Iraq: What was that all about?

Gridlock. Standstill. Impasse. Paralysis. Standoff. These sorts of words may describe Iraqi politics today. But it didn’t have to be so. After a tumultuous three months of high political drama in Baghdad, we can look back and conclude that the crisis was unnecessary, frivolous, and its hoped-for resolution, if Prime Minister Haidar Abadi has his way, will not lead to fundamental reform. And Iraq needs reform. This need has taken on an existential aspect for the survival of the state. Yet three months were wasted that would have been put to better use if the contours of this reform had been fleshed out. The principal culprit for this waste of time and energy has been the instigator of the crisis: Abadi. Unfortunately, what little space availed itself for a political resolution was choked off by the Obama administration’s insistence on keeping Abadi in place.

A brief review. Abadi surprised everyone—including U.S. officials, it seems—by giving a late night speech (February 9) during which he laid out his demand for a ‘fundamental’ cabinet reshuffle, upending Iraqi politics by his desire to replace his current ministers with “technocrats and academics”. He then flew off to Germany on the following day. The cadres of the political class were left scratching their heads: Why did he do that? The majority of his ministers were moderately capable, especially the ones handling the security and economic portfolios, and they worked well with him. Who are these technocrats? Who is going to pick them? Why would Abadi think that they would be better at running the ministries than the ministers already at hand? He also decided to pull this stunt without consulting the heads of the political factions in the country, a country that functions through parliamentary procedure and consensus—not to mention a country that is at war and in serious financial trouble. Again, why did he do that?

Abadi countered that he has a new reform package, and he wanted to implement it without being encumbered by politics. But exactly whom in the cabinet was impeding his ‘reforms’? And what were these reforms anyways? A review of Abadi’s reform package reveals that portions of it were excerpted or borrowed from other reform recommendations available on the internet, some suggested for countries such as Sudan and Algeria. It was boilerplate, vanilla, and generally uninspiring. The kind of drab, box-ticking talking points that a United Nations bureaucrat may author. The package did not address the existential problem that Iraq faces: current oil revenues only pay off, on a good day, 50-60 percent of the public sector payroll bill. This basic equation is not expected to change any time soon, given that very few traders expect oil prices to rise significantly in the next year or so. The only kind of relevant and immediate reform that Iraq needs would have to address this gap between revenue and overhead. But that would be deeply unpopular, as it would be anywhere in the world. It would require leadership, political capital, and a national narrative of ‘We’re all in this together’ to push it through. Abadi has proven unwilling or unable to take the lead. In lieu of actual hard choices, Abadi can nimbly leap forwards, to distract and defer. He thought he had a good thing going with the magic word ‘technocrats’, but that would only solve Iraq’s actual problems if these technocrats managed to lay golden eggs. Abadi’s ability to buy time while pursuing such theatrics had worked well for him previously, but there is not much one can do if one leaps into quicksand.


Abadi during the tumultuous parliamentary session of March 31st.

The sandman cometh. One of the key questions that the Iraqi political class attempted to answer throughout this crisis was “Does Abadi have a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr?” My own conclusion is “No”. At first, right before making his big announcement, Abadi thought he had Sadr onboard. But he did not realize what an ‘alliance’ with Sadr entailed. By asking Sadr to support Abadi’s bid to upend Iraqi politics, the door was left open for Sadr to regain relevance, and relevance is Sadr’s primary motivator. Especially if it means that he can eclipse the “traitors”, those who began as Sadrists but then seceded from his authority. Based on knowledge of conversations between Sadr and his closest circle in 2004, a case can be made that Sadr chose the path towards armed escalation with the United States in order to remain relevant after swaths of his followers began peeling off. More recently, Sadr has watched as Sadrist renegades, principally Asa’ib Ahlul-Haq, attained high popular regard and stature within the Popular Mobilization Forces. Sadr had to find a new way of eclipsing them.

Consequently, if Sadr did not have a firm alliance with Abadi—one that coordinated actions in tandem—then the next question that may arise is “Does Sadr have a deal with someone else?” The answer is again, “No”. What this crisis revealed to me is that no one—not Hassan Nasrallah, not Qasem Suleimani, not Ammar al-Hakim, not Sadr’s nephew, not his chief aides (M. Ya’coubi, W. Zamili, W. Kreimawi, S. Obeidi), not the politburo of the Sadrist movement—has any unique insight into Sadr’s thinking, or the means to influence it. His mind is quicksand, as Abadi soon discovered. That said, there are two sets of ‘brakes’ that Sadr acknowledges and responds to: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Iranian Leader Ali Khamen’i. They can make him stop, but they cannot steer him. And even when these brakes are applied, the skid marks that Sadr leaves in his wake are enough of a reminder that we are dealing with a person who lurches haphazardly to and fro, and his movements might as well be described as policy by divination. Recently, ‘relevance’ for Sadr meant hoping onto the bandwagon of the madaniyya demonstrations that had been gathering since last summer, in an effort to rebrand himself as “The Shepherd [or Overseer] of Reform”.

Sadr, and everyone else, was extremely lucky to have performed all those dramatic stunts without violence breaking out. Slapping around a couple of members of parliament, and rampaging through its halls, does not count as violence by Iraqi standards. Hence, in retrospect, it was all very entertaining to watch. However, having his followers scale the walls of the Green Zone to take a dip in its fountains was Sadr’s ‘nuclear option’. Anything beyond that may tempt his luck and draw blood. Sadr do not seem to have the stomach for that; he also understands that neither Sistani nor Khamen’i would tolerate it. Besides, Sadr has already achieved his goal of becoming relevant. Yet what is the harvest he touts after doing all of this? We are back to Abadi’s meager and ultimately inconsequential ‘reform’ of bringing in the technocrats. So much build-up and noise for so humdrum of a culmination. That is one half of the answer to “How did we arrive at ‘Gridlock. Standstill. Impasse. Paralysis. Standoff’?”

Enabling dysfunction. For the last three months, the political class was keen to tease out the opinions of what they (mistakenly) regard to be the triumvirate of ultimate authority: ‘Najaf’ (the grand ayatollahs, but specifically Sistani), the ‘neighbors’ (the Iranians), and the ‘friends’ (the Americans). It seems that both Najaf and Tehran gave plenty of room for Iraqi politics to breathe and find its footing. While it is always foolhardy to give a definitive account of what was said by either two, because it is always happens to be their intent to keep their channels opaque and their messaging secretive, yet Najaf and Tehran seem to have indicated that if the situation requires it, then they are fine with replacing Abadi. Najaf went even further to suggest that should the National Alliance (the Shi’a bloc in parliament) prove too unwieldy of a political vehicle, then it can be abandoned, and individual Shi’a parties can seek alliances with individual Sunni and Kurdish parties and slates. This was a breath of fresh air into the dank halls of identity politics. Suddenly, the political class was given free rein to creatively reconstitute itself. For that to happen, a complete reshuffling of the deck—one that includes the PM’s position, the presidency, and the speakership of the parliament—must necessarily happen. The political process should have been allowed to take its course.

ahmad falah abadi biden

Caricature by Iraqi artist Ahmed Falah

Unfortunately, there was pushback from Washington. Whether this pushback can be judged by its opponents as shortsighted and cynical, or ‘realistic’ as its proponents would have it, remains to be seen. The Obama administration, after remaining more or less agnostic for two months, came out strongly for Abadi. As far as the Americans were concerned, Abadi was the man they could work with, and replacing him with would incur their displeasure, so much so that they would allow the anti-Islamic State military effort to taper off. Maybe Washington’s sympathy for Abadi is a function of projection: the Obama administration knows too the frustration of working with an intransigent political establishment. But Iraq’s is a parliamentary system, and whoever plays by those rules must develop the habit of working within the system. Abadi chose to reject the rules. Adding insult to injury, he delivered his list of technocrats to parliament on March 31 in a ‘sealed envelope’, so much so that the new cabinet he proposes is now referred to by that moniker. But while the members of parliament, as well as the political bosses of the country waited for the Speaker to break the seal and announce those names, young advisors working in Abadi’s office were leaking the names on social media. It was a powerful message of contempt by the Prime Minister for the political class. However, in choosing to alienate them, he seems to have forgotten that it was this same political class that picked him for the post back in September 2014. Nowadays, Abadi seemingly operates under the illusion that he can remain in place by presidential veto—the U.S. President’s, that is.

One American detractor of the U.S. administration’s policy told me that they are “running out the clock, hoping that Iraq will be someone else’s problem.” I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt, so that we can discuss their actions rather than their motivations. After all, if last week’s policy prescriptions don’t pan out, we should all try to figure out the road ahead rather than wallow in recrimination. Abadi’s proponents in Washington make three reasonable arguments: the focus should be on combating IS and retaking Mosul; Iraq can’t afford to change its leadership in the midst of its negotiations with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; and, there is little chance that the political class would agree on a replacement in a timely manner.

Let’s tackle these points in more depth:

The war against IS: The battlefield successes that were earned by Iraqi security forces had very little to do with Abadi’s charisma or leadership. His visage is not what compels the Iraqi soldier to fight. In fact, on the day that the Sadrists ransacked parliament, Iraqi forces managed to retake the town of Bashir near Kirkuk. The fight went on despite the political wrangling in Baghdad. While Abadi has been helpful in fostering avenues of military cooperation with the United States, he does so because he needs it, and it would be quite a stretch to imagine that his replacement would tend to refuse it. Abadi has said the right things when it comes to the excesses and abuses of the PMFs against Sunnis, but it wasn’t his authority that limited their damage, rather it came about through the efforts of the PMF leadership to ‘contain’ such abuses. There are complex considerations running through the minds of the PMF leadership as to why they did that, one of which has to do with what Iran’s endgame is in Iraq that is yet to be defined (see the last paragraph in this post). Furthermore, the United States must begin to consider that the manner by which the enemy fights may change as it closes onto Mosul, and the prospect that the previous modus operandi of the jihadists may shift from one that harries and distracts, towards one that is more tenacious in holding ground. Rushing a military campaign for Mosul based on what we had seen previously from the enemy needlessly gives a tactical advantage to the jihadists. The other component of the fight against IS, which sadly remains unaddressed, is what vision can Abadi articulate for what life is going to be like for the people of Mosul and Fallouja after the caliphate? If Abadi lacks the skillset and standing to push through a modest political measure such as a government reshuffle, then what can he realistically deliver on by way of a comprehensive settlement with Iraq’s Sunnis? Should the people of Mosul be left to contemplate either one of two fates, that of a ‘good enough’ post-IS Tikrit on the one hand, or the desolation of Ramadi on the other? There must be more on offer in parallel to the military effort, and one would be hard pressed to spot what value Abadi brings to that endeavor.

The World Bank/IMF loans: The Iraqis went to the World Bank and the IMF after trying every other avenue for securing loans and selling bonds. They did so on the advice of the financial institutions that rejected them. The Iraqis were told by these institutions to use the excuse of IMF conditionality to push through painful reforms back at home, such as cutting public sector payrolls, before showing up again and asking for a loan. However, should it turn out that the Obama administration is pressuring the IMF to water down its conditions, then how would these loans help Iraq in the medium to long term? That would essentially mean that Iraq would borrow from the IMF in order to pay public sector salaries. This is hardly a recipe for fundamental reform. The Obama administration may even harangue other states at the G7 summit later this month in Japan to pony up some more cash for Iraq. More cash so that employees at state factories that don’t make anything, or bureaucrats dosing off at their desks, can still get their paychecks for the next seven to ten months. Because that’s how long those loans would last when measured against some of the more rosier scenarios. So if even the IMF won’t compel Abadi to do the hard stuff of reform, then the infusion of cash serves no purpose other than keeping his premiership on life support for a little while longer—cash that will dissipate quickly leaving Iraq with no other recourse for reasonable, timely and meaningful loans in 2017. Washington may want to cut Abadi some slack, and argue that he cannot be held responsible for the spending excesses of his predecessor. Except that he should be: Abadi presided over parliament’s finance committee all through former PM Maliki’s second term. Abadi did not even take his predecessor to task over the ‘missing’ budget of 2014. As such, is Abadi the best candidate at hand to rescue the country from its financial morass?

Picking Abadi’s replacement: It says much about Abadi’s skills as a politician that the political chaos that he instigated and could not control gave Maliki an opening for a comeback of sorts. However, Maliki, unlike Sadr, cannot be content with relevance; Maliki wants dominance. He doesn’t have to be PM again (and he is clever enough to know that that is a long shot, except if there is a Kurdish referendum on independence, but we’ll leave that for another time), but he would like everyone to know that he still wields the influence to pick the next top executive. In parallel to Sadr theatrics, Maliki mounted his own show under the dome of parliament, one that involved some of his acolytes hurling water bottles and tissue boxes at Abadi. Thankfully, it did not amount to much, but it did illustrate what mischief Maliki was capable of fomenting. Let us not forget that Maliki has something that Abadi doesn’t: the killer instinct—once Maliki makes up his mind for something, he will go for it, and he will bite down hard. After all, he likes to remind everyone that his brand is ‘Mr. Authority’, and there are still hundreds (maybe even thousands) of troops in the Green Zone that may answer his call. He also has a lot of money, the same money that Abadi should have expended efforts on demonstrating that it was ill gotten, if nothing but to protect his flank from Maliki’s machinations. But Abadi couldn’t even pull that off. [Abadi’s reluctance to go after him could be an indication that Maliki has something on him. Abadi is not above allegations over his own financial probity, as indicated in this 2004 report to the US Inspector General that surfaced on Wikileaks, pp. 27-33; that cell phone deal was the first big contract undertaken in post-2003 Iraq]. We still won’t know how far of a comeback Maliki can make, but we can be certain that his odds are better while Abadi remains PM.

But for now, Abadi’s replacement won’t be of Maliki’s choosing. Should the political process be allowed to breathe, then consensus can be arrived on rather quickly by the lead actors, with buy-in from Najaf and Tehran. In fact, names have been discussed throughout this whole period since the crisis began. Even Sadr may come around, seeing that he would like to exit the corner he finds himself in after using up his nuclear option. This may sound like science fiction to some, but the prospect of picking a Sunni prime minister was discussed by serious people as a way for the political class to demonstrate (to the demonstrators) that a dramatic break from the old way of doing things is being considered. Increasingly, the political class realizes that they will need to pick a new cast of characters to lead the country, a cast that comes in with enough of a cache of goodwill to sell the Iraqi people on the hard choices as they face the fiscal abyss. Ideally, Abadi, as well as Speaker Saleem al-Juburi and President Fuad Ma’asoum, would selflessly resign their posts, to save face as the political class comes to a consensus on their replacements. Needless to say, it becomes harder to convince them of doing that if Washington insists on a static course.

Peeking into Tehran’s policy-factories. There are many more things to discuss, but I want to keep this post relatively short and readable. However, I would like to highlight one last thing: watching Tehran from the vantage point of Baghdad as it stumbles to provide answers for what comes next is a fascinating experience. Here is my subjective assessment of Iran’s position and future options based on what I heard: The Iranians are astounded that the Americans don’t really care about competing for the Middle East anymore. They are in the midst of a fundamental policy realignment, one that is more tailored to Obama’s disinterest in the region—elements of which they believe to be irreversible under future presidencies—rather than the deal they struck with him. The Iranians would have had a field day with the political drama in Baghdad had they thought, as they did in the past, that any of that really matters for Washington. Yet they have lost their sparring partner, and they find themselves in a very different strategic landscape, one that they have yet to wrap their minds around. That is why they could not say much more that parroting what Sistani was saying throughout the crisis; they didn’t know what they wanted from a post-American Middle East, and they suddenly realized that they were saddled with an irksome Iraq. So much so that Iranians only piped up when Sadrist crowds began chanting anti-Iranian and anti-Suleimani slogans, and even then, all the Iranians had the energy for by way of projecting force was to deploy some of their more-pliable PMFs around the Green Zone, and revving up a few impromptu car parades, horns blaring, waving the Iranian flag in Basra. Iranian angst over what lies ahead may all add up to a decoupling of their Syria and Iraq strategies: Syria because they are in too deep, and Iraq because it is too much of a headache.


The Middle East On Notice: the American ‘Syndicate’ Is No More

The timing of Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in The Atlantic (‘The Obama Doctrine’) could not be more consequential. It comes at a time when a ‘war party’ within the House of Saud must decide whether to pull the trigger on a military adventure in Syria. President Obama’s suggestion that the Saudis should “share” the Middle East with Iran as part of a regional “cold peace”—another way of saying ‘stalemate’—seemingly confirms their worst suspicion: they, as well as all the other actors, must now face a post-American Middle East. Rather than bet on the irrationality of war, as Obama does, those actors are likely to leverage the very rational opportunities of expanded violence. As such, analysts and historians may retroactively judge Obama’s words as the starting whistle for a number of hot wars that those actors felt compelled in pursuing ahead of achieving the stalemate envisioned by Washington.

Obama’s line of thinking, as well as the various arguments against it, were thoughtfully laid out in Goldberg’s piece. I shall not delve into that. However, I would like to address some of the aftershocks that may arise in the region because of it. Though I disagree with much of what Obama said, I understand how he arrived at it. I just wished he hadn’t said it on the record.

The Atlantic Obama.PNG

The ‘Syndicate’ paradigm. The article makes two pop culture references to organized crime: a scene from The Godfather III and the Joker character from Batman: The Dark Knight. I found those references useful in framing America’s conundrum in the Middle East. If the region had indeed turned into a Hobbesian ‘free for all’, and America is unwilling to play the role of the world’s police officer (or police commissioner, for that matter), then America could have starred in the alternative role of capo di tutti capi, boss of bosses. It would be an acknowledgement by her that if order cannot be maintained by international law, then a legally-grey ‘code of conduct’ would have ensured a semblance of order.

The Middle East used to be a strategic street corner in the old neighborhood where America first got her chops on the international scene—or so Obama suggests. But America has moved on to bigger and better things (technological innovation, energy independence, pivot to Asia, etc.). However, America could have held on to that prestigious street corner to drive home a point to any would-be street ‘toughs’ or upstarts: should those upstarts allow things to get out of hand, or should the revenue streams get imperiled, or should they try to make a point about their own ‘toughness’ by making a play for that corner, then the old boss will demonstrate a willingness to fight for that corner. That willingness to stand one’s ground, or moxie, makes the old boss relevant; eventually the upstarts must come around and kiss the ring. Yet Obama, the Chicagoan, believes that holding on to that street corner is too premised on ego, and unnecessarily expensive. Besides, the old neighborhood has gone to hell. Who cares, right? Some new criminal syndicate would eventually arise to deal with the headache. The fallacy of this line of thinking is that arriving at equilibrium involves a mere ‘sit-down’ between rational actors who predominately care about the bottom-line, and somehow they will find their way to an equitable cold peace that all could profit from. It brushes aside the rational agency of a drive-by or a barbershop ‘whack’ in arriving at a better bargaining position. Suddenly, the old neighborhood is in the news, politicians are fuming, and the rest of the town presumes that the old boss is not as agile as she used to be. Movies and TV series about organized crime tell us that such presumptions do not end well for bosses.

The Saudis. The Saudis are mentioned a lot in the piece, and not in a positive light. Imagine what trepidation was going on in Riyadh as Saudi decision makers clicked on the link to an article titled ‘The Obama Doctrine’. They wanted, nay, they needed to know what that doctrine was as much as the rest of us did. And they need to know it right now. The Saudis have waited for five years for Obama to do something about an increasingly volatile security situation in the Middle East. Obama, for his part, took his own sweet ‘academic time’ in formulating a thesis that explains his hesitation over doing more. The value and importance of the Goldberg piece is that now we know where Obama stands, and why. Actually, the why, although thoughtfully expressed, is of no use to the House of Saud at this point. Their takeaway is that they should wait no longer: this U.S. president has made up his mind. They should not expect action from him. Cue egg-on-face for all those Saudi moderates who counselled against the adventurist inclinations of the ‘war party’ within the royal family. The moderates had argued that Saudi Arabia should not act alone, and that whatever it does on the battlefield must be coordinated with its American ally. How much credibility do those moderates stand on after the publication of this piece? The ‘war party’ is ready to go to the mattresses. They envision an anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria that leaves piles of bodies on the streets. This is how they will demonstrate moxie to those other upstarts, the Iranians and the Russians, who had gotten a head start in the race for the control of the street corner that the U.S. had seemingly ceded.

[Of course, all this stuff is far more nuanced than what I am asserting here, but it helps to distill motivations and capacity in such a manner so that we can figure out what may happen next. For more on the ‘why’ and probably the ‘how’ of Saudi Arabia’s imminent (at least to me) campaign in Syria, kindly refer to my recent paper: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic Alliance’. There’s another point to make here: several Iraqi Sunni leaders, when defending their stance of continuing to wait for America to do something big in the region, say something along the lines of “We are waiting for the next American administration.” The Saudis, on the other hand, have sophisticated feelers for Washington DC currents, and they must be looking at the primary election season in the U.S. and thinking to themselves: “We shouldn’t expect much.”]

The Saudis are not going to share the Middle East with the Iranians if their consolation prizes are reduced to Bahrain and Yemen. They can’t allow the Iranians to walk away with Iraq and Syria. And if they can’t get one or both back, then they will probably opt to get parts of them back. Of course, it is a fallacy to assume that Saudi Arabia has a legitimate claim to the leadership of Arab Sunnis, but it hasn’t stopped the House of Saud from talking itself into believing it. Such beliefs can have significant ramifications, especially when coupled with adventurism and action. Worse, still, is inaction. If the Saudis don’t act, Iran will be the least of their worries. (I would even say that an important faction in Tehran may want things to turn out in such a way so that Saudi Arabia saves face given the latter’s recent sabre rattling, because such an accommodation would prevent the region from spiraling into a turf war.) Which leads us to the second fallacy that lies at the heart of Obama’s grand recommendations: that there are only two actors at play here, Saudi Arabia and Iran. No. Another far more dangerous upstart is on the scene.

The Islamic State. One can only imagine what is going in the mind of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as his aides translate the outlines of The Atlantic article to him. I think his thoughts would go along these lines: “If America is out of the competition, and it’s only us versus the Saudis and the Iranians, then our enterprise has a fighting chance. After all, who has our variety of moxie?” The strategists of the Islamic State may believe that they have already taken on all that Iran can deploy against them in Iraq and Syria, and yet their nascent state still stands. They may also believe that Saudi Arabia does not have the stomach for a bruising turf war. Osama Bin Laden used to think that America was “a paper-tiger.” Maybe he was right, the jihadists would argue, but it took a couple of wars over fifteen years for America herself to realize it. Whether those jihadists are analyzing the evolving dynamic around them correctly or not shall have little bearing on the delusions that drive them to make a play for the street corner. History is replete with imperial enterprises that were dismissed at their onset as delusions by naysayers.

Turkey. And President Erdogan, what is he thinking? “That street corner used to be ours!” He may also be concerned that Kurds reading The Atlantic in Erbil or Qamishli or even Diyarbakir would assume that this is their opportunity to go big and bold.

Europe. Those “pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats” of Scandinavia, for whom Obama expresses admiration in the piece, may be rubbing their temples and saying, repeatedly, “this is not good.” The Middle East is only a boat journey, a trek, and a train ride away from them. A turf war occurring “over there” is within their geostrategic earshot. Terrorism brings it even nearer.

China. Obama counsels that the U.S. should pay more attention to China. But the Middle East matters a lot to China, because energy sources and maritime trade routes to Europe and other markets matter. Flattering as Obama’s attention may be, the Chinese must be wondering, “Who’s watching the till?”

Israel. What would Netanyahu have to say about The Atlantic piece? We have a fair idea what it could be given Goldberg’s previous reporting on the Israeli prime minister’s thoughts vis-à-vis Obama’s resolve. So, not good.

And, then. The act of divining an Obama Doctrine, in as much as it is one, by parsing together statements made here, and actions taken there, as was previously undertaken by actors active in the Middle East, had introduced a measure of hesitation that mitigated against adventurism on their part. Some of those actors (Assad, Putin, Netanyahu, and the Iranians) had tried to poke at the doctrine from time to time to see what happens, but that occurred in fits and starts, again because no one could know for sure what the consequences of going too far would entail. But It is quite another thing altogether to read it expressed so clearly in the president’s own words. Obama’s previous mode of ambiguity had contributed to holding the parties at bay, which in turn gave the Middle East a measure of relative ‘peace’. His newly expressed clarity may shake it.

Consequently, for some observers and actors in the region, the ‘Obama Doctrine’ piece potentially marks the ‘wooden-staff-had-given-away-from-under-King-Solomon’ moment of America’s role there.




Paper: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic Alliance’: Major Challenge for Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, or Potential Opportunity?

Link: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic Alliance’: Major Challenge for Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, or Potential Opportunity?

To be published in a forthcoming issue of the Hudson Institute’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Suggested soundtrack while reading: Saudi Singer Challenges Russia: You Are No Match for Saudi Arabia, Putin Has Brought Trouble upon You

What is happening in Iraq?

PM Abadi has locked himself into a political bind, and it is unlikely that he would find a way out of it other than having to resign his post. The United States government had put too much of a bet on Abadi as its only necessary partner in Iraq, and may find it does not have enough leverage over various political actors towards the goal of keeping Abadi at the helm. Those actors, who feel sidelined and spurned by American engagement with Abadi, may sense that the Obama administration needs to demonstrate, to the American public, that it is doing something against the jihadists in Iraq, rather than risk suggesting American disengagement from the country if the Iraqi politicos do not play along with its political preferences.

Abadi’s cabinet reshuffle. Abadi declared that he seeks a “fundamental government reshuffle” and a cabinet of “technocrats” rather than politicians. Allegedly, his vision entails replacing all the ministers except for two, with the Minister of Planning staying in place, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi (the current oil minister) heading foreign affairs. Abadi believes that a reshuffle would buy him time and goodwill in the minds of an increasingly disillusioned Iraqi public, as expressed on social media, and that he can deflect criticism away from him towards the political process and its main actors. He also believes that his Da’awa Party flank is secure since if he goes, then Da’awa will not be able to suggest a replacement for him from its own ranks, and the PM slot will go to another Shi’a political bloc. Abadi also thought that he had neutralized Sadr by coordinating the announcement of the reshuffle with him. He cited Sadr’s support to convince panicked Da’awa cadres that his ‘leap ahead’ would not jeopardize the party’s hold on the PM slot.

But there are two problems with his justifications for this reshuffle. Administratively, the ministers holding the portfolios that are most relevant to Iraq’s immediate challenges—finance, security, and regional balances—are able administrators who enjoy a measure of political clout. I can think of only three weak links who should be changed in the following institutions: Finance, Central Bank, Planning, Oil, Electricity, Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. One would be hard pressed to think of a better replacement for Hoshyar Zebari as Finance Minister or Adel Abdul-Mahdi for Oil, for example. If Abadi cannot work with this current team as it is, then that is probably an administrative failing on his part.

Politically, Abadi has been unable to forge a meaningful alliance between his SOL faction with Hakim and Sadr, even though Najaf wanted to see that happen. The manner by which Abadi had managed his relationship with Hakim, in particular, seems to reflect a political failing on the former’s part. The resignation of Hakim’s ministers from the cabinet is allegedly imminent. If Abadi’s chief political complaint, as relayed to the Americans, is the danger that Maliki poses to his authority, then the current rupture with Hakim should have been unnecessary. It is highly likely that Hakim will begin an aggressive move now towards forming a Shia-Sunni-Kurd political majority in parliament to replace Abadi, and to rework the political arrangement arrived at when the government was formed.

Those two failings, administrative and political, are best encapsulated in how Abadi mismanaged his coordination with Sadr ahead of the announcement.

Mr. Sadr goes to Baghdad. Sadr had other ideas for how to make use of Abadi’s overture to him. Sadr, being Sadr, went maximalist with a list of near-impossible demands. He initially embraced Abadi’s call, and then went ahead and publically laid out a formula for how the candidates for the new cabinet portfolios should be picked. He named individuals to various committees that would be tasked with vetting and picking candidates, essentially denying Abadi his prerogative as chief executive. Not only that, but the mechanism is likely to be rejected by the rest of the political establishment. But it wouldn’t be up to them to vocally say ‘no’—Abadi has to do it.

One can suggest that Sadr is just being erratic and impractical. But there seems to be more method to what he is doing. Sadr may have deliberately constructed a political trap for Abadi, and it seems that latter has now figured out that he is trapped. Sadr must also be mindful that with Sistani seemingly bowing out of the pro-reform debate, then the field is open to Khamen’i. That is essentially the ‘gentlemanly’ agreement arrived at two years ago between Sistani and Khamen’i; if the former takes the lead in shaping the Iraqi polity, then the latter will acquiesce. If not, then Khamen’i gets to have a go. Sadr knows about this agreement, as do many others. He may have determined that Khamen’i would lean towards other ‘Sadrist’ factions (such as AAH) who have demonstrated more loyalty to Iran. So Sadr had to act.

Sadr built-in a timeline for his proposal: 45 days. He also coupled his reform agenda with a plan to re-invigorate the pro-reform Friday demonstrations that had been ongoing for six months. Sadr intends to headline this Friday’s demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir square by promising to lead his flock in prayer.

Sadr also made Abadi lose face by forcing the latter’s hand over where to meet today: Sadr got his way, and Abadi had to leave the Green Zone and travel to the Kadhimiya shrine for a sit down with the visiting cleric. The optics of a PM having to bend over backwards to the leader of a political movement who is suggesting to strip him of executive prerogatives, and who is simultaneously planning to lead what is essentially an anti-government rally, is not a good one for Abadi. Furthermore, Sadr seems to have tailored his list of names for the ‘minister picking’ committees specifically to win over the liberal and secular demonstrators of Tahrir Sq., who had previously been willing to give Abadi the benefit of the doubt. In doing so, he is playing on one of Abadi’s weaknesses: his perceived sensitivity—one may say over-sensitivity—to what there liberal secularists are writing about him on social media.

It could very well be that after 45 days elapse Sadr will declare that he had given Abadi a chance, and that it is high time to change him. By then, Sadr may find that Hakim had cobbled together the necessary votes for a Shia-Sunni-Kurd parliamentary plurality that seeks to evict the Da’awa Party from power, and he may well join them.

Kurds. The PUK may be farther along towards figuring out how to share power between its internal nodes that most observers can see. But that power sharing is premised on three outcomes: striking a deal with the KDP to oust Goran, separating party leadership from KRG leadership positions, and replacing Fouad Masoum as president of Iraq. The PUK may go along with the replacement of Abadi-Masoum-Juburi in part because they need that position vacated for a member of the PUK’s triumvirate.

The KDP have their own, amply reported reasons for changing Abadi. The KDP leadership can buy time among an increasingly agitated populace, one that is agitated by financial stress, by suggesting that choosing a new person in charge in Baghdad may alleviate some of the KRG’s financial woes. Barzani may even offer the incoming PM the prospect of delaying the proposed referendum on Kurdish independence as a gesture of goodwill to Baghdad (…and to Ankara, and to Tehran, and to Washington), and turning a new leaf with the central government.

Sunnis. The ‘national’ leaders of the Sunnis feel wounded. They believe that both Abadi and the Americans have concluded that their collective political shelf-life has expired after the Islamic State took over most of Arab Sunni territories. They are also watching with unease as Abadi, and the Americans as well, put more stress on working with ‘local’ Sunni leaders such as the governors of Anbar and Salahuddin, as well as the Sunni waqf, the religious endowment. They are incensed that, in many of these cases, these local Sunni leaders were the ones Maliki had propped up as part of a systematic policy to undermine the national leaders.

Regardless of whether their feelings are warranted or not, their current situation has created an atmosphere of camaraderie and a sense of a shared political fate. They have been quietly re-forging the Sunni bloc in parliament under the leadership of Usama al-Nujeifi, and they are doing so at Juburi’s expense. The national leaders may have concluded that the Abadi-American bet on the local leaders will fall apart, given that very local considerations, such as the scale of the devastation to places like Ramadi and the Beiji refinery, and the inability to curtail abuses from the PMFs, will continue to erode the local legitimacy of ‘Maliki’s Sunnis’. Juburi’s inability to do much about PMF abuses in Diyala has wounded him, plus, he saw an opportunity in the way the other nationals were being dismissed, and he tried to take advantage of it. This did not go unnoticed by them. It is likely that if Abadi and Masoum are changed, he too would have to go.

What comes next?

Abadi would have been better served by using the time at hand to come up with immediate and fundamental solutions to Iraq’s financial crises. Estimates vary, with the government officially declaring that “all is still fine”, but the financial shortfalls between cash-at-hand and expenditures may begin showing next month, according to a well-placed source.

One can reasonably argue that the last thing Iraq needs now is to replace its Prime Minister and invite further political uncertainty. This blog had argued much the same case back in October. But it is the PM himself who opened up this door. And in doing so, he may have revealed that it is indeed time to address his administrative and political shortcomings. Gambling on a dramatic government reshuffle, without laying down the necessary political groundwork and buy-in from the major players, at this delicate and problematic time for the country, speaks to the PM’s political instincts.

With Maliki, it took the Obama administration a long while to mentally dissociate from the former Iraqi PM. This time around, political maneuverings by actors such as Hakim and Sadr may be happening too quickly for Washington’s taste, and even though it has thousands of troops and far more reaching engagement with the country, America’s leverage on Iraqi politics had been weakened. One thing to remember is that the current challenge to Abadi is not coming from actors or groups beholden to Iran. The reasons for the ‘leverage problem’ in this particular case are not wholly of Tehran’s making.

Link: Previous ‘What is happening in Iraq?’



Did the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ Fail?

An essay in response to I. Krastev, on the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring

Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev penned a compelling, smart and mostly valid Op-Ed for the New York Times (Nov. 11, 2015) under the title ‘Why Did the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ Fail?’

To my mind, Krastev has succeeded in writing the smartest indirect put down of the redemptive qualities of liberalism that I have read in recent years. I disagree with it, but I respect the comprehensiveness and boldness of his argument. However, I had to give him the benefit of the doubt before countering, after all, how much of an argument can he buttress within the strictly edited, word-count poor confines of a Times Op-Ed. To do so, I read his recent book, Democracy Disrupted, The Global Politics of Protest (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) from which many of the points and wording of the Op-Ed were culled.

Essentially, Krastev is making the Realist case against giving too much of historical significance to the global protest movements, which began with the Arab Spring and then spread to many societies around the world, including those in the West. Krastev’s case is particularly germane to how the Realist school of politics has understood the Middle East for the past seventy years, and the policy prescriptions they have offered in dealing with the region’s challenges. His argument lends itself to an existing debate among Western policy circles about whether democracy is a good fit for the nations of the Middle East, as opposed to sticking with the status quo. This debate began—and in some people’s minds, ended—in Iraq. The Realists would, after having been taken by surprise when the Arab Spring burst onto the scene, brandish Krastev’s writings as evidence that they were right.

The only problem is that they are fundamentally wrong, and however much they argue otherwise, the evidence of their mistakes in the Middle East, beginning with the attacks of September 11, 2001, through the Arab Spring, and now with the rise of ISIS, should have put the debate to rest. But it hasn’t, and yet another round of Realist mistakes is in the making.

The Realists are committed proponents of the status quo. They maintain that the best that can be hoped, when crafting policy, is a constant state of crisis management and damage control. They seek to bolster order where it reigns, and to contain the rogue elements that may encroach upon it. They come across as the haggard, exasperated staff of an Emergency Room, attempting to manage the carnage of chaos and stanch the bloodshed. They have no time for big, pre-emptive remedies such as liberalism. It is difficult to argue with such a state of mind when suggesting that an ideological vaccine may mitigate the contagion of chaos.

The fundamental delusion of the Realists is their assumption that the status quo is sustainable. They did not see the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon coming. The stubbornness of their presupposition blinded them from seeing that the protest movements of the Middle East may have presented the opportunity for the long awaited vaccine. They are similarly obstinate when assessing the early legacy of those protests. Krastev dismisses this legacy and belittles it. He is mistaken.

Krastev begins his case by second-guessing Marx, Hugo, Proudhon, de Tocqueville and Bagehot about the significance of Napoleon’s 1851 coup, asserting “they all mistook the end of Europe’s three-year revolutionary wave for its beginning.”

He finds a parallel with how the Western media mistook the protests of Turkey, Russia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen, to be the harbingers of a new revolutionary wave, and poses this question as his central thesis: “It is commonplace to ask why the ‘Twitter revolutions’ are in retreat. But the more intriguing question is why we were so convinced that they would succeed in the first place.”

Krastev picks out the West’s ‘political narcissism’ as the culprit. He holds that a Pollyannaish delusion blind-sighted Western eyes that read too much into those protests, foolishly assuming that they were positivist movements leaping towards democracy that were unleashed by the ‘utopian possibilities’ of new technology. He correctly admonishes the protest movements as anti-establishmentarian, that the protesters had failed to formulate what type of order should replace the status quo. Krastev finds merit and validation in the status quo—‘the party of order’—by citing its ability to strike back at what is essentially, in his eyes, chaos. And he is not alone—much of the Western policy circles think along the same lines. How brave his thesis would have been had it not been the doctrine by which Western governments have responded to these movements (see the Obama administration’s very Realist policies).

The inherent weakness of Krastev’s assessment of the historical significance of the protests lies at the foundation of his argument: if the revolutionaries did not know what they had set out to do, then how can we judge whether they succeeded or failed by their inability to meet their goals?

Recent history demonstrates that the ‘West’ was in a mindset that deeply mistrusted the protest movements as they were unfolding, and there is one reason for that: Iraq (see the Realist editorial line of the New York Times on the topic over the last decade and a half). Similarly, revolutionary history tells us that intellectuals rarely take other intellectuals seriously, until the types of revolutionary men and women who were manning the barricades in the city center succeed, eventually, in storming the Winter Palace; it took seventy years to vindicate Marx, Hugo, Proudhon et al.

Bassem Youssef, referred to in the Western press as ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’ and who turned his comedic YouTube show into a new media phenomenon across the Arabic-speaking world, is in a hurry to be vindicated, and expresses that hurry bluntly. Speaking to an audience in Australia a few days before Krastev’s piece was published, Youssef said: “For those who come to me now and say, ‘Well, the Arab Spring has failed or the Middle East is not ready for democracy,’ I just answer back… ‘Get stuffed’.”

His show was shut down by the ‘party of order’ in Egypt. But Youssef provides a preview for what will become of the protesters: “They might come across as helpless and unable to make change, but deep inside they are rejecting the status quo,” he said in his Sydney address. “They are silently revolting against the same taboos that were deemed untouchable. They are questioning everything. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is off limits.”

Youssef’s preview of what comes next is valid, but he misses another latent Twitter revolution that is unfolding: the resurgence of the extremist narratives that empower Sunni and Shia jihadists across the Middle East—also busily rejecting the status quo.

It is that other, darker revolution that compels us now, yet again, to find an ideological vaccine for the failings of Realism and the status quo it upholds. Ironically, that experimental vaccine is being beta-tested in Iraq. Its brand name is madaniyya.


Baghdad protests. Credit: Karim Kadhim, AP

What were the ‘Twitter Revolutions’?

Krastev sets out to capture the meaning of events. He writes that he was inspired to undertake this task by the protests in his native Bulgaria, and that the protests in Russia, Turkey and Thailand are central to his argument. He describes his aim as modest, but his breadth, in finding the common thread through protests in seventy countries, and by sifting through the “big data” they produced in word and form, is anything but.

Krastev revisits many definitions for the ‘Twitter Revolutions’. They were ‘global’ popular protests comprised of ‘individuals with different political views and agendas’ who succeeded in fashioning a common language with a common message. Spontaneous, leaderless, nonviolent, citing Thomas Friedman’s term “square people” and Francis Fukuyama’s characterization of the “revolution of the global middle class”. Krastev believes that this global protest wave and “networks of hope” pushed societies into polarization, and that this polarization empowered the likes of Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin to push back in favor for consolidation around the state and the national leader. Krastev calls this pushback “a new anti-cosmopolitan moment.” The West failed to understand who would come out as the victor from this confrontation between the revolutionaries and the status quo because it suffers from a state of ‘liberal teleology’ that places too much faith in the redemptive power of Western-style democracy.

Finally, the delusion and tenuous cohesion of social media networking was no match for the expectations of conservative-leaning societal majorities, who trust the stability and constancy of a ‘strong’ state rather than the pretty words of a poet.

Krastev understands the need for classifications among the examples he cites, but in making his argument, he ignores the importance of categorization. The crux of his argument is that the protesters are anti-establishmentarian and anti-elite, but lack an alternative vision. They have taken democracy and change through elections for granted. They lack patience, and wallow in personal aggrandizement. They would rather take ‘selfies’ of themselves as individualistic activists than cast ballots or join a party, or unionize. I would maintain that this rings true for the category of protests we have seen in established democracies, an extreme example being the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. Here, Krastev’s thoughtful and innovative reading of the protests in the West captures the meaning of events However, as we move towards other classifications such as those of new democracies (Russia and Bulgaria, for example) one can see fissures in the argument—one that the intellectually honest Krastev points out himself. I maintain that his argument falls apart when we study the case of the Middle East, where the protest movements began.

If judged by the Middle Eastern protests, Krastev’s definitions are wrong on three counts: that the protests were ‘liberal’ and middle class, that the protesters were enamored with ‘technological utopianism’, and that the status quo is motivated by the static cynicism of order for order’s sake.

The ‘Twitter Revolutions’ (a handle that itself smacks of dismissiveness) were revolutions of the center. Not a class center, and not a political one either. It was the center of the lowest common denominator. Dissenters, many of them middle-class, were called upon from their salons and cafes, where they had been brooding against the status quo—Youssef was brooding in the doctors lounge somewhere in Cairo—to go to the town square and agree on what constitutes basic human decency. This was no referendum on Western-style democracy and liberalism, and it certainly was not a euphoric celebration of the Silicon Valley ethos of ‘destructive innovation’ as Krastev puts it. Twitter and other social media were tools much as the pamphleteer’s press was in mid-19th century Europe. In Tunisia, the lowest common denominator they agreed upon held that a fruit vendor should not be forced to burn himself alive to escape economic despair. In Egypt, they agreed that it was wrong to have a young activist bludgeoned to death by the state’s security apparatus. In 2009, preceding these two events, protesters in Iran rallied because they played by the regime’s rules and voted. But the regime undermined the rules when the results were not to its liking. In 2005, the Lebanese could not stomach the thought that the Syrian regime should be allowed to kill one of their country’s leaders in a massive suicide attack. In the last of the great protests of the Middle East, in Istanbul, a society decided that they don’t want to see firehoses directed against activists who were merely trying to protect a bunch of trees. But what began as the moral indignation of a liberal middle class moved something in the consciousness of many other sectors of society, so they too started moving towards the squares. Critically, the most important phenomenon of the squares was the conversation it occasioned between all those varying agendas, which was far more important than what they were shouting in defiance of the state. It was the return of open political discourse to the Middle East after a long absence. Very quickly, they managed to agree on expanding the lowest common denominator. In Tunisia, they agreed that they should return to the genteel politics of their country’s 1960s and 1970s. In Egypt, they agreed that they do not like the prospect of autocrats turning their authority into a dynasty. In Turkey, they agreed that the foundational myths of their country are outdated, and it is time to see the colorful composition of Turkish society for what it is, a strength for their Turkish nation rather than a threat to Turkish nationalism.

Lumping in Syria, Libya and Yemen, with the cases above is misleading. On the spectrum of relativity, the status quo in Damascus, Tripoli and Sana’a (let us not also forget Bahrain’s capital, Manama) leaned towards the end-point of menacing dictatorships rather than to the end-point of mostly-benign autocracies. The transgressions against basic human decency perpetrated over decades were far more acute, and there was more hurt and more angry people, with good reason to be. Those transgressions manifested themselves in how the status quo reacted, extremely, against dissent.

Bringing in Russia and the Ukraine into the conversation merely clouds our understanding further. Their rich traditions of revolution and intellectualism, and their experience of Western-style autocracy and totalitarianism—and more recently, elections and democracy—belongs in a Western category.

It seems that the occasion of Krastev’s Op-Ed in the Times was that the second round of the Turkish elections early this month validated his book’s point, whereas the first round conducted in June challenged it at its core. The results of the June election came about because of the protests of Gezi Park in 2013.

Did Erdogan’s election victory vindicate Realism?

President Erdogan didn’t like the results of the first round of national elections. He escaped forward by picking a fight with the Kurds. Erdogan’s form of ‘order’ was willing to employ adventurism and disorder towards coldly-calculated political ends; his cynicism, and his brand of the status quo, were never static. He felt compelled to do that because the challenge he faced in Gezi Park had borne an unimagined byproduct: change through the force of hope. It is ironic that Gezi Park could only happen because of Erdogan’s previous adventurism, when he went after, and tamed, the Turkish ‘Deep State’. Empowered by a constituency buoyed by real economic success, and one that had been exhausted by political bickering and the Kurdish insurgency over decades, Erdogan arrived at the right moment when the Turkish military and its Kemalist ideal was most vulnerable. He boldly rent through the fissures and succeeded, albeit employing questionable tactics of peddling conspiracy and manipulating the judiciary and the media.

Erdogan’s adventurist feat created room for a conversation. This conversation, like the one that had unfolded previously in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, found expression in the squatter tents of Gezi Park. What sets the protesters in Turkey apart from those in Europe, was that they were contending with a legacy of identity, and in this, their challenge was more Middle Eastern than European.

Modern Turkey almost belongs in the European category, but not quite so. It has one of the strongest economies in Europe, its foundational myths are distinctly Western inspired (in this case, rightist nationalism), and it aspired to join the European Union. Gezi Park lies geographically in Europe. At one time, Mr. Krastev’s hometown was ruled from the vicinity of the park.

I judge modern Turkey to be not-quite-European through this personal anecdote: a few months before Gezi Park, I was walking along Istanbul’s main European thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi. I passed a crowd of two dozen youths who had gathered around a band of young singers. They were singing  and clapping their hands. Their songs were Kurdish nationalist ones. This was happening fifty meters away from the riot police that one can find perennially parked by the ornate gate of the Galatasaray high school. I was stunned: Turkey had come a long way over the past decade, when expressions of Kurdish identity could still get one in trouble. The acceptance of a unique Kurdish identity within Turkey was a litmus test; in fact it is one of the benchmarks the EU has set to judge Turkey’s accreditation. Ataturk’s legacy was laicism. He wanted Turkey to become a Western power. When the bulk of the West headed towards liberalism and the tolerance of unique identities within national narratives, Turkey lingered behind, tethered down by Kemalism, because it could not come to terms with a challenge such as that of Kurdish identity. As such, this was a culture that resisted change, in a distinctly non-Western manner. But change, slow-coming, did eventually come, and it blossomed in Gezi Park.

I got to see the phenomenon on its last day, in fact in its final hour. I left before realizing that this was to be its end when the riot police marched in for what turned out to be the final time. Gathered there were all the pieces of the Turkish puzzle that had resisted Ataturk’s forced forging of a national Turkish identity, in his own image for the most part. There was a Kurdish dance underway. One of the dancers wore a shirt emblazoned with the Kurdish flag and the caption ‘Kurdistan’. The trinkets and talismans of Alevism, a pseudo-Shi’ite religion, were being hawked alongside slices of watermelon. Transvestites sat with their backs leaning against dapper Istanbulites from ‘White Turk’ pedigrees. If one knows where to look, one could also spot members of the shadowy Gulenist religious order circulating among the tents. This was no sugary expression of transient camaraderie. In the true Turkish manner, it was a stern nod from one set of unique identities towards another—“I see you, and I don’t mind that you are here, sharing our common space.” This was unprecedented, and exceptionally powerful. Rather than a carnival, Gezi Park was an outdoor museum of ethnography, sociology, class hierarchy, and even sexual orientation. It was everything that Kemalism had tried to deny or paper-over; it was a conversation that Turkey had to have with itself, an acknowledgment of itself as it is, before it could move forward.

gezi park 1

gezi park 2

Contrary to the predictions Krastev put down in Democracy Disrupted, the Gezi Park phenomenon did move forward, and it found expression, and leadership, in a retooled vehicle for Kurdish identity politics, the People’s Democratic Party, HDP. A few months before the first round of Turkish elections, I met a friend, a journalist (not a Kurd), at a posh outdoor setting. She began to extoll the virtues of the HDP, encouraging me to meet its young leader, Selahattin Demirtas. She was telling how many liberal voters are going to sway their ballots to the HDP in a strategic push across the ten percent threshold. All I could think to do while she was speaking was to ask her to keep her voice down and to shush up. I was worried that the company at the table over would overhear her. In my mind, the HDP was still what it always was, a front for the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organization that had roiled the country’s southeast in a decades-long civil war. I was wrong. Turkey had changed. The spirit of Gezi Park had propelled it along.

I had asked another Turkish friend who I knew from college how he had voted. He was a true cynic, and I was prepared for a “why should I vote?” answer. He surprised me by saying, “I voted for the HDP. For the Armenian candidate.” My friend’s father was Jewish, and his mother a Muslim Turk. His choice of candidate surprised me as much as his act of voting. When questioned as to why he did that, he said, “because they reflect my principles.” He was no ‘strategic’ voter; the option of voting for the HDP had turned him into a believer. He himself was surprised when he learnt that his mother had voted for them too, after decades of loyalty to the ‘Kemalist’ party.

The strategic victory of the HDP in June almost put an end to Erdogan’s long reign, which oscillated from the direct (as Prime Minister) to the indirect (from his current perch as President). Erdogan escaped forwards by unleashing a new military adventure. He brought back the haunting specter of the PKK by resuming warfare against it; the PKK obliged him to battle because they were just as threatened by what Demirtas represented. Demirtas was the portal to the future created by Gezi Park; he was even called the ‘Kurdish Obama’. Through him, Turkey would outgrow identity politics. The old crusty warriors of the PKK wouldn’t have any of that. Neither would Erdogan. New life was breathed into identity politics, specifically on the Kurdish issue, to repolarize Turkish society. It worked, to an extent, as Krastev’s points out in the ‘I-told-you-so update’ to his thesis, published as the Times Op-Ed. But Krastev misses a crucial point: Erdogan burnt through his credentials as a transformer of Turkish society (after having launched the ‘Kurdish Opening’, among other initiatives) just to win back a clutch of parliamentary seats for his party. Erdogan’s victory in the second round of elections on Nov. 1 was a pyrrhic one, it wasn’t enough of a victory to recast Turkey in his own image (he would need a two third majority in parliament for constitutional changes; the seats won for his party fall short of that), because Gezi Park had changed Turkey first. Erdogan now has to face a country split down the middle, polarized for the most part against his ambitions. That, to me, does not seem like a very stable order of things. Erdogan escaped forwards into disorder. And the HDP, and Demirtas, are still around to challenge him.

When we look back at the protests of the Middle East, we can discern that some were about the reintroduction of politics (Tunisia and Egypt, for example, with the status quo reclaiming ground in the latter), while, in the Turkish example, the protests were about outgrowing identity politics. Whether any of this shall move forward, whereby it eventually settles into the mold of ‘politics as usual’, in the Western sense, is too early to tell. Some protests lit up civil wars, namely in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The protesters there cannot be faulted for rising up against the status quo; they understood the risk that the status quo would strike back harshly. But they judged that the time had come. They were partly right in their judgement: the status quo was too feeble to beat them back fully, and the result is the stalemate of ongoing civil wars that compel Western and regional intervention to varying degrees.

All these stages (reintroduction of politics, identity politics, the status quo trying to assert itself, and civil war) played out, and continue to play out in Iraq. Iraq was the first place in which the status quo was brought down by foreign intervention. The proponents of the status quo in Washington, the Realists, contend that the folly of tinkering with a tolerably well-contained example of the ‘status quo’ such as that of Iraq’s amounted to ‘Original Sin’ and that Western liberalism, in advancing democracy there, had taken a fateful bite from a forbidden apple.

How does Iraq fit in the Realist argument?

The rest of the regimes of the Middle East perceived that America’s remaking of Iraq would result in an existential challenge to the entire foundation of the region’s status quo. The head of the Arab League famously said that, “it would open up the gates of Hell.” The King of Jordan warned of a Shi’ite Crescent. Qatar’s Aljazeera spared no moment of airtime denouncing what America was trying to do. The vestiges of Saddam’s status quo were still around after their regime’s collapse, and they were very angry. Arab Sunnis felt that their traditional hold on power was at stake, and that the Shi’ites and Kurds were going to come at them with revenge. All mobilized to actively drive home the message that tinkering with Iraq is a mistake. The fray was joined by jihadists such as the Jordanian Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi. The Asad regime in Syria, smugly sat back and allowed jihadists to stream in, after having sent thousands of volunteers to fight alongside its longtime nemesis Saddam right at the end of his reign.

The status quo regimes had a variety of reasons for doing what they did, but a principal one was to be able to tell a cautionary tale by which to frighten their people. Throughout my journeys in Syria, I would hear an oft-repeated refrain: “Change means we become like Iraq,” and Iraq looked very bad to them.

Iraq was not destined to become a quagmire as Washington’s proponents of the status quo had predicted. Iraq turned into the hellish visage it became after 2003 because the regional forces of the status quo found common cause with anti-democratic and anti-American revolutionaries streaming in from across the Muslim world.

Could democracy have worked in Iraq? There was certainly much arrayed against it. The forces of the status quo were not the only ones working against it; Iraq had just emerged from a decades long totalitarian nightmare, multiple wars, and international sanctions. The Iraqi society that American troops encountered in April 2003 was one of the most traumatized societies in modern times.

Democracy already had a steep slope to climb. Its prospects were not helped when the Realists within the Bush administration developed second thoughts right at the beginning of the venture. Had Grand Ayatollah Sistani not insisted on a constitution, and on elections, then the Coalition Provisional Authority (as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the State Department) would have been comfortable if Ayad Allawi or a similar ‘strong man’ had turned Iraq into a relatively benign autocracy similar to the Hosni Mubarak model.

The Realist instinct is hardwired into the institutional psyche of America’s foreign policy establishment. The CIA and State Department are relatively young organizations that were tasked with managing America’s role in the world after World War II. Their institutional wisdom, after the global carnage had passed, saw merit and validity in maintaining the status quo. But the status quo is never static. Rogue actors and adventurists kept pushing the envelope, and containment was not enough of a counterstrategy for some thinkers within these institutions. Dissent emerged. The dissenters prescribed a more activist and preemptive strategy. In some instances, they got their way. A succession of such responses were perceived to be costly failures: the Korea War, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, among others. Institutional wisdom would counsel a return to the comfort of maintaining the status quo, and ‘containing’ the challengers. By the end of the Carter Administration, the US Embassy in Tehran and its CIA station was overrun by Iranian revolutionaries who had just brought down a model example of the status quo, the Shah’s regime. America didn’t have an appetite for confrontation, so it tried what it could to ‘contain’ the adventurists.

Those who dissented against the Realist ethos flocked to Reagan’s side in his quest to hurry the defeat of the Soviet Union. The status quo of the Soviet regime was buckling, and they sensed opportunity to quicken the fall. Many of them would later become proponents of bringing democracy to Iraq. The Realists drew a line in the sand and called their opposite camp ‘the neocons’.

But it wasn’t neocons who lit the spark of the Iraq War. It was the Egyptian Muhammad Atta, the lead conspirator of September 11. It is curious how Paris, still shaken by terrorist attacks two months ago, serves to remind us of the magnitude of what happened over America’s skies and to America’s self-confidence 14 years ago.

It didn’t help the Realist argument that three of the four pilots grew up in countries that were upheld as paragons of the validity of the status quo: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The fourth grew up in Lebanon, where regional adventurers such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, the PLO, Israel and Saudi Arabia turned its tradition of identity politics into the Lebanese Civil War. On that fateful Tuesday, as the towers collapsed, the Realists were as surprised as everyone else by the first tremors of an entire system buckling under in the Middle East.

Given the shock at the magnitude of what had just happened, it is not surprising that some argued America could no longer live with a status quo in which a rogue actor with possible access to WMD technology may find common cause with an enemy such as Al-Qaeda. The Realists had been too embarrassed by their failure to put up much of a counter argument. When the WMDs weren’t found, the Realists turned that into their comeback moment; neglecting to address that the conceptual threat was valid right after September 11. After catching their breath, they tried to mitigate damage by putting notions of an Iraqi democracy in a deep freeze, citing its history, and the threat of such a ‘reckless’ experiment would have on the delicate and bruised status quo of the rest of the region. They almost had their way, but did not expect that a challenge from Sistani would push democracy through.

Despite incredible odds, many segments of Iraqi society opted for the ballot box. They headed out to polling stations despite the threats issued, and that were acted upon, by insurgents. The world was moved by the images of men and women holding up a purple stained finger. Their choice of candidates may not have been stellar, and yes, elections don’t constitute a democracy, but political life had returned to the country after an absence of five decades. For the first time since the establishment of the country, Iraqis had to grapple with identity politics by finding ways of managing diversity and separatist tendencies, within the confines of a political conversation, rather than through chemical weapons, genocide and mass deportation as Saddam had done. It wasn’t democracy yet, but it was well on its way. By 2010, as the Americans were preparing to leave, even Iraq’s Sunnis had come around. They put down their weapons and began to vote.

Did the protesters in Syria subconsciously process the images of those purple fingers on TV and decide that Iraq may not have been so bad after all? Did that realization encourage them on gambling on change anyway, even if things may turn out as Iraq did? Would Turks and Kurds in Turkey have been able to conceive of a normalized Kurdish identity working within a state had they not seen the Kurds of Iraq do it first?

Would things have turned out differently had the Obama administration embraced the Arab Spring protests early on, instead of prevaricating? Let’s not be too hard on President Obama. The democracy agenda had already withered under President Bush. The troubles of the Iraq ‘quagmire’ had defanged it. As early as 2006, the Realists were ascendant, the neocons discredited.

After the Iraq experience, I learned to respect the staying power of the status quo. I no longer dismissed it out of hand, and I listened carefully to what the Realists had to say. Their most cogent argument was that the status quo can liberalize slowly, and turn away from cynicism and adventurism towards good (or good enough) governance. My transformation was not unique, many of the anti-Realist crowd, including many ‘neocon’ luminaries, were willing to listen to such persuasive arguments. They were licking their wounds after Washington’s policy knife fights had subsided. Some saw hope in the prospect of even a regime such as Libya’s eventually liberalizing on its own; they accepted invitations to dine with Colonel Qaddafi, whom Reagan had bombed and deemed a loon.

My travels in Egypt and Syria seemingly confirmed some aspects of the liberalizing process; their economies were opening up, and there was more relief than dissent. Kuwait was turning into a ‘good enough’ democracy. Dubai was booming. The Saudi royal family under King Abdullah seemed to regain its confidence after September 11; the Osama Bin Laden threat to their rule had not materialized. Foreign media fawned over the glamor couples of Mubarak Jr., Asad, and Jordan’s King Abdullah, and their spouses. The Sultan of Oman was wise and his country was at peace after having been roiled by civil war in the 1970s. Iran chose Ahmedinejad and nuclear ambitions, but it was firmly contained. Tourists were flocking to Tunis, where an autocrat kept any form of opposition in check. The Lebanese had regained their sovereignty after the first dress rehearsal of the Arab Spring had occurred in Beirut in 2005, but the country was still stuck in confessional politics. The Yemeni ambassador in Washington was charming and popular, a fixture of the party scene among policy makers and analysts. Bahrain even sent a Jewish female (from a religious minority there that only counts 37 members) to represent it in DC.

Apart from Iraq, the status quo in the Middle East was humming along, much as it had for decades. The status quo had proved its endurance as the Realists had long argued. The best one could hope for was a slow-paced liberalizing here and there. I remained uneasy about it, even when I tried to suppress my biases and study the validity status quo from a strategic perspective. There was still something off about it all; the attacks of September 11 and the jihadist mayhem in Iraq did not fit in neatly with the dominant, newly vindicated Realist narrative. I remained unconvinced even when the story had come full circle: the Obama administration was intent on striking a deal with Asad, despite what he did to stymie America in Iraq, and despite reasserting his malign influence over Lebanon. Hezbollah would provoke Israel once in a while, and Israel would counter, but it stopped there. The United States, even Israel, could live with such mischief, holding out hope that a deal would bring a regime such as Asad’s to see the merits of good behavior. Asad smugly played to those hopes.

But then a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire. The status quo collapsed. That grin was wiped off Asad’s face.

Did the status quo make itself vulnerable to dissent by liberalizing itself? Or was it never that stable to begin with?

Answering these two questions will go a long way towards understanding what the protests of the Middle East meant, as Krastev partially set out to do. Getting these answers right is critical in countering the grand vision of the other Twitter revolutionaries, the jihadists and the retro-revolutionaries of Iran such as General Qasim Suleimani, busily disseminating a new, dark narrative. The forces of disorder that they represent and act for are cannibalizing the carcass of the old order that has  just collapsed. What they seek to build in its wake is downright scary. They are empowered by clear and ambitious narratives, as David Ignatius recently demonstrated in The Atlantic concerning the case of the jihadists.  They have their own set of ‘Big Ideas’—ones anathema to liberalism. The remnants of the status quo cannot match them in that ideological terrain, simply because they cannot come up with any Big Ideas of their own. Sadly, after the recent experiences of Iraq, Iran in 2009, the Arab Spring, and the HDP, many Western observers assume that the Big Ideas of democracy and liberalism are too sullied, or too feeble, to put up a fight.

Madaniyya—A New Hope

By sheer coincidence (or is it?) the modern-day state of Iraq posed one of the biggest challenges to the post WWII order of the status quo. The CIA and the State Department have had to apply all sorts of remedies to make their Realist argument work. Iraq entered into one of the bloodiest and longest wars of the post-world war era, against Iran. The Realists found this to be auspicious—Iraq would take care of their Iran problem where Carter couldn’t. Barely two years after the cessation of that war, Iraq lunged at the status quo of the Persian Gulf. The Realists had hoped that Saddam’s regime would liberalize. They were taken back when it ventured into Kuwait and began making noises against Saudi Arabia. The Realists assembled the first international coalition of armies in the post-Cold War era to force Saddam to color within the lines. Then they imposed the most far-reaching system of sanctions to tether Saddam’s ambitions, calling its policy of restraining him together with Iran that of ‘Dual Containment’. They enforced No-Fly Zones so that he wouldn’t massacre Iraq’s Kurds, again. Once in a while, President Clinton would have to authorize bombing runs to keep Saddam at bay. The Realists tried to assuage the detrimental effect of sanctions through the UN’s Oil-for-Food program, only to watch helplessly as Saddam subverted it to his own aims, in some cases by bribing UN officials and their kin from its proceeds. He kept killing people, but the Realists never took that as a casus belli, justifiably so from their distant perspectives. Even after September 11, the Realists deeply hoped that Saddam would ‘liberalize’ and avoid war by cooperating with UN chemical and biological weapons inspectors. Saddam, being Saddam, wouldn’t.

Iraq had been the petri-dish of Realist quick-fixes for two decades. None of them worked.

Since 2003, Iraq has endured one of the ugliest waves of disorder known to the modern era, but Iraq has surprisingly endured. Iraq has witnessed a bungled occupation, an insurgency, corruption unprecedented in its magnitude, sectarian and ethnic strife, the most barbaric and wide-ranging forms of terrorism, and an attempted return to autocracy (that of Maliki’s—with the Obama administration turning a blind eye to it). After the Americans had left, Maliki beat up on Sunnis by invoking his brand of Shi’ite chauvinism, but the Sunnis turned to protest rather than arms. When he denied them the right to protest, Sunni jihadists came back in full force and managed, for the first time in decade, to retake a major city like Fallouja.

Over the course of multiple national and local elections, the Iraqi people elected an underperforming, sometimes venal, political class that was no match for these manifold challenges. In the last two years alone, Iraq has further endured the loss of a third of its territory to the ‘caliphate’, the proliferation of Iran-backed Shiite militias, and what looks like the de facto secession of the Kurds. The country faces an imminent financial meltdown due to mismanagement of fiscal policy and the drop of oil prices. By any measure, Iraq is supposed to be dead, or near dead. Yet contrary to expectation, there is still a state there: children go to school, bureaucrats show up to work, shopkeepers sell their wares, oil is being sold on the international markets, and in fits and starts, the caliph’s newly-won dominions are being reclaimed. The Kurds now face a reality in which their breakaway entity would have a difficult time staying fiscally afloat without their mandated share of Basra’s oil. For all its venality and mediocrity, the political class managed to deny Maliki a third term, even though he had won a plurality of the vote.

Even more surprising is that the latest spasm of global protests are occurring in Baghdad, and have been for months. Why would anyone protest against a dead corpse? Doesn’t protest entail the slightest of hope that the political class may reform itself? Where is this hope coming from?

Why would anyone protest at all if the nations of the Middle East had come around to Krastev’s conclusion as well as that of the Realists, that the protests of the Arab Spring, the ‘Twitter Revolutions,’ had failed?

Can we completely rule out the idea that many Iraqis remain committed to the idea of Iraq? And what is this idea? Is their point of reference the ‘stability’ of Saddam’s Iraq, or the ‘instability’ of the New Iraq?

I invite Mr. Krastev to study the latest protests of Tahrir Square in Baghdad. I promise he will find much in them by way of the juvenility that he detests about the ‘Twitter Revolutions’: anti-institutionalism, lack of practical vision, civic vigilantism, ‘selfie’ narcissism, borderline anarchism, and a general malaise of political myopia. They began when media celebrities put out a call through Facebook (where much of Iraqi conversation about general affairs occurs rather than on Twitter) to demonstrate over the lack of reliable electricity. Krastev will find the humor in that as it echoes Bulgaria’s own protests two years ago, which began over the spike in electrical bills. The liberal protestors sought patronage and protection from opposing militias. Some of these media celebrities work for institutions that are bankrolled by the most reviled oligarchs. The illusion of the internet’s ‘majority effect’—the echo chambers of Facebook—made them feel self-important, even messianic. Early on they called for the suspension of the constitution and the sacking of parliament. They mobilized because they thought parliamentary salaries were too high, neglecting to address the fate of the half trillion dollars of oil revenues that were frittered away, or stolen, over the last eight years. At one point, some carried pictures of Angela Merkel in appreciation of her open borders policy. At another, some unfurled a large Russian flag and paraded it around in admiration of Putin’s intervention in Syria. They counted their numbers in the millions, but reasonable estimates set their peak at 50,000.

Back in 2011, many of the organizers had demonstrated too, but were met with Maliki’s heavy handedness, and they melted away. This time around, the government facilitates and protects (in some ways, over-protects) their movement and right to protest.

Their favorite slogan initially was “the thieves have robbed us in the name of religion” meaning the Islamist parties, which unnecessarily provoked the conservative and religious segments of Iraqi society. The secular liberals had forgotten that mega-corruption began within the cabinet of the secular Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who the Americans had left in charge and who was voted out when Islamists won at the polls. In the hysteria of the anti-elite ethos that had gripped many protesters, a liberal MP (one of only three) was ejected from their ranks, even though she had been a fixture of the 2011 demonstrations. A colleague of hers who had run on the same election slate but lost, a Communist Party leader, now counts as one of the leaders of the liberal pulpit of the protests.

As of late, they have been running out of steam, with fewer and fewer protesters showing up every passing Friday afternoon.

It would all seem so frivolous, and validating of Krastev’s argument, had it not been for three outcomes: the protests terrified the political class, the protesters have leapt over identity politics, and they have adopted a word, madaniyya, to embody what they mean by reform, as well as their vision for the future. They may not be able to fully define what the word means, but the act of adopting it, and launching an open conversation about defining it within the contours of lowest common denominators, is a game changer.

A literal translation of madaniyya into English would render it close to ‘civicism’; the Turkish word ‘medeniyet’ was used in Ottoman times and currently by modern Turks to mean ‘civilization’. Neither definition captures what Iraqis are making of it. In fact, Iraqis are not quite sure what it means yet: it is a word in search of an ideology. But they are working on it.

Secular liberals would like it to mean ‘secular liberalism’ without having to use English terms for those concepts when speaking in Arabic. Sistani used dawla madaniyya (‘a civicized state’) two years ago to describe what he hopes the politicians would work for. He probably used it to mean good governance, rather than a secular and liberal form of government. Still, its use by highest Shi’ite religious authority the world over instead of ‘Islamic government’ or ‘Vilayet el-Faqih’ (Rule of the Jurisprudence, as Khomeini had established in similarly Shi’ite Iran) is very interesting. In Basra, the term found association with calls for turning the province into a federal region. Nativists can claim it to be an indigenous term: madaniyya is derived from the Arabic word for the ‘city’, and Iraqis are proud that the first cities of the world emerged in Mesopotamia.

At its core, madaniyya simply means cosmopolitanism, the ability of people from diverse identities and backgrounds to get along in close quarters. When those various unrelated bloodlines moved into the first Mesopotamian cities at the dawn of civilization, they had to manage the ‘provocation’ of a neighbor being different, in tongue, in dress, in faith, in skin color, not to mention opinion, and personal likability. They had to acknowledge difference, however provocative, and to live with it.  This was the ethos of Gezi Park. It is an important way-station towards a maturing ideology.

For a country like Iraq that is riled by identity politics, where one can get killed for being of the wrong race or sect, arriving at such a way-station is monumental. Some do show up at the protests with slogans and banners that implicitly suggest identity politics, but the crowd drowns them out with shouts extolling madanniya, and the colors of the Iraqi flag overpower the scene.

Madaniyya no longer circulates solely among intellectuals or grand ayatollahs, one now hears it everywhere in Iraq. Many may not know what it means, but they still want it. The undefined term became synonymous with the protests, and the protests, even though small and chaotic, have transformed Iraqi politics. At first, the political class thought this was a revolution that would storm the Green Zone and drag its occupants through the streets—the politicos know that the protestors have good reason to be very angry. Sistani’s representatives chimed in saying that the political class should listen to the people and enact reforms with “a steely fist”. The reforms that have been enacted were bland, and the forces of Iraq’s own status quo within the political class still seek to undermine them, but the protests go on, and Sistani keeps giving them succor. The latest incarnation of the many failures of the political class, the emptying of the state’s coffers and its inability to pay public sector salaries, may give new impetus to the crowds, and draw in new droves of protestors.

I had set the location of Gezi Park as the rendezvous spot with an Iraqi friend who was staying at a hotel near it. This friend carried in his personal experience all the contradictions of revolution and the status quo. He was from a Shi’ite family, but had converted to Sunnism. His brand of Sunnism was its most extreme: Salafist jihadism, which landed him in one of Saddam’s prisons for most of the 1990s. He was an early enabler of Zarqawi’s, when the latter had arrived in Baghdad from Afghanistan, even before the war. My revolutionary friend arranged for his band of Salafists to gather arms and ordinance, and rob banks, just as American tanks were rolling in. He plotted for revolution by coordinating with Salafist revolutionaries across the Middle East. He was hosted at times by Saudi princes, and traveled to Libya to raise funds for the revolution from Qaddafi. He only turned on Zarqawi because the latter had sought to dominate the Salafist revolution. Zarqawi ordered the killing of my friend’s father and two brothers in reprisal. When Zarqawi’s heirs attempted to establish a de facto caliphate in Iraq, my friend’s Salafist mentors in Saudi Arabia instructed him to wage war on the Zarqawists. He was given free rein to work with the Americans and the Iraqi state in achieving victory.

It was difficult for me to accept his friendship. I suspect his brand of revolution may have been responsible in some manner for the deaths of many friends of mine. But there was something about him that was endearing. He seemed to have developed remorse about his past. He may have self-servingly turned against the Zarqawi revolution to save his own Salafist revolution, but in the process he began to see things differently. He tells me that all he does now is atone for those prior sins. I was interested in his own quest for redemption as a human. He still carries many contradictions: to him, the House of Saud is still the best possible ally against a resurgent Shi’ism. Even Erdogan, close as he is to the Muslim Brotherhood—whom the Salafists detest—is a good soldier-sultan for Sunnism as far as he is concerned. My friend had ceased to be a revolutionary, and was now in the service of the regional status quo.

So it was a privilege to see Gezi Park not only through my own eyes, but through his too. Oddly, he kept repeating a mantra: “this is not right. Turks (the protesters) shouldn’t be doing this (against Erdogan).” I could sense that he was genuinely taken back by all the diversity there, the kind of diversity that is anathema to Salafism. I could sense too that he was surprised at himself for discovering that an intense array of diversity wasn’t so bad after all. As the crowds began swelling for a confrontation with the police, he clambered atop a burnt car to get a better look. I took a picture of him in that instant: the one-time Salafist revolutionary standing above a revolution very different from his own.

These days, this friend of mine posts pictures of himself at the Baghdad protests. He has become a vocal proponent of madaniyya. How did the change come about? I’m not sure. But I am glad that it did. Could his transformation have happened had he not witnessed the protests in Gezi Park? Would I have been able to see the transformation come to light had it not been for the occasion of the Baghdad protests?

I saw his pictures on the same Facebook timeline along with pictures of another friend, a Shiite cleric in full clerical regalia standing among the protesters. This other friend was once a Sadrist firebrand, and a rising leader of the movement. He was arrested by the Americans and imprisoned in Camp Bucca for three years. Camp Bucca was the same prison in which the current caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was allegedly radicalized. However, my friend emerged from there as a liberal democrat. He kept his turban, but adopted a very different tone. When the protests came, he too adopted the term madaniyya as his rallying cry. Even his one-time leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has recently hosted the leaders of the protests, including the Communist one.

I wish it were all a hopeful story. But it isn’t. The liberal Shi’ite cleric felt threatened by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, and recently opted to become a political refugee in London to be just another statistic in the rolls of the Middle Eastern exodus to Europe.

These two gentlemen may represent outlier cases. But since they were no ordinary foot soldiers for their respective causes, their transformation is rendered extraordinary, and instructive. Instructive not just to Western audiences as a feel-good story, but rather instructive to thousands and thousands of young men and women who may be vulnerable to the call of extremism, as these two had been in their youth. I am sure that Kratsev, in his capacity as a political scientist, can see the utility of such individuals becoming leaders of the madaniyya movement. Madaniyya may be merely a brand at this point rather than a fully formed ideology. But it is a more merciful brand, and maybe a potent brand, against the  available brands of jihadism. And if there is utility in that, wouldn’t supporting it be a realistic endeavor, even if wasn’t a Realist one?

Whether the once-Salafist revolutionary and the once-Sadrist one ever get to see madaniyya succeeding in Iraq is an open question. Whether Baghdad’s Tahrir Square shall witness a firefight between the revolutionaries of the caliphate and the revolutionaries now led by Iranian general Qassim Suleimani is a possibility, a dark one. The believers in madaniyya may end up on rafts heading to Europe because their ‘Big Idea’ was no match for the forces of disorder. It is a heartbreaking prospect, as we saw in Paris, that the forces of disorder may chase them all the way there too.

It is also unfortunate that the HDP were sucked into the inflammatory rhetoric that Erdogan had reverted to on the ‘Kurdish issue’. Demirtas in turn reverted to saying the kinds of things that were said five years ago, harking back to the PKK talking points of the past, and disillusioning many of the liberal Turks who pinned their hopes onto his transition into a national leader rather than an ethnic one.

But there’s a fighting chance that Tahrir Square will be remembered as the birthplace of Iraq’s madaniyya. This is what Bassem Youssef is talking about in the context of Egyptian youth, while the prospects of its ‘fighting chance’ are deemed too slim by Realists and Krastev. However, I’d rather have a little ray of hope than total darkness. This is not sentimentality; it is strategy. We cannot fight the forces of darkness, in the absolute dark. The ‘Big Idea’ of madaniyya may just turn out to be a strategic advantage.

True-believing as strategy, not sentiment

It is dangerous to believe one’s own propaganda, or so the saying goes. After my experience of watching the interplay of liberalism, the status quo, and jihadism, I had come to understand this line to mean that one can be a true-believer in the necessity of having a belief-system. This may sound cynical to some, but it is strategy borne out of necessity.

I am reminded of a vignette that I had read in Roy Mottahedah’s Mantle of the Prophet (1985). In it, a young Shi’ite seminarian in the Holy City of Qom is taken aback when an older religious authority tells him that there is no proof for the existence of God. The young seminarian was sure that the old mullah, famous for his piety, was trying to test him, to see if he was a secret skeptic. The older man went on:

When I discovered that there was no rational proof for the existence of God I tried to stop praying. I became ill; I couldn’t eat and couldn’t keep my balance. Then I discovered another way to believe. I pray, and you should pray. Most important of all, you should require the people around you to pray. Do you think that the people around you would leave anything in its proper place if they knew there was no life after this life? One puff and all order in society would blow away like a house of straw. You’re a good boy and intelligent. You’ve studied erfan [Shi’ite mysticism] and have enough strength to hear what I just told you. Now go before other people arrive.

Societies need to be anchored in myth. The status quo in the Middle East began to crumble when those myths rotted away. Those myths ran the gamut from anti-colonialism to post-independence liberalism to socialism to Arab Nationalism to Turkish nationalism to puritanical Wahhabism to the Rule of the Jurisprudent, and on and on. Adventurists breathe new life into myths by lurching forwards; their actions, rather than maintaining the status quo, undermine it by inviting long-term instability. The old orders of the Middle East today are bereft of myths, leaving a vacuum of thought for the projects of zealous myth-making by the jihadists, both Sunni and Shiite.

As Krastev points out, the global ‘Twitter Revolutions’ share the trait of not knowing what myths should substitute the ones they are railing against. But the societies of the Middle East, where the protests began and resonated, cannot stop there because the alternative is no longer as simple as a return to the status quo. The jihadist revolution is coming, and gaining ground. Those societies have neither the luxuries of time nor reticence as this threat looms.

There is ample evidence that the protests served to reintroduce political life into these societies. This atmosphere ignited a long dormant conversation about what comes next. They are still working out the answer, but in at least one case, that of Iraq’s, they have figured out the working title: madaniyya. Meanwhile the West, after having given up on Iraq and the Twitter Revolutions, and again in the thrall of the Realists, is not paying it any attention.

Rather than brandishing a liberal teleology, as Krastev argues, even liberal-leaning Western policy makers have been squeamish about the advent of liberalism and democracy, judging these to be alien concepts to the Middle East. Their thinking is haunted by accusations of colonialism, neo-colonialism, ‘Orientalism’, ‘White Man’s Burden’, and so on. Iraq is cited as the prime example of these concepts failing to take root in non-European soil. When one cites a non-European example where democracy succeeds, such as that of post-independence India’s, the conversation turns specifically into one about the incompatibility of Arab Middle Eastern Muslim cultures with Western values. Krastev is correct in labeling Western thinking about the Arab Spring and Iraq a form of ‘liberal narcissism,’ but it only fits in the context of introspective navel gazing, one that feels that the West is guilty by default for assuming the primacy of its ideas, and not as Krastev argues by championing them.

Mesopotamia does not hold a copyright to the stories and ideas it crafted and exported to mankind. It does not charge a customs fee on its warehousing and re-exportation of Greek philosophy and culture from its libraries during Europe’s Dark Ages. No one is expecting royalties from those inspired by the fatalistic tale of godly capriciousness and human resignation that is Gilgamesh’s, which sounds a lot like the Realist line. George Lukas is not expected to share the proceeds of the Manichean-inspired Star Wars series with the provincial council of Babel, Iraq. That would be ridiculous. Likewise, there should be no Western patent on liberalism.

In that light, Western misgiving and angst over the adoption of such values by indigenous forces in the Middle East, by calling it madaniyya or by voting for the ‘new’ HDP, is an opportunity wasted. What may begin as a minority opinion may mature into a plurality, and sometimes pluralities turn into majorities through successive elections. When the West turns a blind eye to the machinations of the status quo in thwarting an organic political maturation as Erdogan did, these maturing values are denied a fighting chance. In a similar vein, one cannot ring the bell and call the bout over when forces such as the HDP are still in the game, and madaniyya is beginning to define itself. It is too early to draw the sheets over the ‘Twitter Revolutions’.

Will we have to wait another seventy years, as Marx and Proudhon did, before their predictions of the collapse of the status quo by revolutionary fervor materialize? I don’t think so. The status quo in the Middle East, after having had a good run for the better part of the twentieth century, is already collapsing. Moreover, and here Krastev is wrong again, the moment those luminaries of thought put pen to paper to describe what had just happened in mid-nineteenth century Europe was the opening whistle of revolution.

We are living within an accelerated political cycle, feverishly catalyzed by the internet and by the challenge of revolutionary extremism. The rapidity by which narratives addressing the question of “What does it all mean?” coalesce and proliferate over social media is unprecedented in the human experience. The acceleration serves to spread revolution just at a time when a collapsing or enfeebled status quo fails to offer up counter-narratives.

We can only hope that emerging concepts, forged out of protest, such as that of madaniyya and the spirit of Gezi Park, can also have a fighting chance in the frenzied arena of ‘Big Ideas’. Here, hope is not a luxury. Hope is a weapon. Better that we face the jihadists with something, than nothing.

Krastev needs to further consider the possibility that the victory of such liberalized ideas in the Middle East may have an impact on Western thought: such a victory may make the Western protester (or even the Bulgarian one) more appreciative of the value of democracy. After all, didn’t this particular category of protester—who Krastev finds so maddening—draw inspiration from the Arab Spring to begin with? And as the West mobilizes in increments to address the jihadist threat, one that is lapping at its shores and eroding the walls of its liberal citadels, wouldn’t the Western world be well served by remembering what it is fighting for?

What Motivates Current Saudi Decision-Making?

Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday has inflamed Sunni-Shia tensions in many parts of the Middle East. Analysts interpreted the move as bold step taken by the Saudi royals to show Iran that they are serious about holding its regional ambitions in check.

Rather than impressing the Iranians, I believe the Saudi royals set out primarily to impress their own people that they still have the stomach to fight. Rather than a match-up with Iran, the Saudis are foremost concerned about the Islamic State’s narrative regarding the legitimacy and vitality of the House of Saud in the eyes of conservative Sunnis within the kingdom.

Al-Nimr’s execution, decided upon months ago, and folded within a larger list of Sunni Saudi nationals accused of terrorism (the vast majority of them from Al-Qaeda, as opposed to Islamic State), was always expected to lead to Shia expressions of outrage. Iranian officials had been quietly pressing the Saudi king for a reprieve or at least a stay of execution for al-Nimr. They had even attempted to use Iraq’s leader pro-government Salafist authority to intercede with the Saudi king on the sheikh’s behalf. All this was to no avail; the Saudis went ahead with the execution.

The Saudis would argue that al-Nimr was no ordinary preacher or community leader; he stood accused of inspiring and directing a Shia ‘militia’ that engaged in killing security personnel, shoot-outs and the attempted abduction of foreign diplomats. The government has argued that the move was not sectarian in character, since al-Nimr was executed along with dozens of Sunni terrorists, and that the Saudi state has actively hunted down and arrested IS cadres involving in attacks on Shia places of worship last year.

However, given how al-Nimr’s sentence had become a cause célèbre among Shias in the region, especially for the Iranian leadership, the Saudis could have leveraged his reprieve or delayed the execution towards garnering goodwill with the Iranians on other regional issues of importance to them such as the reconciliation process in both Syria and Yemen, better rights and protections for Iraqi Sunnis, working out a formula for the Lebanese presidency, and tamping down flare-ups in the Persian Gulf. But all those potential advantages were sacrificed probably because there are other overriding and existential challenges that are weighing-in on Saudi decision making.

They had to execute al-Nimr at this time because the rulers of Saudi Arabia are caught in a rhetorical trap. Their main adversary in this regard is the Islamic State. Far more than al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has focused on the danger posed by Saudi Shias to ‘Sunnidom’ and had castigated the House of Saud as de facto protectors of the Shia.

Same Old Words, New and Dangerous Stakes

Al-Nimr was specifically mentioned in a speech made by the Nejd (Central Saudi Arabia) ‘Province’ of the Islamic State in October 2015. The unidentified speaker alleged that al-Nimr was spearheading the secession of the eastern section of Saudi Arabia, where a large minority of Shias reside. According to the speaker, the House of Saud are in collusion with foreign plans to weaken Sunnis by allowing the Shias to break off and create a pro-Iran satellite state.


Poster of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Bahrain, credit: Rana Jarbou

This rhetorical tussle between the Saudis and IS bears the element of taunting, with the latter asserting that the royals had lost their ‘virility’.

‘Caliph’ al-Baghdadi makes this point clear in his May 2015 audio speech when speaking about the Saudi military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, what the Saudis call the ‘Storm of Decisiveness’:

“For it is only a ‘storm of delusion’ after the fires of the [Shias] had lapped at their thrones and their encroachment has reached our people in the Arabian Peninsula, which will lead lay Muslims to find refuge in the Islamic State because it is their defender, and this terrifies the [House of Saud] and the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula and shakes their bastions and that is the secret of their alleged ‘storm’ and, God willing, it shall be the [cause of their] demise. For the [House of Saud] and the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula are not people of warfare, and they do not have the patience for it, and they are people of luxury and frivolity, and people of drunkenness and dancing and banquets, who have acquiesced to the protection afforded to them by the Jews and Crusaders..”

This sort of taunting is not new to the Saudis. Nor is their counter reaction to prove their anti-Shia credentials from time to time. What is different nowadays is the scale of it, and the degree to which both sides are willing to go.

For example, The ‘General Deputy’ for ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP) Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, released a 16 minute audiotape in April 2009 regarding the events of the previous February in the Baqee’a cemetery of Medina, when Shia kids tried to ‘steal’ the soil from the grave of a holy figure in order to be blessed by it. This led to a crackdown by the Saudi ‘Religious Police’ on Shia pilgrims in Medina (an act which al-Azdi lauds), and it then set off confrontations between locals and the security forces in the Shia strongholds of the Eastern Province. But al-Azdi concludes that the Saudi royals are generally unable or unwilling to counter to Shia assertiveness. [The Nejd Province spokesman of IS also refers to this specific incident.]

Al-Azdi’s speech followed an earlier pattern: after a 22-month lull, AQAP has resumed its monthly magazine, Sawt Aljihad, whose 30th electronic issue was released on jihadist websites in February 2007. One lead article in that issue, written by someone calling himself Abu Ali al-Shimali, warns that “every Muslim must be aware of what might happen in the near future concerning the role to be played by the [Shias] of the Gulf in the next phase which I believe will be similar to what the [Shias] of Iraq did after the American occupation.” In other words, Mr. al-Shimali is cautioning that the Shias, who live in places like Saudi Arabia, may become allies of America, and must be dealt with before that happens.

Nor did this criticism come solely from the jihadists, it also emanated from members of the mainstream Salafist establishment such as the once-troublesome (for the royals) Sheikh Safar al-Hawali in his vitriolic response to the petition signed by Saudi Shias for greater political and economic participation that was delivered to the Saudi Crown Prince after the Iraq war in 2003. The Saudi Shias saw an opening in the Arab-leaning (rather than sectarian) character of then Crown Prince Abdullah, and the Salafist establishment sought to nip that conciliatory tendency in him in the bud.

There has been a progression in the loyal Salafist establishment’s response over time to keep up with jihadist messaging, and one can only assume that this was done with at least with the acquiescence of the Saudi royal family. For example, their first fatwa on the Iraq war (signed by al-Hawali, among others) counselled the Salafist jihadists in Iraq against antagonizing the Shias. However, by December 7, 2006, thirty-eight leading Saudi clerics issued a proclamation inciting Sunnis against Shias in Iraq in very stark language, as well as directing Saudi preachers to warn of Shia encroachment on Sunnidom. This fatwa was followed by a another dated December 17 (2006) proclaimed by the leading Wahhabi religious authority then, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman bin Nassir al-Barrak, that essentially brands all Shias, including lay persons, as legitimate targets for Sunni hostility since they are “more dangerous” to Islam “than the Jews and the Christians.” It was followed a month later by another, even harsher fatwa dictated by the second biggest recognized Wahhabi authority, Sheik Abdullah al-Jebreen.

The latter put forward seven reasons why he sees the Shias as heretical polytheists and concludes that “we must be careful and should warn others of their tricks and plots, and we should boycott them, and expel them and cast them off to protect the Muslims from their evil.”

The rhetoric emanating from the Saudi establishment over the last decade is not very different than that employed by the Nejd Province ‘spokesman’ of the Islamic State last year. It goes back even further: Zarqawi did not invent his anti-Shia ideology—he borrowed heavily from material produced, financed, and propagated by the official Saudi bodies.

However, what is different now is that the IS is suggesting that the only way to solve the problem once and for all is to eradicate the Shias from the Arabian Peninsula (in fact, that was al-Baghdadi’s first item on the agenda in his inaugural policy speech as Caliph, Nov. 2014). The Saudi royal family, on the other hand, can only go as far as executing Sheikh al-Nimr. Some sectarian extremists in Saudi Arabia are not going to see al-Nimr’s execution as enough of a remedy or a deterrent; these are the kinds of fence-sitters that IS is hoping to recruit.

In this respect, neither IS or Saudi strategists are that afraid of a Shia, or Iranian, strategic threat. Inciting Sunnis in Saudi Arabia against a ‘Shia bogeyman’ is all about who can claim the mantle of Sunni legitimacy. The Shia ‘menace’ is a red herring, at least if viewed from far-away Nejd, where the Saudi and Wahhabi movements originated. It is a narrative that been constructed over centuries, more so for local consumption and inter-Sunni rivalry. Several years ago, I posed the origins of this stoked-up fear as a topic worthy of deeper research.

Still, for the Saudis to execute al-Nimr, and incur all the regional Shia wrath it was expected to unleash, they had to be concerned about IS’s messaging, if indeed that was their primary motivation as I attempted to demonstrate above. And since we have very little insight about Saudi decision-making, such a bold move suggests that the royals there are very concerned about IS. But why now?

The Islamic State’s Plan for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is very important for Zarqawi’s heirs. It goes back to the pivotal importance of Juheiman al-Uteibi’s uprising in Mecca (Nov. 1979) to their ideological foundation, via its influence on Zarqawi’s one-time mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. In a July 2005 interview with Aljazeera, al-Maqdisi claims that while in Afghanistan in the late 1990s Zarqawi tried to convince Bin Laden to employ al-Maqdisi’s books, including his anti-Saudi tome, as assigned curricula for Al-Qaeda’s youth, but that Bin Laden rejected this by saying that that would anger the Saudi government. Bin Laden’s rebuff, if true, may have contributed to the fact that Zarqawi withheld his pledge of allegiance from Al-Qaeda at the time, deeming it not hardcore enough of a revolutionary organization if it was unwilling to confront the Saudi state.

I have always been troubled to two pieces of the puzzle that just don’t fit into the dominant narrative: why do Iraqi forces keep finding pick-up trucks with Saudi license plates when retaking positions from the jihadists. Second, why are estimates for the number of Saudis among the foreign fighter contingent so low (approx. 2000 to 2500) while the number of Tunisians reaches over 5000?

The estimate of the number of Saudis goes against the grain of all that we have learnt in the last decade and a half, against common sense, and against anecdotal evidence. It may be due to our low visibility on internal Saudi dynamics, something the Saudis guard very carefully and suppress through intimidation and largess.

We know it is likely that the jihadists may have sympathizers in Saudi. For example, these are the results of a recent Brookings study of Twitter:

“A study out of the Brookings Institution used Twitter to shine some light on this, comparing the countries where tweets from ISIS supporters originate. The study dealt with a sample size of 20,000 and found that Saudi Arabia is the top location claimed by Twitter users supporting ISIS in 2015. Syria follows, Iraq rounds off the top three and the U.S. takes fourth place.”

The same news report about the study adds: “The number of fighters joining from Saudi Arabia is between 2,000-2,500, the largest total number, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. Per capita, that represents 107 fighters per million people. On a per capita basis, Jordan tops the list, with an estimated 315 fighters per million people.”

This doesn’t make sense to me. In my Syria monograph (2010) I wrote:

“Furthermore, the jihadists, unlike their Iraq campaign experience, are aided by logistical familiarity with the terrain and customs of Syria; at the beginning of summer, one is always struck by the throngs of young Saudi, Kuwaiti, and other Gulf males—usually the best regional recruiting pool for jihadists—patiently waiting for their passports to be stamped at Syrian overland border points. Tens of thousands of them go there annually. At least tens of thousands may have Syrian mothers, married off to wealthier Saudis and Gulf Arabs who had gone shopping for younger brides. Plus, there are also tens of thousands of Sunni Syrian families residing and working in Saudi Arabia whose sons and daughters have been exposed to a Wahhabi curriculum, in many cases a sure recipe for radicalization. They too can be recruited. None of this familiarity or ‘pollination’ with radical ideas was readily available in Iraq.”

This sort of anecdotal and ‘common sense’ read of sympathies for the jihad in Saudi are challenged by the relatively low incidence of jihadist activity (that we know of) inside Saudi. A few shoot-outs with security forces here, a few attacks on Shia mosques there.

But what if we are looking at the wrong sets of data? What if intel analysts and those keeping track of satellite imagery are too busy looking at the front-lines of the war in Iraq and Syria, and neglecting to look at the ‘true’ strategic depth of the jihadists, the northern desert? And what if everyone is assuming that the Saudis have the southern desert under watch, while they too are stretched too thin to look deeply into it?

This brings us back to the odd case of Toyota pick-ups with Saudi license plates. Clearly, there is some movement back and forth across the deserts that span the Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian, and Saudi borders.

What if the projected numbers for Saudi fighters that common sense and anecdote would warrant are not physically in Syria and Iraq? Either their numbers are under reported, or the overall numbers of foreign fighters, such as the Tunisian contingent, have been inflated. If the former is true, where are those would-be Saudi fighters?

More research needs to be done on this.

These are the following categories that I would use to think about Saudi vulnerability, from the perspective of jihadist strategist:

1) What is the timeline that the jihadists project for launching a Saudi front?

How are Zarqawi and Bin Laden different? Their chief difference is boldness of style. Bin Laden believed in the gradual success of jihad as it fought the enemies of Islam at the periphery of Islamdom (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Sudan, etc.) The principal anthem of Al-Qaeda in 2001 carried the chorus of “[from the periphery] we shall fold up the space [between us] and the Ka’aba and the Holy Sanctuary [of Mecca].” Zarqawi didn’t have the patience for such a timeline. In the true al-Uteibi tradition, he took the fight into the heart of Islamdom in Iraq, to face incredible odds. It is interesting that when Al-Qaeda decided to begin a jihad against Saudi Arabia, it set up shop in the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen (AQAP). We have yet to see how the Zarqawists are planning to launch in Saudi. We know that they want to do that. Al-Baghdadi’s first ‘policy’ speech as caliph placed Saudi as his principal priority.

2) Why are the Saudis vulnerable now?

The Saudi royal family has been very unlucky as of late. King Abdullah died. The implication here is the break in the zealous loyalty of the National Guard that was focused on his person. There were many reasons for that. Abdullah was the most ‘Arab’ of the family, meaning the closest to the Bedouin sense of the word. His mother was from the princely family of the Shammar tribe, whose dominion was broken by Abdullah’s father, Ibn Saud, early in the 20th century. Many of the National Guard comes from tribes such as that of the Shammar. Their grandfathers had broken from tribal cohesion to join Ibn Saud who peddled a new type of cohesion: Wahhabi revolution. Ibn Saud tried to bring them under control by forcibly settling them into garrisons, as Muhammad had done at the onset of the Islamic conquests. The tribes under Ibn Saud grew restless and he had to destroy them. Their revolt in the 1920s was called the Ikhwan Revolt. Much of the history and motivation of the Saudi state since that time was to attempt to exorcise the ghosts of that revolt. That is why they formed the National Guard, as opposed to the modern Saudi army that Ibn Saud had used to destroy the Ikhwan. The late King Abdullah was the best fit, in terms of temperament and pedigree, to lead the National Guard. After his death, his son was left to lead them.

Before Abdullah, the royal family lost Prince Nayif, who was their principal ambassador to the varied traditions of Salafism in the country. He was respected by all those various Salafist strands, even the ones who turned against the royal family in the 1990s (the mentors of Bin Laden such as al-Hawali). Nayif was able to co-opt their dissent. He even succeeded, together with his son, in enabling them to fight back against the caliphal project of the Zarqawists, which they found to be anathema. Muhammad bin Nayif, the current Crown Prince, now holds his father’s portfolio, but he is no match for his father’s gravitas among Salafists.

In the eyes of the Saudi population, the royal family has suffered several instances of ‘loosing face’ in rapid succession since Abdullah died: the ill-conceived Yemen war, the hajj debacle, and the release of Saudi secrets documents on Wikileaks. Not to mention their failure to stand up to Iran through their traditional alliance with the United States; Iran ‘seems’ to be winning in the eyes of regular Saudis, and it seems that America doesn’t value the royal family as it did before (…some jihadists may have concluded that the Americans won’t come to the rescue of the family if it challenged by internal forces this time around). When jihadists attack Shias in Saudi, then the Saudi royal family is forced to protect Shias, the same people their media and theological organs had been railing against for decades. Al-Baghdadi instructed his followers to kick things off by attacking Shias in Saudi.

The Saudi approach—airstrikes, arming indigenous forces, and trying to forge a political conciliation—is not succeeding in Yemen. Maybe it is too early to tell, but the Houthis (who are supplemented by the martial expertise of the former president’s Republican Guardsmen) are still holding ground. The under-performance of Saudi infantry (under reported in the media) when faced by Houthi raids into Saudi territory may indicate why the Saudis are reluctant to send ground forces to Syria. Theoretically, the Saudi troops should fight hard against a sectarian foe like the Houthis. They aren’t. Now imagine what might happen if they face the jihadists in Syria. It would reasonable to assume that the Saudis would factor in the possibility of defections. (IS is closely monitoring the Yemen war. They have a small subsidiary organization active there.)

And after getting their nation accustomed to the largess that 100 dollars plus per barrel allowed, the money coming in is less now, and patronage (and arms purchases) are eating into the Saudi treasury.

All these factors have converged and weakened the stature of the Saudi royals. But these royals have faced lean and turbulent times before. They took wise and measured decisions that have withstood the test of time. I can’t tell whether with hindsight we shall look back at their decisions to conduct the war in Yemen and to execute al-Nimr would indeed be perceived again as wise and measured after a couple of decades of review. But such decisions do seem exceedingly risky and bold given the current regional atmospherics. Maybe the Saudis are sensing something that we cannot see, which drives them to undertake such moves.

What would an IS insurgency in Saudi look like?

Answering this question is difficult because we have such little visibility on the internal dynamics of Saudi society. I would assume that IS would use many of the tactics it found useful in the Iraqi and Syrian fronts. For example, relying on roaming units in the desert rather than urban cells. And even though the ‘Most Wanted’ lists put out by the Saudi Ministry of Interior suggest that IS recruits hail from the leading tribes of the country, I would assume that the jihadists would try to recruit from amongst the ‘Other Saudis’—the large plurality of the population that does not descend from the major tribes, as IS had done in Iraq and Syria. These tribes, colloquially referred to as ‘220’ in Saudi Arabia (as opposed to the ‘110’ high-status tribes; using voltage as a label), are relatively neglected by Saudi largesse. They have also been neglected by old Al-Qaeda and AQAP. Some of the lowest-caste tribes, such as the Shararat (probably of Sulubba origin), control many of the pathways across the Iraqi and Jordanian deserts into and out of Saudi. There is plenty of brainstorming ahead for analysts seeking to flesh out the possible means that IS would employ in order to expand into Saudi territory.

[At this point, I would like to pose this question “If the problem described in the post—that the Saudis sense IS breathing down their necks—is indeed unfolding, would the Saudi feel too proud to ask for help?” This is a difficult one to answer. One way of looking at it is that the Saudis might not be hiding anything they know, because they themselves don’t understand the size of the problem yet; in this light their moves would merely be pre-emptive measures against IS, by stealing a march on the latter’s narrative. The Saudis are busy fighting in Yemen, watching Iran, managing their acolytes in Syria, watching Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, hunting down urban-based terror cells, watching oil markets, and worrying about the implications of a disinterested Washington. They have a lot on their plate, and I would imagine their intel, security, and strategic bodies are stretched thin too. However, what we (and IS) learned in Syria and then Iraq after 2011 is that IS can succeed by rebuilding its strength in the blind spot of policy. Is there a part of the picture that constitutes Saudi Arabia’s blind spot?]

Beginning in September 2014, the Saudi re-activated plans to build a ‘Great Wall’ along its 600 mile border with Iraq (five layers of fencing, radar, night vision cameras, watch towers, ..etc). They have stationed tens of thousands of troops along the border, according to press reports.

I don’t know whether that would be enough to block the danger of spillage from what IS is doing further north in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts.

The minority view in Tehran holds that it won’t be enough. Iraqi sources familiar with Qasim Suleimani’s thinking tell me that he has concluded that an IS insurgency in Saudi Arabia is inevitable. He represents the minority view among strategists counseling Khamen’i about regional dynamics. However, Suleimani seems to have convinced the Supreme Leader of Iran that the Iranian leadership must prepare for such an outcome, and must gear-up at least a part of their strategic plans to offset its effects. (Allegedly, Suleimani has been responding to his detractors who claim that the wars in Iraq and Syria are too costly, both logistically and strategically, by saying that an IS insurgency in Saudi would put the Eastern Province and its Shia population in play, and that Iran would end-up with a net gain as protector of that region and its oil wealth. He gives a 5-7 year timeline for that happen.)

Is Saudi Arabia ripe for the picking by the jihadists?

The best argument that I have heard as to why regular Saudis would be reluctant to invite IS’s form of jihad into their lands is three-pronged: Saudis would feel uneasy about blood being spilled in the ‘Holy Peninsula’, they are still beholden to the deep and rich traditions of homegrown Salafism, and they are culturally put-off by the ‘Iraqi color’ of the caliphal project (al-Baghdadi and much of the post-Zarqawi leadership is Iraqi, whereas Bin Laden was one of their own).

These are all valid arguments. But taking them at face value is a bit of a gamble. It assumes that the jihadists are not thinking up ways to rebrand their jihad for a Saudi market.

Bloodshed is already beginning to happen inside the ‘Holy Peninsula’. It is Shia blood, so it’s not so bad as it purifies the Peninsula of the Shia taint, from the perspective of sectarian extremists. Many Sunni Saudis were raised on these ideas through schools and media, a process that’s been going on for decades.

The old Salafist establishment in Saudi Arabia, even the dissenters within it who mentored Bin Laden, are losing credibility because they are allied with the Saudi royal family, whose credibility in turn is being undermined on many fronts as described above.

The ‘Iraqi-ness’ of the jihad is the hardest to counter. But what if IS is preparing a media package (for example, by highlighting Saudi operational leadership) that reflects the transition from Iraqi-ness to something closer to Saudi sensibilities?

IS had declared three ‘provinces’ for the Arabia Peninsula: Nejd, Hijaz, and Bahrain (here, probably referring to the old geographic name for the Eastern Province as well as the states of the Persian Gulf littoral).

We have yet to see what the plans of the IS strategists are going to look like, and whether they have any deeper insight into the preparedness of Saudi society for their messaging than we do.

On the other hand, assuming that the Saudi state is flimsy construct is dangerous; dangerous for the jihadists, as well as to Qasim Suleimani and his cohorts, but also to the analysts trying to understand their plans. The Saudi state stands on strong foundations. This 1948 directory of the Kingdom, as it set out to join the modern world, tells a very interesting story (link is in Arabic). The elite is well-established, going back generations; the Saudis have much continuity to their institutions and patronage networks when compared to other major states in the Middle East were revolutions have been endemic. The members of the House of Saud are old hands at rule and governing, and they have found ways back to power and control over the course of three centuries.

The question of who commands more ‘virility’ and endurance, as expressed by al-Baghdadi in his May 2015 speech, is still up in the air. But I believe it weighs heavily on the minds of the Saudis, who may have been taunted by the ‘caliphate’ into executing al-Nimr, and may be taunted into going further still.

UPDATE: This report by MEMRI published today goes a long way towards showing how IS is putting a Saudi face on its jihad for a Saudi audience in multiple videos released by the jihadists over the last two weeks.

Downsizing the Popular Mobilization Units

The on-going battle of Ramadi has shifted the conversation in Iraq. Despite the specifics of the battle, the perception by Iraqi public opinion of the battle has is that the Iraqi Army is back in the swing of things. This opens up an opportunity for the governments of PM Abadi and the United States to apply leverage against the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in such a way as to mold them into a smaller, pro-government force.

On paper, the PMUs are supposed to receive about 1 billion USD in the 2016 budget. That is unlikely to pan out. The shortfall is not going to be compensated with Iranian money, given that Iran has assigned the bulk of its available resources to the Syrian front per its agreement with Russia.

The lack of money, as well as documented abuses against Sunni civilians by some of the pro-Iran PMUs, may lend itself to a gradual eclipse of the latter forces should the initiative be spearheaded by Abadi with American prodding.

The Battle of Ramadi

There are several problems with how the battles have unfolded. To begin with, the brunt of the fighting was conducted by the Counter-Terrorism Forces (CTFs), which have been consistently used as infantry over the past two years contrary to their training and mission. The liberation of the fully-destroyed government complex in the city was not a victory for the Iraqi Army per se. Meanwhile, the CTFs have been depleted and exhausted.

On the other hand, the battle may worked to the Islamic State’s strategic objectives. Surely, losing Ramadi may look bad in a symbolic sense to the rank and file of the jihadists and their sympathizers, an issue addressed in ‘Caliph’ Al-Baghdadi’s latest audio speech. However, the strategists of the IS may have achieved the objective of tying-up the attention of the Baghdad’s best troops, as well as US air support, in a 3 month effort to take back a city that wasn’t that strategically important to IS as we think it is.

The jihadists did not fight a pitched battle in Ramadi. They employed the same diversionary and depletion tactics that they had used in Tikrit and Beiji. Over the last month, the most credible report of their numbers in Ramadi ranged between 300-600 fighters (the highest estimate had them at 1,500). Compare that to the 600 strikes or so conducted by Allied warplanes and drones on this front, plus the +12k Iraqi troops devoted to encircling the city. The disparity of effort and resources was a positive advantage for the jihadists.

The Battle of Ramadi afforded the IS time to operate and prepare elsewhere. In the overall assessment, I do not see how their ability to mount future operations—such as that which led to Ramadi’s fall last May—were seriously impeded.

The PMUs on the Sidelines

The most positive element of the Battle of Ramadi was that the PMUs could not claim credit for it, thanks to US efforts to sideline them. The modest victory there though has had an oversized effect on Iraqi public morale. Many Iraqis seem to embrace what happened in Ramadi partly because the PMUs were not involved, chalking up this achievement to the Iraqi Army, which has returned in the popular mind as a national symbol.

It is curious that the fate of Ramadi was being determined at the same time as the PMUs seemingly got what they wanted from the 2016 budget that was passed into law by parliament two weeks ago. The leadership of the PMUs had leveraged their newfound political clout to assign about 1 billion USD for them in 2016. But the details and the wording of the budget may work out against them.

Here are the stand-out features of Articles 39 through 41 of the 2016 budget:

-3 percent of salaries, pensions and perks are to be earmarked for the PMUs and the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), with 60 percent of that going to PMUs and 40 percent going to IDPs. That’s approximately 3 percent of 49 billion USD, which tallies up to around 900 million USD for the PMUs.

-An additional 3 percent was earmarked for the PMUs and IDPs from other expenditures of the state such as services, materiel, maintenance … etc. to be divided equally between the PMUs and IDPs.

-30 percent of the PMUs are supposed to be recruited from among Sunnis (this effectively does away, or so it would seem, with the legislation for a separate ‘Sunni’ National Guard).

-The “donations” to the PMUs are supposed to be deposited in a bank account controlled by the Prime Minister. It is my assessment that the word “donations” here means all the monies assigned to the PMUs.

Iraq’s 2016 budget is essentially “pie in the sky”. It is highly unlikely that Iraq would earn or be able to borrow the funds described in it. Consequently there will far less money available to the PMUs. I predict that they will end up getting less than 250 million USD over the course of 2016, even less than what they got in 2015.

Iran neither has the money nor the inclination to keep funding the various PMUs beholden to it. The Iranians are now fixated on the Syrian front, so much so that they have deployed some Iraqi PMUs to the Aleppo front and elsewhere in Syria, pulling them out from the Iraqi battlefield. This reallocation seems to be a manifestation of the deal they had cut with the Russian four months ago, according to Iraqi sources familiar with Gen. Suleimani’s strategy. (Suleimani has logged plenty of time in Syria recently as opposed to Iraq)

The pro-Iran PMUs believed that the shortfall would be compensated by their ‘win’ in the 2016 budget. But that ‘win’ is merely an illusion. Firstly, the money that may actually materialize is far less, and a big chunk of it is supposed to bankroll Sunni troops. Secondly, the pro-Iran PMUs will be competition with other PMUs that answer to Sistani, Sadr and Hakim for the same funds. Thirdly, Abadi gets to write the checks, and he may well prioritize IDPs for whatever funds become available.

Given the current atmospherics of Iraqi public opinion and its confidence in the Iraqi Army post-Ramadi, Abadi may be emboldened to starve out the pro-Iran PMUs. The PMUs may be relegated in 2016 to an effective strength of two auxiliary divisions (40,000 troops) with about half of those being Sunni Arabs. The pro-Najaf PMUs may constitute the bulk of the remaining numbers.

There is the risk of a general breakdown of law and order, however. The pro-Iran PMUs have been moonlighting as muscle for a variety of interests, some somewhat ‘legal’ as private security firms in the south (a few have landed security contracts with non-Western IOCs operating there), while in the case of Basra a few PMUs have tried to extract money from contractors on behalf of their debtors in an extra-legal manner. Pro-Iran PMUs tried to expropriate materiel from the Iraqi Army in Beiji, for example, by applying pressure on some army units to mark their vehicles and weapons as destroyed or lost. PMUs have also profited from expropriating private property in Sunni areas such as agricultural equipment and new cars, although very little of that remains to be taken. Yet I find it highly unlikely that they can turn back time to the situation that was prevalent in 2006-2008 when militias were running amok in central and southern Iraq; they are finding that the entrenched political and economic interests (notables, tribes, parties) there had solidified in the intervening years and are consequently too strong to be confronted head-on.

It may also turn out that the PMUs would begin cannibalizing each other as they fight for the scraps. The erosion in the stature and resources of the pro-Iran PMUs over the next few months may reflect upon the Provincial Council election results that their associated political arms may achieve in 2017. The PMUs did not get the opportunity to cash-in their popularity after Mosul into political ascendancy by way of either provincial council seats or parliamentary slots.

Abuses by pro-Iran PMUs

Human rights abuses against Sunnis, as well as their own de facto regional ‘diplomacy’, may give Baghdad the casus belli it needs to further sideline the pro-Iran PMUs.

Instances such as the well-documented disappearance of 900 to 1400 young Sunni men escaping from Anbar province after being arrested/abducted at PMU-run checkpoints in Bzeibiz and Razzaza, and the abduction of the Qatari hunting party, may portray the PMUs as out-of-control in the eyes of Baghdad, and Iraqi public opinion at large. The Iraqi government is still strong enough to tip a confrontation with the pro-Iran PMUs to its favor should it come to that, and the Iranian leadership, divided as it is, may not have the stomach for such a development. (NOTE: The Governor of Anbar submitted a list of 700 abductees to the Iraqi government a month ago)


One source claims that 400 of the abductees were handed over to the Ministry of Interior over the last few days, indicating that the pro-Iran PMUs are interested in resolving such thorny issues, forestalling a confrontation. On the Qatar front, Lebanese Hezbollah’s point person for Iraq is leading the negotiations for the release of the hunting party.


The tide is turning against the pro-Iran PMUs. Recent news reports that Abadi is trying to sideline Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis are not accurate, but they do indicate a change of mood: the balance of power has shifted. Of course, a major shift on the battlefield in the favor of IS would bring us back to square one, and the public mood may shift again towards  Suleimani and his PMUs. However, there is “chatter” among political operatives in Baghdad and in regional capitals that the Ramadi win may be followed-up with a non-military win in Falloujah, which would also go a long way towards establishing popular confidence in the Abadi government and the Iraqi Army.




The Islamic State’s Sovereign Wealth Fund

This is not a journalistic investigation. I am just sharing concerns that are circulating in Baghdad about the caliphate’s financing.

An Iraqi banking source has told me that the Islamic State (IS) is making a minimum of 25 million USD per month by participating in the Central Bank of Iraq’s (CBI) ‘dollar auction’. This adds up to approximately 300 million dollars a year, far outpacing how much IS is making off oil smuggling, according to some estimates.

How did it happen?

The US Treasury and the Federal Reserve launched an investigation into the CBI’s dollar auction, which prompted a temporary hold on sending dollars to Baghdad in the summer, according to a Nov. 3 front-page story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The investigation looked into whether IS was somehow benefiting from the flow of these large sums of money through the auction, that in the year 2015 amounted to over 42 billion dollars.

The CBI took steps a few months ago to put an end to the mechanism that seemed suspect to the US Treasury, which involved, according to an Iraqi banking source, the process by which salaries and pensions of public sector employees in IS-controlled territories were transferred to the accounts of Iraqi state banks in Kirkuk, Samarra, and Ramadi (before it fell). This was called, at least on the Iraqi side of the investigation, the ‘key card’ investigative channel, in reference to the electronic cards by which employees and pensioners withdraw money. The investigation centered on 11 suspect entities (exchange houses) that handled the bulk of the sums, which amounted in the month of January 2015 alone, for example, to about 1.3 billion dollars in salaries and pensions. IS figured out how to put this money in circulation by participating in the CBI’s dollar auction. The jihadist financiers did so by funneling the monies through these 11 entities and several Turkish banks. It is estimated by a parliamentary source familiar with the investigation that IS may have made as much as 175 million dollars from this avenue over a period of six months before it was closed to them.


However, a new private sector investigation in Iraq is uncovering troubling signs that IS is continuing to use the dollar auction to generate money. “They learned how to do it in the ‘key card’ channel, and they brought in cash in Iraqi dinars to continue doing it even after that channel was shut down,” an Iraqi banking source who is familiar with the investigation told me.

For the sake of expediency, I’m going to call this new channel the ‘Mosul Dinars investigation’.

According to this source, IS moved large sums of Iraqi Dinars out of Mosul banks to Jordan in December 2014, and then brought them overland to Iraq via Ramadi. From then on, these Iraqi Dinars were put to use with various exchange houses, and through them to various private Iraqi banks, for the purposes of participating in the CBI’s dollar auction directly. The banking source estimates that these ‘Mosul dinars’ account for twenty percent of the volume of trade in the monthly auction. The number given is approximately equivalent to 1 billion dollars. “This is the caliphate’s sovereign wealth fund. They invested it in the dollar auction. The monthly revenues, at minimum, add up to 25 million dollars, and can go up to 40 or 50 million dollars depending on many factors, such as the difference in the exchange rate, and how much pay offs there are at any given time,” the source said.

There has been much said about exactly how much money (in dinars and in hard currency) was there in the vaults of Iraqi state banks in Mosul at the time of the jihadist takeover. There had been press reports, as well as statements from the state banks, suggesting that there was little cash there. The source maintains that estimates placing those funds at anywhere between 1.8 to 2.6 trillion Iraqi dinars are the ones closest to reality. “The terrorists didn’t pay salaries to public sector employees. So what did they do with the cash? Iraqi dinars are a burden for them, so they sent some of them to Baghdad after figuring out that they can keep generating money from the auction,” he added.

IS doesn’t have theological qualms about making money off of the Iraqi state. There are credible intelligence reports, as well as captured documents, that demonstrate that ISIS, the forerunner of IS, participated either directly or as a silent partner in bidding on contracts awarded by the provincial council of Mosul and various Iraqi ministries prior to June 2014, in order to fund its activities. The jihadists, clearly, have the know-how to manage complicated financial transactions. “Abu Salah” who was killed in an airstrike in November was one such financial talent according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi expert on IS. Al-Hashimi wrote on his Facebook page that Abu Salah is one and the same as Ayad Abdel-Rahman al-Ubeidi, a former mukhaberat (intelligence) officer during Saddam’s time who was delegated with constructing much of the IS financial network. Al-Hashimi described al-Ubeidi to me as a “Khwarazmi-like genius” who turned to religion in the late 1990s, and had been working in the cultural department of the mukhaberat prior to the regime’s fall.

An anti-IS dissident from Mosul recently transplanted to Istanbul after having lived for a year under the caliph’s reign told me that he saw two exchange house owners from his hometown–known to him to be in bed with jihadists–casually strolling down Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi last September. This is one anecdote that suggests that the caliphate’s financial talent can still travel around the Middle East undetected.

What is the “dollar auction”?

It is a fishy affair.

The simplest way money is made lies in the margin of difference between the rate at which the CBI sells dollars in exchange for Iraqi dinars to the private banks, and that of the market. For example, the CBI sells at 1,187 dinars to a dollar, but the market exchange hovers between 1,205 to 1,230 dinars to a dollar (this would be the rate the private banks would sell at). The CBI takes a cut, and so do the private banks, and then the money flows in a largely unregulated and opaque process through hundreds of exchange houses.

Over the last five years, the CBI sold about 320 billion US dollars to some 23 private Iraqi banks. The CBI is only allowed to sell dollars to the private banks if the private sector needs dollars for an import transaction. It was estimated by the parliament’s Finance Committee that the sale of 200 billion dollars involved in the auction was suspect, and did not reflect actual mercantile activity. Private banks colluded with exchange houses to create a fake paperwork trail of invoices for private sector companies that don’t exist, or are not registered. The Finance Committee uncovered hundreds of such examples over many months of investigation, and the issue has been the subject of public debate in Iraq for a while. The private banks and the exchange houses (in many cases owned by the same owners of the banks) work with several regional banks in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

According to an Iraqi intelligence source, there were companies in Dubai with tens of employees creating such fake invoices over the last few years. In the last few months, this counterfeiting operation has largely moved to Baghdad. The imported goods never get to Iraq, but there is no reliable mechanism to match up the paperwork submitted to buy dollars with customs invoices at Iraq’s borders. Anyways, the customs offices in Iraq are notoriously difficult to regulate.

The Iraqi banking source quoted above tells me that only 20 percent of the invoices are legitimate, that is, that they are actually connected to merchandise that the private sector plans to import.

All sorts of international crime syndicates (drugs, fake brand goods, illicit arms, sex trade, etc.) around the world discovered the usefulness of these unregulated and unsupervised channels for money laundering and moving large sums of money around, according to a parliamentary source. In many cases (such as that of Latin American drug cartels) they were introduced to the large money flow of the dollar auction through Lebanese intermediaries.

The dollar auction is primarily controlled by five banks and several exchange houses. One of the exchange houses is owned by a Palestinian who holds Syrian, Iraqi, Jordanian, and Turkish citizenship. He used to be a partner of Uday Saddam Hussein’s in the cigarette trade. Two of the prime movers on the private banking side are Iraqis in their early thirties, having made fortunes amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars within the span of a few years. One of them now resides in Los Angeles, CA.

Several influential Iraqi politicians are tied into the dollar auction through relationships with these banks and exchange houses. At least two political parties have their own ‘sovereign wealth funds’—just like that of IS—that amount to tens of millions of dollars that they circulate through the dollar auction. The problem of complicity is not confined to Iraq; influential nationals of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the UAE are also involved.

Can it be fixed?

“No. IS has inserted its money into the whole matrix, which is corrupt and opaque to start with. You can’t unravel their money without unraveling everyone else’s money. Ernst and Young can’t do anything to follow the trail into the private banks and the exchange houses. The central bank says that what happens outside its doors is none of its concern,” the banking source answered. “The central bank must put an end to the dollar auction in order to put a stop to the IS money, but the whole thing is a political minefield,” he added.

It seems that the private investigation was instigated by current participants in the dollar auction who are worried that the IS money taints the whole structure, and may hold them liable on charges of aiding and funding terrorism down the road.

The CBI has responded to criticisms of its dollar auction by fining some of the private banks. These fines are subsequently negotiated down through political pressure. However, the CBI continues selling to the same banks. Other than shutting down the ‘key card channel’ over the summer, the CBI has not addressed concerns about other IS money participating in the auction.

Spooling out the IS money trail in and out of the dollar auction seems impossible at this junction. But it is critical. It seems to me that IS makes more money out of the dollar auction on a monthly basis than from oil smuggling. I trust Luay al-Khateeb, over at Brookings Doha, and his methodology, when he tells me that “ISIS makes 15-18 million dollars per month from oil sales”—contradicting many of the estimates that put the size of the trade much higher. The Coalition just bombed  280 oil tanker trucks. Russia is accusing Turkey of colluding with IS in oil smuggling. The Obama administration says that Asad buys most of IS’s oil. But if al-Khateeb’s numbers are right (and I believe they are), then it means that IS probably makes double what it makes from oil by participating in the dollar auction of the Central Bank of Iraq.

How opaque is the Iraqi banking sector?

Here’s an example of how non-transparent the system is: in one transaction in May 2014, an Iraqi company withdrew around 243 million dollars in cash from the Green Zone branch of a major Iraqi bank. The transaction was conducted by cashing in 23 checks.  This company is a front for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. It had shown up earlier on the radar in 2013 by acting as an intermediary in selling satellite jamming equipment to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. The jamming equipment was manufactured by Iran Electronics Industries, which had been designated for sanctions by the US Treasury in 2008. The sale was made in a no-bid process. Whistle blowers from Iraq’s Defense Ministry tried to tell the US Embassy about what was happening back then.

Despite the company’s past, it could still withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars last year from an Iraqi bank that is underwritten by several large US banks. One of those US banks had even hired the daughter of the Iraqi bank’s manager to work for them in Dubai, much in the same way that the children of Chinese officials were hired into cushy jobs by US banks.

The transactions the Iraqi company undertook in 2014 eventually amounted to several more hundreds of millions of dollars. Ostensibly, these were Iraqi Ministry of Defense payments rendered in cash in return for Iranian arms. The cash payments were necessary in order to circumvent sanctions. The US Treasury didn’t go around asking any questions about such payments (begun surreptitiously under the auspices of Iraq’s Foreign Ministry to pay for things like imported Iranian electricity and gasoline), even though in this particular case the same company was active in 2013 on behalf of an Iranian state enterprise sanctioned by the Treasury. What makes the case even more interesting is that Iraq seems to have been overpaid by several magnitudes for the arms that Iran had shipped. “The rest of the money left over is Qassim Suleimani’s to fund the wars in Syria and Iraq, as well as Hezbollah,” a source told me at the time.

This example highlights how difficult it would be to shine a light onto the inner workings of the Iraqi banking sector, both governmental and private.

Trying to parse through the local corruption, and Iran’s money, while going after the IS ‘sovereign wealth fund’ is going to be exceedingly difficult, not to mention it may take a long time to figure out.

In the meantime, IS is potentially raking-in a minimum of 300 million dollars a year from the CBI’s dollar auction, according to the private investigation.

‘Sunni-stan’ vs. The Fertile Crescent

John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes today in the New York Times that as America debates how to respond to the Paris attacks, President Obama’s current policy and other recent proposals “lack a strategic vision for the Middle East one the Islamic State, or ISIS, is actually defeated.” Bolton adds, “There are no answers, or only outmoded ones, to the basic question: What comes after the Islamic State?”

Not only do I have an answer to Mr. Bolton’s question, but I have two of them!

Mr. Bolton’s own answer is to create a new state in the Middle East from the Sunni portions of both Syria and Iraq. I am sure that many will point out the problems with his formula. But he must be commended for at least trying to think through one.

Essentially, the problem of the Middle East, for the last two centuries, has hinged on how to manage diversity and identity politics. This problem invited Western interference back in 1839, and continues to do so with the threat posed by the Islamic State.

The problem is particularly acute in the post-Ottoman states of Iraq and Syria. However, let us not assume that the creation of these states was some sort of post-WWI bureaucratic fumble; the men (and woman) who sat down to draw these lines on the map were some of the most thoughtful and most knowledgeable characters in the annals of policy-making.

There are two ways to think of both Syria and Iraq: Is it a hardware problem, or a software problem?

Bolton thinks the fault lies in the hardware. I counsel that we should try one more software upgrade to fix the bugs. If that works, then maybe we can look towards extending the solution. If it doesn’t, then that would be the time to hear out proposals such as the one he laid out in the Times Op-Ed.

Short-term solution: the Federal Region of Salahuddin

The idea is to immediately turn Salahuddin Province into a stand-alone federal region, similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The provincial council of Salahuddin had asked for exactly that, in Nov. 2011, when it activated the clauses in the Iraqi constitution that allow for it. Maliki simply ignored the request. It was the most mature Sunni Arab vision for the future to emerge since 2003—an opportunity lost.

The ISF and the Shia PMUs fought hard to liberate much of Salahuddin. They denied the caliph his hometown. They took back Saddam’s too. A federal region would show Arab Sunnis what the future looks like after ISIS. It would look like this: a regional capital in Samara, Regional Guard to protect Salahuddin, and turning political gripe into a very local affair rather than extending it to Shia-dominated Baghdad. If the clansmen of the caliph and his former neighbors can grudgingly accept it as the future, and if Saddam’s folk can do the same, then Iraq can turn a corner in the politics of sectarianism, by inverting identity politics into the politics of ‘local-ism’, as the constitution allows.

salahuddin province

But the Sunnis need to show maturation. They need to earn the trust of the Shia political center (Sistani, Hakim, Sadr—not all of Baghdad is beholden to Iran as Bolton seems to suggest), so that the political forces speaking for that center can sell it to the wider Shia public, despite the alarmist screams of Maliki and his ilk. And it is not enough for the leadership and elite of the Arab Sunnis to show maturation, they need to demonstrate that there is wide societal buy-in too. So what compromises do Sunnis have to make to earn the trust of the Shia? I maintain that it would be achieved by upholding a form of de-Ba’athification. Among the politicians of the federal region, de-Ba’athification then becomes a tool for local political maneuvering in tiny little Shirgat, rather than it being perceived as a sectarian barrier employed by Shias against Sunnis, denying them jobs in Baghdad. Otherwise, the Shia won’t bankroll a standing ‘Sunni army’ with ex-Ba’athist officers within an hour’s drive to Baghdad. They certainly won’t give up the holy shrine in Samarra that easily either. But what if the success of the de-Ba’athified ‘Sunni army’ is coupled with its ability to protect the shrine too? This same Arab Sunni force must also demonstrate that it can protect Arab Shia, Turkuman Shia, and Sunni Kurd minorities in the province.

In 2013 I thought Sunnis as a society were ripe for such a maturation after having been exhausted by the insurgency, and by Maliki’s brand of Shia chauvinism, and that this change would embolden their elite to strike the necessary compromise. Only in the last two months did I realize I was mistaken. However, we can’t wait around forever, and the process must be jump-started. Sunni leaders must emerge to lead their societies towards maturation, and with a moderately small ‘focus group’ such as that of Salahuddin’s (approximately 1 million people) it may work. It so happens that the man who is the father of ‘Salahuddin federalism’ (another Samarran, just like the caliph) may have what it takes to cajole his people towards a compromise. He had Ba’athist sympathies, but not enough of an affiliation to bar him from running in the last election. He won, but couldn’t take his seat in parliament because Maliki had an arrest warrant out for him.

The SFR (Salahuddin Federal Region) may be the beta-test of a solution that works for Arab Sunnis. We can try it now because much of the province has been taken back from the caliphate. We have a leadership that can potentially manage it. We have precedent (they asked for it in 2011). If America wants to help than it can cajole the government in Baghdad to ‘greenlight’ it. If the West really wants to help it can make the SFR economically viable by doing things like rebuilding the Beiji Refinery.

Long-term solution: the Confederation of the Fertile Crescent

In Eisenhower’s words, “Can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” Maybe the solution lies in a confederation between Syria and Iraq.


It would make economic sense (transport, resources, water). It would ‘relax’ identity politics between Sunnis and Shiites by achieving numerical equivalence. The KRG would extend into Rojava and vice versa. There would be enough oil money to go around rebuilding both countries. It would consist of multiple federated units (probably 7 in Iraq—like that of Salahuddin—and another 8 in Syria). Minorities would band together across both countries to get concessions from the majorities, who would need them to tip the political scales.

It may sound like one of Antoine Saadeh’s earlier visions but it isn’t: this confederation does not need an overarching ideology of shared origins (Greater Syria, Natural Syria, or even the ‘enlightened’ Arab Nationalism that colonial powers tried to introduce post WWI). It is also unlikely to include Lebanon, Jordan and Israel/Palestine.

All this ‘new cosmopolitan state’ needs to do is convince its populace that its cohesion is the best outcome after all other outcomes have been exhausted. That is, for the Confederation of the Fertile Crescent, its hardware and software is one and the same thing: staying together is better than breaking apart. More money, more local control over one’s identity and destiny, and less war.

Societies exhausted by wars look for big answers. Let us try to give an answer that doesn’t drive them to further wars.