Saudi Arabia: Don’t blame it all on the Islamic State

Saudis see Iran’s meddling and unresolved Syrian crisis as main contributors to the turmoil in Iraq.

Iraq's multi-ethnic, multi-religious society cannot rely on a goverment that exclusively represents the interests of one component over all others, writes Albogami [AFP]

Pundits continue to speculate about the role Saudi Arabia plays in the escalating crisis in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seeks the assistance of his main benefactors, Iran and the US, to battle against the Sunni rebellion. But in the decision-making circles of Saudi Arabia, the consensus is that the problem is rooted in the practice of allowing neighbouring Iran to wield inordinate influence in forming a government in Baghdad.

For Saudi Arabia, the turmoil in both Iraq and Syria is viewed from the same prism. Riyadh opposes any attempts at lumping all actors in Iraq in a single basket, in this case, the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The problem, as per the Saudi view, originates from the fact that any effort to form an Iraqi government must be negotiated in Tehran, rather than Baghdad. For Iran to be able to maintain influence over Baghdad – and have all Iraqi politicians undertake a political pilgrimage to Tehran – it must continue to rely on theologically extremist recruitment techniques as well as some Shia actors and Shia militias. 

The sense of sectarian identity must be very high in order for this Iranian strategy to work. Otherwise, why would Shia Muslims exclusively rally around Shia actors and militias? In order to maintain this strong sense of identity, a global atmosphere of conflict and instability must be prevalent. Thus, crises are the source of Iranian diplomatic capital.

Fragmented Iraq

Saudi Arabia’s position has never wavered in this regard. What Iraq needs is the formation of a real participatory government, which includes all Iraqis irrespective of sect or ethnicity.

Iraq’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious society cannot rely on a goverment that exclusively represents the interests of one component over all others. This results in pushing the country’s marginalised communities further back to their own religious and ethnic identities. The end result is a fragmented Iraq, with a fragile illusion of a political process, waiting for the tiniest spark to explode.

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What has aggravated matters is the international community’s inaction in Syria. This apathetic approach has left legitimate Syrian rebels exposed and defenceless in the face of extremism.

Over time, this extremism will grow, metastasise and have a spillover effect, as it did in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has long argued that the Free Syrian Army or the FSA was capable of defending the Syrian people against the regime’s mass bombardments if only they were given adequate assistance and support.

The extremist forces maintain that Western policies – as well as Iran’s sectarian policies – seek to establish a new Sykes-Picot agreement, with the West on one side of the drafting table, and the Iranians on the other, negotiating the division of Syria and Iraq once again. The worsening situation in Syria and Iraq makes it hard to refute such claims.

An empowered FSA would discredit such discourse. It would offer the war-weary Syrian people a safe alternative to bombardment by the regime or an extremist take over. 

Many actors, one basket?

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has in the past expressed the view that it is unhelpful to lump all actors in the Iraqi crisis in one basket. As Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, former head of Saudi intelligence, told CNN on July 2: “The problem is more than [Islamic State group].”

Riyadh has repeatedly expressed frustration over the West’s inability to fully comprehend the region. For Saudi Arabia, superficial, ready-made analyses and canned solutions only aggravate the problem. 

Ever since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, residual Baath party members have been active in resisting the invaders. Despite some media reports, there has been little evidence that the Baath party, under the leadership of the ex-vice president of the old regime, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, has made any alliance with other resistance groups. However, there are indications that the Baath party is at least coordinating its activities with other actors in the current uprising.

The Naqshbandi army, led by Douri, has called upon the Iraqi people “to be unified, to embrace their valiant resistance, and to hold their national, nationalist, and Islamic forces so as to sweep this political process”.

Moreover, for the past 13 months, Sunni tribes have been revolting against the sectarian policies of the Iranian-backed prime minister. Indeed, Sunni tribal leaders have been meeting in the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, Erbil, to pledge their commitment to support the Sunni uprising.

Let us examine the obvious evidence. First, 20,000 Islamic State members cannot realistically capture a territory larger than the country of Jordan in a matter of days. Second, it is clear that professional military tactics have been used, as opposed to conventional guerrilla tactics. Third, the language of the rebels’ statements implies the involvement of several actors in the uprising. One statement, for example, which came out after the fall of Mosul, insisted on the protection of churches as well as the inclusion of those who have worked in Maliki’s police forces. Also, it insisted on an active role for tribal leaders. This is not how the Islamic State would be expected to write a statement.

Reducing the crisis to the Islamic State group is to ignore the policies of the past eight years that Maliki has pursued, as well as the socio-economic factors that have fuelled the current situation. 

Another Battle of Karbala?

There is no doubt that Maliki – as well as Iran – will contrive to pin the current crisis entirely on the Islamic State group. On the one hand, such a position amplifies the global atmosphere of conflict and instability, which escalates the identity divide. As such, Maliki rallies all Shia Muslims around him, and Iran continues to take advantage of the wide pool for recruitment. This also explains why the Iraqi prime minister insists in his speeches that this war is akin to the seventh century war between Hussein ibn Ali, Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph. The decisive showdown has a central place in Shia Muslim history.

It also explains why the Secretary General of the Council of Guardians in Iran, Mohsen Rezaie told CNN Arabic that he was calling on Shia Muslims to mobilise for another Battle of Karbala.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz denounced the Islamic State group as a terrorist organisation last month, and the group is said to pose a security threat to Saudi Arabia. But there is no indication that Saudi Arabia will get involved militarily in Iraq. It will limit its efforts to encouraging all parties to sit together and form a unity government, which can represent the interests of all Iraqis, thus isolating the Islamic State group from the aggrieved as well as marginalised components of Iraqi society. 

However, this current crisis benefits Saudi Arabia in two ways. First, it depletes Iranian capital as well as that of its allies. Second, resolving the crisis requires Iran to give up part of its influence over President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Maliki in Iraq. In this respect, resolving the current situation must be done within a comprehensive framework, which would include both Syria and Iraq.

Next, a unity government, or a government that represents the interests of all Iraqis, will inevitably require Maliki’s departure, the reduction of Iranian influence in Iraq, as well as combating extremism in Syria. That means strengthening the FSA, and as a consequence, weakening the regime of Assad, Iran’s man in Damascus.

Indeed, Iran’s influence in the region which has been stable and on the offensive for the past three decades, is now on the defensive. It is fighting for the survival of its allies in the region. How Saudi Arabia might react to this challenge is yet to be seen.

Mansour Almarzoqi Albogami is an academic and researcher on Saudi politics at Sciences Po de Lyon, France.