The Intrigue Lying Behind Iraq’s Jihadist Uprising

Events in Iraq over the past week were perhaps best crystallized in a series of photos produced by the jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Sensationally called The Destruction of Sykes-Picot, the pictures confirmed the group’s intent to upend nearly a century of history in the Middle East.

In a series of pictures set to a purring jihadist chant, the mouth of a bulldozer is shown bursting through an earthen berm forming Iraq’s northern border with Syria. Keffiyeh-wrapped rebels, drained by the hot sun, peer around the edges of the barrier to observe the results of their work. The breach they carved was just wide enough for the U.S.-made, Iraqi army-owned and now jihadist-purloined Humvees to pass through in single file. While a charter outlining an antiquated interpretation of Sharia was being disseminated in Mosul, #SykesPicotOver trended on jihadist Twitter feeds. From the point of view of Iraq’s jihadist celebrities, the 1916 borders drawn in secret by British and French imperialists represented by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot to divide up Mesopotamia are not only irrelevant, they are destructible.

Today, the most ardent defenders of those colonial borders sit in Baghdad, Damascus, Ankara, Tehran and Riyadh while the Europeans and Americans, already fatigued by a decade of war in this part of the world, are desperately trying to sit this crisis out. The burden is on the regional players to prevent a jihadist mini-emirate from forming, and beneath that common purpose lies ample room for intrigue.

Turkey Searches for a Strategy

With the jihadist threat fanning out from Syria to Iraq, Turkey is struggling to insulate itself from the violence and to follow a strategic agenda in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has forged an alliance with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership in a direct challenge to Baghdad’s authority. With the consent of Turkey’s energy minister and to the outrage of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, two tankers carrying a few million barrels of Kurdish crude left the Turkish port of Ceyhan in search of a buyer just as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was ratcheting up its offensive. Upping the ante, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced June 16 that a third tanker would be loaded within the week. With al-Maliki now relying on Kurdish peshmerga support to fend off jihadists in the north, Ankara and Arbil have gained some leverage in their ongoing dispute with Baghdad over the distribution of energy revenue. But Turkey’s support for Iraqi Kurds also has limits.

Ankara had planned to use a tighter relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government to exploit northern Iraq’s energy reserves and to manage Kurdish unrest within its own boundaries. However, Turkey never intended to underwrite Kurdish independence. And with Kirkuk now in Kurdish hands as a result of the jihadist surge, the largest oil field in northern Iraq stands ready to fuel Kurdish secessionist tendencies. Much to Turkey’s dismay, Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the People’s Protection Units are already reinforcing peshmerga positions in northern Iraq. At the same time, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its jihadist affiliates are holding 80 Turkish citizens hostage.

Turkey will thus enlarge its footprint in Mesopotamia, but not necessarily on its own terms. Some 1,500 to 2,000 Turkish forces have maintained a quiet presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. That force will likely expand now that Turkey has an array of threats to justify such a presence and a growing need to temper Kurdish ambitions. Iraq’s Kurdish leadership will be reminded of their deep distrust for Turkey but will also be overwhelmed by its own challenges, not least of which is Turkey’s main regional competitor, Iran.

Iran on the Defensive

Unnerved by Turkey’s increasingly assertive Kurdish policy and possibly in anticipation of the expanding jihadist threat sweeping Iraq’s Sunni belt, Iran over the past several months has been expanding its military presence along its northern border with Iraq. Tehran now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to reinforce its Shiite allies in Iraq militarily. Though Iran has perhaps the most sophisticated and extensive militant proxy network in the region to do the job, this strategy carries enormous risks.

Iran has spent recent years painstakingly trying to consolidate Shiite influence in Iraq under a central authority in Baghdad. Tehran was never wedded to al-Maliki in particular, but it did need to maintain a strong enough foothold in Baghdad to manage Iraq’s naturally fractious Shiite landscape. Employing Shiite militias enables Iran to reinforce the Iraqi army in a time of urgent need but risks undermining Iran’s long-term strategy to manage Iraq through a firm hand in Baghdad. The more empowered the militias and the weaker Baghdad becomes, the harder Iran will have to work to keep a lid on separatist moves in Iraq’s Shiite south.

The militants rampaging through Iraq’s core Sunni territories will embrace deeper Iranian involvement in the conflict. There is no better motivation for Arab Sunni fighters of various ideological stripes than a call to arms against their historical Persian foes and their Arab Shiite allies. An outpouring of sectarian blood feuds will also make it all the more difficult for Iraq’s Shiite government to recruit enough allies among Iraq’s Sunni population to fight against the jihadists. Indeed, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant would not have been able to mount its lightning surge across Iraq had it not been for the substantial support it has received from local Sunni tribes who in turn receive substantial support and guidance from sponsors in the Persian Gulf. Our attention thus turns to the Saudi royals sitting quietly in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia Stirs the Pot

This has not been a good year for the Saudis. A Persian-American rapprochement is a living nightmare for the Sunni kingdom, as is the prospect of the United States becoming more self-sufficient in energy production. Saudi Arabia has little means to directly sabotage U.S.-Iranian negotiations. In fact, as we anticipated, the Saudis have had to swallow a bitter pill and open up their own dialogue with Iran. But the Saudis are also not without options to make life more difficult for Iran, and if Riyadh is going to be forced into a negotiation with Tehran, it will try to enter talks on its own terms.

Syria and Lebanon always make for useful proxy battlegrounds, though a Sunni rebellion has little chance of actually toppling the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, and Lebanon is too fragmented for any one regional player to claim a decisive advantage. The contest has thus shifted back to Mesopotamia, where Iran cannot afford to see its Shiite gains slip and where Saudi Arabia — both the government and private citizens — has maintained strong ties with many of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and Mosul provinces that have facilitated the Sunni uprising. There is no love lost between the Saudis and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In fact, the Saudis have branded it a terrorist organization and have even uncovered cells of the group on Saudi soil plotting against the kingdom.

But the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is also not the only group participating in the current offensive. Former Baathist fighters from

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