US invasion of Iraq led to the abortive Arab Spring and the war in Syria – ex-Iraqi minister
Rivalry between the US and Iran is threatening to tear Iraq apart. Can the war-torn country manage the pressure from both sides? We talk to Dr Ali Allawi, Iraq’s former minister of trade, defense and finance.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Dr. Ali Allawi, Iraq's former Minister of Trade, Defense and Finance, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us today!
Ali Allawi: Thank you!
SS: The spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq has said that American forces will remain in the country as long as they are needed there. Earlier the Pentagon said that the US troops would withdraw when Daesh is defeated. Do you think that will happen?
AA: Yes, I think so. I mean, there's really no need for them militarily unless there is resurgence of ISIS or Daesh activity. There seem to be incidents taking place along the Iraq-Syrian frontier, which seem to indicate that there is a possibility of Daesh regrouping in that area, so unless and until that threat is removed, I think that the United States would find a reason to prolong its presence in Iraq.
SS: Also there are small pockets of ISIS in Kirkuk and Anbar provinces and given the Iraqi army's considerable success in fighting Daesh, can they eliminate the remaining jihadists without America's help?
AA: I think so, yes. As you said rightly, Daesh is now fragmented and trying to regroup and I doubt that they can get to the same scale and scope of activity as they had before, so there will be pockets of insurgency activity, some, perhaps, intense, and I think all of this is within the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. The United States really provides primarily air support and sometimes intelligence on the ground, but that was in the early years of the war against Daesh, now I think both of these capabilities are well in hand by the Iraqi security forces.
SS: Why do you think it is taking so long to finally eliminate them from Iraq? I mean, it has been a long time since Daesh has been reduced to this couple of small pockets in the countryside.
AA: Well, I mean, Daesh insurgency, or whatever you call it, didn't really come out of a vacuum, there was a certain organic connection between it and the insurgency that erupted after the American invasion and occupation of 2003. It went dormant during the period, to say, between 2010 and 2014, but it was fed by the civil war in Syria, and then it erupted in a much more dangerous and formidable way in Iraq. The point I'm trying to make here is that unless the underlying circumstances that allowed emergence of this virulent form of violence, I think that we may get “sons” and “grandsons” of Daesh at some point in the future. It's primarily a political issue in Iraq that has taken on military ramifications, and the final analysis – once you contain the terrorist aspect and the insurgency aspect of it, you have to tackle the problem politically.
SS: So are you saying that they are going to stay there for another fifteen years?
AA: No, I'm not saying they are going to be there, but there will be a form of violent resistance to the changes that have taken place in Iraq since 2003. It will wax in vain, and until you get a stable political order established, to which a bulk of the population subscribes to, I think that the underlying circumstances might not be necessarily conducive to long-time peace. So you have to undertake serious reconstruction, serious economic development, serious integration of the destroyed areas, weave them back into the national fabric. Until this is done, and I think this is a bigger problem, it is unlikely to eliminate the foundations, the wellsprings of this violent resistance.
SS: Another big thing is the United States' withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and the United States are imposing sanctions against everyone wanting to continue trading with Iran. The new Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi said that Iraq will be ruled by its own interests before falling in line with U.S. policies against Tehran. Can Baghdad really confront Washington on this, while it still depends on it militarily?
AA: I don't think it can up to a point obviously, but if it breaks flagrantly the American unilateral sanctions on Iran it has to be prepared to pay the consequences, and the consequences are those that the United States controls most of the international agencies on which Iraq is one way or another dependent, especially the financial agencies in Washington, and as much as they can influence disposition of the resources, the financial resources available to Iraq and the access to international markets, and obviously they can affect the extent to which the Iraqi government can declare and act on independent course of action vis-à-vis Iran. At the same time, I think, the Iraqi government does have a very cogent argument that its interests with Iran are so intertwined at economic and commercial levels that it would be in everyone's interests, including that of the United States, not to see this disrupted to the detriment of the Iraqi economy. So they may have an entry point there, but if the Trump administration insists on implementing the sanctions to the finest points possible, they have very powerful sources of leverage on Iraq, especially on the banking and financial sides…
SS:Well, because right now we are getting reports that Iraq will stop trucking crude from Kirkuk oilfield to Iran and will export to Turkey instead – to avoid US sanctions. What does that mean? Does that mean that Baghdad is already dancing to Washington's tune?
AA: Yes, I mean, this is probably a much more easy and much more visible way of acting out American sanctions in Iraq, but there are more difficult and complicated issues, especially the supply of gas from Iran into Iraq, which really fires a lot of electricity stations. Until we find an alternative source of gas there's no way that Iraq, which already suffers from serious electricity problems, can unilaterally disband these relationship. There's also a very strong relationship at the level of tourism and Iraqi religious tourism, and Iraq is a very important market for Iranian goods – some of these goods can be substituted, but not all of them. So implementing the American sanctions to the utmost degree is going to have a very profound deleterious effect on the Iraqi economy. The Iraqi government will try to meet some of the more visible aspects of these sanctions, but otherwise they would have to lift it very carefully…
SS: I don't think anyone doubts that Iran and Iraq are very intertwined on many levels. Iraq's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Majoub said that Baghdad may be asking Washington to exclude the country from the anti-Iran sanctions which may hit Iraq because of its extensive cooperation with Iran. Does Baghdad believe this is possible, especially with John Bolton and Donald Trump running the show in America?
AA: Yes, I mean – again, you have to second-guess what's taking place in Washington and what really drives American policy towards, not only towards Iran but towards entire Middle East situation. It is partly Trump's sort of unilateral nationalism together with a much more ideologically driven position taken by the new neocons, the post-neocons. They may be able to affect the overall direction of policy, and if that policy becomes in fact the way that the United States is going to engage and interact with Iraq, that is going to have very serious repercussions not only domestically, but on the region as a whole.
SS:You know, also, apart from the military assistance, Washington can really help Baghdad put economic reforms in place and fight rampant corruption. What does Tehran have to offer Iraq that could beat what Washington is offering?
AA: Well, we must accept that Iran played a very powerful part in organising the resistance to Daesh. The United States did not show up on the scene until one or two month after the fall of Mosul. Iran jumped into the fray very early and played a very powerful and important part in mobilising the resistance and the fightback after the collapse of the Iraqi army, so Iran, I think, has a stabilising role to play when it comes to these larger issues. And it's not easy for us to find the alternatives to that kind of underground support that we had in the early days of the Daesh crisis, when Daesh was nearly a few miles from the centre of Baghdad and there was really nothing to stop it apart from the popular forces that came into being primarily as the result of the fatwa of ayatollah al-Sistani, but they were organised on the ground by the Iranian officers.
SS: Opinion pieces in the American press are urging the US government to get involved in supporting the new Iraqi government, saying that it will provide an antidote to the Iranian influence in the country. Whose influence on Iraq is stronger right now - Iranian or American?
AA: Iranian influence stretches quite deep, especially in the centre and the south of the country, and I think also it has increasingly strong effect on the political classes that come from the north and the west of the country and also in Kurdistan. So the range of Iranian influence and connections is really quite wide and, in some cases, quite deep. They also have direct effect on the disposition of the popular mobilisation forces, the Hashd, where a number of very senior people in the Hashd are one way or another connected with Iran, so the range and extent of Iranian influence is wider and deeper than that of the United States. The United States' influence is primarily on the level what we call the elites, politically there's no such sort of American party inside Iraq, there is no such group of population that instinctively support the United States. Perhaps, the Kurds – the United States are increasingly popular there, but apart from that I don't think there's much reservoir of good will at the popular level to the United States. Also there isn't that much reservoir of good will either for Iran, but Iranian influence is much wider: it cuts across boundaries, it cuts across ethnicities, it cuts across classes, so it is much more woven into the domestic fabric of Iraq's politics. The United States operate at the level of individuals, elites and the institutions of the government.
SS: You were the staunchest opponent of Saddam Hussein all your life, but you say that the 2003 U.S. invasion was illegal and resulted in dire consequences for Iraq and the whole Middle East. Are you saying that removing the dictator wasn't worth it?
AA: This is a loaded question, you have to look back in the circumstances of the 2002-2003 that led to the invasion and occupation. I'm on record as being against using military forces to overthrow Saddam. The fact and the matter that it took place and overthrowing dictatorship was obviously positive, but its replacement, which was chaos and anarchy, unleashed the whole episode, the one of the most violent episodes in modern Middle Eastern history. It's something that has to be connected and those responsible for launching the war have to take responsibility for it. To me the equation doesn't really hold whether it was worth or not: of course, getting rid of the dictatorship is an important event, but destroying the political framework of the country and upending the entire Middle Eastern order without having any sustainable and stable replacement for it and unwilling to take the consequences of these drastic actions is something else entirely. If you want to make an equation out of it you would say: “Yes, there were certain freedoms and rights that were denied in the past and that are now available, but in exchange for that you have a huge personal insecurity, physical destruction, dislocation and displacement of people”. I think the invasion of Iraq also unleashed the forces that ultimately led to the abortive Arab Spring and then the terrible war in Syria. So these consequences were not taken into account at all and the weight of overthrowing a dictatorship, albeit terrible dictatorship, and establishing a sovereign state was not taken into account, the consequences of it were not taken into account. And those who were responsible of embarking of this adventure, including a large number of Iraqis, I might say, who participated willingly in it, have to take responsibility for the post-war chaos.
SS: The new Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, has written some time ago that the job of leading Iraq is too complicated, too burdened by special interests, by corruption, and that he won't have enough political strength to succeed. Fast forward a few months and he is the Prime Minister. Do you think he was right back then and he really will fail?
AA: He analyses correctly, but I mean, you can also, perhaps, look at it as a kind of conditional manifest for him to attend the position of Prime Minister. He has set up the issues, and the complexities, and the negative aspects with the assumptions that if these were removed than the circumstances would be acceptable for him to assume the post. I can only assume that he feels now that the circumstances that drove him to write this memo a few months ago have been removed and that he has a fair shot at reforming a very dysfunctional political system that has misgoverned this country for so long.
SS:Also Adel Abdul Mahdi is not an immensely popular politician at all. Will he be treated as a compromise, a puppet to be manipulated by real political forces in Iraq – by militias, political parties, etc.?
AA: I can't really speak for that. I mean, he obviously is a very adapt and competent political figure, he knows the distribution of forces and what finally gave him political part. It's really up to him now to decide whether he's going to make a stand and move towards genuine change and reform, or he will not risk his hold on power by confronting the political factions that have played such a large part in destroying the political integrity of the country. It is really his choice, I think.
SS: I want to talk about Syria, because you say that you can't solve the problems of Syria without solving the problems of Iraq. What exact problem in Iraq right now is affecting the situation in Syria?
AA: Well, I think, the more Iraq becomes a stable and unified country, focused on development, focused on improving human welfare, focused on removing the bottlenecks and the obstacles that have formed in the past, the more it can be able to play a part in creating the necessary foundations for the regional economy, which will necessarily include some kind of partnership with the countries like Syria, countries like Iran, countries like Turkey, creating a new dispensation, a new economic and political dispensation, in which post-war Syria can fit in. It is impossible, I believe, to resolve the problem with each of these countries individually, without looking at them in regional context. For example that terrible water crisis that we have in Iraq – I mean, our rivers originate elsewhere, the Euphrates originates in Turkey and passes through Syria. It's impossible to have a local or purely Iraqi water policy, which is really important as large number of population works in agriculture, without working out the issues with both Turkey and Syria. So there is the issue, for example, of removing trade barriers, of energy exchanges, of exchanges of the electricity grids and so on, opening roots, transport roots to the Mediterranean – all of these require a very coordinated set of regional policies that bind these countries together in a framework that is different from what was in the past, which was an extremely negative form of competitive oneupmanship frequently leading to plotting against your neighbor and trying to change the system of government. After the civil war in Syria and after, hopefully, we are able to stabilise Iraq on a sustainable basis, the next step must be to work towards some kind of regional confederation, not only economically, but hopefully, at the political level, to create the foundations of stability.
SS:So, like you are saying, more than two thirds of Iraq's drinking water comes from the outside – so whenever, for example, Turkey needs to fill its reservoirs with water upstream, Iraq is feeling it. Can water be used by Iraq's neighbours to exert political pressure on it? How can Baghdad deal with this vulnerability?
AA: Of course they can, because, as I said earlier, something like 70% of Iraq's population work in agriculture. We are now going through very-very critical times of water shortages as Turkey fills its dam, Iran also. A lot of tributaries of the Tigris flow from Iran, but Iran really accounts for something like 20% of the water flows into the Iraqi water system, 80% comes from Turkey and Syria. So Turkey is much more important part in this aspect. We have to have some kind of regional water treaty or water allocation system that allows for the various demands of these various countries without destroying the agricultural viability of the downriver countries, downstream countries – in this case, Iraq. These are well-established procedures and systems for creating bilateral and multilateral treaties that allow the distribution of water in an equitable way. This has been ignored because of the crisis in Iraq for the last 40 years. Iraq has not been a party to these agreements, so Turkey went ahead and built it, a huge dam system, without much consideration for what is going to happen downstream. Same thing happened in Syria with the building of Tabqa dam, Assad Lake and so on – very little consideration was given to the effect on Iraq. We can't allow these problems to be resolved the way that they have been classically resolved through confrontations, and conflicts, and wars and so on. He have to do it on a peaceful, mutually supported, mutually constructed method, where the needs, and requirements and allocations are done with proper attention to the needs and requirements of each of these countries. Iraq has been really at the tail end of all of these unilateral water policies, leaving us with an immense problem now, we have to claw back all of that.
SS: I know that street protests have already erupted in Basra over water shortages, and the harrowing examples of drought leading to dire consequences is just next door in Syria, how dangerous can this get?
AA: It can get extremely dangerous, we're talking about the population of Iraq of nearly 40 million people. As I said, a lot of Iraqis still live in agricultural society, in spite of the fact that Iraq appears to be a major oil exporter, but most of the people work in agriculture. If you get large-scale displacement of population, rural-urban migration, flooding into the cities, and not enough jobs available, and the government not being the employer of last resort – you will create social conditions that you had in Syria, that played a very large part in creating the sense of dispossession, the sense of oppression that fed the narrative of the terrorists in Syria. Same thing easily can happen in Iraq, if people abandon their farms, can't get water for their crops or for their animals, they will leave, they have no choice. And when they come into the cities, they will end up in slums demanding jobs from the government, the government is fiscally stressed, and so what will happen? You have hundreds and thousands of people living in shanty towns, prone to all kinds of extreme ideologies, extreme social movements. Very dangerous.
SS:Thank you very much for this interview, it’s been great talking to you! We were talking to Dr. Ali Allawi, Iraq's former Minister of Trade, Defence and Finance, discussing the Iraqi troubles in context of broader Middle East.