TAREK ZEIDAN: Good afternoon everyone. This is Tarek Zeidan. I’m the director of communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center. [...] I will take this as an advantage to introduce the speakers we have here with us. The first is Dr. Lina Khatib, who’s the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Joining her as well is Dr. Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Our Associate Dr. Fred Wehrey could not join us today because of a scheduling conflict but he is available separately for interviews. […]
I think I’ll start things off by asking a question myself before I leave the floor open to questions from everybody else. This is both to Yezid and Lina: It’s remarkable how quickly the ISIS fighters were able to sweep through Mosul and control such a large expanse of land with little or no resistance. The primary question is, do you think that ISIS will be able to maintain control of this territory in a meaningful and sustainable way, and if so for how long?
YEZID SAYIGH: This is Yezid Sayigh. I’ll start by saying that ISIS clearly has shown here as it has in the past in Syria on several occasions, that it’s got a lot of ability to think strategically as well as tactically to hoard and reserve forces, and use them at precise timing in order to build up what you might call kinetic energy. That is, to use its relatively small forces in very carefully selected and precise ways to generate a momentum that it can then build on, through constant rapid movement and development, and this is very much what it’s done in Iraq. The difference is of course, that in Iraq they have taken over massive amounts of space, major cities including Iraq’s second city Mosul; you know, brought about the solution of several Iraqi army divisions. This is on a scale that it’s never done before in Syria or even in Iraq really. This just first, as I said, high ability in terms of their thinking through things, planning indicates intelligence ability. In other words they must’ve had very accurate information about conditions, political, morale, et cetera, within the regime, within government forces especially in a place like Mosul. They probably also, whether it was them or through allied Sunni forces, had strong contacts within the army almost certainly, which at least gave them information if not also secured that, insured that, certain units wouldn’t fight. I also want to add here that it’s clear also that in advancing so rapidly, ISIS couldn’t have done this had there not been large numbers of Sunni militia of different type who are loyal to other Sunni political currents, whether it’s former army officers, former Baathists, from an extended army, tribal or clan militias, and the fact that these people were already there, mobilized and ready to move in behind ISIS into places like Mosul to to then safeguard them, and consolidate the gains they made while ISIS then moved on further south indicates there was a high level of coordination, prior planning, trust, and also that all this could be done with minimal sort of notice or warning on the government side.
TAREK ZEIDAN: Thank you Yezid. Alright we’ll be starting to take questions from everybody. I will just ask you to please introduce yourself before you ask your question, and say who you’re directing your question to.
REPORTER: Can I ask a question?
TAREK ZEIDAN: Please go ahead and identify yourself.
REPORTER: Hi, yeah. I’m Ian Black from The Guardian newspaper in London. I’d like us to ask a question of probably Yezid, but anybody else who’s capable of answering it. I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have too, that the Saudi government in the last 24 hours has issued an unusual public, and very strongly-worded statement denying that it in any way supports Daesh after the comments made by Maliki, earlier this week. Could you give an assessment of the degree to which the Saudis may have supported ISIS even inadvertently, and contextualize this very strong statement that they’ve issued?
LINA KHATIB: Yeah okay, hello Ian. This is Lina Khatib. Okay, when we talk about Saudi support for ISIS we have to distinguish between support by the Saudi state and support by Saudi nationals who have agendas that sometimes differ from those of the Saudi state itself. In the case of ISIS, there is Saudi money flowing into ISIS; however, this is not money from the Saudi state. Current statement issued by the Saudi government denying the allegation that it’s supporting ISIS is, uh, currently an accurate one. Saudi Arabia has in any case been under a lot of pressure by the United States and others to stop its support for jihadists in Syria in general, and this has led to a decline of the Islamic funds that had been supported by some Saudi sources, um, as well as some other groups.
REPORTER: Thank you.
LINA KHATIB: The Saudi non-state support for ISIS is ongoing.
REPORTER: Thank you Lina.
REPORTER: This is Shabtai Gold from the DPA. I was wondering if I could maybe follow up on Ian’s question. There have been a lot of reports about ISIS being the richest terror organization in the world, and you know figures ranging from hundreds of millions to over a billion dollars in their hands. How much does ISIS at this point actually rely on donations from let’s say the Gulf States, and how much at this point are they economically independent? Are they able to function without relying on this network of support, and if so, how exactly do they make their money these days?
LINA KHATIB: ISIS currently has an estimated $2 billion dollars in terms of funds. It had, in the beginning, relied on support from Gulf forces, meaning donations from Gulf forces, however after it took hold of Raqqa in Syria, especially being able to take over oil rich areas, and also being able to impose its own taxation on the local population, as well as taking foreign nationals hostage, these new sources of funding have meant that ISIS has become, both in Syria and in Iraq, completely financially independent, and no longer reliant on money flowing in from Gulf forces. So right now, the money coming from foreign donors to ISIS is surplus to its core needs. Even if that money stopped, ISIS makes enough money from taxation, ransoms, and sale of resources to be able to become independent and sustainable.
REPORTER: Thank you very much.
REPORTER: Hi it’s Patrick Martin here with the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada. Uh, Yezid or Lina, could you tell me how real are the gains that the Kurds have been able to effect during this crisis?
YEZID SAYIGH: I’ll answer. Lina’s been talking about the Kurdish gains. So I’ll just step in real quickly and then it hand it over to her. I mean it’s clear, well my view for me, their move into Kirkuk, while portrayed as a defensive move of course to secure the city and the oil fields, it obviously serves something they’ve been trying to do for a very long time. My sense would be there’s no going back from that. The Kurds don’t need Maliki; Maliki needs them, and it’s not obvious that they would have any reason to give them any favors, and so I suspect that any kind of deal making is going to involve with the new reality that the Kurds control Kirkuk, even if that’s not formalized entirely for a while, we’ll have to wait and see. What I did want to really add is the importance I think for the Kurdish movements in Syria, the PYD and the KDP of Syria, which is Barzani's party, the sister party, performing a joint operations room to deal with the possibility of, you know, an ISIS threat across the Iraqi border. That I think is important, because obviously those two movements in particular have been at odds, and in this latest threat forces them into one trench basically, and they’ve had the foresight to actually go ahead and start coordinating with each other. So if they’re able to maintain that even after the crisis recedes, then I think they’ll be in a much stronger position going forward vis-à-vis whatever happens in Syria, in other words in the longer term, securing and protecting their autonomy.
REPORTER: Hi this is Ruth Pollard from the Sydney Morning Herald. Hi I wanted to ask Lina if she could comment a little bit further on this racketeering that ISIS has used in order to fill its coffers. How much of that racketeering is going to be able to continue in Iraq? Can they sustain this level of earning in Iraq as they have in Syria?
LINA KHATIB: ISIS in Syria is currently more financially comfortable than ISIS in Iraq. In fact, prior to the Mosul takeover, ISIS in Syria had started pumping money into ISIS in Iraq, and this money came from Syria itself. So ISIS is obviously stronger in Syria than it is Iraq, which in a way makes sense, because we’re talking about a more limited territory in Syria, and a more fatigued population that’s easier to control, and you know easier landscape, because of the implicit cooperation by the Syrian Assad regime. So ISIS will find it more difficult to sustain the same level of racketeering in Iraq that it has used in Syria. If ISIS is going to have any long-term presence in Iraq in the same way that it’s trying to do in Syria, then it’s going to face challenges that are definitely different from the ones it has been able to overcome in Syria.
YEZID SAYIGH: I’d like to add, clearly ISIS already had visibly important income streams from controlling the oil fields, and it’s been fighting with Jabhat Al-Nusra and other rebel groups in Deir Ezzor to try and control more, with some success, and now they’ve got even more money from Mosul. Now one, I think, reservation should be that ISIS has a big fight ahead in Iraq. They’ve made the big gains but from now on they have to hold them, and it’s not clear how much they can divert in the way of energy, money, weaponry, and then, a way from Iraq to Syria. That’s one, I think, reservation. Another is that ISIS in order to consolidate their power in Syria need on the one hand to build up military forces, which may mean being able to pay salaries to larger numbers of fighters, and obviously they now have much more of that money. They also need to a […] services is to regulate and manage economic efficiencies in areas under the control to ensure that the population actually have a reasonably stable and secure sort of […].Now here, I don't think ISIS are inclined to spend their own money providing services. Their attitude has generally been one of hands-off […] and then local groups, including even the provisional government of the national coalition operating, so long as it’s under their overall control and veto power. They allow local entrepreneurs I think like the electricity and […]
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YEZID SAYIGH: So in certain times between actually allowing basic provision of economic activity, regulation, and administrative services, healthcare, garbage collection, and et cetera, and paying for all that from their own money. As for buying loyalty of other fighters by offering salaries, now that’s something that Jabhat Al-Nusra has done a lot, but ISIS’s real advantage has been having a hardcore of really determined and committed fighters. The moment they start broadening out, and bringing anyone who will come for the money they risk diluting their military effectiveness, and therefore, diluting their brand.
REPORTER: Trudy Rubin from the Philadelphia Enquirer. Forgive me if you’ve addressed this. I might’ve missed something, but you were mentioning ISIS, the challenges of consolidating in Iraq. What do you think are going to be their greatest challenges, apart from the question of whether the U.S. chimes in with any air strikes, but within the territory they have, do you think their alliances with Sunni militias and Baathists, will last? Can they really control this territory, and should the U.S. decide to use either drones, kinetic drones, or air strikes? Do you think there is anything they could do effectively that would make any real difference?
LINA KHATIB: The challenge that ISIS faces in Iraq mainly stems from the ability to sustain local buy-in from the tribes and from the city population. So far ISIS has managed to cooperate quite successfully with former Baathist local tribes and groups such as the Sons of Iraq. However, if you look at the Sons of Iraq, this gives you an interesting case study, because the Sons of Iraq have been seminal in driving out Al-Qaeda for a while after the U.S. invasion of 2003, and then, this particular group was sidelined by Maliki, and now this group is in fact collaborating with ISIS. So this tells us that even though ISIS is collaborating with certain Islamist groups on the ground, this does not mean that once the dust settles these groups are going to remain loyal to ISIS. There are in fact ideological differences between these groups and ISIS. As for, and I will say that the only way ISIS could have seized Mosul is through cooperating with the local population. So without buy-in from the local population, ISIS will find it very hard to hold areas it has controlled, and to expand its scope of control.
As for U.S. drones, I think U.S. drones could be effective in a limited way, but they would not be effective without a political solution tied into military activities. So unless there is a unity government formed in Iraq, any military action taken by the United States will only have very limited impact, and the conflict will continue to escalate.
YEZID SAYIGH: That may anticipate other questions as well. First the degree right now, the degree of political alienation and distressed among Sunnis of the Maliki government for any short-term political initiative to take root, and with Maliki sort of polarizing the situation by blaming all this on Saudi Arabia, rather than trying to involve Saudi Arabia and bringing the Sunnis on board, is actually going in the wrong direction. So, although I think it’s very wise to try and address Sunni concerns politically and socially, it won’t necessarily produce results right now, because having gone to war and achieved much results, I think those parts of the Sunni camps that have been behind all this, and are allied with ISIS, are not going to be ready to pull back, and start making compromises. So the critical differences within the Sunni camp are important, and they need to be built on, but it might be something for the medium term rather than the short term, in terms of revealing itself and having the impact.
The other aspect of ISIS that, in all this is that whether or not something further down the road can be coupled together that generates a new kind of political dialogue) after sort of underpinned, underwritten by Iran on the one side and by Saudi Arabia, that so far has been excluded from this, as well as the U.S. I fear that although Maliki has clearly Iraq into this situation, but not alone, if all the outside powers now start focusing on the demount that Maliki leaves as the condition enable a political dialogue. I think that means that they’ve absolutely every incentive to dig in, and […] entirely. So we want to avoid, I think, that kind of situation.
REPORTER: You touched on just what I wanted to follow up on. Is the whole focus on outreach to Sunni --and President Obama has made that the condition, as you know of any further action-- I don’t understand who one could talk to, and even in the medium term, what Sunni groups among Baathists or militias that now feel on a roll, is going to be willing to compromise, and who would be able to press them to compromise, let alone press the Shia or Maliki on the other side?
YEZID SAYIGH: Here's the thing. I mean, it would be the obvious people like Nujaifi or Allawi, or others, and as Lina mentioned earlier, Sons of Iraq who at one point were part of the Maliki camp. All of these people have either been alienated or have been weakened as Maliki chipped away at their parliamentary blocks, and so on. So even those who might be open to dialogue are now too weak to deliver. In some cases they’re just as venal and corrupt, and aren’t necessarily people with a great deal of legitimacy and credibility. So unfortunately, right now, this is why I suggested that although it’s the right thing to do politically, which is to start putting together a political discourse, and set of ideas, and initiatives, and feelers, and outreach, et cetera, aimed at bringing the Sunnis into the political process, but it’s not as if it’s first time. I mean the various Sunni politicians and parties have been engaged with for 10 years, there are those among them who from the start felt that this whole new Iraq is […] hard to say, is therefore wrong and unacceptable, and those who are, I don’t think, aren’t going to get convinced now.
The problem is that so for a while I think that you won’t see much progress, but the issue isn’t of identifying a few characters to talk to. It’s rather we know perfectly well the Sunni demands have been over the last 10 years. It’s about the lack of credibility of Maliki, and not just of Maliki, a lack of trust in everyone around him in ever delivering on things that have been promised in the past. So we have to reinvent the wheel. We have to get genuine commitments to implementing things agreed on in the past, and here’s where I think outside players need to shift the focus from move Maliki away, get rid of Maliki, rather than say: here are the things that have been agreed on or could be improved on and built on, this is what needs to happen in moving forward. This may allow, for instance, bringing the Saudis on board as a positive constructive player rather than as a spoiler in this whole political process. Bringing the Sunnis in, assuring them, and becoming party to bringing about a new political order in Saudi and Iraq, alongside Iran, rather than forever sort of being outside the tent as it were, you know trying to disrupt things, because they think everything in Iraq has gone to the dogs and gone to Iran.
REPORTER: Just a follow-up on that again, is there any role for the Arab neighbors, a positive role for the Arab neighbors, that they can play in the short-term, to help Iraq?
LINA KHATIB: Saudi Arabia can play a very important role in what is happening in Iraq today by basically continuing its back-channel talks with Iran, driven by the shared concern of both countries about the spread of ISIS. I think if Saudi Arabia and Iran reach an agreement about power-sharing in Iraq, that would mean an agreement that could circumvent the challenge that Yezid spoke about, which is the challenge of what to do about Maliki. There may be a formula where by Maliki’s political party remains in power, but Maliki himself steps down. This formula, I think, would be acceptable, or is likely to be acceptable to Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia. And if that were to happen, if a power sharing agreement is reached with the Sunnis in Iraq, this can resurrect the offer by members of the Sunni community that Maliki had refused just a few days ago when they came to him and offered to have a Sunni militant force fighting back ISIS on the ground, essentially empowering the Iraqi army through a significant Sunni presence. Maliki refused that. So if that would be resurrected with the blessing of Saudi Arabia in agreement with Iran, I think it would be a major move forward for all stakeholders in this conflict and all Arab stakeholders.
REPORTER: Can you elaborate (it’s Trudy Rubin again) on that offer, which I had not seen written about by Sunnis to fight alongside the army, I guess?
LINA KHATIB: Yes, this was an offer made early on in the crisis by several leaders of the Sunni community in Baghdad. They went to Maliki and including some Islamist groups. They went to Maliki and offered to form a kind of Sunni army, if you like. They said that if they did that, then they would be able to fight ISIS more legitimately, because then it would not be seen as a Shia versus Sunni issue, and that way they would avoid sectarian tensions from flaring up. However, Maliki refused, because Maliki so far has exerted a lot of pressure over the Iraqi army to the extent that certain members of the Iraqi army who are not Shia—meaning certain Sunni members of the Iraqi army—have said that they do not belong to the Iraqi state. And that explains, you know their actions in Mosul–the fact the Iraqi army in Mosul chose not to fight. A lot of the Sunni soldiers there felt like they had nothing to fight for, and that they were not willing to defend Maliki himself. So that was the offer that Maliki refused, because he felt that it would dilute his control over the Iraqi army.
REPORTER: Was this former Sons of Iraq commanders, like tribal? I mean this wasn’t say Abu Richa or Ali Hakem, was it?
LINA KHATIB: No, these are not the Sons of Iraq commanders, because the Sons of Iraq commanders are now allied with ISIS. I’m talking about other Sunni groups—some of them moderate—not just Islamist groups, who had made that offer to Maliki.
TAREK ZEIDAN: We have time for one last question before we have to leave. Does anybody have anything to ask?
REPORTER: I have another one if no one else has. Qassem Suleimani has been in Baghdad, and there has been no indication in the past—that given that he has the Iraq file in Iran—there’s been no indication that he has been interested in outreach or compromise with the Sunnis. So, even if you have a Rouhani or senior aides of Rouhani, like Abu Talibi, talking about cooperation with the Americans, which leads one to believe it could be some kind of formula involving Sunnis. You have, in Baghdad, Suleimani, who seems disinterested in that. Can anyone talk about how that circle could be squared? Is there any indication that you’ve seen that Qassem Suleimani has a brief from the supreme leader, or is willing to change the direction that he has gone in in the past regarding compromise with Sunnis in Iraq?
YEZID SAYIGH: I’m certainly not clear on that detail, however, I think that any overt Iranian involvement in Iraq at this stage is going to be calibrated in a way that allows it to be portrayed as a constructive act, as part of a collective effort, or at least a response to a collective concern, in ways that are acceptable to other parties. Iranians don’t want to go in a way that simply diverts the confrontation to be one of Iranians and Iraqis versus others, such as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Maliki might be trying to push in that direction by making this–about blaming Saudi Arabia. I think the Iranians have a lot more to gain strategically by showing their ability and asserting their rights to deploy some force to protect Baghdad, but by keeping this on a government to government basis first, and second, by keeping it limited in size, and scale, and location, they’re also signaling something that could be complimentary to what others are doing to see what goes into the air strikes. There’s no reason for the Iranians as it were not to provide some sort of defense for Baghdad. The question I think that becomes interesting if you look further down the line, whether by common agreement the Iranians expand their role there, and moreover, at least hypothetically at this stage, it becomes legitimate for Iran to deploy military force in Iraq in support of the government, might that also become possible in Damascus one day down the line, and it’d be ironic for the U.S. passively at least accept this in Iraq, but then start fighting it in Syria. So there may be complications down the line, but for now I think the Iranians will step very carefully.
REPORTER: Thank you.
TAREK ZEIDAN: Thank you everybody. Thank you so much for joining us. If you have any follow up questions, I encourage to get in touch with my colleagues Clara in D.C. or Joumana here in Beirut, and thanks for joining us once again, and we look forward to talking to you all soon. The Carnegie Middle East Center hosted a media call with Lina Khatib and Yezid Sayigh on the recent developments in Iraq.
REPORTER: Thank you.
REPORTER: Thank you very much for organizing.
TAREK ZEIDAN: You're very welcome.