The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) advances to almost Baghdad is causing immense tension around the Gulf Littoral states. Iran is already placing IRGC forces for a fight that includes al-Quds forces that are active in the Shiite areas between Basra and Baghdad. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is calling for Shiite militias to activate given the call by ISIS to “seize Karbala and Nijaf.” The religious war between ISIS’s extremist goals and the preservation of the Shiite order in Iraq is in full swing. The resulting clash is likely to be brutal with echoes spilling into the Arabian Peninsula.
ISIS’s well-crafted plan, taking advantage of Sunni tribal discontent, Sunni insurgent groups such as Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiya and Ansar al-Sunna, and believers of the old Saddam order seeking revenge, is creating a potent force bent on turning over the Shiite state of Iraq. With the addition of potentially $429 million dollar “profit” from Mosul’s Central Bank, ISIS now has more capital than any Salafi-Jihadist group ever. The combination of weapons and assets seizures, additional manpower, with an effective information campaign via ISIS’s media department, al-Furqan, and in multiple languages including the English language Islamic State News, is giving ISIS a new, unprecedented edge for major successes that will likely rattle the region and, ultimately, the globe. ISIS’s motto “Repent or Die” is a powerful rallying call.
The Shiite response is swift with growing in cries for protection. As noted above, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued an edict of Jihad directed at anyone who can take up arms and is able to volunteer in combating ISIS. More importantly, Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) Deputy Hojjat al-Eslam Ali Khazaei, addressing Mashhad Friday Prayers two days ago, announced the arrest of 30 individuals connected to the ISIS in the past month in Iran. He stated that “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a lion in which the Takfiri terrorists cannot play with. Just like they felt the sharp wrath of [Iran] in Syria, they will face the same fate in Iraq”. Will the introduction of Iranian troops into Iraq boost the real possibility of an all-out religious war? Absolutely. Sunni-Shiite battles are common throughout history and ISIS is looking for this type of fight based on its eschatological belief system that helps to ignite the Shiite Twelver’s notions surrounding the countdown to rapture.
Creating a new thaw?
On the diplomatic front, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif contacted his counterparts from Qatar and the UAE and urged “Islamic unity, joint measures, and coordination in confronting terrorism and supporting the government and nation of Iraq against the growing wave of terrorist attacks”. Could ISIS’s growing successes create a new thaw between state actors that supersedes religious divides? Maybe. Kuwait, who is on the frontline of Iraq’s dive into outright civil war and state collapse, is arguing for stepped up regional security cooperation for countering ISIS’s immediate threat.
Will the Gulf be caught up in the sectarian discourse prevalent during the 2000s in Iraq when identity was measured by religion?
Dr. Theodore Karasik
The view from the GCC states is one of deep, immediate concern. Primarily, the main issue is to avoid the sectarian dimension and its spread. The worry is related to the influence on Shiite communities on the Arabian Peninsula, already swayed by Iran, which clearly contradicts the above notion of a thaw across the Gulf Littoral. Will these communities be caught up in the sectarian discourse prevalent during the 2000s in Iraq when identity was measured by religion? Absolutely. ISIS’s theorists and propagandists will most definitely focus their attention on the Shiite issues in the GCC and start a campaign to focus on the ills of Gulf Shiites as “non-believers”. This language is already being used in Iraq. Last week, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani stated “Do not concede territory gained to the Shiites unless they walk over your dead bodies to retrieve it. March towards Baghdad. The Shiites are a disgraced people. God forbid that they become victorious over you. How can they when they are polytheists. Don’t stop until you reach Baghdad and Kerbala. Be prepared! Iraq will transform into a living hell for the Shiites and other heretics.”
Grabbing al-Qaeda franchises
A second issue is that Arab officials now expect that ISIS will now grab al-Qaeda franchises into a new, more dangerous, regional hybrid of destruction. The view from the GCC is that the amount of land where Salafi-Jihadists rule is growing by leaps and bounds throughout the Levant. The fear is that this expansion of land seizure will grow allowing Salafi-Jihadists new safe havens to operate from up to and including an actual state where non-state actors become state actors. Will an Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and the Levant be a viable state actor? Most likely. ISIS has already proved that it is able to create social and legal services in territories that the group holds and does so with a greater capability than any central government i.e. in Syria.
Finally, there is the nagging question of what the United States is going to do about ISIS while negotiating with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. US President Barak Obama’s call on Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki to reform the government is not a viable, timely solution. Instead, from a GCC point of view, is what may be happening is further evidence of a potential grand bargain between American and Iran. The events of the past few days regarding Iraq may help to influence a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Although the two issues should not be linked, they are because the P5 will need Iran’s active involvement in Iraq to fend off the real threat of ISIS.
Tehran sees this fact as another “win” for the Islamic State just as the same “win” in Syria for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is why Iranian media is reporting that an agreement may have been reached because of Tehran’s desire to alter designs at the Arak nuclear power facility. Washington needs Iranian help in a tactical union along with other powers. How will this development sit with the GCC? The answer is “not well” because Iran will do the “heavy lifting” for America and the GCC in fighting ISIS. But in due time Tehran will certainly cash in on such sacrifice whereby another series of victories will show that the Islamic Republic is a world power. That point in itself illustrates the challenging vexing nature of the current situation for the GCC who never want to be in such a position.
Overall, ISIS’s gains in Iraq are going to have a big impact on the Gulf Littoral. No state will remain unscathed. ISIS will use its fight in Iraq to recruit more fighters, just as it did in Syria, and send these fighters throughout the region to either back-up other ongoing al-Qaeda battles or launch attacks on commercial and civilian targets. ISIS’s ability to fund whatever operation they want makes them impervious to financial restraints. The coming weeks, and especially during the Holy Month of Ramadan, will most certainly be a major turning point in the region’s current and future politico-religious history.