The ISIS and The Iraq Crisis roots and solutions in Interview with Professor William Beeman
International Peace Studies Center (IPSC)
William Beeman, is professor and chair of Anthropology at the university of Minnesota and an expert on Middle East for more than 40 years. He was formerly Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. And also he was Past-President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has worked and lived in the Middle East for more than Thirty Years. His latest publication is “Iraq: State in search of a nation”.The following is the text of the interview.
Keywords: Iraq Crisis, ISIS, United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia
IPSC: what are the historical roots of today`s Iraq crisis?
William Beeman:Iraq is an artificial nation created by the British after World War I out of three Ottoman Provinces–Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. The people living in Iraq never had lived together. The British liked the urbanized Sunni population and also needed to reward the Sharif of Mecca for his support against the Ottomans in World War I. So the British took Faisal, who had failed as new ruler of Syria, and made him King of Iraq. He was weak and didn’t know how to rule, so the British remained in Iraq to keep the peace with the British Army in place until the monarchy was deposed in 1958. The Ba’th Party was in power briefly, and then the nation was taken over by military dictators, ending with Saddam Hussein.
In general, the three very different populations: Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a were never united except under military force–first the British and then military dictators. Now that Saddam is gone, the country is dissolving into the three old Ottoman provinces.
IPSC: Many western experts and politicians believe that the Iraq crisis is a Shia-Sunni War, What’s your opinion in this regards? If you are not in agreement with them, what do you consider to be the nature of these developments in Iraq?
William Beeman: The Shi’a-Sunni conflict is not a religious conflict, though there are some religious dimensions. Shi’a and Sunni populations lived together for centuries in Iraq. They intermarried and respected each other. However, Sunnis were placed in control by the British, to the point that the Sunnis actually thought they were a majority in the country. The Shi’a were disadvantaged in the Iraqi state. They were exploited and terrorized by Saddam. After his removal, the Shi’a population–the largest group in the country–quite naturally expected to have a larger role in governance. Al-Maliki has not been a good leader. He failed to integrate Sunnis in to his government and they were resentful. The Sunnis want their old power back and were willing to
fight to achieve it. Most Sunni and Shi’i Iraqis don’t think very much about doctrinal differences. The ISIS/ISIL group is different. They are Salafis and largely non-Iraqi. They emphasize all of the prejudicial views against the Shi’a (they are idolaters, polytheists, etc.) and they have used the desire of the Sunnis–former Saddam military leaders, former Ba’thists–to get local support for their terroristic attacks on the country.
IPSC: What are the similarities and differences between ISIS and Al-Qaeda?
William Beeman: ISIS is far more extreme than Al-Qaeda. Their leader, al-Baghdadi has just declared himself Caliph. They both have similar Salafist backgrounds, but Al-Qaeda, as extreme as it is, is not willing to undertake the slaughter seen with ISIS, nor do they have a megalomaniac leader like al-Baghdadi. Al-Qaeda essentially expelled ISIS from their ranks.
IPSC: Based on the expansion of the ISIS to SYRIA and their return to Iraq, which country or where could be ISIS`s next target?
William Beeman: I am doubtful that ISIS can spread its influence further, but they have said that they want to remove King Abdullah of Jordan. The Jordanians know this and have an army on the Jordanian border. If they advance far enough to the South, they might attack Kuwait, or even Saudi Arabia.
IPSC: How do you interpret the role of Saudi Arabia in Iraq?
William Beeman: The Saudis have financed ISIS and have sent military advisers to ISIS. One was killed in Takrit. They thought they were finding ISIS to fight Bashar al-Assad, and ISIS moving into Iraq was a surprise. It is hard to know what the Saudis think of the Iraq conflict. My feeling is that ISIS will not be able to successfully fight the al-Maliki government, and will never dominate Southern Iraq. The Saudi government is afraid of large Shi’a communities because of the large Shi’a population in their Eastern province.
IPSC: Professor how do you see U.S- Iran cooperation to help the Iraqi government against ISIS? Do you agree with those who think that U.S. assistance to Iraq lead to the revival of Iran’s hegemony?
William Beeman: First, I completely disagree with the idea that Iran is hegemonistic. There is no evidence that Iran has any desire to expand beyond its borders. Its relations with external groups such as Hezbollah are now past history. Hezbollah has its own agenda and does not take orders from Iran. Iran has not aided the Shi’a in Bahrain or in Yemen. So this idea of Iranian hegemony is a total myth. In addition the Shi’a in Iraq have significant theological and political differences with Iran. That said, Iran could productively join with the United States to contain ISIS. Iran has the forces, the logistical support and the desire to protect Shi’a shrines in Iraq, and could be an important stabilizing force in the region. The real question is not Iranian “hegemony” but rather the United States ceding the fact that Iran is the major political force in the region.
IPSC: It seems that the Obama administration is left in a dilemma, what are the key obstacles for the U.S. and especially for Obama to intervene in Iraq?
William Beeman: First, the United States withdrew from Iraq, so it has no justification for military engagement in Iraq. However, there is tremendous pressure from right-wing politicians in the United States for President Obama to intervene. Thus the President is caught between the fact that there is no basis for intervention, and the domestic pressure for him to do so. This is why he has been unable to take decisive action. Because the United States has demonized Iran for so long, it is also difficult for the United States to reach out to Iran to help. Iran is still portrayed as the “chief destabilizing force in the Middle East” by right-wing politicians. They seem to ignore ISIS which is far more dangerous than Iran could ever be imagined to be.
IPSC: In your opinion what are the possible solutions for solving the Iraq crisis on the National,Regional and International Level?
William Beeman:There are three possible solutions.
1. al-Maliki is replaced and a new leader is inaugurated who pledges to integrate Sunni (Arab and Kurdish) leaders into the government and provides government services to the Sunnis. The Shi’a population could remain prominent, but the key to stability is power sharing.
2. The nation breaks up into the old Ottoman provinces. However, the fate of Baghdad would be problematic. Baghdad used to be a Sunni city. It is now largely Shi’a
3. A federation of three major territories with a “Federal District” in Baghdad as a neutral capital and local self-determination for each of the territories–perhaps with their own parliaments and elected leaders. There would have to be provisions for national defense, oil income sharing between the three territories.
4. ISIS may succeed in creating a state based on Northern Syria and Western Iraq. The new state would fail, but it might remain for a short period of time.
IPSC: How do you see the landscape of Iraq’s unrest?
William Beeman: ISIS is very small, actually. It depends on the support of the Sunni population in the Northwest part of the country. At some point ISIS will overextend itself. I don’t believe they are capable of taking over all of Iraq. However, they may be able to hold the territory they already have. If Iraq wants to hold together, it must engage in serious power-sharing among its principal communities.
In the short-term there will be a great deal of violence until ISIS is contained. Iran may participate–particularly if the shrine cities in the South are threatened. The United States may provide logistic support, but it will not provide fighting troops.
IPSC: Dear professor Beeman thank you for your time!
Interview By:Mohsen Farahbar