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Middle East: a remake of the World order?

Thursday, 16 July 2015 18:47
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Epos converses with prof. Ibrahim Al-Marashi

by Nicolamaria Coppola (EPOS)
EPOS Conversations


Ibrahim Al-Marashi is a very well known expert in Middle East issues and political Islam, and he is assistant professor of Middle East history at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is an Iraqi-American citizen, and he obtained his PhD at the University of Oxford in 2004, completing a thesis on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, part of which was plagiarized in a 2003 British government document known as the Dodgy Dossier. Ibrahim Al-Marashi is the co-author of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.

In this exclusive interview for EPOS, prof. Al-Marashi discusses the latest news from the Middle East, focusing on the phenomenon of the Islamic State, the involvement of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the battle against the jihadists, the historical agreement on the nuclear between Iran and the West and all its geopolitical effects in the region.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: The Islamic State, also known as "Daish", acronym of Al-Dawlah Al-Islamiyah fe Al-Iraq wa Al-Sham, has taken over a number of key areas in Iraq and Syria, including Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and many villages and towns in the Governorate of al-Anbar. The jihadists have also eliminated the official and physical boundaries between Syria and Iraq and their goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East, in Northern Africa and, then, all over the World. What are your thoughts on this sudden expansion of the Islamic State? Is the Islamic State really as strong and powerful as it wants us to think?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: It is not so much its strength that explains Daish, but what it had achieved in the history of the region. The emergence of ISIS and its declaration of an Islamic State is unprecedented in the history of the Arab state system that came into formation after the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Daish is an Islamist non-state actor, simultaneously national and transnational, yet it carved out a new state in the Arab world, ruled under a self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims both religious and temporal authority among believers within his state and globally.

Second, in 1924 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as the post-War leader of a secular Republic of Turkey that emerged from the remaining territory of the defeated Ottomans, dissolved the Caliphate, a centuries-old institution of the Empire. ISIS’s declaration of a new Caliphate represented the first attempt to resuscitate this institution within the borders of a new state.

Over one summer ISIS achieved both a secular and religious victory that actors in the Middle East and the Islamic world throughout this post-War century. Arab nationalists, such as Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the Ba’ath Party of Michel Aflaq, to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, have all sought the erasure of borders established by British, French, or Italian colonial policy in the region. The Islamic State can claim its project succeeded while past attempts by secular actors to erase boundaries established by European powers have failed.

Along the same lines ISIS scored a religious victory that other regional and Islamic actors have failed to achieve: the restoration of a Caliphate. Osama bin Ladin’s Al-Qaida declared their vision of a caliphate, but ISIS made this into a reality.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: Can the Islamic State be considered an unexpected phenomenon?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: No. In fact I warned about the rise of ISIS in a paper I wrote for the Milan-based ISPI ( in 2013 warning of its potential. The problems I predicted back in the summer of 2013, an exact year before the rise of ISIS, were:

1) First, in terms of the violent physical conflict, the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) (which later became ISIS) and its bombing campaign has reached a level unprecedented since the 2006-2008 sectarian conflict, and was highlighted by the recent raids on the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons.

2) Armed clashes between the Iraqi security forces and Arab Sunni protestors have led to calls to reactivate Arab Sunni militias.

3) In the face of these threats, both the regular armed forces and the intelligence agencies remain divided, with various units either reporting directly to Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki or the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

4) The security forces suffer from the problem of divided loyalties, where members use the coercive arms of the state to pursue the interests of militias, such as the Shi’a Badr Corps, Muqtada’s Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the Arab Sunni Reawakening militias, or the Peshmerga forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: In an illuminating analysis published last year (, you wrote that there are three myths about what is happening in Iraq: 1) the WWI drawing of Iraq's borders is responsible for the current crisis, 2) Iraq has historically suffered from sectarian divisions, 3) Maliki's resignation will solve Iraq's problems. One year later, do you still believe the same?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: Yes. Maliki’s resignation did not solve Iraq’s crisis. Iraq’s borders are a way to blame the problem on British imperialism. The UK did play off Iraq’s sects against each other when they ruled Iraq in the 20s, but an Iraqi identity existed well before the UK drew those borders in the 1920s. The UK did not create the Iraqi nation, they just delineated its borders.

ISIS portrayed its offensive as a corrective measure to two traumatic events that resulted from the Great War. When its forces took control over the Syrian-Iraqi border post on the way to Mosul last year, it crafted a well-publicized spectacle erasing what it deemed as the “Sykes-Picot” border. This spectacle sought to situate ISIS’s action beyond the Syrian and Iraq conflicts as a rectification of the secret Allied treaty that was the precursor to the Mandate system. This action sought to reverse the Treaty, which in the views of ISIS and other Islamists carved up the core of the Islamic world.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: «We will punish the criminals of Daesh in the battlefields», Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement a couple of weeks ago. «The heroes of our security forces, the Shia militias and the tribal sons are causing Isil terrorists defeats after defeats». Are the Shia militias involved in the battle against the Islamic State, especially the Badr Organisation, really considered as heros from the Iraqi population?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: For the Shi’a yes. And other Iraqis, opposed to ISIS, will have to reluctantly realize that the conventional Iraqi Security Forces have demonstrated that they cannot combat ISIS without tandem operations with the Shia militias. The militia’s strength comes from their political value, in that the Shia militias have demonstrated that the Iraqi state cannot hold against ISIS without them.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: The Iranian government has come out and strongly supported the Iraqi government against the Islamic State. And also the United States are still discussing about what should be done, in order to avoid these anti-civilization forces taking over Iraq and Syria. What is then the attitude of the current Iranian government, and the Supreme Leader, towards a de facto military alliance with the United States to halt the violence in Iraq and Syria and defeat the Dark Ages forces of ISIS? How do you envision such cooperation if you agree with the value of Iranian-American joint efforts? How would you avoid the danger of sectarian violence escalating under those conditions?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: Iran’s geostrategic location is unique. No US or NATO ally, including Israel, Turkey or Saudi Arabia can cover Iran’s geographical depth. Iran’s location means it can influence events in Iraq to the Gulf, from the Caucasus and adjoining Caspian and Black Seas to Central Asia, and from Afghanistan to South Asia.

Iran fought a proxy war against US forces in Iraq following the 2003 Iraq War by supporting Iraqi militias during the insurgency. Both the US and Iran will continue to clash over their respective relationships with Israel. Yet despite these differences both the US and Iran cooperated with each other to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. The joint cause against the Taliban in 2001 or ISIS in 2014 demonstrates that despite the decades-long mistrust and proxy conflicts between the two sides, geographical realpolitik can force both states to engage in alliances of convenience. The US and Iran appear to have worked out a modus-vivendi in dealing with ISIS in Iraq.

They still support rival sides in the Syrian civil war. However even in this conflict, they do share a mutual desire for that conflict to end with a political solution. Such a solution will save Iran from the huge financial costs of subsidizing the Syrian military and end a conflict that the US has been hesitant to engage in since its onset in the summer of 2011.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: What is your analysis of the agreement on the nuclear reached by Iran and the P5+1 nations? From your point of view, on the whole, is this a bad or a good agreement?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: Only time will tell. What I can say, it is a historic agreement, bringing the US and Iran to a negotiating table. That is a good precedent for the region, if not the world.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: Are there drawbacks in the agreement? What is it that the Israelis think is so bad?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: Netanyahu’s voiced concerns are most likely to appeal to domestic audiences. Netanyahu gets support in Israel by playing up the fear of Hizballah and Hamas. However the lifting of sanctions on Iran will unlikely amplify the threat these two groups present to Israel.

Hizballah’s threat to Israel is posed not by its rocket arsenal, but by an experienced group of fighters who can hold Lebanese territory if Israel attacks, as it did in 2006. However Hizballah’s manpower has been diminished as its military forces are now committed to the fighting in Syria and Iraq, conflicts unlikely to conclude in the near future. Hizballah is unlikely to provoke a war with Israel with its forces overextended. Lifting the sanctions can provide Hizballah with more Iranian financial and military support, but it does not create a surge in Hizballah’s manpower and fighting effectiveness, which requires years of training and combat experience.

The Iranian-Hamas relationship suffered when the Hamas leadership was expelled from Syria for its failure to support Damascus and Teheran’s joint efforts in suppressing the Syrian rebels after 2011. Sanctions were in place on Iran during Israel’s first Gaza War in 2008, yet those sanctions did not damage the ability of Iran to support Hamas. Even though Iran-Hamas relations were frayed over Syria, Israel still perceived Hamas as a threat, demonstrated by the third Israel-Gaza war in the summer of 2014, which ironically lead to a rapprochement between Iran and Hamas a few months later.

The standard estimates of Israel’s nuclear offensive capability ranges from 100-200 nuclear warheads, an arsenal that serves as a deterrent to any hypothetical scenario were Iran ever seek to pursue a nuclear weapon. Israel’s unstated objection to the deal is that is leaves an Iranian nuclear infrastructure intact, giving Iran the potential in the future to challenge to Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region, a monopoly which Israel still has refused to officially declare.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: At the recent meeting with US President Barack Obama in Camp David, Saudi Arabia threatened to make use of all the same technology granted to Iran in the emerging nuclear deal with the West. Is this the start of the long-feared nuclear arms race in the Gulf region? Or is it an attempt to force the US to take a tougher stance on Iran?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: No. In terms of nuclear proliferation, it was Iraq’s fear of Israel’s nuclear program and its desire to be a regional hegemon that led Baghdad to pursue a nuclear program in the seventies. It was Syria’s desire to counter Israel’s nuclear program and fear of US attempts to overthrow it that led it to embark on constructing a nuclear reactor, which was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in 2007. While Saudi Arabia has hinted it might pursue a nuclear program, such a program cannot be developed relatively quickly, despite its financial largesse. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the two powers deemed most likely to fall under this domino effect, lack the human capacity and scientific infrastructure to develop a program, and would have to depend on foreign suppliers, who today operate in an international system that has seeks to prevent further nuclear proliferation, particularly in the Middle East.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: How  will the agreement affect the geopolitics of the Middle East?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: Not so much. The foreign policies of Middle Eastern states have been forged over the decades since the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, and have proved to be relatively stable in an unstable region. With or without a deal, Saudi Arabia and Israel would have still been wary of Iran.. However, the failure to have signed the deal would have only continued a decades-long policy of confronting and isolating the Islamic Republic, which as of yet has failed to curb its behavior in the region. The deal offers the first opportunity to see whether US-Iranian engagement will in fact produce stability for an already unstable Middle East.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: Will the agreement between Iran and the West and all its implications and effects on several issues (Islamic State; US-Saudi relations; US-Israel relations; Syrian Civil War; Yemen question et similia) remake the World order?

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: Political elites and media commentators in both the US and Middle East predict only more instability in the region once the deal is formalized. These myths of further instability are not grounded in actual regional dynamics but rather are the products of appealing to domestic constituencies, particularly in the US and Israel. The US and Iran, prior to the deal, proved they could work as de-facto partners with mutual interests in combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIS). While the US and Iran have agreed to a deal, they are still at odds over Syria, and Washington has provided Riyadh with intelligence, weapons, and ships to partake in a naval blockade in the campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. The US has not abandoned other Gulf states and will continue to depend on them for stability in the energy market or Bahrain as America’s base for its 5th Fleet.

Destabilization in countries like Yemen and Syria occurred to choices made by their political elites, not by Iran’s intervention. An influx of Iranian financial support to the government in Damascus or the Houthis in Yemen is unlikely to change the reality of the conflicts there.

Regardless of Iranian support, the Houthis have already done remarkably well on their own as combatants, given they secured the mountainous north of the country, which is hard to do in Yemen regardless of how much support an armed group has, domestic or foreign. The Shi’a Houthis have continued to move onto Aden despite Saudi airstrikes. Capturing Aden, however, is most likely the limit of their advance, as their numbers will not allow them to spread their forces thin over the mostly desert, and mostly Sunni, south of Yemen. Yemen will not be destabilized due to continued Iranian support of the Houthis. It had been showing signs of instability long before the Iranian-Houthi relationship.

Iran, flush with cash, could potentially increase lines of credit to maintain the Syrian economy, yet this will not overcome Damascus’ more challenging problem: the dwindling amount of reliable fighters in its military to combat the rebels. Regardless of a new influx of Iranian finances, or even new Russian military equipment, seizing rebel-held urban centers, and more importantly holding this territory, requires more manpower. Money cannot create an army for Damascus, nor can Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or Hizballah, who are also committed to fighting ISIS in Iraq.


Ibrahim Al-Marashi tweets at @ialmarashi


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the interviewed’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s editorial policy

Last modified on Friday, 17 July 2015 19:30

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