces, but by no means is it losing its control over Baghdad or even the Shiite south. There is a Kurdish government in the north, so yes there are problems, but to say that Iraq is falling apart, I think, would be a bit too extreme.

Paul: That's a very good point, and if that does exactly what we've seen on the ground, which is after the initial gains that we saw over the last week, the Iraqi army under the command of Baghdad has done an excellent job in consolidating its position and protecting at least around Baghdad and just north and stalling this offensive, if that's what you call it, and kind of balancing it out. The next question everyone's been asking is, as you've said, Baghdad doesn't have that power to exert in the Sunni region anymore. Is ISIS going to be able to establish this caliphate or emirate that it constantly rhetorically says that it will do?

Kamran: Well, at Stratfor we always try to separate intent from capability, so from an intent point of view, for now, it wants an emirate that stretches from western Iraq into eastern Syria, and to eventually turn that into a caliphate at some point in the future. But when we talk raw capability, first of all, the mainstream media has basically gone into hysteria mode with so much focus on ISIS, when in fact, ISIS is a small entity. It's definitely playing a critical role in the uprising in the areas of Sunni Iraq, but if it didn't have the support of the masses, in other words a general Sunni uprising, it would not be able to accomplish all of this. So the question is, Can it consolidate itself in the Sunni areas, and when that consolidation takes place, who is calling the shots? Is it ISIS, is it Iraqi Sunni tribal elements? Who are the political principals that will be speaking on behalf of the Sunnis and trying to enhance their firepower and their overall geopolitical position? So, we're really far from an emirate, or much less, a caliphate, and I think that the problem is there is just a disproportionate amount of focus on ISIS.

Paul: That's a good point. This also kind of leads to the next issue, which is the U.S. really can't even allow ISIS to have a space to operate, another Afghanistan if you will. That's an imperative there. While ISIS has not shown its ability to necessarily do transnational terrorist attacks, if you gave it that space it possibly could. The U.S.'s imperative in the war on terrorism has been to prevent that. At least, the next question, my last question for you, is Iran has some imperatives in protecting Baghdad and that Shiite core and working against Sunni militants. There has been a lot of interesting space created for cooperation between Iran and the U.S., and I was wondering if you could speak to that.

Kamran: Absolutely. Paul, I think you make a very critical point that there is an array of forces that are going to come in the path of ISIS and are coming into that path as we speak, with the preparations on the part of the United States, Iran, the Iraqi Shiites, the Turks and of course, the Kurdish forces. So, this is a lot of arrester in the path of ISIS, so we're not necessarily going to see it expand too far beyond the Sunni provinces, but the key thing will be whether it can go back into the Sunni provinces, I mean the Baghdad government. As to the issue of Iran and U.S. cooperation, definitely this is very significant, but it's not unprecedented. Even when relations were very hostile between Washington and Iran, we saw the two sides come together and cooperate. The United States toppled the Taliban regime with significant cooperation from the Iranian regime, likewise when we effected regime change in Baghdad, the overthrow of the Saddam government was made possible by Iranian cooperation as well. So, there is a history here, and now the relationships are actually getting better. In the context of the nuclear negotiations, I think there is even more room for Iran and the United States to cooperate. Having said that, I will also say that there is a domestic constraint on the part of both the Rouhani government and the Obama administration to not come too close to one another, and therefore, it will appear as if the United States is doing its own actions in Iraq, mostly in the form of airstrikes, and the Iranians doing their separate thing on the ground with help to the militias and the Iraqi security forces. In reality, there's going to be a lot of behind-the-scenes coordination and cooperation.

Paul: Right, and to that point, we saw Kerry say that he would not take anything off the table when it came to cooperation with Iran, and then quickly the White House responded and said they were not going to coordinate any actions with Tehran, not saying they wouldn't both necessarily achieve the same imperatives, but they would not work together addressing that domestic constraint. Well, Kamran, this has been excellent and very interesting. For further information, Kamran had a book called Political Islam in the Age of Democratization that came out in December, and also Stratfor.com can provide you with further information. Thank you very much. 

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