Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Gabrielle Rifkind and Gianni Picco - The new great regional game: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Decades of corrupt and authoritarian governments in the region which brutally suppressed both secular opposition and moderate Islamists have created the breeding ground for a more nihilist ideology. Alarm has spread as the Islamist militant group Isis (Islamic State of Iraq & Syria) who now prefers to call itself the Islamic “state”, has crossed the border of Iraq and Syria, threatening the implementation of a caliphate and harsh Islamic law to any who do not practice its brand of violent ‘puritanism’. Sectarian hatred has begun to shape the regional DNA threatening to erode boundaries that have prevailed since the collapse of the Ottoman empire a century ago.

The regressive programme of ISIS has a merciless hardline vision and ultra-conservative agenda. It has already established a sharia court and the more recently published videos of its fighters burning their passports seem evidence of a hypermodern propaganda machine. This is a sophisticated organization with experienced leaders which has moved beyond al Qaeda and terror, to see itself as is a regional force for change.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the breakdown of Iraq’s political, economic and social infrastructure. This created a power vacuum for Al Qaeda and the likes of such groups as ISIS to fill. The evolution of ISIS can be traced to the extreme Salafist Islamism in Iraq, during the ‘first’ sectarian civil war of 2007-8. But such groups need to be put in a wider context: the ‘Great Game’ of the perverse spillover of the Saudi vision of the caliphate as expressed by the Taliban as they were and still are.

Any comparison between the Taliban and ISIS and their religious vision must link to the religious version of Sunnism as taught in Saudi. The regional sectarian war has been stimulated by proxy powers. The conflicts both in Iraq and Syria should not be called a civil war but the third chess game between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the last thirty years which has now morphed into a Sunni-Shiite sectarian confrontation in the “Syrian/Iraqi space”.

At the time of the first sectarian civil war in Iraq, the thousands of Sunni’s being killed in Anbar province by Shiite death squads turned to Al Qaeda for protection. The American military surge led to Sunni tribal leaders agreeing to forgo their connections with ISIS in exchange for the US negotiating representation and their protection with the Maliki government. These promises proved to be empty. Not only did the Sunni’s continue to be marginalized, but they saw emerge as dominant an Iranian-backed Shi’a-dominated government with a sectarian agenda.

ISIS rank and file members comprise of many foreign fighters who have come from across the Arab and Islamic world to join its jihad. But the leadership includes several senior ex-army and intelligence officers who served under Saddam Hussein, including Saddam’s deputy Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, a man whose cruelty was legendary. This has created the potent mixture of extremist ideology and professional military experience that makes ISIS such a powerful force.

Saudi Arabia will not be unduly unhappy about the Shia fragility in Iraq as they have been disturbed by the Iranian influence in Iraq ever since the 2003 war. There is however no credible evidence that the Saudi government is financially supporting ISIS. Nevertheless, private Saudi and other Gulf state donors were allegedly the most significant funding source for ISIS in the past. Whilst the creator of such groups, Saudi influence may now have lost control of this group, currently viewed by Riyadh as a terrorist organization that is a direct threat to the kingdom’s security.

The significance of such private donations has now been marginalized by other sources of ISIS income, including smuggling, extortion and criminal activities. Access to finance from the oil fields in northern Iraq and northern eastern regions of Syria now suggests that they have control over their own money. The degree of efficiency of this organization points to an infrastructure that is paying monthly salaries to its soldiers.

The rise of ISIS signals a deeper crisis of representation amidst the different communities in the region. When governments do not protect their citizens in the harsh and brutal conditions of war, people turn to paramilitary organizations for their security. Decades of corrupt and authoritarian governments in the region which brutally suppressed both secular opposition and moderate Islamists have created the breeding ground for a more nihilist ideology.


The boundary of the nation state is gone in the minds of many of its citizens, and events on the ground have reinforced this. A remapping of the region is taking place along sectarian lines breaking up into potentially hostile statelets, carved into exclusively ethnic enclaves.. read  more: