Iraqi vice-president: No airstrikes or army force; only political unity will save Iraq

Disunity in Iraq has given a chance for jihadists to occupy large swathes of its land. Sunnis and Shias can’t find the common language, Kurds demand more liberties – and in such time, Baghdad comes up with the new government, promising to finally create the rule, that represents everyone in the devastated country. Will it succeed? How new rulers of Iraq are planning to fight the Islamic State? We ask the Iraqi vice-president. Ayad Allawi is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:From the latest, you’re asking for the international help to combat ISIS - you get military help, you get airstrikes - how fast are you hoping to defeat ISIS?

Ayad Allawi: We hope that all peace-loving nations in the world unite to work with us to defeat all forces of extremists, amongst which is ISIS itself, and we don’t believe that military involvement only can do the work - there needs to be a political solution by getting the countries and the societies united, mobilized against ISIS, where there is a kind of clear reconciliation and the people are really all united against such organization.

SS:Sure, but do you have the number in your head? Like, a time-period of how fast you think you can combat ISIS, starting from now?

AA: I think that probably, it’s power will be degraded, but I think to finish the job requires quite a long time. I don’t think it’s going to be done immediately, but definitely degrading the capability of ISIS can happen within the next few months - but we’re not talking about degrading, we’re talking about, hopefully, destroying ISIS ultimately; and destroying ISIS will take quite a long time.

SS:Military option and military help is one part of the whole solution - so if airstrikes do go on, what will happen to ordinary people in the occupied territories, and who is going to ensure their safety?

AA: This is where we feel things are a bit risky - we believe that only using airstrikes could also damage civilians. That’s why we believe in surgical operations and intelligence operations rather than aerial bombardment on a wide scale. We think that even when such bombardment should take place, it should be in a very selective area, remote areas, where the supply lines of ISIS are being hit, rather than exposing the civilians for bombardment. This all will depend on the coordination between the government of Iraq and government that are involved in fighting ISIS, but I think we should thread very carefully here, not to allow the bombardments of the civil population and the civilians in the areas that are being attacked.

SS:You’ve mentioned the intelligence. Are you getting any information from the ISIS side? What are the conditions for civilians under ISIS right now?

AA: It’s quite bad. The civilians are quite oppressed under the ISIS control and from Nineveh and Mosul we receive a lot of information: really, there are horrendous actions against the population. The Christians are being violated, oppressed severely, the Yazidis are being oppressed, and women are oppressed. Executions are taking place continuously, every single day. That’s why we think that ISIS should be encircled, its power should be degraded, and finally, in a longer term, it should be destroyed.

SS:I think everyone agrees on that, but let me ask you something: Mr. Vice-president, we know something horrible is going on in Iraq - but what exactly is the situation on the ground, we don’t really understand. For example, where are the Iraqi troops facing the enemy right now, as we speak - what’s going on right there, right now?

AA: Unfortunately, the Iraqi army was deprived of its identity, and was based on the sectarian issues - that’s why the army couldn’t stand against ISIS. Now, in certain areas, there is sort-of army, which is Kurdish Peshmerga, there are special units of the armed forces, which are not large - they are trying to fight ISIS in various other places, and there are some other units, which are protecting the capital.

SS:Let me just make something clear - we’re aware of the problems in the army and how it got fractured and dissembled at the sectarian grounds - but are you saying that there is no army right now, nothing, even though it’s weakened, that’s fighting ISIS right now?

AA: No, no, there are special units, there are some units of the army which are fighting, but definitely there is army now, which is engaged in various places, up to Mosul, the belt of Baghdad and towards the north, the province of Salah ad-Din, towards the periphery of Kirkuk, and then Nineveh and Mosul; and in Nineveh and Mosul there are Peshmerga, which is part of the Iraqi overall armed forces, as the Kurdish part - they are also involved in the fight against ISIS, together with the Iraqi army.

SS:So what kind of offensive is the army capable of right now, in the shape that it is at this moment? What’s your government’s imminent plan in that perspective?

AA: There are imminent plans, they are being drawn, the plans to attack and one of the components of the plan is really to degrade and hit the logistics of ISIS. Some units and special forces are attacking ISIS in various places to cut their capabilities and this is happening already. One of the components of the overall plan is to get people mobilized and to arm the people in the provinces to rise against ISIS, including people in Mosul. This is in the making, but definitely the army now is fighting together with Peshmerga in Kurdistan.

SS: In the northern areas of Iraq, the Kurdish forces are actually performing much better against ISIS than the government’s military in the south. Why is that?

AA: They have received some arms, they have received some help, they have regrouped and they are homogenous: they are based on the Kurdish element. There are Christians, there are Sunni as there are Shia within the Peshmerga, but unfortunately the Iraqi army is not as such; but certain units of the Iraqi army are already engaged in the fight. Overall, I don’t think the structure of the Iraqi army is ready to engage in the fight at Salah-ad-Din province up to the north.

SS:So let me ask you something else about the Kurdish minority - just because they are capable of taking care of themselves at this point and fight the ISIS themselves - when the fight against ISIS is won, how do you see the Kurdish future within Iraq? You think independence is inevitable?

AA: No, I don’t think this is on the table. I think they have legitimate rights, they have legitimate demands, and these demands should be met, including the hydrocarbon law and the revenue share grow; they are part of Iraq. We believe that Iraq should be federal, but united country. The Kurds are moving now, they are participating heavily in the new government, and they will be, hopefully, remaining in Iraq. We want to see them remaining in Iraq, in federal Iraq, democratic Iraq. I think they were pushed by the last government to a corner, while they are now in much more relaxed position and that’s why even their involvement in decision making is quite significant and quite important to us, and we are trying to regain the confidence of all Iraqi components to move forward and to create a singular, federal, united and strong country out of Iraq.

SS:Just recently, a former mayor from central Iraq told me that ISIS is a consequence of Al-Maliki’s policies aimed against the Sunni minority. First of all, do you agree? And, if yes, what is your government going to do to remedy the situation?

AA: It’s the consequence of what happened after 2003 war, and even before that war. It all was building up, the dismantlement of the state of Iraq in 2003, the dismantlement of the army, of the security, of the intelligence, then putting Iraq on sectarian footing (12-34 fff) – this all helped create the political landscape, which is favorable to the growth of the forces of extremists. As days and months and years were passing along, this political landscape was getting more favorable to the growth of the forces of extreme – and this is, frankly, one of the reasons of how this ISIS was formed, developed, and got into a powerful position that it is now. I do agree that there are local factors in the political environment of Iraq, which were very negative; there are regional factors which have been very negative, and definitely there are international factors which have been quite unhealthy to the Iraqi situation, which ultimately led to growth of ISIS after Al-Qaeda.

SS:I just want to accentuate on Al-Maliki’s persona. You’ve said former PM acted like Saddam Hussein – and he’s still co-vice president. I mean, Americans weren’t too happy with him towards the end. So, if you want to create a new political landscape, as you said – was it a good idea for him to stay in the government?

AA: “What has passed is water under the bridge”, now we are in imminent danger. To talk about what happened is very useful, but at some time when Iraq is much more stable than it is now. There will be time to focus and examine why exactly this have happened and what were the reasons, the exact reasons for this – and, definitely, then the blame should be put on the people who led Iraq during the last 8 years or so. We don’t want now to talk about whose fault was this, and who failed, and who did not fail – the time now is to gather momentum to build consensus and to move forward out of what’s happening now on Iraqi territories.

SS:America previously hired local Sunni tribal militias to fight a counter-insurgency operation. Now, with almost complete success, the Iraq government let the initiative die out. What can Baghdad do to actually revive the awakening, and do you think that the local Sunni tribes will actually answer again?

AA: To hire Sunni tribes or get them engaged in fighting is not correct. It’s not the ideal situation. We have to engage ISIS by intelligence work and by the army on the one hand, and on the second hand we have to engage them by providing the society with reconciliation, so everybody’s mobilized against that. Everybody would see a vested interest arising against ISIS. To mobilize certain elements for tactical reasons, without having strategic vision where this should be placed in the future of Iraq as have happened in the past is completely wrong. It have proved to be a wrong process and a wrong action and I think now the government should avoid what have happened and should build and structure army and special units within the army, rather than lead the fight with the militias are with the tribal forces – where this should come later and they should become part of overall structure of security and armed forces.

SS:Now, Syria, of course is also one of the main parts of the whole problem, and also, probably, part of solution in combating ISIS. Nouri Al-Maliki, he cooperated with Syria’s president Assad to combat ISIS. At the same time, America helps moderate anti-Assad factions in Syria fight ISIS there. Where do Baghdad loyalties’ lie now?

AA: I think the Syrian government now is not in control to cooperate against ISIS. But I see, frankly speaking, that the Russian Federation should be part of the international efforts to defuse and degrade and destroy ISIS. I also believe that Iran, in one way or another, should be incorporated in this, if not directly then at least indirectly. The Syrian regime is not capable anymore, because it can’t defend itself inside Syria, let alone getting involved with international community to influence the outcome of ISIS. That’s why I think it is important to engage countries, who are committed, who are capable, who are free of problems – in the regional sense, and also international community. Russian Federation could play a very significant role, with the capabilities that it has. I think, engaging Iran, maybe directly or indirectly can be very useful also to the overall effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. But, definitely, I feel that amongst the regional powers that could be useful is Iran itself – it could be brought directly or indirectly. I know that there are some problems within the regional countries on Iran and about Iran, but yet, I think that the danger now is very clear and Iran has to contribute and has to be a positive player in fighting forces of extreme.

SS:Another mind-blowing thing is the amount of money that’s being made during these atrocities that take place in Iraq. For example, ISIS’ oil revenues are about 3 million dollars every day - it is the richest terror organization in history! Who is buying their oil?

AA: It is being sold on black markets to groups and individuals; I understand that they are selling to the Syrian army or the part of the Syrian army, and probably to the others, the opposition in Syria – I’m not sure, maybe they are selling it in different places to smuggle it outside of the region, to other places – but definitely it’s getting sold, and definitely they are getting money out of this. That’s why this should be under control completely, so they are not allowed to sell the oil, even if the oil lines should be hit to deprive them from using the oil for their own purposes to expand their actions across the region.

SS:Now, ISIS is growing exponentially. The CIA estimate of their numbers has gone from 10,000 in June to up to 30,000 now. One of the Iraqi intelligence advisors is claiming they are actually having 100,000 fighters already. Are you afraid that more of your own citizens will join them?

AA: I don’t think the figures are accurate. I think these are based only on general conception rather than proper knowledge. What we have seen, they have a capability which probably goes to about 60,000 individuals. They have lots of logistics, they have a lot of equipment, they have captured a lot of equipmentfrom Iraq as well as from Syria. There are capable of waging various attacks at the same time in different places. They are waging war on the access of Syria, on three fronts, they tried Lebanon, they are waging fighting in Iraq along 3-4 fronts – so, this does reflect that they have large numbers, and their number, including the support teams, is in the range of 60,000, give or take ten thousand. That’s why when I mention the political aspect of things, this is really to make the society, the Iraqis united, and really to embark on a very robust, very quick action of reconciliation to prevent ISIS from recruiting more people – because as people feel that they are being oppressed, they will go to the extreme and join the forces of extremists. That’s why the political solution – and it lies very clear to my mind – that the way to fight ISIS is to provide state in which is the populations and the provinces to be equal and to be mobilized and to have vested interest in fighting ISIS and fighting the forces of extreme. This is very important – otherwise, no matter what bombardment will take place, no matter what drying of their sources of money takes place, if the society is not mobilized, if the oppression does not stop – then, they wouldn’t be able to fight properly, and the fight against ISIS would really fall apart. That’s why the cornerstone, I believe very strongly, is reconciliation and to mobilize the people all against ISIS.

SS:Thank you so much, Mr. vice-president for this wonderful insight. We wish you all the luck to accomplish your difficult task, to you and all of your government. We were talking to Iraq’s new vice-president, Ayad Allawi, we were talking about how to combat ISIS and the international effort to help Iraq overcome the crisis. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, stay tuned for the next one.