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Sabah al-Nasseri discusses al-Maliki and the role of US, Iran, Syria, and the Gulf states in Iraq since ISIS began its offensive weeks ago

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

In Iraq, ISIS is advancing towards the Haditha Dam, one of the most significant sources of hydroelectricity in the country.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and UN have thus far been unsuccessful in their attempts to encourage Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to bring the Sunnis and Kurds into the coalition government. The United Nations also reported that at least 1,000 people have died in Iraq so far this month, saying that this number, quote, should be viewed very much as a minimum.

Syria also took its first major action in Iraq, conducting two air strikes over the last couple of days in the Anbar province, according to Iraqi officials.

U.S. officials also told The New York Times that Iran has sent drones into the country and is continuing daily shipments of military equipment to assist the Iraqi central government in its fight against ISIS. The news comes as about half of the expected 300 U.S. military advisers have now arrived in Baghdad.

Joining us now to give an analysis of the situation is Sabah Alnasseri. He was born in Basra, in Iraq, and he teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto.

Thanks for joining us, Sabah.


WORONCZUK: So we’ve heard appeals from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Shiite grand ayatollah al-Sistani, and the UN for al-Maliki to incorporate Kurdish and Sunni politicians into the coalition government, though al-Maliki seems to have rejected this altogether. And it seems that there is a division emerging between Shiite political leaders. For example, The New York Times reported that Muqtada al-Sadr has revived the Mahdi Army, which played a major role in the sectarian civil war from 2006 to 2008. And he has also said that his militia–he’s not willing to have his militia come under the control of the al-Maliki government. So what do you think is the future for al-Maliki?

ALNASSERI: That’s an excellent question. And let me just go one step back to answer this question. You see, the Constitution and the election law inherently forced different political forces to appeal to their own community to be elected. So the whole Iraqi polity has fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines. So the biggest problem of al-Maliki, it’s not the Sunnis or the Kurds; it’s the Shiites, for two reasons. One is the nominally Shiite majority cannot be translated into political majority. And second, there are strong contenders within the Shiite communities, like al-Hakim, al-Sadr, with whom al-Maliki actually contests over political power. So the major problem of al-Maliki is the Shiite community and the Shiite contenders.

So if we go back to December 2013, where we had the peaceful protesters in Ramadi and Fallujah, etc., al-Maliki gambled and escalated the conflict militarily to win the election. And he actually opened the gates, not only the door, for ISIL to occupy a lot of cities at that time and until today. But he won the election. The problem is his platform was organized around law and order, and he attempted to win an absolute majority so that he can rule absolutely. He failed, because not only the Sunnis and the Kurds, they don’t trust al-Maliki, but even the Shiite communities [incompr.] political forces.

So it might sound paradox that the fate of al-Maliki depends not on the Sunni and the Kurds and their protest or opposition to him; it depends on the Shiite political forces, because they are the only one who can nominate al-Maliki, if they agree on al-Maliki as [incompr.] president. So his main problem are the Shiite contenders and struggle over political power within the community. The conflict is intra- rather than inter-community.

WORONCZUK: So let’s talk about the Iranian role right now in the situation. And, you know, as I said, they’ve been sending lots of military equipment to support al-Maliki. Do you think that that, if that’s, if al-Maliki’s not able to use that in order to prop up and maintain his power, do you think that Iran will send in troops if there appears to be a critical moment when al-Maliki might fall?

ALNASSERI: Three things. I don’t think, first of all, that Iran will send troops, because Iran knows if it sends troop to Iraq, the majority of the Iraq population will consider this an occupation, and then they will escalate the conflict. So not only the so-called Sunni or Kurds, but even biggest, you know, or the majority of the Shiite community of Iraq would consider this as an occupation. So they will not send troops. Yes, they support al-Maliki and they bet on al-Maliki. And until now, the U.S. was actually /da’kɔʁ/ with al-Maliki, because Iran bet it on Maliki. Now there’s a problem, of course. So they are trying to support the military with weapons and advising and so on, but they will not [send their troop there?], because Iran considered ISIL as a threat to it, and Iran knows that behind ISIL, many regional political forces supporting it. So it consider it as a threat to its security.

And the second thing is Iran doesn’t want the U.S. to intervene in Iraq militarily. They don’t want the U.S. troops in Iraq, because up until today, especially after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Iran has an enormous influence on Iraqi politics qua al-Maliki. So they want to help al-Maliki contain the problem and order to make any U.S. intention of sending troops to Iraq impossible.

WORONCZUK: And so if–and in terms of the Syrian air strikes, I mean, it seems unclear thus far whether they are confirmed or unconfirmed. But if the reports turn out to be true that Syria indeed has engaged in targeted air strikes against ISIS, why do you think that they decided–that the Assad government has decided now to intervene? And what role do you see Syria of having as the conflict continues?

ALNASSERI: Right. You see, up until recently, the conflict in Syria was concentrated on the western and northwestern part of Syria. So that’s why the Syrian army was engaged with different oppositional forces coming from Turkey or Lebanon and so on. So the whole focus was on the western and northwestern territories, not the east. And that’s where ISIL actually occupied, especially the border cities between Iraq and Syria and so on. They occupy these spaces and operate from them. So the Syrian army, until recently, they did not see any threat on the eastern part to the rule of al-Assad government in Syria.

Now, of course, things have shifted for two reason, because Iraq and Iran are supporters of al-Assad in Syria against all these different contradictory and conflictual political forces of the opposition. And the second thing is because ISIL now occupied actually border cities between Syria and Iraq and between Jordan and Iraq and /frɒˈdil/ too.

So what they did now after the occupation of Mosul and other cities in Iraq, as I said the last interview, they start transporting all the modern weapon–U.S. weapons, by the way–from Iraq to Syria to strengthen, you know, the opposition in Syria and to start a new offensive against [the Assad?] government. So that’s why I think Assad government now and the Syrian army taking ISIL much more seriously than it did before.

WORONCZUK: Now let’s talk about the role of the U.S. military advisers that are being sent to Baghdad. Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted by The Guardian as explaining the purpose. He said, quote, we are not here in a combat role, we are not here to fight, and the president has no intention, none whatsoever, of returning American combat troops in Iraq to go back to where we were. Do you think that this is exemplary of, like, the U.S. being committed to maintaining al-Maliki’s position? Or is this about protecting the power of the state?

ALNASSERI: I think the U.S. doesn’t insist on al-Maliki anymore. They did in the last, as I said, eight years, when al-Maliki was nominated literally by the U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad. I don’t think they bet on Maliki anymore, because he failed to keep his promises. He gave a lot of promises in the last few years, especially before the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 that there would be an opening of the political process, the inclusion of the Iraqi communities, and representation for all minorities in Iraq. He failed to do that.

And as I said, it’s not a personal issue. It’s not only al-Maliki. Everybody else in his place would have done the same, because the whole structure of the state, as I said, inherently pushed these political forces to appeal only to their community, because they considered the only, you know, social basis that could bring them to power. So the structure inherently fractured the polity, the Iraqi polities, and reproduces all of these kind of sectarian ethno-conflict.

I think the United States realized recently that the only way to go forward is probably to bet on a different candidate, much more inclusive, and to convince different political forces in Iraq–the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiite political parties–to nominate a different candidate instead of al-Maliki. It could be someone from al-Da’wa Party, because they won the election with 92 seats–oh, his platform, the Rule of Law or the State of Law, but not al-Maliki.

So I think what the 300 advisers, what the issue of it was, what makes it important, two issues. One, the U.S. secured something they were not able to secure three years ago, namely, immunity against prosecution vis-à-vis Iraqi law. So these 300 adviser, they will not be subjugated to Iraqi law. I think that’s a major concession al-Maliki had to make to the U.S. to have any kind of help that he wished for. The second thing, I think it’s much more political, rather than military, because what happens, as we discussed in the last interview, a total collapse of the security apparatus. And al-Maliki is personally in charge for that, because he is the one who concentrated all the security institution in his hands. So the collapse of this apparatus is his own mistake.

So what was obvious is that despite some, you know, modern weaponry and some training by the U.S., training and so on, the whole structure of the security apparatus, the chain of commands, the responsibilities, and so on were not clear. There was institutionalized confusion. So I think probably there are all of these adviser who will be much more political in the sense–and producing a new form of military leadership and chain of commands which is much more inclusive and a bit outside the prerogative of al-Maliki. If they are capable of doing this, they might be able to restructure or help restructure the Iraqi army not according to ethnic or sectarian lines anymore.

I think they need to reevaluate and question all their assumption about Iraq since 2003 if they want to go forward.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also recently met with the president of the northern Kurdish region in Iraq, President Masoud Barzani, and he was basically urging him not to break away from the central government in Baghdad, to separate from Iraq. Why is the U.S. concerned with this possibility of the Kurds forming their own state?

ALNASSERI: Well, I don’t think they’re concerned that the Kurds would make their own state for a simple reason: because the Kurds, they are not a homogeneous entity. You see, there are different political forces in Kurdistan, and there’s a major conflict between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is, you know, partly an ally of al-Maliki, and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Barzani. But there’s also third political force, which is Change. The third [incompr.] the second party during the last election in Kurdistan, stronger than the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. So you have many political forces in Kurdistan.

And sometimes some political forces in Kurdistan utilize the issue of separation and the creation of independent Kurdish state to push the central government to make more concession. And I think in the last few month, and the [incompr.] last two years, they were right [incompr.] because al-Maliki, as I said, he did not keep his promise. He did not stick to the Erbil agreement, to which the Kurds and then the Sunni and so on, Shiite political forces agreed. So the Kurds are not satisfied with him and the Sunni not satisfied with him and other Shiite parties are [incompr.]

So what Barzani did in the last few months: actually, he invited all these political [incompr.] to Erbil to discuss with them. You know, two years ago, they tried to introduce a report against al-Maliki within the parliament, mistrust against al-Maliki. It didn’t work. So they invited all these political forces precisely to push for a different development with a different candidate. So I think the Kurds are utilizing the separatist independent issue to push the U.S. seriously not to gamble anymore on Maliki and to look for different candidates. And there are other candidates with whom the Kurds and the Sunni are in agreement.

WORONCZUK: So The Washington Post also reported that John Kerry is heading to Paris on Thursday to meet with officials from some Gulf states–Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and also from Jordan–in order to force them to push Sunni groups in order to break with ISIS and preserve a unified state of Iraq. Do you think that it’s in the interests of these various nation-states to do so?

ALNASSERI: Well, yeah. I mean, in the last few days, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and so on accused al-Maliki of being sectarian, excluding the Arab Sunnis from Iraq, and so on. And like the United Arab Emirates, they’d withdraw their ambassadors from Baghdad, etc. So that was a huge setback for al-Maliki in this regard.

And I think that we should be clear here. It’s not like Sunni political forces and tribal forces in the west and northwestern provinces of Iraq are siding with ISIL. No, they are not siding with ISIL. They are resisting ISIL. They don’t see a threat in ISIL as much as they see it in al-Maliki and in his militias.

So I believe once they feel there is a new political process, much more inclusive, and there’s a real representation of these communities, they will fight back against ISIL and kick them out from their territories. But they don’t see the necessity of doing this now, because they think that the central government of Iraq represent much more threat to their political, economic, and social power than ISIL. So we shouldn’t assume that these forces, who–enabled, in a way, by not resisting ISIL, are supporting ISIL or allies of ISIL. I think this is incorrect. That’s what al-Maliki trying to suggest, and partly the U.S., but it’s not true.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Salah Alnasseri, professor of political science at York University, thank you so much for joining us.

ALNASSERI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Sabah Alnasseri was born in Basra, Iraq, and earned his doctorate at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His publications cover various topics in Marxist political economy, Marxist state theory in the tradition of Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser, theory of regulation, and Middle East politics and economy.