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What Iraq’s violent sectarian split means for its neighbors

June 17, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
The insurgency by Sunni militants in Iraq, known as ISIL or ISIS, adds conflict to an already volatile region. Gwen Ifill talks to Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya News and Mary-Jane Deeb of the Library of Congress about the failure to stifle ISIL’s growth in Syria, the prospect of U.S. collaboration with Iran and the divergent agendas of Iraq’s other neighboring nations.
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GWEN IFILL: Late this evening in Baghdad, Reuters reports that Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni political leaders, including the prime minister, made a joint call for national unity.

Tonight, we take a closer look at what the Iraq crisis and its sectarian divisions mean for an already volatile region.

I’m joined by Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel, and Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress. But the views she expresses here are her own.

What is the dangerous, Hisham, that the Sunni-Shiite split, which we have become so familiar with now, is going to spread beyond the borders of Iraq throughout the entire region?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al Arabiya News: What we see now in terms of Shia-Sunni rivalry is unprecedented in the history of Islam.

This is the first time we see bloodletting on a continuum front from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. And if you add to it occasional flare-ups in Bahrain and Yemen, you will get an idea.

This has never happened in modern history, or even any time throughout the history of Islam. That’s why it’s extremely dangerous. When you add to that the fact that you have major Arab countries that are literally unraveling along sectarian ethnic lines, fault lines, Syria and Iraq, you add to that refugee problems in two brittle countries, Lebanon and Jordan, you add to that dearth of leadership in the region, you add to that dearth of leadership in Europe, which makes American leadership extremely important, unfortunately, American leadership also was absent in the last two years.

Because we didn’t do much about the rise of ISIS in — the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — because we didn’t do much to check their power in Syria, allow that environment, allowed them to fester in that environment, we see them now moving from Syria to Iraq.

And now one final point. We have two major non-state actors, Hezbollah and ISIS, throwing their weight around the region and acting like states. Never happened before.

GWEN IFILL: Some people say the other acronym for ISIS, which is ISIL, is actually scarier than ISIS, because it’s about more than Syria. It’s about the entire region, the Levant.

I want to ask you, Mary-Jane Deeb, about whether this conflict that Hisham describes, is it just becoming regional, but it already is?

MARY-JANE DEEB, Library of Congress: Well, it is in many ways, because the idea of ISIS, and idea of the Islamist group is not simply to change a particular government within a particular reason.

It is to change the region as a whole, to turn it into an Islamic state. And so we see the situation developing along a number of lines. Not only is it sectarian, Sunni-Shiite, but I think there is also an actor that we do not see, and that is, I would say, the old army, Iraqi army, the army that has been broken up and sent back home.

And that may be the background, the backstage, if you want, of what is happening in Iraq today.

GWEN IFILL: There was a lot of attention paid in Vienna this week when there was some discussion on the sidelines between the U.S. and Iran. How critical a player is or should Iran be in the middle of all this?

HISHAM MELHEM: Iran is on ascendancy throughout the Middle East.

That is Iranian power, projection of power in Syria and now projection of power in Iraq, Iranian influence in Lebanon through its proxy, Hezbollah, is scaring the countries of the Gulf and Turkey. These are Sunni powers who are extremely concerned about the rise of the Iranian role.

And now they will be more concerned because of signs that the United States is willing to discuss Iraq with Iran, and, in fact, even John Kerry yesterday said it in a fleeting moment, that we may even be willing to collaborate militarily.

This is going to…

GWEN IFILL: Well, and he pulled back from that.

HISHAM MELHEM: He pulled back, of course. This is the first time in American history you have four most senior positions occupied by senators. And senators talk. That’s what they do, unfortunately.

(LAUGHTER)

HISHAM MELHEM: But the point is, Iran’s influence in Iraq and now the Iranians are calling on the United States to collaborate with it militarily — this is the same Iran that was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of hundreds of Marines and American soldier in Iraq in the past 10 years. And now we’re contemplating dealing with it.

GWEN IFILL: But more immediately, does this or any collaboration that might exist, whether it’s diplomatically or otherwise, with Iran, does that put our nuclear talks on the back burner?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Absolutely. And this is one of the major dangers is that, if we start talking now about what is happening in Iraq, we are stopping the discussion on the nuclear issue.

And that is of immense importance, because Iran can play the game of, yes, let’s talk about Iraq and, yes, let’s move and let’s do this, and, anyway, continue building up its nuclear forces.

GWEN IFILL: Almost every country that you mentioned, including — also including Libya and Egypt and Turkey, have a different — they have different skin in this game, different concerns about what is going to happen in Iraq. Is there any agreed-upon solution, other than that the U.S. ought to do something?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, I would say that Saudi Arabia is worried about Iranian influence, primarily. That is its major worry, and probably would like to see a more important role played by the United States.

But the other countries have different agendas. A number of countries would like to see the Sunnis come back to power in Iraq. And, certainly, I would say that countries like Egypt, for instance, would like to see a return and a strengthening of Sunnis in the region.

GWEN IFILL: Would these countries perhaps like to see Iraq partitioned?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think — I think — I think — in my moments of despair, I think we are watching the death of a country.

This whole political order that emerged in the Middle East falling the First World War, a century later now, is falling. It’s falling apart along sectarian, ethnic lines. And the Kurds, I would argue, will go their own separate way. Maybe the Shia will go their own separate way in the south, and that would leave the Sunnis in the center. They will be…

GWEN IFILL: This is something Joe Biden talked about years ago, but was rejected out of hand.

HISHAM MELHEM: Yes, exactly, but not through this kind of violence.

The Sunnis will be sullen and angry and armed. And they’re not going to accept a situation like that.

GWEN IFILL: But ISIS will continue to exist, even if this kind of deal comes up.

So, the question becomes, because ISIS has access to a lot of resources, a lot of money, and who — and part of the question is, who is giving them this money? Are any of these regional actors also helping to support this insurgency?

MARY-JANE DEEB: It is very possible. It is very possible that some of them are supporting, that money is coming in.

It could be individuals. It could be foundations. It could be — it could even be governments.

HISHAM MELHEM: And they’re now generating their own — their own funds.

MARY-JANE DEEB: That’s right.

HISHAM MELHEM: Already, they got hundreds of millions of dollars from Mosul banks.

MARY-JANE DEEB: By attacking other — by attacking banks, by attacking shops, by attacking economic institutions.

HISHAM MELHEM: Impose protection taxes.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Absolutely. It’s like the mafia. But I think there is more serious financing of these groups.

HISHAM MELHEM: But what you need in the end, you need a political solution. You need allies to fight ISIS.

And that was our main mistake in Syria. We didn’t invest in the moderate Syrian opposition, so that they will take on these groups when — and nip their threat in the bud. We didn’t do that.

GWEN IFILL: Who is Nouri al-Maliki’s friend in the region in all of this?

HISHAM MELHEM: Iran. Iran.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Only Iran?

HISHAM MELHEM: Iran.

MARY-JANE DEEB: And that’s the danger. That’s the danger, because Iran might be asked to move in.

HISHAM MELHEM: And he owes his political future to them.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: So is there pressure from any of these nations or from us, or should there be, for Maliki to move aside?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think the United States should have exercised — exercised that option a while ago.

MARY-JANE DEEB: I agree.

HISHAM MELHEM: I blame the Bush administration for living with him without really exercising too much pressure on him — the same thing with the Obama administration.

He owes his position to American bayonets, and we didn’t act as such.

GWEN IFILL: Final word.

MARY-JANE DEEB: However, who is going to take his place, through what process?

After all, he was elected. And so who are we expecting to take over? It has to be, I suppose, a coalition that needs to be pulled together. And I don’t know who can do that.

GWEN IFILL: Seems like the same dilemma has cropped up, has, periodically replacing people, but either they don’t go or you can’t find someone to take their place.

It’s quite remarkable.

Hisham Melhem, Mary-Jane Deeb, thank you both.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.

HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.