MESOP : “AS MUCH AS”? / Iraq Expert Gareth Stansfield : ‘Insurgency is as Much Old Baathist as it is ISIS’

By Alexander Whitcomb yesterday at 12:08 – 30.6.2014 – In 2009, Stansfield served as a senior political adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), with special reference to the situation in Kirkuk and Iraq’s disputed territories. – Gareth Stansfield, a Middle East expert at the University of Exeter, warns in an interview with Rudaw that the Sunni insurgency in Iraq has wide implications for the region, including greater involvement by Iran and Turkey.

Stansfield, who is Director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS) at the UK university and who worked in Iraq in 1996-2001 before Saddam Hussein’s fall, notes that the battlefield victories racked up by the insurgents in little more than a fortnight are the work of a deadly alliance between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Saddam’s old elite guards.

Stansfield notes that Iran’s growing role in Iraq comes as United States is losing influence. “This is an Iranian-designed defense of Baghdad that’s happening,” he says.

Here is an edited transcript of his interview with Rudaw:

Rudaw: You couldn’t have picked a more interesting moment to come back to Iraq. What was your interest in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) before recent events?

Gareth Stansfield: Some time ago I developed this idea of ISIS wanting to create the “Jazeera region,” the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris. This has obvious implications for established state boundaries, because that cuts right across Syria and Iraq. I tried to tell Western analysts that you can’t separate events in Syria from events in Iraq. They are still very state-centric in how they look at these things. Since then all this information has come out about the very sophisticated planning between ISIS, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (Iraqi Baathist group JRTN), and Sunni tribes. And here we are today.

Rudaw: What makes ISIS different from other jihadist militant groups?

Gareth Stansfield: It’s not just a bunch of rag-tag jihadists. This one looks very serious. They have a plan, a strategy, a vision, resources and capabilities that we’re only just seeing now.

If any organization in Iraq learned from the success of the (retired US general David) Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy in 2007-2008 — winning hearts and minds, undermining an enemy before you’ve even begun fighting — it was ISIS. These were all US- and UK-designed doctrines that we used to great effect to stop al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s insurgency. What the Americans and British did is actually feeding into what ISIS (is doing) now. They learned how you take territory, hold territory, subdue and split populations. Petraeus isn’t talking about this right now — he’s saying (perhaps rightly) that the Americans should have stayed longer because they needed more time to finish the job.


Rudaw: Will they be able to maintain the support of the Sunni tribes and Baathist militias?

Gareth Stansfield: I don’t know that it’s support that they need. They’re in partnership, right now, with a distribution of roles and activities. This insurgency is as much old Baathist as it is ISIS. And certainly, the seven tribes of Anbar that always supported al-Qaeda will come back into it. They’re extremely numerous and dangerous. They’ve got a common denominator as a cause, which is to remove the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq.

Beyond that, they have differences. For ISIS, the end game isn’t toppling the Shiite government; the end game is the fight itself — having that sectarian civil war that will engulf the entire region. Whether they win or not is neither here nor there. For the Baathists, it’s about recapturing Baghdad and re-imposing their narrative that Sunnis — or really just Baathists — can run the state while the Shiite can’t. The tribes have been entirely opportunistic, and who can blame them? They’ve not had a good life since 2006.


I don’t see why these alliances should break, and I don’t see it as an ISIS-dominated alliance, either. We forget too readily just how numerous, committed and well trained the Baathists were in Iraq. You were indoctrinated from when you were seven years old. This was as big as being in a religious order. Just because Saddam is hanged doesn’t mean that’s changed. These guys are very capable and determined figures. And there’s a lot of them. If you remember, in 2003, the Special Republican Guard never committed to battle. Most of the Republican Guard didn’t either. You then have Saddam’s bodyguard network that was never really found, and a special security operation that wasn’t either. All these specially trained Baathists went to Syria, hid out in Mosul, went to Yemen, or to various Gulf States. And now they’re back.


There’s a partnership and they complement each other extremely well. We see the way they’ve complemented each other by the way they govern Mosul. They’ve now got a Baath colonel as the governor of Mosul and there are clear divisions of authority. They might be tricky with each other but it’s working thus far. And the tribes fit into it very neatly. Some of them have cooperated with (Iraqi prime minister) Maliki in the past, but they’re very opportunistic.

Rudaw: Do you see Iran sending in more support soon?

 Gareth Stansfield: It’s very likely. This is the danger for the Americans.  A few days after they took Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, said that his target was Najaf. This fits perfect with the Salafi-jihadist mentality. They want to relive the sacking of holy sites in Najaf that happened a few hundred years ago by Wahabis from the Arabian Peninsula.

It’s these memories that are important, maybe more so than what happened in 2007 when you had Sunnis killing Shiites and Shiites drilling holes in the heads of Sunnis. Historical memories are longer. The Shiites remember the sacking of Najaf, so do ISIS. This is something Westerners don’t have a clue about, because we work on four-year electoral cycles. You saw what happened when the al-Askari shrine in Karbala was bombed in 2006 — all hell broke loose. If something happens in Najaf or at another shrine, we’re going to see an entirely different level of violence.

(Iranian President Hassan) Rouhani himself said Iran would intervene to defend the shrines. You could imagine a situation that if ISIS succeeds at getting its columns into Baghdad, then you could see an Iranian engagement, because if you kick up a fight in Baghdad the towns around it go down and that’s not far from Karbala and Najaf at all. They’ve got (Iranian commander) Qassem Soleimani there, and it wouldn’t take them long at all — maybe a day — to get Revolutionary Guards there. They would do that if they thought that Baghdad would be taken by ISIS or the Sunnis.

It shows just how far things have changed. In 2007-2008 you had David Petraeus organizing the defense of Baghdad, setting up American outposts in the city. And now it’s Qassem Soleimani who’s putting people in defensive positions and organizing the militias. There are no Americans there; this is an Iranian-designed defense of Baghdad that’s happening.

Rudaw: Will Turkey change its policy of accommodating ISIS?

Gareth Stansfield: It’s changed already, even before this happened. Turkey has been standoffish about ISIS for some time, once they realized how scary they really were. Generally, they’ve been quiet. Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan has been off campaigning in Europe. There was no real mention of the plight of the Turkmen (fighting ISIS) in Tel Afar or anywhere else. You get the impression that Turkey is watching this quite closely and feels comfortable in its relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). What is happening brings Ankara and Erbil even closer together.

Just as the Iranians would defend Baghdad to defend Najaf and Karbala, Turkey would defend Kurdistan in order to defend against ISIS getting further north and also to protect its own energy interests, as Turkey needs Kurdistan’s oil and gas more than ever. Maybe this is why Turkey’s been quiet — there’s some serious planning going on.

Rudaw: Will the KRG tolerate having ISIS on their borders? Would the Peshmerga attack ISIS, beyond the strategic battles happening now in Diyala governorate?


Gareth Stansfield: Kurdistan’s Peshmerga and the Zerevani (forces) are set up in a very particular way. They’ve been set up ostensibly to defend Kurdistan’s borders, but there’s never been a clear boundary there. Their distribution is irregular: they are diffused through the disputed territories, a base here and a base there, matching the Iraqi Security Forces wherever they are. They’ve run all their counterterrorism stuff in the cities very effectively. They’ve had their guards across Iraq wherever senior Kurdish politicians have gone.

Now, all of a sudden, they have a clear border for the first time ever. And it’s there because ISIS has made it. One thousand kilometers, even for an army the size of Kurdistan’s, is a very long border to protect, especially if your enemy is capable of curling all of its forces into one fist and punching through. It’s not a question of attacking ISIS, it’s a question of defending Kurdistan.


ISIS is very attack minded, and the Kurds are in a position where they have to be very defense minded. It’s not defensive like in the old days with the original Peshmerga, who could run up into the mountains where they could defend the idea of Kurdistan.  It’s not a question of defending the idea anymore, this is about defending Kurdistan — the physical cities and a population that isn’t particularly battle-minded.


In the old days every Kurd would go up and have a fight. Today, Kurdistan is a civilized and urbane society that is not warlike in the same way. There needs to be a big concentration on how Kurdistan’s defenses are organized in this interim period while ISIS is focusing elsewhere and a truce seems to exist where they don’t attack Kurdistan.


At the same time, they have already started prodding the Kurdistan Region, with kidnappings, car bombs and… rumors of attacks on Kirkuk. This is how ISIS softened up Mosul. They did the same in Samarra as well: just prodded, spread the information campaign and psychological operations, kidnap a few people, kill them horribly, put the fear of God into everybody. Make a few attacks that fail as well, where they just run in and run out. Then all of a sudden the big attack comes.


I’m not a military guy but it seems to me that the Peshmerga have been used in a particular way before June 10th, and after June 10th things will have to change. The alternative is to attack Mosul, but that’s a very big gamble, because whatever happens you’re still going to have ISIS as neighbors to the south. 

Rudaw: How much closer is Kurdistan to independence compared to before June 10?


Gareth Stansfield: The KRG has a narrow path to tread. They can see independence right there to grab, but there’s a big danger if they move too quickly. Iraq is imploding anyway, and they’ll be the only bit left standing. So why incur the wrath of the international community by splitting up Iraq first?

Rudaw: Should the KRG finally execute Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which offers citizens in the disputed territories the choice to join the KRG via a referendum? 

Gareth Stansfield: They don’t even have to do that. If you’re talking about disputed territories, the KRG can actually use the government of Iraq’s own argument against them. The government said that Article 140 is invalid because it ran out of time (it was meant to be carried out by 2007). The KRG can say: “we have de facto authority and we can make it de jure through a referendum of our own.” There’s also the issue of the Iraqi Constitution. At what point does it fold because Iraq is no longer valid? Legally speaking, it’s a force majeure question: at what point is Iraq’s Constitution not applicable anyway? If you’re a Kurd, you’re going to want to get your Constitution approved really quickly. It’s not been approved yet.  A big block is the American administration, which doesn’t have a lot of love for an independent Kurdistan — even for the idea of a Kurdistan that is more autonomous than it is now. But arguably the Americans are not so strong here anymore, so maybe they’ll just ignore it if it happens.