Global Talk: How to save the Middle East from Islamic State?

This undated image posted on a militant website on January 14 shows fighters from the Al Qaeda linked Islamic State marching in Raqqa, Syria. AP Photo/militant website

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Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, discusses Iraq’s tribes and the Islamic State.

The National: How can we gauge how much United States airstrikes and the Kurdish offensive is debilitating the Islamic State?

Mr Karasik: It’s important to look at how the Islamic State is reacting, by where it’s moving its equipment to. Some people argue that the Islamic State is going to start moving its equipment back into Syria, where they know that American airstrikes aren’t allowed yet. This may give them some time to recover and to launch new offensives.

On the other hand, the Islamic State has a lot of equipment that they’ve taken from the Iraqis. It consists of American, French, British, and Russian equipment. And they are also very good and hiding this equipment from overhead imagery. So it’s going to be a little difficult to determine exactly what is ongoing on the ground because there’s a lack of human assets on the ground to see exactly where these forces are going.

The National: The Islamic State’s initial onslaught against the Iraqi government appeared to be backed to a certain extent by some Sunni tribes in the region. Now, there are reports that some Sunni tribes are expressing a willingness to fight the group. Can you give us a brief overview of how the Sunni tribal system in Iraq works and how the Islamic State has benefit from it?

Mr Karasik: The Sunni tribes in Al Anbar province have many grievances against the central government in Baghdad. These grievances have been building up over time. The Islamic State was able to come to an agreement with these tribes in Al Anbar province to join forces together to fight Baghdad. The Sunni tribes are alienated because, under outgoing prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, they were sidelined, subsidies were cut, and they were not included by the government. They were angry. They saw the Islamic State as a group that they could team up with in order to help force a political solution in the country. The Sunni tribes now that they are playing with the devil. And are going to maybe some of them break away, and maybe some of them have broken away. Other ones are maintaining the relationship with the Islamic State because the Islamic State gives more justification to their cause.

The National: What do you think are some of the reasons the Sunni tribes might choose to break away from the Islamic State and rejoin the government? Or perhaps fight the Islamic State by themselves?

Mr Karasik: Within the Iraqi tribal ethos there are a number of different values that come into play when it comes to making agreement with ‘outsiders.’ Now, these outsiders within the Islamic State, some of them are not part of the Iraqi tribal scene. Others are. And it is those that are from outside that will alienate Sunni tribes who see them as not part of the tribal system there. It’s at that point that there begins to be a breakdown. And it’s compounded by the fact that some of the Sunni tribes do not agree clearly with the Islamic State’s philosophy. Because it’s a religious approach. Whereas the tribes have a tribal approach. It gets into this issue of what’s more powerful: tribes or religion. This is where a breaking point may occur.

The National: A lot of people are wondering why did the Islamic State choose this moment to make their move across Iraq and Syria? Why did they choose to declare their caliphate now?

Mr Karasik: The Islamic State chose to create the Islamic State now because they saw the month of Ramadan as an excellent opportunity to announced the state. Al Baghdadi announced on the first day of Ramadan the creation of the Islamic State. And also within the Islamic State’s ideology, the drive to create the caliphate is clearly spelt out. The expansion into Iraq plus additional activity in Syria to create this state is governed by the Islamic calender, but also by Islamic history regarding the creation and requirements for a caliphate within the Levant. And to destroy the more modern border lines that are currently in place in order to make this new state rise up. In other words, the Islamic State is using history as a guide as well as the holy Quran to guide them into what they see as building a caliphate that will last.

The National: And where is this so-called caliphate headed? Is it going to expand to include Baghdad and other cities in the area? Or will the group be satisfied with the current territory that it holds?

Mr Karasik: According to some sources, the Islamic State has a regional plan for expansion that lasts through 2019. In this phase, the expansion includes a good chunk of Iraq, where they are now, but also includes Syria to the coast, Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

The Islamic State has been threatening Saudi Arabia and Kuwait specifically and has tried to penetrate Jordan. They aren’t going to give up on this endevor.

The National: And why those areas in particular?

Mr Karasik: Those areas are deemed to be part of which will be the Islamic caliphate in a modern form, based on the historical notions of creating such a caliphate. The idea is to ultimately begin expansion from the Levant outward into the Arabian Peninsula and into northern Africa. This is a historical driver that has been the goal of this branch of Salafist Islam, to use violence to achieve this geopolitical stretch of land that is only for Muslims.

The National: In order to solve this crisis do you think that the new Iraqi government, when it is eventually formed, will have to give more autonomy to Iraq’s Sunni tribes in order for them to withdraw support for the Islamic State?

Mr Karasik: The new govenement Baghdad needs to work very quickly to allow the Sunni tribes a greater voice in government. That includes giving key ministries to Sunnis, it involves inclusion of the Sunni tribes in a council, or some other form of government body so that their grievances can be heard. This is important because the sectarian divide in the country hurts the country’s ability to function as a whole. If this fails, Iraq fails.

The National: Is there anything else we should know about the Islamic State now?

Mr Karasik: I think it’s important to recognise that the Islamic State strongly believes in bringing about the end times or the apocolapse. Increasingly, their literature, particularly in English, contains a lot of material about hot-wiring the apocolapse. In other words, trying to make the apocalypse come sooner rather than later. If they follow this doctrine completely, it means that the group intends to launch violent strikes in order to hasten the apocolpse. I think it’s important to to recognise that this apocalyptic disource is alive and well within the Islamic State’s rhetoric.