Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone and welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. I am joined this week by Kamran Bokhari, thanks for joining us Kamran.
Kamran Bokhari: Good to be here.
JLS: What we’re going to do this week is we’re going to try and sort out some of the mess that’s been going on in the Middle East. It’s been a very chaotic week in the Middle East and we thought we’d take a step back and try to explain it to listeners in about 30 or 40 minutes. It’s a tall task but we’ll see how we go.
Kamran, I think the first thing that you might be able to help out with our listeners understanding is understanding a little bit more about the history of Qatar – the history of Qatar’s relationships in the region, how it’s always sort of been on the outside looking in – but what exactly Saudi Arabia, and the states that Saudi Arabia’s convinced to go along with this diplomatic isolation of Qatar, are seeing that upsets them so much.
KB: So ever since 1995, when the father of the current emir of Qatar took power, his name was Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, and he actually overthrew his father in ’95 and ousted him and took power. Qatar has been on a strange trajectory. I say strange because it’s not normal for the Arab world or more specifically the Persian Gulf Arab world, the Khaleejis, to behave in this way. I am referring to an openness for lack of a better term. I mean Al Jazeera was started by the current emir’s father and it became sort of the standard bearer of 24/7 news in the Arab world. That made a lot of traditional Arab leaders, both Republican regimes and of course the monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, very, very uncomfortable because it was not the way that they had ran their political economies. There’s no concept of having discourse.
But to make matters worse this new regime post-1995 began with a very what I would call pragmatic approach to the region. It could afford to do because it is the world’s largest LNG exporter, that brings in a lot of money. The population, those who are Qatari nationals, is very small – less than 300,000 people. In fact, there are more expats in that country, which is also true for a number of other GCC states.
But in the case of Qatar, what happened is that this allowed for the regime to flirt with all sorts of radical political forces ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to more radical elements along the Islamist spectrum. And even give air time to what we used to call secular left-wing Arab nationalists and it began a policy of opening to Iran, developing a relationship that was out of step with the GCC consensus, if you will. And steering towards an independent foreign policy. And a lot of people say, Qatar has been punching above its weight when it comes to foreign policy. It’s a tiny, little state. But it’s been trying to play major league geopolitics. That’s a fair assessment. But I would say that the Qataris are cut from a different cloth if we are to compare them to the rest of the Arab regimes.
JLS: Yes, although I think one thing that you perhaps left out was that there’s a regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command in Qatar and that Qatar is for all intents and purposes it’s sort of in the U.S. camp in the region, or generally has been. And that the U.S. has been able to use Qatar at times in order to have unofficial dialogue with some of these groups that are considered beyond the pale for normal political discourse, right?
KB: Absolutely, that’s important to note that when Qatar is reaching out to these unsavory characters, from the point of view of the region and the international community, it’s not doing so in defiance of the West, it’s doing so in concert with its great power ally, the United States. And mind you, that base at Al Udeid where the U.S. Central Command has a major hub in the region, in fact, the regional hub is based in Qatar of Central Command, and that happened after 9/11 and the decision of the United States government, the Bush administration, to pull out of Saudi Arabia. There was a huge base in Saudi Arabia, and Qatar offered space so it was just a minor relocation.
At the same time, there are relations between the Qatari government and Israel. There are a lot of rumors about the nature of it. Nobody officially denies or rejects it. But it’s well known that there’s some form of relationship there. So, Qatar has been reaching out to all sorts of entities and Qatar is the one Arab state that also sees eye-to-eye with Turkey in the region. And so it’s had a really diversified foreign policy portfolio.
JLS: I want to bring it back to Turkey in a minute but I’ll just ask one more thing about Qatar which is that you know you’ve pointed out that they’ve always been reaching out to these different groups and they’ve always had a more independent foreign policy. I think that one of the things that we were discussing internally was that it was very hard to read whether Qatar had simply done something that had gone too far beyond the pale for Saudi Arabia or whether this had sort of been planned for a while and that this is really more of a reflection of the Saudis weakening and not being willing to tolerate Qatar breaking ranks.
I noticed recently that Qatar actually asked a lot of people from Hamas, who nominally are based in Qatar, to leave. And it seems like Qatar has actually done some things and has been very open to trying to solve of this diplomatic spat, especially in terms of the United States. So do you think that Qatar actually did something, that it flirted with Iran in a serious way, that both Saudi Arabia and even perhaps the United States didn’t mind Saudi Arabia sort of dinging Qatar on the head and saying, nah, that’s too far? Or do you think that this really has more to do with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia trying to consolidate control at the diplomatic level in the same way that Saudi Arabia wasn’t going to tolerate internal unrest in a country like Bahrain in 2011?
KB: I think it’s the latter. I don’t see the Qataris doing anything new. The Iranian relationship has been there, there’s more made out of it in terms of the public discourse than there is actually. The whole idea of support for Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, that’s old stuff, that’s been going along for a long time.
I haven’t seen anything fresh that would suggest that the Qataris crossed some sort of red line. I think it’s a lingering dispute and if we go back to 2014, for the better part of that year, the Saudis and the Bahrainis and the UAE, they downgraded diplomatic relations in that year in the spring. And it was not until the fall that they had an agreement of sorts, which was never made public, but according to the reports Qatar had agreed to scale back its involvement with all these groups and not encourage them to where that damaged the interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and others.
And so, I think that that’s a long-standing dispute and I think that now Saudi Arabia is getting desperate because things are not going well for Saudi Arabia. And the last thing it wants is one of its own GCC members doing things that undermine its collective efforts. So, number one, and I think this is foremost, is Iran. If you go back to the Trump visit that was like three weeks ago to Riyadh and there was a gala event attended not just by Middle Eastern leaders but also from the wider Muslim majority countries. It was very clear that Saudi Arabia had finally got the United States to where it wants to be. Remember that under the Obama administration, the Saudis had a terrible relationship with Washington. Under Trump, they know think that they now have Washington where they want it to be and they want to move forward in isolating Iran. And Qatari dealings with Iran really poke holes into the Saudi strategy.
So, I think that this is a case of the Saudis not being able to take it anymore and saying you know enough is enough. If the Qataris are not behaving, we have to up the pressure to twist their arm.
JLS: Yeah and I think this is a move that could really backfire on Saudi Arabia. You already see it backfiring a little bit in the sense that they were able to assemble an impressive coalition of countries in this diplomatic offensive against Qatar, but they have not really been able to extend the diplomatic offensive outside of its immediate vicinity and outside of those countries that are immediately dependent on it. And even some of the other GCC states have not gone along to the same extent that Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis and the others have gone to.
But you bring up good points with Iran and Turkey and this is another reason why I think this might backfire on the Saudis, which is because if Qatar is looking at this and if Qatar is trying to establish some kind of independence of action, Saudi Arabia is really on a downward slope. Especially when you consider that oil prices right now are continuing to go down and that Saudi has basically proven ineffective in getting the price of oil to come back up and that really is the source of Saudi power.
Qatar, as you said, has a close relationship with Turkey. Qatar as you also said also has a closer relationship with Iran than perhaps any of the other Arab countries in the region. You brought up the specific point of the fact that Qatar and Turkey have seen eye to eye for a while right now. I know that there’s a lot of stuff there in terms of the political ideology that both Qatar and Turkey favor that you can shed some light on. So how about you go a little bit more in depth into how Turkey and Qatar see the region in the same way, and what is the way in which they’ve been trying to reshape the region, not just recently but for many years now?
KB: From the point of view of the Qataris, they’re not so much in ideological sync with the Islamists, they take a more pragmatic view. Unlike Egypt, unlike Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab states, the Qataris say, look, you know we can’t dial the clock back. And what do I mean by that is that the Saudis are using tools that used to be effective back in the day, pre-Arab Spring, where there was no opposition of any sorts to the regimes in the region.
And Qatar looks at that and says that thing, that tool kit, that approach is useless because it only makes matters worse. Qatar says, look, these forces, the Hamases of this world, the Muslim Brotherhoods of this world, they are a reality and we can’t wish them away and we can’t suppress them because it only makes matters worse and we need to somehow reach out to them in order for, and this is based on my conversations with Qatari officials over the years, their view is that these are realities and if we don’t control them, if we just leave them to their own devices, then they will do things that will undermine the interests of the region and the security of the regimes. So it’s sort of flipping the Saudi argument on its head. The Saudis say well you need to keep them under lock and key and that’s the way to go.
As far as Turkey is concerned, Turkey is more ideologically in tune with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas because the ruling AKP party comes from an Islamist heritage although it’s not an Islamist party, its roots lie in Islamism. So there’s a meeting of minds. And Qatar realizes that it’s a small country and the rest of the Arab states are not really getting it. And they realize that if there’s going to be a counterweight to Iran, it’s going to be Turkey. And the Qataris have accepted the fact that the Arabs do not have any intrinsic power of their own in the region and therefore they must piggyback on Turkey and hence that relationship. So it’s a convergence of interests and ideas.
JLS: Yeah, although I want to push back a little bit because I think you’re right that Qatar reaches out to a lot of different groups that other countries in the region and most countries in the world wouldn’t do business with, right? But I don’t think when it comes to more Muslim Brotherhood-oriented groups that Qatar sees them sort of as redheaded stepchildren that it’s going to let into Qatar. I think there, Qatar has actually more of an affinity to some of those groups and has used some of those groups in order to push Qatar’s influence throughout the region, which is why I suggested that perhaps Turkey and Qatar see more eye to eye ideologically. Do you think I am taking that too far or would you agree with that assessment?
KB: I think that your argument has some merit to it, and actually a lot of merit to it, but when I was saying ideologically I was meaning the ideology of the ruling family or the regime in Qatar. They’re not Islamists. They don’t share those ideologies. If you go to Qatar you know it’s fairly Westernized and it’s fairly open and so it’s not necessarily Islamist but they see these actors as, what you just said, tools to pursue their foreign policy agenda, to be able to have influence.
And in my conversations, I did feel that the Qataris really believe that there is no way around these actors. Qatar has sort of, in a self-styled manner, appropriated this task of bringing reconcilable – what they call reconcilable – Islamists to the mainstream. And so that’s also a foreign policy offering that Doha sort of says that this what we can do for the world. And they find reception in circles in Washington. Back in 2013, the United States Department of Defense dealt with certain Islamist factions within the Syrian rebel landscape in order to find common ground because of the fear that we’re not going to get secular Syrian nationalists under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. And that was mediated by Qatar. And if you look at the Taliban relationship, clearly that was very openly Qatar helping the United States deal with the Taliban. It didn’t go too far because of other complications, but nonetheless, it’s a great example of how Qatar is trying to say: this is our value proposition that we bring to this region and to great powers who are stakeholders in this region.
JLS: Yes, although the flip side of that is it means Qatar is playing with fire. I mean I really, I was really struck by what you said that the ruling family is not Islamist. But that Qatar thinks of using the Islamist groups as tools in order to develop Qatar’s power or to protect Qatar’s position. I cannot think of a more secular entity that used Islamists that didn’t have the Islamists come back to bite them in the end.
We have seen over and over and over, whether it was the United States, whether it was Saudi Arabia, whether it was Turkey, it doesn’t really matter if the country itself was Muslim or if it’s Western or not. It’s very, very difficult to control Islamist groups once they get going. So the idea that Qatar is going to be able to use these Islamist groups when they want to use them and is not going to face backlash from them, especially because Qatar is playing such a dual game and is really dealing with all sides. It seems to me that that’s, I don’t want to say shortsighted and I don’t even say it’s not going to work. I just can’t think of another example of that actually working in the long term for a country’s foreign policy. Can you come up with any examples?
KB: I can’t, and you are absolutely right. I mean this is almost like they are holding up and trying to balance two parallel universes. And it’s difficult. But I think that, if we look at it geopolitically, from their point of view, they have no other choice. They have to do this and I think what gives them a bit of hope is that they’re a small country. They have enough money to where people don’t indulge in politics so this is not going to undermine them domestically anytime soon.
But yes, for the region, this could all blow up in their face. And I actually believe that it will. Because there’s just no way, given the scale of chaos in the region, that somehow the Qataris will be able to fine tune these Islamist proxies to where they will live in a Muslim democracy of sorts. I just don’t see that happening. So you are absolutely right. I don’t disagree with that. I was just trying to explain the perspective of the Qataris.
JLS: Yeah, but that also explains the perspective of not just the Saudis but even the Emiratis and Bahrain and some of these other groups, for whom, they see Qatar messing around with the Islamists and are sort of asking themselves what on Earth are you doing? We’ve already seen what happens when we mess with these things and now is a time to close ranks and tighten up against this, not to invite them into our own space.
But that’s a good segue way into a second…
KB: I just want to point out one thing and for our listeners, the UAE making this case is more genuine. But the Saudis accusing the Qataris of doing this is like the kettle calling the pot black or vice versa. The Saudis are still playing with this fire, so they don’t have the argument. So yes, they are not with Hamas, they’re not with the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are the biggest exporter of Salafism and jihadism on the planet.
JLS: Yes, and it’s a good segue way into you know sort of the other major developments that have been changing things in the Middle East this week, which is ISIS, which Saudi Arabia you know you can’t directly prove that they had a role in helping ISIS develop, but certainly Saudi Arabia and some of the groups that it was funding and some of the things that it was doing when it was involved in Syria supporting different proxies, had a role in the Islamic State coming to the prominence that it has. But you know we saw two major things from the Islamic State this week.
We saw, first of all, that the Islamic State is finally coming under some serious existential pressure in its self-declared caliphate. Raqqa has really been the capital and center and focal point of ISIS operations, but you’ve got the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are made up mostly of Syrian Kurds under the YPG group (there are so many acronyms here that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of) but we’ll say the SDF, those are the Syrian Kurds and they are U.S. backed, and then we’ve also seen, surprisingly, the Syrian army has been moving on multiple fronts to get closer to Raqqa. The result of all this is that the Islamic State’s position in Raqqa is pretty weak and we’ve seen them pulling back and we’ve seen some relative successes for the U.S.-backed forces as they get closer to the city.
That was one major development we saw this week. And then the other major development was really the unprecedented IS attack they claimed in Iran. So, I want to tackle both of those things. Maybe let’s start with the second one first because I know you were looking at this very closely. Talk about why this is such a big deal and why this isn’t just another ISIS terrorist attack in the region. What are the greater implications of ISIS hitting Iran the way that they did?
KB: I would begin by saying that this is not something that ISIS just sort of said – oh, well I want to attack Iran tomorrow and let’s do it. This is something that speaks to the sophistication, especially as an intelligence entity, of ISIS. The Islamic State has been cultivating these assets for a while, and not just in Iran. We see this happening in as far-flung areas as the Philippines as well. So this is something that’s been in the works for a while.
They’ve devoted a certain amount of resources to this project. I suspect that over the years that they’ve been based in Iraq and they’ve had proximity to Iran that they were cultivating this. And they saw an opening in Kurdistan, and I am talking about the Iranian province of Kurdistan, and there’s more than one province where Iranian Kurds live and they’re mostly Sunni and over the years what I’ve learned is that is Salafism and even jihadist ideology has made its way into the Iranian Kurdish community. And the Kurds are, there’s an alienation that they feel, as an ethnic community as well, from Tehran and there is this sort of deep resentment that ISIS really exploited and was able to set up at least this cell. I suspect that this isn’t just one cell. There are probably others that ISIS has in its tool kit and will activate at some point in the future, so this is not the last attack in Iran.
But what is significant is that Iran is not an Arab state. One of the biggest sectors of the Iranian state is the security sector. There are multiple organizations that deal with security. You know in my visit to Iran, I noticed these guys working firsthand, and they’re obsessed with security. They’re obsessed with security because they fear Israeli penetration, U.S. penetration, Saudi penetration and so this is not an open, if you will, arena where ISIS could just jump in and say, you know, we’re gonna send in suicide bombers. It had to do a lot of work to be able to penetrate that and that speaks to ISIS’ capabilities and sophistication.
As for the implications, I mean look, ISIS has gamed all of these things out. We tend to look in the open sources, when you read stuff there is this assumption that somehow these are all sort of disconnected attacks that are not linked to some strategic objective. And at Geopolitical Futures, that’s what we talk about is, we can’t look at events as sort of randomly taking place or taking place as some entity hates another entity.
There is a strategic objective. The strategic objective of ISIS is to, a) survive, especially now that it’s under pressure, that you just mentioned. You know it’s in the process of losing Raqqa. It’ll take a long time, but that process has begun. At the same time, so there’s that threat but there’s also an opportunity. The opportunity is that the sectarian temperature in the region is at an all-time high and this would explain the timing of this attack.
ISIS would like nothing more than for Iran and Saudi Arabia to go at each other because, a) it gives them some form of respite. You know, they’re not the focus, and it undermines the struggle against ISIS. And b) it creates more opportunity for ISIS to exploit. The more there’s sectarianism, the more the Saudis go and fight with Iran and vice versa, the more space there is for ISIS to grow. So I think that this attack in Iran has very deep implications moving forward.
JLS: Those are all good points and I want to draw special attention to one of the points you made and then ask you to play what you’re saying forward a little bit. First thing, I just want to point out is that you were talking about the Iranian Kurds and how they had somehow been radicalized and there was a sense of disenchantment, or disenchantment is probably not even strong enough, but an antagonism with the current regime in Tehran.
And I just want to point out that it’s very difficult to speak of the Kurds as a monolith. I think often times people say the word the Kurds and they think of you know just all the Kurds in the Middle East and they’re all the same. But we really have to think of in terms of – there are Kurds in Iran, there are Kurds in Iraq, there are Kurds in Syria, there are Kurds in Turkey. They have different religious affiliations, different ideological affiliations, sometimes are speaking different languages that are almost unintelligible to each other. So I try very hard in my writing and when I am speaking about these types of things to be very specific about when I am talking about the Kurds and I thought one of the things you did there was you brought up was just how complicated that situation is and that, of course, has relevance throughout the region.
We saw that the Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdistan Regional Government are talking about an independence referendum and maybe we can get to that in a little bit. But you gave a really good explanation of why this is extremely important from Iran’s perspective. But what do you think Iran is going to do? What response does this mean Iran is going to have to make? What is the next step for Iran both in terms of, you know, Qatar, which it had some sort of relationship with and it can certainly see this diplomatic offensive led by Saudi Arabia as a diplomatic move against Iran, and then second of all this move by ISIS. What are the practical concrete things that Iran is going to have to do to respond here in the next couple weeks?
KB: With regards to Qatar, what we have is a situation where its own GCC allies, its fellow Arab states, have shunned Doha. And so Doha right now needs a lot of friends. The United States has not de-aligned from Qatar and joined the Saudi bandwagon, so that’s good. It’s forging some sort of a relationship today, the Qatari foreign minister is in Moscow, so there’s a Russian angle to that as well. We’ve already talked about Turkey.
At this stage, it wouldn’t hurt, necessarily, for Qatar to reach out or benefit from Iranian assistance, but it has to be very careful. It doesn’t want to do something with Iran or get too close, especially now, and give a bigger stick to the Saudis with which Riyadh can beat Doha. And so, I think from a Qatari point of view, it’s essential that they strike a balance when it comes to Iran.
Conversely the Iranians, this is a great opening. And they would like to exploit this to the extent that it is possible. But I think that the Iranians are no illusion as to their limitations. They know that – they’ll milk this for whatever it’s worth. But they’re not under the illusion that somehow Qatar will join them and be part of their camp. That’s actually taking it too far. I don’t think that they can rely on Qatar. But from the Iranian point of view, so long as Qatar is at odds and defying Saudi Arabia, that’s good enough. They don’t need more from Qatar and they will milk that to the extent that it is possible.
As far as ISIS is concerned, I think that there are two things here. One is that both of them will benefit ISIS, both moves that the Iranians make will benefit ISIS. First is that there is an imperative for the government, for the security establishment, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again or at least begin to neutralize, before it grows. There’s a sizeable Sunni population in Iran. It’s not just the Kurds, there’s a sizeable Turkmen population in the northeast near Turkmenistan and there are some of the Arabs, not a majority, but a minority of the Arabs in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, the Ahwazi Arabs as they are called. They are, a minority of them and a significant one, are Sunnis as well.
And then you have the big province in the southeast, that’s Sistan and Baluchistan, and that province is majority Sunni and ethnically Baluch and already has a jihadist problem and there’s cross-border terrorism that takes place where Baluch jihadist rebels go to Pakistan and then you know from there they have a sanctuary that they come in and they strike at the Iranian security forces. They’ve been pretty successful over the years in killing some very high-ranking IRGC commanders.
So from Iran’s point of view, this is a lot of vulnerability. So the Sunnis are suspect right now after what happened. I mean it’s not easy and I’ve been to the Khomeini shrine and I can tell you that it’s not something, it’s not just a cake walk that you can get in there and do all this kind of stuff, let alone parliament. And so from the Iranian point of view, they feel very terrified right now because they used to think they’re safe. And this is sort of really a wake-up call for them. So they’re gonna go after the Sunnis. The more they go after the Sunnis, the more they are gonna create resentment, not just within their borders, but sectarian tensions are going to rise. And ISIS is going to say, see we told you, and they will have more recruits to go fight the “evil” Iranians and the “evil” Shiites.
But at the same time, the Iranians do not think that this is ISIS alone. They deeply believe, at least their security establishment, and I saw a report yesterday where the Iranian intelligence minister was urging caution, saying, let’s not jump to conclusions and let’s not accuse the Saudis just yet. Let the investigation finish.
But the security establishment and the hawks are convinced that there is, even though ISIS is involved, that there is a Saudi footprint in this attack and they’ll give you evidence and they’ll point to Saudi intent to undermine their country. And so they’re gonna go after Saudi Arabia. They’re gonna retaliate. It’s horrible to predict another bombing, but if a bomb went off inside Saudi Arabia, I would not be surprised that it, you know, Iran somehow retaliated in that shape or form. I am not sure if it will. But I’m just saying that if it does that, then I wouldn’t be surprised, because the Iranians, they’re not going to just accept this. They have to retaliate and respond. The more they retaliate, they set into motion, they trigger a broader conflict. I am not saying the two sides are going to go to war, but it’s going to an ugly proxy battle at least in the immediate future.
JLS: In many ways, that proxy battle has already been going on. I think what you are talking about is going to be a real worsening of the situation and unfortunately, that’s the way things are going in the Middle East right now. The last thing I want to touch on before we break is the Islamic State, because we’ve sort of been talking about them in a roundabout way when we talk about all these other issues, but for a long time, the Islamic State, and when I say long time I mean maybe the past two or three years, the Islamic State really has been the center of gravity I think in the Middle East. And I think one of the reasons we’re seeing all of these things happening on the periphery is that the force of IS as the center of gravity is actually weakening because IS itself is actually weakening.
Now I know that that doesn’t mean that ISIS is going to disappear, but I think it does mean that the Islamic State as a strong territorial entity that can threaten some of the different states in the region from a conventional point of view, is actually weakening. So can you talk a little bit about what it means for the Islamic State to have come under such pressure at its capital in Raqqa and what Islamic State’s activities are going to look like going forward? We know they’re going to pull back a little bit and try and get strength in numbers and some strategic depth but ultimately they are outnumbered and they’re outgunned. So they’re probably going to have to go back to some tactics of blending back into the population and waiting really for a lot these sectarian dynamics that we’re talking about right now to overwhelm the region once more so that they can take advantage of the power vacuum.
KB: So I would compare what is happening to ISIS to what happened to the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. They lost the cities, and for a while, they were an incoherent entity, but they weren’t decimated or eliminated, they just were lying low. And they were slowly rebuilding themselves. And now they are at a point where – and I would say it’s not just now, it’s been the case all along, at least since 2003 – that they exist in ungoverned spaces outside the cities. See we have this perception that if you don’t hold a city then you’re not a serious player. That may be true at one level, but at another level, it just means that you are operating in an area where the good guys can’t project power, at least not effectively, and you exist.
So I think – I don’t see necessarily just ISIS devolving into an insurgent movement or a terrorist organization – I think that the so-called caliphate is going to shift into a rural area. And this is not something that is a setback from an ISIS point of view, because I don’t think that ISIS ever believed – I mean it’s a serious player and they’ve been here before, it was not as big as what they have, I mean I’m talking about their holdings, but in Iraq, they have been driven out of cities before. They’ve been in the desert, in the rural areas, only to come back because the underlying political, economic, social circumstances really don’t get addressed and its enemies start fighting with each other, providing the room for ISIS to once again revive itself.
I think that it remains to be seen how quickly ISIS can be pushed out of Raqqa, pushed out of Deir al-Zour, into the desert. And even when it does go there, it’s going to still have a space and the time to continue its activities, perhaps not as effectively as it has since Mosul. I think that ISIS knew this would come, ISIS did not believe that – you know, now they have Mosul, now they have Raqqa, now they have Deir al-Zour – that they’re not going to see reversals. I think theirs is a very long game and they will go back and forth. And so I think that we need to be cautious when we talk about progress against ISIS.
JLS: Is there anything that can be done to solve the underlying political and social circumstances that create ISIS and give ISIS fuel to continue running?
KB: That would require the Iranians and the Saudis sitting at a table sharing drinks and having food, and you know that’s not happening. So, if that’s not happening, and I don’t think that there’s any power on Earth that can fix those underlying sectarian tensions. I mean if you just look at the Sunnis in Iraq. I mean, there’s this big euphoria about how Mosul is no longer in ISIS hands. And I’m saying, well that is true and it is a victory and an important one. But I’m looking at a year, two years, three years down the line.
The Sunnis are completely a shattered community in Iraq. They fight with each other. ISIS existed because there’s no Sunni core, no Sunni mainstream in Iraq. Ωnd they’re losing territory, especially now if the Kurds are moving towards independence, they’ll lose territory to the Kurds. They have already lost ground to the Shiites.
This is probably the first time, the price of removing ISIS from Mosul is Shiite control over Iraq’s second largest city, which was majority Sunni and a majority of Sunnis and Kurds. Now you have a Shiite-dominated military force along with militias that are going to make sure that ISIS doesn’t come back, and they’re going to engage in some very brutal activities. And that’s going to pour you know gasoline on the fire of sectarianism that’s already burning. And that’s, from an ISIS point of view, another opportunity to exploit and they’re looking forward to it. And that’s sort of the irony in all of this.
JLS: Well it’s not a hopeful note to end the week on but unfortunately, it’s the reality. Thank you for joining us Kamran, and thank you, everyone, for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to visit us at geopoliticalfutures.com. I also encourage you to email us with comments, critiques, suggestions for topics and anything else you want. You can just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Jacob Shapiro, I’m the director of analysis, and we’ll see you out here next week.