The ISIS Jihad: "A Very, Very Serious Crisis"

Image of Henri J. Barkey

Henri J. Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor of International Relations, is the author of 60 articles and book chapters and the author, coauthor, or editor of seven books and monographs. He is a frequent guest on national and international TV and radio news programs, where he shares his expertise on the Middle East, Turkey, the Kurds, and Iraq. In addition to regular appearances on CNN, PBS, BBC, and NPR, Barkey contributes articles to The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Affairs, The American Interest, The National Interest, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and The San Francisco Chronicle. A former Public Policy Scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center, he served as a Policy Planning Staff Member with the U.S. State Department from 1998 to 2000.

Barkey met last week with Lehigh editor Kurt Pfitzer to discuss recent events in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a jihadist group that now controls much of Iraq.

ISIS has killed thousands of people, including Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and other religious and ethnic minorities. Some victims, like American journalist James Foley, have been beheaded. There are also reports of crucifixions and of women being sold into slavery. Is ISIS a more vicious group than al-Qaeda?

ISIS and al-Qaeda are cut from the same cloth; they are one and the same when it comes to ideology. They differ on tactics but ISIS is an outgrowth of al-Qaeda. Paradoxically, if they exist as two separate organizations, it has much to do with the personal ambitions of leaders, especially the ISIS leader.

Some people believe ISIS represents a greater threat to the Middle East and to the West than al-Qaeda does. What do you think?

In some way this is true. ISIS is from the region and is based in the region whereas al-Qaeda remains ensconced in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda works through affiliates. ISIS is not only home-grown in the Middle East but it is primarily focused on this region, hence its potential threat.

This is indeed a very, very serious crisis. Various analysts think there are 15,000 to 20,000 ISIS fighters. One difference between ISIS and the “Afghan Arabs” and mujahedin fighting the Soviet Union 30 years ago in Afghanistan is that those fighters were primarily from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. ISIS fighters are coming from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and also from Europe, Russia and the U.S. It’s been estimated that at least 100 Americans are fighting with the Syrian jihadists. One guy from Florida went to Syria, came back to the U.S. and then returned to Syria and blew himself up. He could have done it here. This is a big concern. And an attack in May of this year on the Jewish Museum of Brussels killed four people; it was committed by a Frenchman who had been fighting with jihadists in Syria.

Have the U.S. and Iraq been caught flat-footed by ISIS’ rapid growth and recent military successes?

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that what happened with ISIS could have been predicted. The two Sunni jihadist movements (in Syria and in Iraq) were becoming one. The Iraqi and U.S. governments were completely unprepared for what emerged. This was a failure of imagination.

Many people have been warning for a long time that something like (ISIS) would happen. They have pointed to the fact that the border between Syria and Iraq has disappeared. Iraqi Shi’ite militants have been fighting in Syria for (President Bashar al-Assad), while Iraqi Sunnis are fighting in Syria against Assad. I wrote an article about this, “Spinoff: The Syrian Crisis and the Future of Iraq,” that was published in December 2012 by American Interest.

Borders are increasingly losing their importance; we may end up with the same border five years from now, but, de facto, the central governments are unlikely to wield any influence. The Sunnis on the Syrian and Iraqi side of the border have much more in common with each other than they have with their own central governments, which have done nothing for them. Without the involvement of the central government, you interact with whomever is closest to you geographically and economically.

Part of the reason the conflagration is happening is that the central Iraqi government under outgoing prime minister Nuri al-Maliki really messed up. The governing arrangement that the Iraqis had come up with was for a Sunni to serve as speaker of parliament, a Shi’a to serve as prime minister and a Kurd to serve as president. Maliki usurped executive authority and no one challenged him. He pushed out the people who balanced his sectarian interests and had genuine support in other, but primarily the Sunni, communities, including a vice president and a former minister of finance. The vice president sought refuge in Turkey and unfortunately for Iraq was quite celebratory when Mosul fell to ISIS.

The fact that Maliki is now gone doesn’t mean everything will be hunky-dory. He’s done so much damage that it will take a long time to repair the institutions that he weakened.

The U.S. played this badly too. President Obama didn’t seem interested, and the White House did not warn the President of this impending development. You can have all the intelligence infrastructure feeding you reports, but if you know the President doesn’t want to hear about Iraq and then you don’t tell him about it, you’re also at fault.

Was U.S. intelligence bad regarding ISIS?

I don’t know if U.S. intelligence was good or bad … It’s not Obama’s job to wake up at 3 a.m. and worry about the border between Syria and Iraq. Instead, his advisers need to prep him, to warn him. I don’t think they did that. The first two national security advisers to Obama (James L. Jones and Thomas E. Donilon) were disasters. They were completely unprepared for the job. You need people with a conceptual understanding of the world and politics for these positions.

What are the reasons for ISIS’ success?

There are a plethora of militias in Syria. Al-Nusra, the other big Syrian opposition group, has the same ideology as ISIS, but the leaders of each group have personal reasons to be opposed to each other. Until six months ago, al-Nusra was considered the most powerful jihadist organization. Now, ISIS has emerged as the strongest primarily because of its successes in Iraq, especially its defeat of the Iraqi military and the seizing of so much off-the-shelf military equipment in Mosul.

For insurgencies, “nothing succeeds like success.” ISIS is perceived to be a successful jihadist organization. Because it has money and equipment, it attracts other jihadists. So other jihadists are defecting from al-Nusra to ISIS. This is the modus operandi of groups like this: they attract fighters because they can offer guns, money and equipment.

Paradoxically, the U.S., by targeting ISIS, adds to its notoriety and cachet. When the President of the U.S. says ISIS is a major threat to us and orders airstrikes, then you are somebody. Think of it as free publicity.

What are ISIS’s chances of building on its territorial gains in Iraq and establishing an Islamic state?

ISIS is going to be defeated in the end. This will happen in Iraq first, where the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish forces will reorganize, although this is going to take some time. ISIS is in a much better situation in Syria primarily because the Assad regime there has deliberately refused to engage it, literally giving it a free hand, and because of all the equipment it has moved from Iraq. ISIS is far stronger in Syria than the so-called moderate opposition.

But we won’t understand the repercussions of what’s happening now for a long time to come. What’s going to replace ISIS, how are Iraq and Syria going to be organized—these are questions without answers. We cannot predict these things.

President Obama has stated his desire for a limited U.S. military role with regard to ISIS? Is this realistic?

Yes. First, Obama ran for president on a platform that opposed our involvement in the Iraq war and favored getting out of the war. He is against putting boots on the ground. Mission creep is always possible but there’s another reason it won’t happen, and that’s because this is a fight that the Iraqis have to win, not us. We can’t fight this one for them. That would involve tens of thousands of American troops.

In a recent article in American Interest, you wrote of an environmental cause of the Syrian civil war. Please explain.

The Syrian crisis did not erupt just because of the Arab Spring. Another big reason is that a huge number of people had moved from the countryside into the cities because of the drought (that afflicted more than half the country from 2006-11) and because of changes in the usage of the rivers upstream. The fighting, and everything related to it, further undermined the water infrastructure. These are not things that you can fix overnight. It takes years to rebuild an infrastructure. People have not paid enough attention to this.

You have said that wars can have catalytic impacts on societies, and that an example of this is a new alliance that Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria and Turkey are forming to fight ISIS. Please elaborate.

The Iraqi Kurds under Barzani (Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, have not been fond of the Syrian Kurds … They even went so far as to build a ditch between the two countries to keep out the Syrian Kurds. So far, the Syrian Kurds have preferred to affiliate themselves with the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

When the Iraqi Army was pushed out of northern Iraq by ISIS, the Iraqi Kurds surged in to fill the vacuum. But their fighters were not well organized. They lacked munitions and equipment, and they got beaten. The PKK soldiers are much more battle-hardened. They have been training soldiers from the YPG (the People’s Protection Units, the military arm of the Syrian Kurds), which is a PKK subsidiary in Syria. These two groups … have been fighting ISIS and other jihadists for more than a year.

Relations among these Kurdish groups are changing radically now because the Kurds from Syria and Turkey are helping the Iraqi Kurds. The PKK and YPG punched a hole in the ISIS lines and evacuated 20,000 Yazidis (trapped on Mt. Sinjar) with help from the U.S. air strikes. As a result, Barzani is now being quite generous towards the Syrian Kurds. So we might see in the median term more fusion between the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. A much larger Kurdish entity might emerge from this.

Another factor is that the Iraqi Kurds have always wanted to claim Kirkuk, which is oil-rich and was traditionally Kurdish but was ethnically cleansed by Saddam Hussein (between 1975 and 2003). Now Kirkuk is in the hands of the Kurds. This will change the dynamics of the situation. Will the Iraqi Army fight the Iraqi Kurds to get Kirkuk back? Probably not. They will either acquiesce or make a deal with the Kurds. There are so many things we cannot predict, but the Kurds are now stronger politically relative to Iraq than they were before.

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected president on Aug. 10 after serving 11 years as prime minister. He has said he will push to expand the powers of his new office. What are his aims?

His primary aim is to change the Turkish constitutional system and move the country towards a presidential system. He is not going to give up power just because he has been elected to an office that on paper holds few executive powers.

Beyond that, the Turks see themselves as inheritors of a major empire that controlled large chunks of territory. They have always had a grandiose vision that they can rule indirectly over this region, the former Ottoman Empire. In comparison to the other countries in the region, Turkey is big, powerful, rich and industrious. Erdogan wants Turkey to dominate the region and influence it politically. To accomplish this, Turkey has relied on its influence in Europe and the U.S., on its economic prowess, on Turkish capital and on Turkish know-how.

But Turkey also needs stability in the region. Instability hurts the Turkish economy. Iraq is the number-two export region for Turkey, with the bulk of commercial activity going to northern Iraq. But today, Turkish trucks cannot go through Syria or Iraq to Saudi Arabia or Dubai or Abu Dhabi or even to Jordan (because of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts).

Turkey would like to dictate regional solutions in Iraq and in Syria. Now, Erdogan cannot get any of these things. One thing Turkey will get with the end to hostilities in Syria and Iraq … is that companies from Turkey will win the bulk of the construction contracts to rebuild those countries. Proximity matters, and Turkey knows the region.

What role has Turkey played in the civil war in Syria?

The Turks have facilitated the jihadists coming and going in and out of Syria. They have certainly added fuel to the civil war in Syria. Turkey had no other choice than to back the opposition to Assad. The Turks can shut off the influx of jihadists and the flow of arms to the jihadists, but would that contribute to peace? I don’t know. It would help the Syrian government but the Turks don’t want to do that.

Assad and Erdogan used to be buddies. Their families vacationed together. At the start of the unrest in Syria, Turkey sent emissaries to Assad to urge him to make cosmetic reforms. Assad said no and that ticked off Erdogan …The opposition to Assad in Syria is Sunni. Erdogan is a Sunni and he has always had an antipathy for non-Sunnis. He perceives the Syrian crisis as one between Sunni and Shi’a. When the massacres started in Syria, Erdogan saw them as Shi’ites massacring Sunnis. Erdogan also saw Maliki as a Shi’a who went after Sunnis. There’s no question Erdogan has Sunni preferences, but with the Iranians, Erdogan has gotten along quite well. Turkey and Iran have not allowed Syria to interfere in their bilateral relationship.

What role does religion play in Erdogan’s policies?

Erdogan is becoming more authoritarian at home. Part of this involves his understanding and interpretation of the role of religion in society. Erdogan has a vision of a conservative, pious Turkey. He very much sees his personal and national identity in religious as well as ethnic terms. There was recently a bomb attack on the Turkish side of the border with Syria and 52 people were killed. Erdogan—and this is the first time I heard a Turkish leader say something so provocative—said, “fifty-two of our Sunni citizens died.” How did he know they were Sunnis? And even if all of the victims were Sunnis, why would he say that? He has a conception (of himself and of Turkey) that is quite Sunni.

What can you say about U.S. policy toward Iran?

One place where Obama deserves credit is with his Iranian policy. He has maintained a very tough stance on sanctions and has shown sagacity, patience and purpose. We are in a better position today with regards to Iran than we were when Obama took office. The Iranians are at the table today because sanctions have worked. Have they changed their position? No. But they have a reformist president. The previous government, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was mismanaging the economy. The new government, under Hassan Rouhani, is probably better at managing economic expectations. It has provided more stability for the private sector.

Have sanctions stopped Iran from enriching uranium and building a nuclear bomb? If Iran wants to build a bomb, they can do it; nobody can stop them. The question is, have we raised the stakes sufficiently to deter them from doing it? At the moment, the answer is yes. But that calculation can change.

Which of the columns that you’ve published this year are you most proud of?

The first is a Washington Post column criticizing Obama’s ambassadorial nominations. I was the first to make this criticism; other writers followed me and neither of the two nominees (to Hungary and to Norway) was approved. The second column, also published in the Post, took issue with a directive from Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. that intelligence officers essentially not speak to the press.

Are you optimistic?

I get paid to be a pessimist; it’s good for business. But I want to be an optimist.

August, 2014