THE BLOG
11/04/2014 10:48 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Iraq's Brain Trust on ISIS

SABAH ARAR via Getty Images

ISIS was originally birthed by its sponsors to sow "controlled instability" in the Shiite crescent, but is now wreaking "uncontrolled instability," said Mowaffak al Rubaie -- a member of the Iraqi Parliament and Iraq's former National Security Adviser -- in a Skype interview from his home in Baghdad.

The group appears to be spinning off and going rogue. This phenomenon highlights not only the perils of attempting to co-opt and control violent, radical jihadis (an endeavor called riding the tiger in South Asia), but also the swift and ferocious desperation that is claiming the region and facilitating cheap and easy recruitment for the so-called Islamic State.

Since June, ISIS activity "has gotten out of hand," even by the cynical and brutal standards of its sponsors. "Then they got frightened," al Rubaie said of it the group's backers. "But the genie is out of the bottle."

As a result, the Saudi regime has enacted a number of measures to foster inter-sectarian tolerance. Still, those actions will not be extensive or timely enough to rein in the enormously popular Islamic State, he added. And the Saudis have not lost sight of its original intentions in sponsoring ISIS.

The money men in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have long been striving to "exhaust the resources of the Shia-dominated government in Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Allawite regime in Syria and Hezbollah of Lebanon," al Rubaie said. At great human cost, it is achieving that. "So the endgame is quite justifiable in their minds," he added.

As the human toll rises, as the wreckage spreads, as more and more people become destitute as a result of the Shiite-Sunni conflict, ISIS will likely find its recruitment bolstered even further. The group, after all, addresses "those that are disenchanted, dispossessed, marginalized," said al Rubaie. And the group's leaders know how to speak the language of their people--particularly in a time of great strife. "Any religious appeal is very compelling to people in my region," he said. ISIS' leaders are highly fluent in extracting highly selective verses of the Koran to indoctrinate members, he added.

In a separate Skype interview from London, Ali Allawi, a distinguished author and Iraq's former Minister of Defense, assessed just how far and deep the ISIS-related damage has become. For Americans, ISIS appears to be the latest iteration of a seemingly endless line-up of boogeymen from the Middle East. Whether the enemy is the Ayatollah Khomenei or Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda or al Zarqawi, the U.S. government and pundits have long sounded oblique and alarmist messages on the cast of characters and groups. And while the prospect of a sectarian-focused terrorist group creating a serious national-security challenge to vital U.S. interests seems dubious, the humanitarian aspect of the conflict is clear and unique even by the bleak standards of the conflict-ridden region, particularly when combined with the related refugee and ongoing food/agricultural crisis.

"The people of the Middle East are exhausted," said Allawi. "The rulers that are fighting these wars are not yet exhausted" because they are insulated from the consequences, said Allawi. "There's a huge human catastrophe that has developed in the last... well frankly since 2003. It's been accelerated in the last two or three years," he added. His assessment might seem hyperbole to some. But Allawi has a long record of imparting stark analysis on the region, and it has proven to reflect and forecast stark realities. So if there is a hyperbolic tenor to his statements, it probably underlines the extraordinary circumstances. Allawi's elaboration on the ongoing human catastrophe echoes with a haunting, dire warning: ISIS and the astounding spread of Salafi/Wahabi radicalization among Sunnis will lead to "some sort of holocaust without a kind of alliance of forces that are ranged against it."

Perhaps it is precisely that prospect that has energized ISIS' appeal among Sunnis, particularly those that have suffered under Shiite government. Many foresee ISIS actually prevailing. So apart from religion and a sense of violation, there are also expectations of success. "I think there's a pretty sizable contingent of people who feel that this is a winning ticket," said Allawi.

To counter that perception, and reality, both Allawi and al Rubaie stress the singular importance of Iran, and its commanding, counter-terror muscle, particularly in rolling back Sunni-driven terrorism. They note the importance, but dearth, of good leadership in the region. But they see differently the ability of Iraq and other countries to reconcile the warring sects and tribes.

Al Rubaie still believes that the moment to reconcile Iraq's three largest communities has not passed and could still be salvaged with the right leadership. Allawi thinks the opportunity for maintaining inter-sectarian societies has by and large closed. What's more, he sees the situation getting worse before it gets better. "We've had many hundred years now [with the countries in the region functioning] as political entities operating with relatively well defined borders. And these states have proven themselves incapable of creating a depth of support," Allawi noted. He believes that the killing will not stop until a sweeping, region-wide agreement involving all tribes and sects is reached. He envisions a kind of Treaty of Versailles and "different political structures that would accommodate the groups of the Middle East." But he does not foresee the rulers of the region conceding to any wide-ranging compact until the conflict and misery escalate even further.

The Greater Middle East has slipped into a period of revolt, power vacuums and, for cynical leaders, opportunities to expand power and territory. The fight over tribe, religion and land has become so ferocious that each side literally sees itself fighting for its life. Given such extreme conditions, people are easily manipulated into even greater brutality and fear. And yet, al Rubaie describes the city he lives in as a mobilized, animated and undaunted society:

I have a beautiful garden, with lemon and orange trees. Actually, I'm sitting on a swing, swinging myself. I'm breathing a lovely fresh air. Let me tell you something: Baghdad is inhabited by 9 million people. And if you listen now to Amanpour and CNN, you hear 'oh there's a car bomb in Baghdad and its killed 30 people and injured 100 hundred,' and so on and so forth. You will think, 'my God, Baghdad is in a state of war, and ISIS is going to occupy Baghdad.' Now remember, there are 9 million people. They go to their jobs, to school, to their government positions. They open shops. People have learned to live with a certain level of violence in Baghdad. You used to be cocooned in the international zone. Now we live, according to Americans, in the red zone. So I'm sure we will prevail.

In the red zone, a faith in the deliverance of everydayness, a sober and dogged belief in tasks and duties, in moving forward with the daily agenda, is sustaining people and families and communities. A simple adherence to the components of quotidian, city life remains a quiet defiance to the sectarian destruction that encircles it. That simple faith precedes allegiance to tribe and sect. It sustains town, cities and all manner of communities. And its pulsing existence is the counter-narrative to ISIS's propaganda.