ISIS becomes a catalyst for reviving Sunni moderation

ISIS is now the new focal point of counterterrorism, while at the same time becoming, a major catalyst in reviving Sunni moderation

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The events in Iraq this week may represent the beginning of a new approach in Saudi-Iranian ties, with the removal of the obstacle represented by Nouri al-Maliki, and the deal to appoint Haidar Abadi as prime minister to form a consensus, non-exclusionary government in Iraq. This is an important step that opens up the possibility of Iraq serving as a gateway to broader agreements not only within the country, but also to regional agreements, specifically regards Saudi-Iranian relations. But this is one step rather than a comprehensive strategy to transform this bilateral relationship. The path to that is long, and mutual trust will not be borne suddenly out of the Iraqi womb as soon as the Maliki obstacle is removed or an agreement is reached to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its terrorism. It is also hoped that events in Iraq over the past few weeks, from ISIS’s onslaught to Maliki’s theatrics, are not part of a tactical ploy by a certain party or a group of parties. Tactics do not amount to a strategy after all, and are sometimes deliberately deceptive, using temporary surprises while continuing preparations to revive the original strategy.

Instead, it is hoped that events in Iraq would lead to a new beginning for the country to emerge out of the hegemony of this side or the grip of that side, and proceed toward healthy federalism and not necessarily a confederation that would be based on partition. There are indications that the Iraqi events could bring about a positive change in regional and international understandings for a variety of reasons. So far, whether temporarily or in the long-term, moderation is climbing into a new position, after having been trampled before by extremist movements and regimes with external help, especially from the United States, where some supported both the Shiite theocracy in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood and its theocratic project for the Sunnis in Egypt.

There has been a lot of fascination with ISIS for several months now, particularly when ISIS appeared to have the momentum and the element of surprise while the Iraqi army shockingly retreated before its advance in a way that remains quite mysterious in its features, background and logic. There are many theories regarding the identity of ISIS and of those behind it. One theory considers it an infernal combination of a group of intelligence services from multiple countries, from the Middle East and Western and Eastern powers. Another theory holds that it is an Iranian instrument to spread chaos as part of reinforcing the need for Iranian control over Iraq to control the situation and deter extremist terrorism there. And of course, there is the theory that considers ISIS to be the making of Sunni Salafism and Wahhabism with support from Qatari and Saudi families and parties, with a view to confront Iran and its allies using the language of “fire for fire” in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

ISIS is now the new focal point of counterterrorism, while at the same time becoming, a major catalyst in reviving Sunni moderation

Raghida Dergham

In the view of some, ISIS resembles the character of Rajeh in the Fairuz play, that is, a fictional character that only exists in the imaginations of those intimidated by him, making it a reality. But the reality left behind by ISIS, with its atrocities, brutal violence, and overt terrorism makes it a reality rather than an illusion.

The discussion also focuses on whether ISIS is a transient phenomenon – in the sense that, thanks to its appalling cruelty, it would not be able to survive because it lacks a support base on the long run – or whether it is the product of a support base that it already has in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in the context of fighting cruelty with cruelty, extremism with extremism and bullying with bullying in the same measure or more.

ISIS is a combination of the two premises in terms of the support base that helped it take off and made it the terrifying catalyst it is today, but also in terms of its non-sustainability because it would not be able to keep its support base after causing so many shocks.

A necessary evil?

Perhaps history will note later what some now only whisper, that ISIS is a necessary evil as a “correction” of Iran’s excessive domination over Iraq, the fate of Syria, and the fate of Lebanon. Perhaps history will also note that ISIS thwarted the Iranian project, supported by the neocons in the Bush administration, dubbed the Shiite Crescent, by reshaping the Iraq-Syrian border along Sunni lines instead of Shiite-centric contiguity. But history will not forgive ISIS and its supporters or sympathizers for the atrocities against Christians, Yezidis, Kurds, Shiites, and other minorities. Certainly, the moderation brought to the fore by ISIS’ extremist brutality will not prevail if its popular base fails to tell ISIS firmly that it will not be a nurturing environment for it.

ISIS’ crimes has dwarfed the terrorism of others and overshadowed the crimes of others. ISIS is now the new focal point of counterterrorism, while at the same time becoming, as a done deal, a major catalyst in reviving Sunni moderation and rallying Sunnis from Iraq to Lebanon with a Saudi decision.

In Iraq, both ISIS and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have succeeded in rallying opponents to agree to remove them from the Iraqi scene. The American, Saudi, Iranian, and European leaderships all agreed to get rid of the two threats, with important Iraqi attitudes voiced against the two. Perhaps this inadvertently contributed to strengthening moderation against extremism, not only in Iraq, but also in the battle taking place within Iran between the hardliners led by Qassem Soleimani and the Revolutionary Guard, and the moderate camp led by President Hassan Rowhani.

Currently, Soleimani’s retreat and Rowhani’s rise are clear through the stances expressed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has supported Abadi as prime minister of Iraq and made it clear that Maliki had to step down. This was a blow to Soleimani, who clang to Maliki and who wanted to take advantage of the chaos unleashed by ISIS in Iraq to impose Iraq’s need for Maliki. But it is not clear whether this is all part of a tactic and distribution of roles as Ayatollah Khamenei has ordained, or whether it was a serious retreat by the hardliners controlled by Soleimani’s faction at the behest of Ayatollah Khamenei, as is being said.

If the rise of moderation in Iran is a serious development at the request of the supreme leader, rather than a tactic based on the distribution of roles, the events in Iraq will prove to be extremely important, because they would be indicative of the start of a new Iranian approach, and also a markedly different page in Iranian-Saudi relations.

The Saudi leadership has adopted moderation as the theme of the momentum of its new policies, which have seen grants being given to counterterrorism efforts and aid to boost moderation among Sunnis. Saudi Arabia is more willing to hold dialogue with the Iranian leadership in the context of reinforcing moderation, especially if the Islamic Republic of Iran acts like a state rather than a revolution.

ISIS, like al-Qaeda and similar groups, is a threat not only to Saudi Arabia, but also to Sunnis as a whole. But of course, there is a split in the ranks of Saudi decision makers between those who believe that there is no alternative to the policy of “fire for fire” to impose a new fait accompli to force the other side to concede and adapt, and those who believe that adopting moderation as a policy is the best course to achieve goals.

Today, it seems that there are signs for a Saudi role that is different from the Saudi role allied to Pakistan and the United States in manufacturing jihadists in Afghanistan thirty years ago to defeat Soviet communism. Mobilizing fighters from everywhere for jihad, by brainwashing them at the hands of the CIA, created a monster that soon went out of control.

Sunni moderation

It might be said that were it not for ISIS’ transformation into a monster that terrorized everyone, Sunni moderation would not have been revived, and neither would stopping Shiite extremism have been possible. Hence, this vindicates those who insisted on the “fire for fire” approach, and who insisted on keeping this option ready should the moderate approach fail.

Today, it seems that the official Saudi decision is to raise the banner of counterterrorism and combatting extremism high by taking measures and politically calculated stances as well.

The $100 million grant to the United Nations to mobilize global support for combatting terrorism is important not only in terms of its financial and media significance, but also in terms of its political implications, especially in the context of Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has set himself as a spearhead in the fight against Sunni terrorism, and in the protection of minorities from ISIS and similar groups, even though it was he who had released ISIS members from Syrian prisons to undermine the Syrian opposition and its reputation, before selling himself to the United States, Russia, and Western powers as the go-to man for the fight against terror.

The Saudi grant to the United Nations carried a political message to pull the rug from under the feet of the regime in Damascus, in order not to allow him to monopolize the scene to claim that he alone is fighting Sunni terrorism. Furthermore, the Saudi government’s financing of counterterrorism activities by the United Nations, together with other grants to assist its efforts in Iraq, is part of its comprehensive strategy based on new engagement with the international organization and international cooperation in the area of counterterrorism, as well as in helping Iraq recover provided it stops excluding Sunnis and ignoring their rights at the behest of Tehran.

In Lebanon, the Saudi leadership rushed to make a stand against ISIS to bolster Sunni moderation, granting Lebanon $1billion carried by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who returned to Lebanon as a leader of Sunni moderation, prepared to make agreements.

With Hariri’s return to Lebanon and the restoration of his moderate Sunni leadership, and with Maliki’s departure from power in Iraq taking with him his exclusion, sectarianism, and extremism, there is room to be optimistic about a new approach by the two countries and possible new understandings between the Saudi and Iranian leaderships, focusing on moderation to combat extremism.

Syria remains a thorn in the side of any possible understandings, because it remains exclusively in the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This of course will affect Lebanon, even though Hezbollah there listens to the supreme guide and has its own Lebanese calculations, and is not just a proxy of the Revolutionary Guard despite their close relationship.

Syria is not exclusively an Iranian-Saudi issue, but it also involves Russia, Qatar, and European powers in varying degrees and dimensions.

As concerns Russia, the visit conducted by the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi to Russian President Vladimir Putin to forge closer ties was remarkable. Sisi sought arms deals using Saudi and Emirati funds, in addition to giving Russia access to the new Suez Canal project. Egypt represents one of the outlets of Saudi rapprochement with Russia, just like Iraq represents a channel for Saudi rapprochement with Iran.

At the American level, President Barack seems willing to move in small steps, which appeared as though they are strictly meant to support Kurds, whether by bombing ISIS positions or by considering the possibility of expanding the U.S. role in Iraq through the use of drones. Thus, Obama appeared willing to move against radical terrorism as represented by ISIS’ crimes, in conjunction with the consensus over removing Maliki from power, perhaps in order not to appear to be siding with Iran in Iraq if Obama fails to put pressure to remove Maliki.

Obama will not drag America into a direct battle with ISIS or other belligerents, because he is determined not to get involved in the wars of others in accordance with the wishes of the American public, as he has determined them to be.

Redefining relationships

The events in Iraq are an opportunity for the U.S. president to redefine the relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the direction of brokering understandings and supporting moderation in earnest. This way, Obama can cast off the reputation for supporting extremism with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and by appeasing Iran in order to secure a nuclear deal with Tehran as his legacy.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran have stalled, and may not lead to the outcome desired by Barack Obama, because of the huge gap between what Tehran wants and what the Obama administration can live with and can sell to the Congress in Washington.

For this reason, it might be worthwhile for the U.S. president to draw a parallel path to his focus on appeasing Tehran, using the events in Iraq as a foothold to launch a new image for himself that would establish him as a serious and firm supporter of moderate powers, and one who can contribute to writing a new page for the Middle East.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 14, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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