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Beyond Iraq, what’s next for the Islamic State?

August 10, 2014 at 6:34 PM EDT
As members of the Islamic State continue to brutally terrorize civilians in Iraq, experts are focusing on what's to come. Senior and National Securities Studies Fellow at the New America Foundation Douglas Ollivant joins Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about this we are joined once again tonight from Washington by Douglas Ollivant. He is a Senior and National Securities Studies Fellow at the New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International.

So this might be a semantic question, we’ve referred to them as militants, as fighters, as jihadists, but considering some of the brutality that we are hearing reports of essentially burying people alive in mass graves and indiscriminately shooting them, it seems that these people are different.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: They are different. They are Islamist terrorists, they are Islamic fighters, but there is this core brutality to them, their tactics, their terror, the destruction of cultural heritage, the rape, the slave markets we hear, the burying alive.

We haven’t heard any stories of crucifixions in Iraq but certainly we’ve seen it in Syria by this group. The Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, or ISIL or the Islamic State, whatever you prefer to call them, they are something very different than what we’ve seen before.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And they’ve been very clear about exactly who they want to target and even the geographic area of what they want, I mean, this is the caliphate and empire that they want to resurrect.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Right, well they declared the Islamic State a few weeks ago so now evidently they think they rule all Muslim areas from the west end of East Africa and Spain all the way to Indonesia.

But even before that they were the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and when you look at a map of the Levant, they’re very clear: they want Jordan, they want Lebanon, they want Israel, the northern part of Saudi Arabia, the southern part of Turkey. They’re very clear about their war aims.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you know the French foreign minister had a quote that was in the press release he said “We’re not fighting a terrorist organization we’re fighting a terrorist state.” So does that change how the international community responds to this?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: I think it absolutely has to, that’s absolutely right. This is no longer a terrorist safe haven within a state, it’s a de facto state that is a terrorist safe haven.

And again, given the brutality of this group and their clear, long-term aims, we do need to take this seriously. Now right now they’re focused on what they call the near enemy–the Maliki and the Assad regimes but this turn up to the Kurds in the northeast demonstrates that that’s not all they’re focused on.

Today it was Kurdistan, if I were Jordan or Lebanon, I’d be very concerned.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s say even if the politicians are able to agree in Baghdad what’s to keep the forces on the ground from turning away and running like they did in the North in previous occasions.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, one I think now they’ve seen what ISIL is and the threat it represents to their country so hopefully that puts some more backbone into the forces. We still don’t entirely understand what happened in the North, some combination of infiltration, desertions, ghost soldiers, lots of corruption, poor leadership, lots of things happened in the dissolving of the forces in the North.

What we can hope for now is more reliable units to come from the South from the Iraqi Army, for the Peshmerga to come from the Northeast, a more reliable force though perhaps not as reliable as we once hoped that may be because of lack of ammunition and weapons, and for the Sunnis themselves to essentially act as a fifth column on behalf of the Iraqi government inside these areas that are going to be the battlegrounds as some fierce fighting will have to take place in Mosul, Fallujah and other cities if the Iraqis are going to retake this land from the Islamic State.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And where do the Kurds or the Peshmerga get that reinforcement or ammunition if they are to launch a fight?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: They’re going to have to cut a deal with Baghdad.

It’s very, very difficult to arm the Peshmerga directly, for the United States to do that, because our laws as I understand them don’t allow us to give military equipment to a sub-state group it has to come through a state and go to their Ministry of Defense or Interior.

So Baghdad will have to play a crucial role in facilitating the arming of the Kurds. Fortunately, it looks like they see that may well be in their interest.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Douglas Ollivant joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Thanks so much, Hari.