UN envoy: 'Iraq is not Syria'

UN Special Representative for Iraq Nikolay Mladenov talks to As-Safir about the need to find political and security solutions to the crisis in Iraq, while insisting that the situation there differs from that in Syria.

al-monitor Nikolay Mladenov attends a meeting in Khartoum, June 7, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah.

Topics covered

united nations, security, mosul, iraqi central government, iraq

Jun 30, 2014

The escalation that the Iraqi crisis has witnessed remained unchanged. It is getting more and more attention and various meetings are convening to evaluate it. Despite this escalation, one can encounter Nikolay Mladenov, the UN special representative for Iraq and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, at the train station or waiting in the street to take a cab. Mladenov insists on preserving the image of a practical official. This image has helped him launch his career in politics, as an elected parliamentarian in Bulgaria, and to be respected by those who worked with him.

Last Monday, June 23, journalists waited for him for more than an hour in front of the VIP entrance of the European Union building in Luxembourg, before they were told that he did not arrive in a private car and that he got into the building through the employees’ entrance. He gave EU ministers details of the conflagrant Iraqi scene, which was reflected in their pessimistic statements. On the sidelines of the meeting, Mladenov spoke to As-Safir about the aspects of the Iraqi crisis and its effects on the outside world.

Mladenov has been working in his post since last August. As-Safir asked him how the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) suddenly became a superpower threatening Iraq and invading cities. He replied, "It has been accumulating its power in Syria and Iraq for some time now. Last December, we warned that western Iraq and eastern Syria were turning into one unique battlefield. What we are seeing today is the transformation that took place after ISIS gunmen moved from Syria to northern Iraq, knowing that they are well-trained, equipped and armed.”

On the estimates suggesting that the ISIS achievements would not have happened without big rifts in the Iraqi army, he said, “What happened in Ninevah and Mosul is that ISIS was able to exert its control after the collapse of the army. Yet, it was evolving in advance in the north, and later on, it was joined by other groups who have a different agenda. What ISIS is doing is taking advantage of the various divisions that already exist in Iraqi society. The group will attack Shiite places of worship to exhaust them, and it will do the same by provoking Sunnis through attacks against Sunni mosques. Yet, their agenda is the destruction of the current Iraqi state as it [is]. Thus, they pose a threat to all communities in Iraq, not only to a particular community. Although ISIS has achieved significant progress, the situation around Baghdad and in the south is still under the government’s control.”

Mladenov, who was born in 1972, served as minister of foreign affairs of Bulgaria for four years, until the beginning of 2013. This was not the only occasion allowing him to handle foreign policy issues, particularly Middle East issues. He was a member of the EU Parliament for three years, and served as the vice chairman of the delegation for relations with Iraq. Before that, he worked for his government in many countries of the region, and served as an adviser to parliamentary committees on defense and foreign policy and cooperation with the Iraqi parliament.

He said in the interview that in order to face the threat from the progress of the ISIS alliance, several steps are required: “First, the security measures that need be taken require total agreement between Baghdad and Erbil and a national consensus. Second, a political process needs to be launched to isolate ISIS from those who have legitimate sources of concern on the ground, which can be handled through political action. Third, there is a need for a comprehensive social program that helps all of the Iraqi components, because each includes social challenges, for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Finally, there is a need for a political process within the new parliament, and discussions within the framework of the constitution, so that a new government is formed, a new president (of the republic) and a new parliament speaker are elected. All of this must continue to be built.”

Mladenov agrees with the analysis that the calls for political consensus collide with the reality that the crisis is deepening divisions in Iraq, and that there are different Iraqi forces feeling that this is their chance to fulfill their ambitions. “Thus, it is important to contain the situation within the current constitutional political process, which is a significant challenge in itself. The newly elected parliament has to convene, and it has to move forward and accept the different positions,” he said.

Asked about his opinion regarding Europeans’ concerns that ISIS succeeds in fortifying itself in an alliance that draws its strength from a popular base, and how realistic these concerns are, Mladenov replied, “I think it is very important for moderate Sunni politicians to come together, and to come back to the parliament and political process, so that they will not be defeated by the most radical elements in the community. This requires a leadership, the ability to achieve settlements, and the recognition that the country itself has become under threat. With all due respect to all the differences within the community, the significant threat of the country’s disintegration is much bigger than it was in the past. Everyone needs to put aside their differences, and agree on a single agenda. I hope that the concerns expressed do not turn into a reality, because Iraq has a democratic constitution, legitimate political parties, and the tools to oppose the crisis.”

In addition to his UN post, Mladenov has good experience in the armed conflict issues, and has a masters degree in War Studies from King's College London. He served as minister of defense in Bulgaria for half a year before he shifted to foreign affairs. Prior to that, he worked as an adviser to parliamentary committees on defense and foreign policy.

He nodded his head, acknowledging the assessments that regional countries are playing a role in the increasing divisions within Iraq, and are nourishing the military conflict. Then, he said, “I think that regional powers and Iraq's neighboring countries need to understand that ISIS does not only pose a threat to Iraq, but to them as well. It is time for them to engage in a constructive security dialogue, and to help the Iraqi state deal with the threat based on an Iraqi plan that is developed by Iraqis themselves for the advantage of their country.”

Nevertheless, the growing talk about the enormity of the security threat is met with the Iraqi government’s request for military support. Do they really need it?

He replied, “Iraq needs an international assistance, but it is the best party to determine the assistance that it needs, and how and when it will be offered. Again, I want to stress that there is a security aspect and a political aspect that must be dealt with. Both need to be handled at the same time. This crisis cannot be only be resolved militarily. It must be resolved through security operations, and through the legitimate political process. The security challenge is too significant. Thus, it is important for this country to receive the needed assistance from an ally, whatever the nature of this assistance is. Everything the Iraqis need and view as appropriate should be considered by the international community.”

Mladenov was present during the Europeans’ discussions about “the close correlation” between the Iraqi situation and the Syrian situation; particularly through the “flow of foreign fighters” (they avoided saying ISIS).

Based on the correlation that he previously raised between the two countries during his talk on building the strength of ISIS in the transfer of weapons and fighters across the border, he was asked if there should be one response to the threat of this group in the two countries. He immediately replied, “Iraq is not Syria. The security threat must be faced inside Iraq, because if not contained, it will affect other countries as well. Therefore, it is very important today to help Iraqis counter this problem. If they are not able to face it, this conflict will have regional and sectarian repercussions that will easily reach other countries in the region.”

As-Safir insisted on asking him if he supported or opposed such a unified response; he answered without any hesitation, "I am against it, because I think that the situation in Syria is totally different from that in Iraq. I think that this problem can be contained and resolved by combining security and political measures in Iraq, which differs from Syria.”

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