Iraqi Shiite tribesmen in the south who have volunteered to fight. Photo: Getty
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What is going to happen in Iraq?

It is not the assertiveness of new entities that is driving change, but the collapse of the old national constructions.

With Iraq riven by sectarian violence and mass atrocities, I decided to have a short email exchange with Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy, and an expert on political Islam. (Our previous conversation was about Syria and Egypt.) We discussed the state of relations between Sunnis and Shiites, the prospect of wider regional war, and whether the borders of the Middle East are about to change.

Isaac Chotiner: What do you make of ISIS as a group? How do you see them as distinct from other violent Muslim groups?

Olivier Roy: ISIS is an offspring of Al Qaeda, so it is first a globalised international movement which is lacking deep roots in the local society and which does not have a “national” project (contrary to Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Jihad, or the Shia radical movements). Many foreign volunteers don’t speak Arabic, and don’t care about the local society. It does not have a project of “civil” society except a reference to sharia. ISIS is an army of militants, not a political party, nor a social movement. It succeeds because the others failed; and as everywhere it will confront a backlash of the civil society (which happened in Falluja during the “surge” of General Petraeus). But the new element is that some leaders (both of Al Qaeda and ISIS) seem to realize that there is a need to shift from a militant Jihad international group to a local power with a capacity to administrate the “liberated areas”. But I doubt it will have the ability or the time to morph into an efficient political organisation: Such a project does not correspond to its recruitment strategy or to its global ideology.

IC: How pessimistic are you about Iraq? 

OR: I think that the Jihadist offensive will be repelled, but not because the Maliki government will retake the upper hand. It will be a consequence of the Shia and Kurdish backlash, because both groups know that they are fighting with their backs against the wall, and that the Jihadists just dream about eliminating them. They are the majority and they will fight. But the backbone of the “surge” is not the legal government: it is the Kurdish troops and the Shia clergy who, once again, are embodying the nation in a time of crisis. The Shia will accept a de facto independence for Kurdistan and will not fight to retake Kirkuk from the Kurds. The Sunnis will not be able to retake the central power, and tensions between Jihadis, Baathists and tribal leaders will erupt among Sunnis. The Shias will administrate the South. The problem is Baghdad. I doubt a strong central government will regain power. So at best you will have a loose federation of three entities, and at worst a split into three entities.

IC: How else do you think the borders of the Middle East might change?

OR: There is a real possibility of territorial changes, although nobody, except the Kurds and some Israelis, advocate such changes. But the paradox is that the agents of changes are not the people who want such changes!

The main drive for changes is not the assertiveness of new entities but the collapse of the old national constructions. The main factor that could lead to a reshuffle of borders is the widening of the new strategic fault-line in the Middle East; the divide between Shias and Sunnis.

The first thing would be to have a true independent Kurdistan in Iraq, because of a collapse of Iraq first; Syria might collapse too, but except Kurdistan we will not see new nation-states with precise borders, but vague zones of influence with fluctuating boundaries. The collapse of the existing nation-states will in turn weaken the international borders, even if they are not redrawn. The border between Iran and Iraq and the border between Turkey and its southern neighbors will be de facto open. Goods, people, and weapons will move more easily.

IC: Do you see the Sunni/Shia rift as getting worse? Has it ever been this bad?

OR: The rift has little to do with religion as such. It seldom became a geostrategic issue in history, except when Iran turned Shia in the sixteenth century. During the twentieth century there was no rift at all until the Iranian-Islamic revolution. The rift has been a consequence of the Iranian Islamic revolution that has identified Iran with militant Shiism, and it entailed a religious radicalisation of a Sunni fringe (the so-called “Salafis”) that has been encouraged by Saudi Arabia both for religious reasons and for thwarting the growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Iraq. And the rift is growing, because the mutual distrust is growing. Shias in the Gulf are systematically perceived as an Iranian fifth column, something they were not seen as in the past.

The Shia-Sunni divide is a war through proxies waged by Iran and Saudi Arabia. But while the Shia axis is relatively coherent (Iran, Hezbollah, Assad and to a lesser extend Maliki), the Sunni front is utterly divided and has no common objectives.

The US invasion of Iraq has just destroyed the main Sunni bulwark against Iran, with two consequences: the solidifying of a de facto independent Kurdistan, the secession of a large Sunni populated area in Northern Iraq that shifted from Baathism to Jihadism and straddles the border with Syria. Saudi Arabia, instead of allying itself with the mainstream Sunni organisations (like the Muslim Brothers), wants to crush them, while it supported for decades the very radicals that are now taking the lead in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Thus Iran is the great beneficiary of the collapse of the dominant order built between 1918 and 1948, with a minimum engagement on the field.

IC: Could this Iraq violence have been prevented by a concerted international effort to contain Syria earlier?

OR: It is clear that Syria has been the springboard for the extension of ISIS into Iraq, but, soon or later, the Jihadists would have made a breakthrough in the Iraqi Sunni areas because of the frustration of the local population. Since the battle of Falluja against the Americans, nothing has been done to integrate the Iraqi Sunnis into the new state.

The problem from the beginning has been what to do in Syria, and the more time is passing, the more difficult it is to define what could be done. Now the conflict is internationalised, so the only issue is an international agreement, where Iran would be a key player; but negotiations with Iran are under heavy criticism in Israel and in the US Congress, while it is obvious that the extension of the battlefield reinforces the role of Iran.

IC: What do you think the West should do, if anything, besides reaching out to Iran?

OR: The issue is not what the West should do, but what it can do. The refusal to act at the beginning of the crisis makes it more and more difficult to intervene now. The first thing is regional concentration, including Iran. The second is coordination with the Iraqi Shias and Kurds to thwart ISIS without sending troops (there is no need). The third is to think about an alternative to Maliki. And finally to try to identify the “good” opponents in Syria while avoiding direct interference, but the precedent of Afghanistan in the ’80s shows that it is a real challenge.

IC: What do you think the Turks make of all this, from the Kurdish role to Iranian involvement?

OR: The Turks pay the price of a proactive but incoherent policy. They have no choice now but to cooperate closely with Kurdish authorities, to close their territory to Jihadis, and to cooperate with Iran (which is not a big issue for them because they have “normal” diplomatic and intelligence ties with Kurds and Iranians).

This interview has been edited. It first appeared on newrepublic.com

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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