The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), i.e., al-Qaeda, is practicing statehood in the Syrian town of Raqqa. They have started bus services from Raqqa to Maadan, 60 kilometers to the east. The ticket is virtually free: 50 Syrian pounds, or 0.8 Turkish Lira [$0.36]. They are the new masters of the area between the Euphrates and the Iraqi frontier. To win the hearts of the Syrians, al-Qaeda needs revenues to flow in like the Euphrates' waters.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wields such clout in the area from the Abu Kamal border crossing to the Iraqi provinces of Anbar and Ninevah that printing money with his own stamp seems to be the only thing he has not yet done. Thanks to the many border villages it has seized, al-Qaeda is able to move between Syria and Iraq.
According to Al-Monitor’s Harith Hasan, al-Qaeda has set up a supply network in Mosul, the provincial capital of Ninevah, and has been collecting “taxes” from shopkeepers for several months — a tax policy under which those who refuse to pay the extortion money are killed, abducted or have their homes bombed. The money collected per month amounts to $8 million. So, the Iraqi money goes to Syria, the Syrian arms go to Iraq. A two-way flow over the Euphrates. In the meantime, the Shiite Turkmen and the Shabak are being targeted in a drive to make Mosul entirely Sunni. Iraq has lost 6,000 sons and daughters to the spiral of violence this year. The extremist network is threatening both Syria and Iraq due to its control of areas along the Euphrates.
Why am I describing this picture? During his visit to Washington last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used the al-Qaeda threat as a key argument to secure the cooperation of President Barack Obama’s administration. Pointing to al-Qaeda is the most efficient way to persuade the United States to sell Iraq Apache helicopters, fighter jets and unmanned aircraft. Maliki says that the institutions which replaced the security establishment dismantled by the United States in 2003 lack the equipment to defeat al-Qaeda.
US officials are well aware that the problem is not only about equipment: “The Sunnis’ exclusion from the administration is nurturing al-Qaeda, and Maliki is responsible for that.” Former US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffry says, “Maliki did not intervene when the Sunnis were purged from the public sector.”
Due to sectarian bigotry, the struggle against al-Qaeda also victimizes the Sunnis. According to Hasan’s observations, Mosul residents feel insecure vis-a-vis al-Qaeda as they mistrust the police, which they see as the “tool” of the Shiite government, and fear al-Qaeda reprisals if they go to the police. And because the police open to bribery, al-Qaeda is able to bring bombs into the cities. “Al-Qaeda bribes” to the police figure even in the CIA's reports.
The “sectarian massacres” should be also mentioned here. According to al-Qaeda, shedding Shiite blood is halal [religiously permitted]. The Shiites have come to hold power but they have become the victims of violence. With the feedback of al-Qaeda violence, sectarian enmity is growing. The Shiites sometimes retaliate to al-Qaeda attacks, as they did during the clashes triggered by the bombing of Shiite mausoleums in 2006. In Basra, for instance, murders were committed to purge the city of Sunnis. A Sunni purge in Basra for the Shiite purge in Mosul. The reprisals targeting Sunnis are allegedly perpetrated by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the group Maliki supports to divide the Sadr movement. I believe this file was referred to Maliki in the United States.
Seeking regional clout
The Americans have another trump card: When the US forces were withdrawing in 2011, Maliki refused to give the United States the opportunity to maintain a base under the Status of Forces Agreement. But to fight al-Qaeda, Maliki is asking for capabilities that an American base could have provided.
The United States says that intelligence collected by unmanned aircraft based at the Turkish town of Incirlik is being shared with Baghdad, but still the level of cooperation remains low.
To illustrate how much Iraq occupies Obama’s agenda, it is enough to recall that Secretary of State John Kerry has stopped only once in Baghdad and that the number of diplomats tasked with supervising the Iraqis has decreased from 260 to 59. Yet Baghdad is not a place the United States could push further down its agenda. Besides al-Qaeda, developments in the Syrian crisis and dialogue with Iran require close attention to Iraq.
Maliki, in turn, is trying to take advantage of this situation to increase his regional clout and secure US support in the elections next year. Eager for an influential role in the Geneva process [on Syria], Maliki says he takes “neither the opposition’s nor Assad’s side,” while entertaining ambitions to act as a mediator with Iran.
The United States, however, is cautious. There are doubts stemming from the Iranian clout over Iraq, the Iranian use of Iraqi airspace in supplying weapons to Syria and the fighters sent by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq to Syria, which has in a way made Iraq a party to the conflict. That’s why six senators wrote a letter to Obama to caution him on the issue.
The Iraqis deny that fighters are being sent to Syria. When it comes to their inaction on the airspace issue, they are trying to turn it into their own leverage of pressure: “We cannot stop Iran since we lack air defense systems and F-16s.” (The delivery of the F-16s promised to Iraq will begin in 2014.)
It is unknown what Maliki was eventually able to extract behind closed doors, but Obama gave no public assurances to his guest publicly. Yet, he left the door open, emphasizing continued partnership. In 2014, Obama may fail to find someone like Maliki to balance Iran, as he did in 2010. That could be the time for Maliki to make use of the lobbying services of the Washington, DC-based Podesta Group, to which he pays $960,000 per year.