London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Since taking on his position as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Iraq in 2012, Simon Collis has witnessed increasing challenges to the political and security situation in Iraq. He is in consultation with Iraqi politicians on a daily basis as political rivals struggle to form a government.
Collis is one of British diplomacy’s finest Arabists; he is fluent in Arabic and has served as Consul General in Dubai and Basra, in addition to serving the UK ambassador to Qatar and Syria when he left Damascus in 2012.
At a time of escalating tension between Iraqi politicians, Collis spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the “importance of political unity in the country” in order to tackle the greatest threat that Iraq has faced so far: the capture of various cities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In an interview conducted by telephone from his office in Baghdad, Collis addressed questions about how ISIS was able to sweep into Iraq’s second city, Mosul, last month and how the threat from this Islamist militant group could be addressed.
Asharq Al-Awsat: We’re approaching the one-month anniversary of ISIS’s capture of Mosul. Was this as surprising as it initially seemed, or did you have intelligence suggesting this was going to occur?
Simon Collis: It’s not about intelligence, but it was generally known that there was a significant ISIS issue in Mosul . . . The Kurds, other Iraqis, the parliamentary speaker and governor of Mosul, and everyone was talking about the extent of militia or terrorist control of parts of Mosul—not taking hold of positions, but of their presence in the city and the extent to which they were running protection rackets and extorting money from the city. This was a significant concern which was discussed with senior individuals in Iraq back in February. So the situation did not come out of the blue; we have to look at the year of protest in Anbar from December 2012, [and] the incident in Hawija in April . This is not about ISIS specifically, but a protest movement which the Iraqi government themselves indicated was leading to the growth of ISIS presence in Anbar, and later in Nineveh. It is also partly due to the spillover from Syria, which led to their increased presence in Iraq, but it is also due to those internal factors that I just mentioned. This grew by September/October last year: It was clear they were holding territory in parts of Anbar.
Last December, when the Iraqi government decided to launch security operations in Anbar, ISIS was already holding territory in Fallujah and elsewhere. The situation in the north was also under pressure as there was violence in Diyala. So there were a lot of things happening on the ground that everybody knew about. What I am not suggesting we foresaw was the speed and extent of the advance a month ago and the extent of the collapse of Iraqi security forces and armed forces. The collapse is much of an explanation about the extent of the advancement; even ISIS leaders did not anticipate being able to make as much progress as they did.
Q: Have you had any confirmation from the Iraqi government regarding whether it was an issue of collapse or if they were not given orders to fight?
I can’t really shed any light on this for you. There really are a lot of accounts on these speculations. I’m afraid I can’t give you an authoritative answer.
Q: There are internal political dimensions in Iraq and, of course, the presence of ISIS forces in Mosul. But who are the other groups present there? Can a political settlement be reached with them? Do you have any contact with them?
Well, before we touch on Mosul, there is a general point that is our view and what we have been advising the Iraqi government to do: when you deal with a terrorist group like ISIS, they must be confronted and dealt with. Part of any effective strategy has to include political and developmental lines of action; this is not just with the case of ISIS in Iraq, it is the orthodoxy of tackling terrorism in any place in the world. In order to isolate a group like ISIS, it is important to reach out to people who have not joined the group, but for whatever reason feel alienated from the political process in Iraq and feel that their legitimate concerns have not been addressed.
When it comes to looking at specific scenarios in Mosul, such as tribes or other organizations, we have to be able to get in touch with them. For security reasons I have not been able to visit that city, but we have spoken with the governor of Mosul. [British Foreign Secretary] William Hague met with him a few weeks ago; it would be important for the government to engage with those people and work out with them what the right approach would be.
Q: We are waiting to see how a new government will be formed in Iraq. Do you feel that the same political configuration that has been active for the past few years will be enough to end the feeling of isolation in Iraq, or do we need new faces or actors?
There were elections in April and there was a high national rate of 62 percent participation across the country, [but] it seems to be rather less in the Sunni governorates for security reasons. Nevertheless, the elections still took place and members of parliament were selected on the basis of that. There was a constitutional process following the elections for a new speaker of parliament, president and prime minister to be elected to form a government. Our view has to be for Iraq’s political leaders to work this out for themselves. For our part, it is urgent for them to work it out due to the ISIS threat in the country. We think it is essential that a new government must be formed quickly and should be broad-based and inclusive of all polities, taking measures to stabilize the security situation. This won’t be done with politics and can’t be done without it. I don’t share the view that there has to be progress on the security front first and then deal with politics later. It has to be both and step-by-step: security and political.
Q: Do you think it is possible to have a government that pursues inclusive policies but is led by Nuri Al-Maliki?
The British government has not expressed any position or names of individual candidates for that position; we set out what the criteria is. It is up to the voters to make those choices during the elections; it is their decisions that matter. When the foreign secretary was here a few weeks ago, he made the point that British soldiers have died for Iraqis to have that right so it’s not for us to undermine that.
Q: Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has said that the Kurds are seeking independence and that they have started a referendum process. Do you support this process?
When William Hague was here he visited KRG leaders, including the president. Our view is that it is up to the Iraqi people to determine their country’s future. The priority right now is political unity to tackle the terrorist threat from ISIS in Iraq and also in Kurdistan. Mosul is 60 kilometers from Erbil [and] they now have very significant numbers of internally displaced people from Anbar and Mosul, so this is a crisis that very much affects them too. We hope they will want to be, and should be, a part of the solution.
Q: Would Britain recognize an independent Kurdish state?
That is a hypothetical question which we won’t respond to.
Q: Do you think it is possible to resolve the crisis in Iraq without a resolution in Syria?
I think it is clear the situations in Syria and Iraq are linked; Syria has had a clear impact on Iraq. There are internal factors in Iraq that need to be addressed, so I think it is important to tackle both situations together. ISIS is able to operate on both sides of the border, so that’s one aspect of it. The only people who are inside Syria that are able to tackle ISIS are the moderate opposition.
Q: Britain has been significantly active in the histories of these countries, and was key in drawing their borders. Do you think the regional map is collapsing?
The first point to make about their history with Sykes–Picot is that the difference in people who live in what is now called Iraq and Syria didn’t start with Sykes–Picot. People have long spoken different dialects and have looked in different directions. People who lived in Mesopotamia between the two rivers have traded with and have had contact with people who lived in Sham; they have been separate entities. I don’t think Sykes–Picot invented the differences in the Middle East; they were already there.
Q: What can be done to hold Iraq together?
First thing is the formation of a new government and to use the democratic provisions set out in the constitution for people to work through issues that currently divide them. Iraq has many opportunities, from its agriculture to its mineral wealth, and despite the turmoil that the country is going through [its economy] has been growing by 9 percent a year. A lot of people in different parts of the country seem to have similar concerns; they want stability, to be able to work, to have public services and to enjoy personal freedom. These are issues that are in many ways a shared concern that can be dealt with by politicians at a national level. There are win–win opportunities for Iraq. An inclusive and broad-based government would have the opportunity to address these issues on a win–win basis.
Q: What can be done internationally to help Iraq in terms of holding the country together and tackling the threat it is facing?
It is clear that the threat of ISIS is not just to Iraq and Syria, but regionally as well as internationally. It is a shared threat, so on that basis we engage not only with Iraq but also other countries in the region. We have regular and frequent exchanges with our partners in the Gulf and with Turkey, too. We are also working in Jordan and Lebanon to stabilize these countries from the threat of spillover from ISIS in Syria. We do think there is an international dimension to this that can be tackled; we are looking at not just doing this through diplomatic contacts. We are looking in to further scope for further collective action. That was what Mr. Hague was discussing while he was here.
Q: But, as yet, nothing new has been decided with regards to this collective action?
No, the British government has made it clear that we have no plans for a military intervention in Iraq.
Q: You mentioned regional partners that you are coordinating with. Are you coordinating with the Iranians?
With Iran, I think our focus is the negotiations on the nuclear file. We have also been making some progress in discussion of our bilateral relations with Iran. Mr. Hague announced four weeks ago the decision to re-open the embassy in Tehran. As far as regional issues go, we have had discussions between Iranian and British officials. Simon Gass, who is the Director-General for Political Affairs at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, had had discussion with his Iranian counterpart. William Hague has also had discussions with the Iranian foreign minister, Mr. Zarif, about the regional situation, including Iraq, over the telephone.
Q: There have always been concerns that Iran played a negative role in Iraq through the support of militias and other sorts of activities. So, in your own assessment, are they now playing a more positive role?
In our view, it is important for all of Iraq’s neighbors to play a positive role in forming a new government and to tackle the terrorist threat. It is no secret that we have had our differences with Iran with the kind of role that Tehran has played in Iraq.