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When we spoke with Brendan O’Leary in mid-September, the black-flagged armies of ISIS were digging in at Mosul, Iraq’s second largest-city. The self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, having declared an Islamic caliphate across a wide swathe of those ravaged countries, had shocked the non-jihadi world with the brutal efficiency of its attack and its public beheadings of captured journalists, aid workers, and soldiers.

“ISIS does have one redeeming feature,” noted O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science: “Almost everyone else despises it.” The question is whether the widespread hatred and fear of those Sunni jihadi militants can lead to any constructive change in the region.

It won’t come easily or without bloodshed. A few days after we spoke, air strikes by a US-led coalition began hitting ISIS sites in both countries. In the wake of the Iraqi federal army’s humiliating collapse in August, it was clear that the real fighting would be handled by the Kurdish Peshmerga, whose name means “Those who face death.”

The situation has made for some unusual bedfellows. By attacking the (radical Sunni) ISIS in Syria, the US was aiding—however indirectly and reluctantly—the unsavory (Alawite/Shiite Baathist) regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose principal supporters are Iran and Russia. In Iraq, after years of propping up the centralist government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (a Shiite from the Dawa Party whose exclusionary policies had alienated even moderate Sunnis and Kurds), the US agreed to arm the Kurds and pressured Maliki to step down in favor of Haider al-Abadi, another Dawa Shiite.

If the Iraqi army’s collapse against ISIS was the final nail in the coffin for Maliki, it was an opportunity for the Kurds, who have long wanted their own state and have carefully maneuvered to make that dream a reality. The result is Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq that the Kurds hope will one day become a country, preferably one that also includes a corridor to the Mediterranean through Syria.

O’Leary, who served as an advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government during the making of the Iraqi Constitution in 2005, noted that the Kurds only agreed to be part of a new federal government in Baghdad last summer because “they feared the US would not supply the Peshmerga with the equipment they need to defeat ISIS.”

“Both the Kurdish people and their leaders are entirely fed up with forced re-marriages with Arab Iraq,” he added. “They will make their alliances and maneuvers accordingly.”

O’Leary’s conversation with senior editor Samuel Hughes was augmented by remarks he made during a panel discussion sponsored by the Department of Political Science.


What conditions in Iraq led to the growth of ISIS?

ISIS grew in three soils on the Sunni Arab lands in Iraq. One was that plowed by Maliki and centralizing sectarian Shiites, backed by Iran, who sought to subordinate and exclude Sunni Arabs from any return to influence even within their own jurisdictions. The second was in the indiscriminate support for Sunni jihadists against Iran and the Syrian regimes, emanating from Saudi and Gulf sources, America’s other allies. The third, of course, was American—but not only American—policy, which favored a re-centralized Iraq, albeit one which intermittently called for a more inclusive and power-sharing government in Baghdad while remaining silent when the Kurds sought to exercise their constitutional rights.

What was the tipping point that led us to actively go after ISIS?

Within the State Department and the Pentagon, the decision was made when ISIS looked as if it was on the road to Erbil—insiders said that we can’t simply have a hands-off approach, because Kurdistan is the only thing worthwhile that has come out of our entire Iraq intervention. It’s pluralist. It’s democratic. It’s functioning. It’s pro‑American. Yes, it has some problems; it’s not a Scandinavian paradise. But it’s the place everybody flees to, which is a testament to its pluralism. We would be morally bereft and politically stupid if we allowed ISIS to defeat the Peshmerga.

Many were shocked when the Peshmerga suffered early defeats. What happened?

There was no fundamental problem of morale or courage or, indeed, discipline with the Peshmerga. But they were shocked both by ISIS’s military weapons [captured from the Iraq federal army] and by their capabilities, because ISIS has forged a specific style of desert warfare benefiting from American technology. It wasn’t anything like what the Peshmerga had encountered before. They had found defeating or at least stalemating the Iraqi Army of old a much easier proposition than dealing with ISIS.

So once the Americans knew that the Peshmerga were not going to be able to hold the line, they then had to resolve on a profound intervention. And I think that was made easier for the United States administration by ISIS’s very public terroristic and genocidal treatment of the Yazidis in Sinjar, of the Christians in Mosul, and the Shabbak, who are a Shia-related grouping, in Nineveh.

Had ISIS respected the new 1,000-kilometer border with the Kurdistan region, I suspect America would have left it alone. So ISIS have only themselves to blame for the whirlwind that is coming their way.

Has ISIS peaked?

ISIS probably now has close to 30,000 men, according to leaked CIA estimates. That is higher than initially thought. Success is the best recruiter. They have successfully mobilized a lot of Sunni Arab men. But once they start losing, it’s going to be very difficult for them. And if America couldn’t hold Iraq with a much superior army—roughly 150,000 when they were at their maximum—it seems incredibly unlikely that ISIS can easily hold all the places it now controls. ISIS can be troublesome. It can still conduct guerilla warfare. But if they’re beaten out of Mosul and the big cities in Anbar, then I think there’ll be a reverse effect, and they’ll quickly deflate. And that would affect their prestige in Syria as well.

Why has the Iraqi federal army been so incredibly incompetent?

There seems to have been some betrayals from within by Sunni officers disillusioned at the way in which Sunni areas were being treated. But the extent to which the federal Iraqi army had been propped up and supported by American trainers and officers can’t be underestimated. And then when Maliki and his cohorts relaxed, a stunningly corrupt world emerged.

I’m reliably informed that the going price for a senior officership, a commission in the Iraqi Federal Army, had risen as high as $200,000. So what do you do if you’ve got a $200,000 mortgage on your officership? Well, you need to loot your own army. The best way of doing this was to pretend to have, let’s say, a hundred men under your employment, when you had only 40. And with the remaining 60 salaries, it became relatively speedy to repay your commission. So there are all these extraordinary stories of how the Iraq army just was eaten away by corruption and an officer corps that saw its primary mission in life as making money, not providing any significant military capability.

And did we not know any of that?

The Kurds were giving some warnings. I first started hearing these stories around 2012, so the rot was evident by then. Compare the performance of the Peshmerga and the federal Iraqi army. The federal Iraqi army had American weaponry, but their officers disappeared. They didn’t even try to help their men retreat. That’s the duty of officers. The Peshmerga, too, retreated in front of ISIS, but they didn’t have American weaponry, and they kept their discipline, and they protected their men. Yes, they lost a few soldiers. But they didn’t lose whole units. And ISIS was able to capture and massacre Shiite soldiers who had been abandoned by their officers. That suggests an amazing level of corruption of the Iraqi Federal Officer Corps.

What in the culture is breeding that? Is it just all these years of terrible despots and corruption?

I think a country governed by Saddam for 35 years had generated lots and lots of little Saddams, whether Sunni or Shia. And the belief that, if you don’t loot now, others are going to loot instead. Get your share of the pie now.

So will air strikes without American ground troops be enough?

In my view, the Peshmerga do not require American troops on the ground. They have a good officer structure. They’re still integrating all their forces. But they have good morale, good discipline. They do need, unquestionably, better weaponry to deal with [captured] American weaponry. And they need some training. But they don’t need American soldiers to stand by their side. After all, in 2003 the sole significant Iraqi forces to work with America were the Peshmerga on the ground in the north. There were some US special forces operating with them, but by and large the Kurds took Mosul and Kirkuk, the two big cities in the north, unassisted, with just American support from the air.

Furthermore, I think it’s very clear that a return of American ground troops would almost certainly engineer an Iranian-sponsored response. Those American troops would be attacked and therefore distracted from the core mission of dealing with ISIS. It would also deeply divide the Shia even further because some Shia militarily oppose the American presence. Others had welcomed the initial intervention, then reversed positions. And all were agreed that a better world was one in which the Americans were not present.

So America’s leverage over Baghdad is actually much better by not having troops on the ground, because [the US] can say, “Your federal army has failed. We will supply you with weaponry, and we will supply you with some training—provided you establish an inclusive federal government and show serious commitment to those obligations.” But we don’t yet have a completion of the federal Iraqi government, and as yet we have no good reason to believe that Abadi will be better than Maliki in following through on his promises.

Hard to be worse—or even as bad.

Indeed. Maliki partially unified Shiite forces, but otherwise was a semi-dictatorial disaster. The personal corruption of his family has been staggering—Kurdish friends whom I trust suggest that the family’s assets are some $45 billion. He refused to incorporate Sunni forces into the federal Iraqi forces, and refused to allow Sunnis to govern and police their own provinces. He blocked their efforts to start thinking about making their own provinces into regions with the same powers as Kurdistan, which had successfully resisted the efforts of American policy-makers to induce them into remaking a centralized Iraq.

Abadi will be much better at presentation—he speaks fluent English, he was educated in Manchester, he’ll present a good face to the world—but he will be measured, I hope, by his actions. The Kurds have given him a three-month time period to meet some of their critical demands. I’m not holding my breath. It’s extremely difficult to believe that this federal Shia-dominated government, in which the Dawa Party is the principal player, have what it takes to reverse their policies. Particularly over allowing the Sunnis self-government, respecting Kurdistan’s rights, fairly distributing oil and gas revenues, and allowing the minimum degree of inclusivity required to make federalism work.

How do you see that government playing out?

This new federal government is shaky. It has still not filled its defense and internal security portfolios, and the federal Iraqi army—but not the Shiite militias—is a corrupt and militarily useless mess. The one hopeful new figure on the Shiite side is its oil minister, Abd Al-Mahdi,from a party that has traditionally favored a decentralized Iraq.

The majority Shiite government in Iraq also has crucial choices to make.

They must eventually choose whether to decentralize Arab Iraq and allow elected Sunni Arab governors to have the legitimate resources of their regions to fund new security forces and police, or else downsize, to create a largely Shiite Iraq.

You’ve mentioned that Al-Mahdi is sympathetic to the Kurds.

He was a previous candidate for the premiership when by and large the Americans chose Maliki as a premier. He has an interesting intellectual past. He’s a former Maoist. He trained as an economist. He’s secular. The Kurds like him. But he’s one person. It’s yet to be evident whether he will successfully resolve the disputes that the Kurds have over their right to own, license, and export their own oil. It’s plainly the case that they do have those rights. But if Baghdad deliberately says otherwise, no matter how pathetic its legal arguments are, that remains a problem.

So it will be very important to see how collegial the Council of Ministers are. One thing I can say fairly confidently is that if Abadi fails to do all of these things that we’ve been talking about, he’s presiding over the last government of Iraq as we know it.

You would think that the current crisis would concentrate the minds of the Shia Arabs toward accepting a little more power-sharing.

They face an interesting choice. They can keep Baghdad and the south, and leave the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds to themselves. Given the sheer scale of the bloodletting between Sunni and Shia, the idea that they are in some fundamental sense unified by an Iraqi identity is increasingly wearing thin. So whether they can make the intellectual leap to say, “Let’s downsize,” without facing charges of treason, remains to be seen.

And it’s also not clear what Iran’s view is. Would Iran rather that Shia Iraq try to dominate those other territories, thereby maximizing the buffer shield for Iran? Or would they prefer a smaller Shia-stan next to them? Inside the [Iraqi] Shiite community there’s a double debate about Iran. Some see it as the ally. Others don’t want to be absorbed. They are Shia, but they’re Arabs. They’re not Persians.

When we last talked [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct 2013], you said that Syria could conceivably devolve into a federation of maybe three parts, maybe more. Is the crystal ball any clearer on that?

I still am of the view that it would be the best outcome. I think its chances are receding. Nevertheless, there are reasons for supposing that the Western desire to displace ISIS will lead to some kind of constructive renewal of engagement with the Syrian opposition. Provided—and it’s a big proviso—that the Syrian opposition is capable of speaking to the Alawites, the Druze, the Christians, and the Kurds in tones that imply pluralism and power-sharing, then perhaps things may work out. Currently things are looking much better for the Assad regime than when we last spoke. The world has decided, I think correctly, that ISIS is even more appalling a vista than the regime itself. The regime has successfully ensured that its principal opponent is ISIS.

How did it help itself in that regard?

One, it undermined the Sunni Arab opposition from behind by granting the Kurds full citizenship and allowing autonomous Kurdistan in Syria to develop, largely dominated by Kurds who are close to the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers Party]. That meant that there was an area behind Sunni Arab lines that, if not regime-friendly, was focused on attacking ISIS and in protecting itself from the Sunni Arab opposition, which foolishly did not try to build a coalition with it.

There was also, once again, fierce internal competition among Sunni Arab groups over which one was to be dominant. And in effect ISIS emerged at the top of the pile—better, in some cases, at fighting its rivals in the Sunni community than at fighting the regime. The Assad regime was very happy for that to go on, and given the skills of a Baathist-style regime, I would be very surprised if Syrian intelligence didn’t do everything possible to precipitate that kind of outcome.

It seems that ISIS has had some effect of consolidating all the different Kurdish factions against them.

Well, the Kurds of Syria are not completely unified, but the dominant force, the people’s protection forces, are PKK-allied. But they have been astute in declaring autonomy for Kurdistan inside Syria, because they want that to be the minimum bargaining position from which Kurds start negotiations in any future round with Syrian leaders or neighboring powers. They know they can’t overdo things. They know that Turkey is poised on fragile negotiations with the PKK, and that the Kurds in Iraq are their ethnic allies but also their political rivals. And the latter will not endanger Kurdistan in Iraq on behalf of adventurous activities by the Kurds of Syria.

There was, however, an extraordinary moment when the Iraqi Peshmerga looked in trouble. Kurds from everywhere appeared on the scene—from Syria, from Turkey, from Iran. Because that was a moment of unification. They did not want the one part of Kurdistan that was functioning and viable and really effective to go under.

To what degree are the Turks the wildcard at this point?

At the moment they’re a very restrained card. The Erdoğan governments have constantly been fearful that to give the military some major expedition abroad would be to restore their power and prestige—and, if anything went wrong, [to increase] the possibility of a coup against the civilian government. So that gives them logical reasons to avoid committing Turkish forces, either in Iraq or Syria. They came out very early opposed to the Assad regime, and have been lax about their border in order to damage the regime. And the Syrian decision to allow a Syrian Kurdistan to emerge on Turkey’s border helped precipitate that kind of Turkish reaction of allowing really serious proxy forces to get access to Syria.

Because of their fear of the PKK?

Yes. The practice of the Baath regime in Syria, when it had difficulties with Turkey, was to encourage the PKK. And that’s exactly what Assad Jr. resorted to when he got into difficulties. So that constrains Turkey.

But Turkey has shared interests with the Americans. They are soft Muslims, but they’re not ISIS supporters. They have a deep and fundamental interest in ensuring the success of Turkey’s investments in Kurdistan and being the primary energy hub for Europe with northern Iraqi oil coming out their way. They’ve abandoned any hope that the government in Baghdad will treat Turkey as a major player with [southern] Iraqi oil. So their only plausible partner is the Kurdistan region in Iraq. And that’s the game-changing set of events that have occurred since roughly 2006.

You’ve talked about Saudi and Qatari support for the jihadists. Are either of them having second thoughts about the ISIS monster they’ve created?

One part of them will be comforting themselves that they have created a deep shock for the Assad regime and for Iran, its principal ally. They of course will deny that their governments have had any fundamental responsibility [for ISIS]. But there are ways of measuring Saudi exports in these domains. And it’s time, in my view, for all Americans to ask themselves: why is this oligarchic elite, whose only possibility for democracy is the further expansion of the royal family from 6,000 princes to whatever large number—why are we supporting this Wahhabist regime, which regards us as the manifestation of evil?

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