Patrick Cockburn, a veteran journalist experienced in the complexities of the Middle East, usually makes sense. But his latest piece, for something called The Unz Review (“A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media”) is way, way off base. Its title is: “How Saudi Arabia Helped Isis Take Over the North of Iraq,” and it’s a conspiratorial mishmash of truths, half-truths and outright misinformation—much of it derived, weirdly enough, from a speech by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former chief of Britain’s intelligence service, MI-6. In it, Cockburn suggests that Saudi Arabia, in its fanatical zeal to oppose Shiites worldwide, “has played a central role in the ISIS surge into Sunni areas of Iraq.” (ISIS, of course, is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now pretentiously calling itself a “caliphate” and changing its name to “the Islamic state,” presumably signaling that it intends to rule the entire Muslim world.)
In this case, despite The Unz Review’s belief that it brings forward information “excluded from the American mainstream media,” perhaps the reason that Cockburn’s thesis has been excluded is because it is flat wrong.
The ISIS crisis in Iraq, parallel to the ISIS crisis in Syria, is indeed an ugly and serious challenge to the Middle East status quo. But there’s far too much alarmism in response, including Eric Holder’s statement yesterday that the threat from ISIS is “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is a bad actor, but the chance that ISIS will seize or even seriously threaten either Baghdad or Damascus is zero, and eventually the Sunni tribes, Baathists and the former Awakening movement in Iraq will crush ISIS, while President Bashar al-Assad’s forces squash it in Syria. And despite Cockburn’s view, most analysts believe that Saudi Arabia is alarmed by, and doesn’t support, ISIS.
The easiest way to resolve the Iraq-Syria civil war is through an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni side in a broad, regional proxy war throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and into South Asia, and Iran supports the Shiite side, neither side tolerates either Al Qaeda or ISIS. Both Riyadh and Tehran are worried about the rise of ISIS, and the common ground is there for both countries to establish a détente and try to resolve the civil war.
If Saudi Arabia were committed to an all-out conflict with the Shiites, as Cockburn and Dearlove suggest, then Saudi Arabia would have supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, since the Brotherhood was a bitter enemy of the Shia and a supporter of the revolt in Syria. Instead, the Saudis opted to work with Egypt’s military to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. And while the Saudis have close ties to Iraq’s Sunni tribal militia, and beginning in 2006 Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni Awakening, it certainly doesn’t support ISIS in either Iraq or in Syria, where the Saudis back less-radical forces battling Assad’s government. If fighting ISIS takes priority now, Saudi Arabia will have to ease off its support for the anti-Assad forces, freeing up the Syrian army to go into Syria’s north and east, where ISIS is strong. (The United States, rather than bolstering Syria’s “moderate” rebels, ought to do the same.)
Cockburn bases a big part of his analysis on Dearlove’s comment that the spy boss once heard Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia once say: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.” But that statement was made many years ago, before 9/11, and Cockburn manages to add, “Dearlove says that he has no inside knowledge obtained since he retired as head of MI6 10 years ago to become Master of Pembroke College in Cambridge.” Well.
In Washington, and despite Holder’s comments, a more reasoned approach to the ISIS crisis may be dawning. President Obama’s initial response, which included hints that the United States might conduct air strikes in Iraq, seems to have cooled. And while I’ve written about the potential for a “slippery slope” in Iraq, with the United States first sending advisers to Baghdad, then troops to protect the airport, and then more troops to protect the airport road, the White House seems to be listening the US military and the intelligence community. According to a classified report leaked to The New York Times, the military argues that Iraq’s armed forces and security apparatus are so badly run, so infiltrated with Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen and informers from ISIS, that there isn’t much of an opening for greater US involvement. And Iraq’s political deadlock doesn’t look like it’s going to broken anytime soon, meaning that the United States can’t take Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s egregiously Shiite-sectarian side in a war against Iraq’s Sunnis.
So far, many of Iraq’s Sunnis—badly alienated by Maliki’s one-sect rule—have supported the ISIS offensive while viewing their Taliban-like extremism with, well, extreme distaste. In some parts of Iraq, the entire Sunni community—tribes, Baathists, Sunni Islamists of various kinds—sit on soviet-like councils alongside ISIS, but that doesn’t mean that the non-ISIS groups want anything to do with ISIS’ obscurantist beliefs and harsh imposition of its version of sharia law. If a deal is struck to get rid of Maliki, or if Maliki decides to open up his government, the Sunni hammer will fall on ISIS. That, however, might depend on an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran.