Henner Fürtig, director of the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies explains why the Islamic State was able to overrun Iraq and why supporting the Kurds may not be enough to stop them. 30-8-2014 DEUTSCHE WELLE
DW: Why is the terror group, the ” Islamic State,” (IS) that currently controls large portions of Syria and Iraq so strong?
Henner Fürtig: IS is acting almost as a catalyst for far-reaching transformations – it has ignited conflicts that have been simmering for decades. In this respect, its impact extends far beyond its military strength, because it is using such sensitive issues to its advantage.
Which unresolved conflicts is IS exploiting?
These are conflicts that stem from the colonial period: arbitrarily drawn borders and unresolved ethnic and religious questions. Iraq is a classic example of a purely colonial construction. After WWI, it was formed out of three Ottoman provinces which had nothing to do with each other. Besides the great ethnic diversity made up of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Circassians, there is also sectarian diversity; about 60 percent of the people are Shiite and 40 percent Sunni, and then there are the many further branches of Islam among the Arabs and Kurds. All of these differences can be exploited to potentially fuel conflict. IS stands for the attempt to repeal colonial borders and reestablish their caliphate – and they aggressively spread that message. A lot of people in the region support this idea.
Can many people therefore identify with IS?
No, but IS has mastered its propaganda. It seems as though there are a number of specialists who are very good at their trade and who can use the Internet effectively to spread the group’s propaganda – this is one of the way they recruit supporters in Europe. This is the reason why an increasing number of misguided young people are finding their way to northern Iraq.
One associates IS with terror. But doesn’t IS also fulfill tasks in its territories, which previous authorities have been unable to accomplish?
Prof. Dr. Henner Fürtig
Professor Henner Fürtig: IS is acting as a catalyst, igniting long-simmering conflicts in the Middle East
I don’t think taking over administrative tasks is what makes them strong. What you find in IS-controlled territories is brutal violence. Everyone who does not follow a very one-sided, al Qaeda-type style of Islam is regarded as an enemy and is persecuted and killed. But IS draws its strength in Iraq primarily from Sunni Arabs who were privileged under Saddam Hussein, and who became the losers in his overthrow in 2003. Contrary to promises, the Sunnis have not been represented in government. Many of these very frustrated Sunnis have seen an instrument in IS through which they can again be heard. They want to show Baghdad that their interests must be taken into account – and so long as there are no other means for them, they’ll use IS.
The recently-resigned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been blamed primarily for this polarization. Will his successor Haider al-Abadi – also a Shiite – improve the situation?
It is possible – if he implements wise policies. In 2006 and 2007, US armed forces managed to create an uprising among the Sunni population against Islamic State forerunner, “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” The US promised to integrate those fighting al Qaeda into the new regular Iraqi army. Maliki did not keep the promise and after the American withdrawal, he left the fighters out in the cold. The new Iraqi government now has the chance to make a clear commitment to the Sunni Arabs, delegate responsibility to them, and thus initiate a reconciliation.
Why is the West supporting the Kurdish fighters?
IS fighters in Syria
The terror group “Islamic State” controls broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria
Because the Kurdish Peshmerga militia is currently the only military power that is actually capable of resisting IS. The regular Iraqi army is torn by ethnic and sectarian tensions and therefore is currently not able to offer this type of resistance.
Can the Peshmerga stop IS?
The Peshmerga are and always have been strong when they are attacked. They are highly motivated to protect their settled area in northern Iraq. They have proven this time and time again over the past decades, also against Saddam Hussein’s battalions. When it comes to protecting their homeland, deep divisions in Kurdish politics are overcome.
Half of IS fighters are supposedly active in Syria. There are voices that demand that the West coordinate its fight against IS with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
It is like the old saying, “any enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine.” Naturally, think tanks are considering what can and cannot be accomplished under certain circumstances with Assad. But that is currently still in the planning stages. The active policy is not yet challenged because the primary conflict is not yet taking place in Syria. Governments may eventually arrive at a point where decisions have to be made, but we’re not that far yet.
Henner Fürtig has been director of the GIGA-Institute for Middle-East Studies in Hamburg since 2009. He is the author of numerous articles and books on Iraq.