Deep State Conspiracy Theories Come True in Iraq

As good Americans, we all know that conspiracy theories are automatically false. Middle Easterners, however, haven’t learned that lesson yet, so much of 21st Century history in that region consists of elaborate conspiracies. From the NYT:

Uneasy Alliance Gives Insurgents an Edge in Iraq

ERBIL, Iraq — Meeting with the American ambassador some years ago in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki detailed what he believed was the latest threat of a coup orchestrated by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

“Don’t waste your time on this coup by the Baathists,” the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, chided him, dismissing his conspiracy theories as fantasy.

Now, though, with Iraq facing its gravest crisis in years, as Sunni insurgents have swept through northern and central Iraq, Mr. Maliki’s claims about Baathist plots have been at least partly vindicated. While fighters for the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, once an offshoot of Al Qaeda, have taken on the most prominent role in the new insurgency, they have done so in alliance with a deeply rooted network of former loyalists to Saddam Hussein.

The involvement of the Baathists helps explain why just a few thousand Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters, many of them fresh off the battlefields of Syria, have been able to capture so much territory so quickly. It sheds light on the complexity of the forces aligned against Baghdad in the conflict — not just the foreign-influenced group known as ISIS, but many homegrown groups, too.

And with the Baathists’ deep social and cultural ties to many areas now under insurgent control, it stands as a warning of how hard it might be for the government to regain territory and restore order.

Many of the former regime loyalists, including intelligence officers and Republican Guard soldiers — commonly referred to as the “deep state” in the Arab world — belong to a group called the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order, often referred to as J.R.T.N., the initials of its Arabic name. …

Analysts say the former regime figures, whose group combines strands of Islamic thought with notions of Arab nationalism typical of Baath ideology, are bedfellows with the Islamist extremists in one respect: Both sides are determined to restore Sunni rule to Iraq and rid the country of what they see as the pernicious influence of Iran, which like Iraq has a Shiite majority. Like the extremists, the former regime figures have won sympathy from ordinary Sunnis who are alienated by Mr. Maliki’s sectarian policies. …

While they may be allies today in the interest of fighting a common enemy — the Shiite-dominated government of Mr. Maliki — the two sides are unlikely to coexist if they should attain power in some areas. The Baathists, being more secular and more nationalist, have no interest in living under the harsh Islamic law that ISIS has already started to put in place in Mosul. …

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Kirkuk, Iraq, and Diyala Province, Iraq.

In other words, the local stringers are scared to give their real names, which seems reasonable.

In case you are wondering, the Syrian Baathists under the quasi-Shi’ite Iranian-allied Assad regime and the mostly Sunni anti-Iranian Iraqi Baathists have hated each other like Stalinists and Trotskyites for a half century or more. (There’s probably a less confusing way to articulate that distinction between the Iraqi and Syrian Baath Parties, but my brain is tired already.)

These two Baath Parties represent what I call the old-fashioned Bonapartist tendency of military-based modernizers. In the Middle East, Bonapartists have included Nasser, Ataturk, and, perhaps, the early 19th Century Albanian sultan of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. In Latin America, Bonapartists have included Bolivar, Hugo Chavez, Juan Peron, and various Mexican generals. Gore Vidal portrayed Aaron Burr as an American Bonapartist in Burr.

In the long run, Bonapartism generally leads to entrenched corrupt elites, such as the military rulers of Egypt, who also own much of the economy. But then you could say much the same about almost every other political system these days.

Another reason for the decline in popularity of Bonapartism is the decline in the frequency of wars as they have become less of an adventure and more of an exercise in industrial slaughter. Bolivar’s wars for independence from Spain, for example, involved all sorts of heroic expeditions, such as crossing the Andes, followed by small but often decisive battles.

In contrast, Saddam’s Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 wasn’t much fun at all.

The old soldiers still have the guns, the training, and the command structure to enforce their will, as they’ve recently done in Egypt and before that in Pakistan and as recently as 1997 in Turkey. But the thrill is largely gone, leaving people to look to Islamists for inspiration.