Will ISIS Spur New Strategic Directions for Saudi Arabia?

Andrew McGregor

June 26, 2014

In some ways, the recent triumphs of the radical Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) inside Iraq have alarmed Riyadh as much as Tehran. While the Saudis are still willing to support less radical Islamist movements in Syria and Iraq as part of a proxy war against Shiite Iran, there are fears in Riyadh that ISIS extremists, many of whom were recruited in Saudi Arabia, may eventually turn their attention to the Kingdom itself, threatening its hereditary rulers and the stability of the Gulf region.  Iraq and Iran, meanwhile, accuse the Saudis of sponsoring terrorism and religious extremism throughout the Middle East.

Iraqi president Nuri al-Maliki first accused Saudi Arabia of financing Iraqi terrorists in March. Echoing al-Maliki, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi cabinet issued a statement on June 17 in which they held the Saudis “responsible for supporting these [militant] groups financially and morally… [and for] crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood and the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and religious sites” (Arabianbusiness.com, June 17). Saudi Arabia reacted to the allegations by releasing a statement condemning ISIS as well as the Iraqi government:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wishes to see the defeat and destruction of all al-Qaeda networks and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) operating in Iraq. Saudi Arabia does not provide either moral or financial support to ISIS or any terrorist networks. Any suggestion to the contrary, is a malicious falsehood. Despite the false allegations of the Iraqi Ministerial Cabinet, whose exclusionary policies have fomented this current crisis, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the preservation of Iraq’s sovereignty, its unity and territorial integrity (Arab News [Jeddah], June 19).

The Iranian press has clearly stated the Kingdom is the largest sponsor of terrorism in the region (Javan [Tehran], June 14). Tehran considers Riyadh to be in complete support of efforts to drive Iraq’s Shi’a majority from the central government in Baghdad. After Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran’s readiness to defend Shi’a holy sites in Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal, warned against foreign interference in Iraq. While also pledging fighters to defend the Shi’a shrines of Iraq, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah was less eager to accuse the Saudis of directly sponsoring the radical Salafist ISIS movement, saying only: “It is uncertain that Saudi Arabia had a role” (Ra’y al-Yawm, June 17).

Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal  (Reuters)

Syria has also pointed to Saudi Arabian responsibility for arming and funding ISIS operations in that country at the behest of Israel and the United States and in cooperation with Qatar and Turkey. According to Syrian state media: “No Western country is unaware of the role Saudi Arabia is playing in supporting terrorism and funding and arming different fronts and battles, both inside and outside Iraq and Syria” (al-Thawra [Damascus], June 12).

Saudi Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh denounced ISIS on May 27, condemning their recruitment of Saudi youth for the war in Syria (al-Riyadh, May 27). The Kingdom has also stepped up its terrorist prosecutions, diving into a backlog of hundreds of cases mainly related to the 2003-2006 Islamist insurgency. Sentences of up to 30 years in prison are being issued in cases where there once seemed little inclination to prosecute (Saudi Press Agency, June 10). Earlier this year, King Abdullah issued decrees prohibiting Saudi citizens from joining the jihad in Syria or providing financial support to extremists.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal recently told an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) gathering in Jeddah that Iraqi claims of Saudi support for terrorism were “baseless,” but warned there were signs of an impending civil war in Iraq, a war whose implications for the region “cannot be fathomed” (Arabianbusiness.com, June 18; al-Arabiya, June 19). The Saudi government has blamed “the sectarian and exclusionary policies implemented in Iraq over the past years that threatened its stability and sovereignty” (al-Akhbar [Beirut], June 10). Officially, Saudi Arabia disavows sectarianism in Iraq and calls for a unified Iraqi nation with all citizens on an equal basis without distinction or discrimination (al-Riyadh, June 18).

Prince Turki al-Faisal

Saudi authorities hold the Maliki government responsible for the present crisis and its sometimes bewildering implications, a stance summed up by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal:

Baghdad has failed to stop the closing of ranks of extremists and Ba’thists from the era of Saddam Hussein… The situation in al-Anbar in Iraq has been boiling for some time. It seemed that the Iraqi government not only failed to do enough to calm this situation, but that it pushed things towards an explosion in some cases… One of the possible ironies is to see the Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighting alongside U.S. drones to kill Iraqis. This is something that makes a person lose his mind and makes one wonder: Where are we headed? (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 15; Arab News, June 14).

When Prince Bandar bin Sultan was removed from his post in April and replaced by Prince Muhammad bin Nayef it was interpreted as a sign Riyadh was prepared to vary from the hardline approach to Iran taken by the ex-intelligence chief (Gulf News [Dubai], May 21). The change reflects the Saudi government’s appreciation of the strategic situation it finds itself in as Washington shows greater reluctance to intervene directly in the affairs of the region. The lack of American consultation with the Kingdom during initial U.S.-Iranian discussions has convinced many in Riyadh that their nation must forge its own relationship with Iran to avoid a wave of conflict that could threaten the traditional Arab kingdoms of the Gulf region. The election of new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has presented new possibilities in the Saudi-Iranian relationship, including a common approach to Turkey, whose Islamist government has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, now defined as a destabilizing threat in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, this remains conjecture at this point, as Riyadh follows a cautious approach to an Iranian rapprochement. While improved relations might prove beneficial, the Kingdom cannot afford to risk its self-adopted role as the guardian of Sunni Islam.

The rapprochement with Iran began tentatively earlier this year, with a series of secret meetings in Muscat and Kuwait followed by more official encounters between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers (National [Abu Dhabi], May 19). Diplomacy between the two nations appears to have been spurred by American urgings and the Kingdom’s realization that a reactive rather than pro-active foreign policy could leave the Saudis outside of a recalibrated power structure in the Middle East. There are fears in Riyadh that ISIS offensive may result in Iranian troops joining the fight against Sunni extremists in Iraq, followed by the breakup of the country (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 15).

While Saudi Arabia appears to have backed off from its covert financial support of ISIS, private donations likely continue to flow from donors in the Kingdom and other Gulf states, though the recent looting of bank vaults and consolidation of oil-producing regions in Syria and Iraq mean that ISIS will be largely self-supporting from this point. Saudi anxieties over political change in the Middle East are reflected in the Kingdom’s growing defense budget, which now makes the nation of under 30 million people one of the world’s top six military spenders (Arabianbusiness.com, June 14).

This article was first published in the June 26, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Iraqi Counter-Insurgency Tactics under Fire

Andrew McGregor

June 13, 2014

Ineffective military tactics may have caused more damage to relations between the Iraqi National Army (INA) and the disaffected Sunni population of northwestern Iraq than to the targeted Islamist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS Forces Crossing into Iraq from Syria (AFP)

Prior to the abandonment of Mosul to ISIS forces, local Sunni politicians were calling on the government to avoid the use of indiscriminate bombing by mortars or warplanes in efforts to expel the Islamist insurgents. Citing heavy civilian losses as the result of such tactics, the local politicians urged a greater reliance on intelligence and cooperation with local authorities (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 9).

Reliance on such broad responses rather than engaging with the enemy directly was indicative of the low morale and poor leadership plaguing Iraqi military forces in northern Iraq. As seen in Mogadishu and elsewhere, indiscriminate bombing of urban areas rarely damages insurgent assets or personnel while alienating and angering the local population to the point they are unwilling to work with or support government forces. Reports of the use of crude barrel bombs by Iraqi aircraft in the region have only reinforced local attitudes that government forces have no interest in the safety of the civilian population. As suggested by their name, barrel bombs are simple barrels equipped with a fuse and filled with fuel, explosives and scrap metal. Widely used in the Sudanese government’s campaign in Darfur (where they inflicted terrible casualties amongst civilians but rarely against more mobile rebel groups), these untargeted projectiles have now come into use by government forces in Syria and Iraq (AFP, May 27; AP, June 9).

As ISIS fighters entered Mosul, Iraqi Army discipline appears to have evaporated, with reports of the army’s leaders and officers fleeing the city (sometimes in civilian clothes), abandoning their troops to their fate at the hands of an insurgent force that was only a fraction of the size of the well-equipped government garrison – some 65,000 government security personnel vs. some 2,000 to 3,000 lightly-armed ISIS fighters (Al-Monitor, June 11). The government has announced it will apply strict punishments to those who fled the city (particularly officers), though it may be a bit late to instill a sense of discipline into an Iraqi military with little interest in fighting the Salafi-Jihadists of ISIS.

Baghdad’s failure to reach understandings with Sunni tribal elements or to incorporate Sunnis in substantial numbers into government security structures are primary causes of the military failure in northern Iraq. Local forces have also failed to coordinate with more experienced Kurdish peshmerga militias or to develop effective intelligence networks, something complicated by the fact most of the military units deployed in the Sunni north hail from the Shiite south. Relations have deteriorated to the point some Iraqi Sunni politicians now point to an alleged hidden Shiite agenda involving a deliberate failure to secure northern Sunni-dominated cities in order to provide an excuse for their destruction (Iraq Pulse/al-Monitor, June 9).

On the other hand, the Army’s opponents have developed a number of effective approaches to asymmetric warfare that have allowed Islamist fighters to succeed against far larger government forces.  ISIS tactics that have been successfully used in the Islamist offensive include:

  • Creating new entry points to urban regions
  • Intimidation of local tribes (including the recent assassination of Sahwa [Awakening] leader Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha in Ramadi)
  • Suicide attacks
  • Kidnappings
  • Use of car-bombs and other IEDs
  • Summary executions of presumed or potential opponents
  • Attacks on Iraqi Army convoys to prevent resupply or reinforcement
  • Brief occupations of settled areas, withdrawing before government forces can recover for a counter-attack
  • Attacks on Shiite shrines and holy sites such as the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra (the essential religious/sectarian component of Salafi-Jihadist warfare)
  • Exploitation of superior skills in urban warfare
  • Establishment of control over border points with Syria, allowing greater interaction with ISIS and other Islamist groups deployed there
  • Simultaneous attacks in multiple regions to scatter and diffuse the government response
  • Massive displacement of urban populations puts additional pressure on the central government’s response
  • Infiltration of ISIS cells into Baghdad neighborhoods ready to mount internal attacks during, or more likely, instead of an immediate full-scale assault on the capital.

The weapons, war materiel and cash reported to have fallen into insurgent hands in recent days will enable ISIS to expand its campaign and attract experienced foreign fighters through the network the group has built up in neighboring Syria. Proposed American air strikes may have the ability to deter ISIS from advancing on Baghdad in the short-term, but will have little impact on the systemic problems afflicting the Iraqi military and its political direction.

This article was first published in the June 13, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Is Resolution Close in Northern Iraq’s Pipeline War?

Andrew McGregor

April 18, 2014

Baghdad is worried about the political and economic consequences that could follow energy sales conducted independently of the central government, which insists it still has the right to control all Iraqi oil sales and the distribution of energy revenues according to the Iraqi constitution. The administration of Kurdish northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), interprets the constitution differently, claiming it has the right to sell oil without the consent of the central government in Baghdad. According to Iraqi deputy prime minister Hussein al-Shahristani, “The most prominent challenge is that we have not reached a national agreement to extract and market oil from all of Iraq’s territory… We have a grey area – we do not know how much oil the [Kurdistan] region is extracting, what price they are selling at and where the revenue goes” (Fars News Agency [Tehran], April 14). With the KRG now pumping oil directly to Turkey through a converted gas pipeline and the central government withholding budget transfers to the north, there is still some optimism that Baghdad and Erbil will come to a mutually profitable agreement to avoid economic and political collapse.

Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is determined to assert Baghdad’s control over national oil revenues and is resolutely opposed to Kurdish attempts to make their own deals with foreign consumers like Turkey (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 8). To enforce the central government’s role, al-Maliki’s government suspended Kurdistan’s annual budget allocation – a loss of billions of dollars to a government that may be pumping oil, but is not yet making any money from it due to Baghdad’s threats to launch legal action against anyone purchasing oil it considers to have been “smuggled” from Iraq.

After signing six energy contracts with Turkey in December, KRG authorities opened the flow of crude oil through a new pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan in late December 2013 (Xinhua, January 2). Shipping 300,000 bpd through the pipeline to start, the oil is being stored for now at the Ceyhan terminal rather than being sold and shipped abroad as Turkey refuses to allow its sale without Baghdad’s approval.