Dexter Filkins On ISIS And The 'Bitter Consequences' Of The Iraq War

The journalist who covered the war in Iraq, and its aftermath, details the militant Sunni Islamist group, the power it has in Iraq and Syria and how its war is destabilizing neighboring countries.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After covering the war in Iraq, my guest, Dexter Filkins, continues to cover its aftermath. In the current edition of the New Yorker, he writes about the militant Sunni Islamist group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now occupies important areas of Syria, as well as large areas of Iraq, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. Filkins writes, quote, "within a day after sweeping into Mosul, ISIS militants freed thousands of prisoners, looted bank vaults and declared the imposition of sharia law. From now on, the group said, unaccompanied women were to stay indoors and thieves would be punished by amputation. The conquest of Mosul by a group of Islamic extremists is a bitter consequence of the American invasion," unquote. We asked Filkins to talk with us about ISIS, how it compares to al-Qaida, the power it now has in Iraq and Syria and how its war is beginning to de-stabilize neighboring countries. Filkins shared a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He received two George Polk awards and won a National Book Critics Circle award for his book "The Forever War." He's been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2011. Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. First of all, what's your reaction seeing what's happening now in Iraq and the gains that ISIS is making after you having covered Iraq since the start of the war and covered the region even before that?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, you know, it's pretty depressing (laughing). I mean, these guys are - I mean, some of those guys, you know, ISIS are just full on psychopaths. You know, these are the people that make beheading videos. It's not all of them. But there's a lot of them in there. And, you know, it's sad. I mean, it's not terribly surprising I have to say. You know, I was there a few months ago and it wasn't difficult to see what was happening. You know, I didn't - I certainly didn't predict what would ultimately happen. But everything was really fragile, there was so much anger and unhappiness that it looked like, you know, we're kind of one big event away from everything coming apart. It wasn't hard to see.

GROSS: What's the difference between al-Qaida and ISIS in philosophy?

FILKINS: Well, this is really - I mean, this is one of these, you know, how many angels can you dance on the head of a pin?

(LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: But essentially, I really - honestly, I think it's about power more than anything. And it goes back to - it goes back to the Iraq war. You know, al-Qaida obviously was basically centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And in Iraq, once the Americans invaded, you had essentially these guys come together and say we're al-Qaida in Iraq. You know, we swear allegiance to Osama. And then they fought the Americans, you know, very hard. They were virtually wiped out by 2006, 2007. But what happened, to answer your question, what happened was - so basically a power struggle. You know, the Syrian war started and a group of guys from Iraq, and they're called the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically the Nusra Front. They crossed into Syria and formed a group that was essentially al-Qaida's franchise. You know, you guys are the designated al-Qaida people. They didn't really advertise themselves as such but they were. And so they started fighting in Syria. And then ISIS didn't really like that. And ISIS wanted to be - ISIS wanted to be top dog in Syria as well. And so they got into this kind of spat over, you know, over who was the official kind of al-Qaida guy in Syria. And then, literally, Zawahiri got involved...

GROSS: Who's the head of al-Qaida now.

FILKINS: The head of al-Qaida now, yeah, the deputy, Osama's deputy. He got involved and said, look, you know, you guys have to settle your differences. But al-Nusra is the real, you know, al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. And then ISIS basically said - the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, basically said, well, the heck with you. We're doing our own thing. I'm not listening to anybody. So that's kind of what happened. But I think without going into too much detail here, the really crucial difference, I think, the thing that makes ISIS stand out is their brutality. When say, by contrast, when Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria goes into a town, they're very nice. You know, they're an al-Qaida affiliate, but they kind of make nice. They don't, you know, impose fourth century Islamic law. I think they plan to, ultimately, but they're playing a very long game, whereas ISIS goes in and just, you know, they crucify people, literally. They cut people's hands off. They do, you know, we've seen this movie before. And this is what they've done in Eastern Syria and it appears to be what they're doing in Western and Northern Iraq in the parts that they're taking over. So they're really, really - ISIS is really hardcore. And they're not listening to anybody. They're doing their own thing.

GROSS: Now, ISIS is a Sunni group that's opposing Shia government in Iraq. And according to what I've read, the ISIS people think that the Shia are apostates, that they're not true Muslims and therefore, they should just be killed.

FILKINS: (Laughing) Yeah. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, one of his deputies delivered this absolutely bizarre statement the other day, saying we need to settle our differences with the Shia once and for all. And we're going to do that in, you know, these filthy Shiite cities, in Karbala and Najaf. And he referred to Maliki as an underwear merchant. But yeah, it's basically - that is about religion. I mean, it's also about power. But they're not going to go into Baghdad. I mean, Baghdad is basically a Shiite city. And if they went into - if ISIS went into Baghdad, they'd get massacred. And I think what ISIS wants they're rapidly getting or they already have, which is they want the Sunni majority areas, which is basically Western Iraq and Northern Iraq. And they've taken, you know, they've taken virtually all of that. So I think that's what they want. I think they see Maliki and the Shiite government as being totally sectarian, not representative, often brutal. I think they're right about that. And so I think that, you know, that what they imagine is they're just going to grab this territory and they're going to hold on to it. And whether that means an independent state or some kind of autonomous area, we'll - you know, we'll see.

GROSS: Well, they seem to want a caliphate, like a fundamentalist, Sunni state that stretches across borders. And that would include territory from Iraq and Syria and I don't know where else. But they want to like undo the boundaries that were created in World War I, like at the end of World War I, when the victorious powers carved up the Middle East. So what do you know about what they're envisioning for this caliphate?

FILKINS: Well, it's pretty amazing. You know, the modern Middle East was formed really all but on the back of an envelope. You know, after World War I, you had the Ottoman Empire, you know, ruled out of Istanbul, which, you know, governed most of the Middle East, collapsed after World War I. And then the British and the French basically just, you know, took out the pen and then started drawing the borders. And these are the borders that we have today. And they really, you know, they don't represent really much of anything other than the whims of the colonial powers at the time. They don't, you know, they don't - they're not aligned with tribal identities or religious or sectarian or ethnic groups or mountains or rivers or anything. I mean, look at Iraq. It's a bunch of straight lines drawn with a ruler. And so - but, you know, and this is sort of famously referred to as the Sykes-Pico Agreement. It's named after these two colonial administrators that first drew up this map back in the first World War. And this across the Muslim world, I think it's fair to say is - it's notorious. It's, you know, this is when - first of all, the caliphate was destroyed. The Ottoman Empire, which was the seat of, you know, Islam. The caliphate was destroyed. And then these colonial boundaries were imposed on us. So among, among radical Islamists, the dream is to revive that caliphate. And that means erasing the borders, these artificial borders that were drawn, you know, 90 years ago, 100 years ago after World War I. And that's what they want to do. Now, what do they really have in mind? I think for the immediate future is - if you look at ISIS, it stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and also al-Sham, which is the reference to Syria and Lebanon. And so I think for starters, what ISIS imagines it can do, and has already done quite a bit of, is control the vast area of essentially Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. And that's basically a big desert with the Euphrates River and the Tigris River kind of forming its borders. So from sort of Aleppo in Syria, running east, all the way to Mosul. And that's a pretty big area. And they - ISIS already controls a whole string of towns in Eastern Syria, along the Euphrates River and other places. They actually control a provincial capital in Syria, where they've ruled very brutally. They've begun to impose - it looks like Islamic law in Mosul, in Iraq. And so this is what they have in mind. I mean, this is the beginning, I think, of, you know - they call it the Islamic state, but what they really want is a return of the caliphate.

GROSS: So when Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, basically disavowed ISIS, was that just for power reasons? Like he's putting his money on the other group, or is it also that the philosophy and the tactics of ISIS are too extreme even for al-Qaida?

FILKINS: I think that's right. I think they're too extreme even for al-Qaida. Going back to the American war in Iraq, the American occupation, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq was Musab al-Zarqawi, who's now dead. He was killed in American airstrike in 2006. He was an absolutely psychopath. I think it's fair to say his idea of victory, and his idea of winning the war against the Americans was basically to start a civil war in Iraq. And he was very explicit about this. And he did that by basically waging war, yes against the Americans, but predominantly against Iraq's Shiite majority. So suicide bombings, car bombings, truck bombings of Shiite mosques. You know, Shiite neighborhoods, killing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Shiite civilians, in the hope of, you know, in his twisted vision - in the hope of igniting a much broader kind of sectarian war. I mean, this was a very nihilistic kind of vision. We will burn everything. He actually said that at one point. Al-Qaida in that period sort of al-Qaida proper back in Afghanistan, there's actually messages that you can read on the Internet. And messages that have been intercepted and it's literally a dialogue between this Ayman al-Zawahiri, at the time the number two guy in al-Qaida, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, of al-Qaida in Iraq. And he is chastising Zarqawi. He's saying you're being too brutal. This isn't going to work. Why do you have to behead people? Why do you have to car bomb Shiite mosques? Is it really this necessary to be so brutal? And so there was a tension between those - the head of al-Qaida's - essentially the headquarters and the local affiliate. And they're saying you're being too brutal, you're just going to alienate the population, which is of course exactly what happened. And then this was why al-Qaida and Iraq by 2007 was virtually wiped out. And so - there is a difference of philosophy. And I think it's fair to say that the modern version of that, ISIS, with - and the head of ISIS is this guy Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he appears to come from the, the same school as Zarqawi, which is we are going to wage war against the Shiites. We are going, you know, we are going to behead them. We are going to be as murderous as we need to be to achieve our ends. And so that ultimately - you can see this dispute resurfacing again. Al-Nusra in Syria, it's an al-Qaida affiliate. They fight with other groups but they haven't - they've been pretty careful not to alienate the local population. They've been much more savvy about it. And so you can see the same philosophical split reemerging again.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, and he covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times. Now he's with the New Yorker, where he continues to cover Iraq and the region. And he's been writing about the latest developments in Iraq for "Talk Of The Town" in the New Yorker. Let's take a short break and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about Isis, the extremist Sunni group in Iraq that has taken over a lot of territory, including several border crossings. My guest is Dexter Filkins, he covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times and won several awards doing it. He now writes for the New Yorker and has continued to cover Iraq and the region for the magazine. Have you interviewed or met any of the people in ISIS?

FILKINS: I haven't. But I can - when I was in Iraq, I mean, this was during the American war, I did interview Sunni insurgents who had begun to turn against al-Qaida. And al-Qaida - and essentially what is now ISIS. And I'm thinking of one interview I did. It took two days and several hours, and it was a group of Sunni insurgents who had spent the last few years basically blowing up Americans. And they were describing to me how they were predominantly Sunni but they had Shiite relatives. You know, there was intermarriage and what not. And al-Qaida had killed one of these guys - like his mother-in-law who was Shiite, or his aunt. And they were just enraged at al-Qaida. And they told us - they told these long, extraordinary stories of how they were beginning to take revenge against al-Qaida in Iraq. And the ambushes that they were - so they were essentially - they switched their enemy from - it went from being the Americans to al- Qaida. And that is essentially the story of the Sunni awakening in Iraq. I mean, that's basically one of the main things that turned the war in America's favor, which was al- Qaida in Iraq was so brutal that the local insurgents, who really just wanted to kick the Americans out, they had this kind of change of heart. And they came to the Americans essentially and said look, we don't like you that much. But the main enemy right now is al-Qaida. And here's where they live, you know? And...

GROSS: Of course we paid them for that too. We paid them for the information.

FILKINS: Yeah (laughing) lots and lots of bags of money. But it worked. So that - I mean, to get back to say when the Americans left, you know, the last American troops departed in December 2011. Al-Qaida was - al-Qaida in Iraq was, you know, ISIS basically was, they obviously weren't wiped out. But they had been really, really, thoroughly degraded. The violence was way down. Al-Qaida had been decimated largely by the Sunni awakening with the help of the Americans. And so, you know, this is a sad story for a lot of reasons. But that's one particularly sad note I think, which is al-Qaida was wiped out a few years ago. And from virtually nothing, you know, kind of the remnant leadership, they've made this extraordinary comeback.

GROSS: You've called the people in ISIS psychopaths, or that a lot of them were psychopaths.

FILKINS: Definitely.

GROSS: Do you think that ISIS is kind of a magnet for a certain type of politicized psychopath?

FILKINS: Yes, yeah. Absolutely. I used to - during the war, when, you know, during the American war - it's amazing how much stuff you can find about these guys on the Internet that they post themselves. You know, and they literally have dialogues with each other inside the group, with other groups. And if you're very, very patient and you have, you know, very good translators you can read this stuff. And you can watch their videos. And there's a level, you know, or there's a - I should say there's a type of jihadi, the sort of al-Qaida jihadi, or in this case the ISIS jihadi. And they're crazy. And, you know, yeah, in this case they wanted to get the Americans out. But they were having a great time. And it made you wonder why are they really in business here? Is it to get the Americans out? Or is it just because they love killing so much? And so for instance, they used to make these videos - they used to call them their greatest hits videos. And they would - the jihadis would - the al-Qaida guys would post these videos online of just the best and biggest suicide bombings that they had done. And so it was just clip after clip after clip of people, mostly Iraqis, you know, just being blown to pieces. You know, mass-murder videos basically. I mean, these guys were getting off on it. You know, it was like war porn. And so yes, I think the answer is that at that end of the spectrum, these guys are so extreme, that it attracts the psychopaths and the sociopaths. It doesn't mean they don't have a political program. They do. But these guys - a lot of these guys are just nuts.

GROSS: And how do you think it's affected the ranks of ISIS, now that ISIS has broken into a couple of prisons, freed the prisoners and a lot of those prisoners have joined the ranks of ISIS?

FILKINS: Well, look, I think, you know, there's no way to tell what's going to happen. But my guess is that they're going to end up having the same problems that they had before, which is the Iraqis aren't going to go for this ultimately. These guys, they've proven this before. They don't really have an interest in governing. They don't know how to govern. They're not very sophisticated. What they really like to do is kill people. And this is what happened when the Americans were there. It backfired ultimately because ordinary Iraqis were disgusted and appalled and found a way to get rid of them. Back in 2006 and 2007, what they did was they went to the Americans. And they said look, you help us, we help you. And here's where they live. And literally, you can have discussions - and I had discussions with Sunni Sheikhs, guys who were very, very close to the insurgency. They went to the Americans, literally with lists of names and said here are the al-Qaida guys. Here's where they live, go at them. And that's how - and so you had just in areas of Anbar Province, where ISIS is now, the violence just plummeted, you know, over the course of a few months. It went from being apocalyptic to very, very peaceful. I think what makes it difficult now is that, you know, the Americans are not around basically. And so who are they going to turn to?

GROSS: Dexter Filkins will be back in the second half of the show. He's a staff writer for the New Yorker, where he's been writing about the aftermath of the Iraq war. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dexter Filkins. He covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times and continues to write about the region for the New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. We're talking about the militant Sunni islamist group ISIS, which has taken over significant territory in Syria, where it opposed the Assad regime, and Iraq where it opposes the Maliki government. The group is considered even more extreme and brutal than al-Qaida. ISIS preaches that Shiite Muslims are apostates, not true Muslims. And that therefore, ISIS is justified in slaughtering Shiite. So part of me just wonders like how can militants in the Arab world now focus their hatred on the West when there are so many militants within the Arab world who want to kill the other militants?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I mean - you know, I mean, seriously, like, Muslims are so...

FILKINS: Takes a lot of energy.

GROSS: ...under attack from other - that it seems to me they might think the West is the least of their problems right now.

FILKINS: I think they do. I mean, I think they do. Honestly - look, they're occupied. They are very, very busy. But, you know, these wars will end someday. I mean, who knows when. I mean, when you look at Syria, it's so horrible what's happening there. And frankly, I think we don't hear and see or read enough about it, in large part because it is so dangerous there. So many journalists have been killed and kidnapped that there isn't a lot of news coming out of there. But what we know is there's a 150,000 people dead. Something close to half the country is either displaced or in refugee camps. I mean, that's just mind-boggling. So you're talking, you know, the - polio has returned, something close to famine in certain areas and starvation. Civilians being bombed with these horrible, these barrel bombs, which are just enormous barrels of, you know, gasoline and oil and explosives that are thrown out of helicopters by the Syrian Air Force. I mean, it is the end of the world there. And that war could go on - I mean, the Civil War in Lebanon went on for 15 years. So it's - the war in Syria may go on for quite a long time. Are these guys going to turn their sights on the West at some point? You know, they might. I mean, they might. Who knows? But I think, you know, at the moment they're pretty busy fighting each other.

GROSS: Because Assad is such a tyrant and, you know, since the Civil War started has been slaughtering his own people, there have been calls to arm opposition groups. And of course, as we know now, one of the leading opposition groups is ISIS (laughing), which has been very empowered as a result of the Syrian Civil War. And is now made so many inroads in Iraq - did the United States ever come close to funding ISIS in Syria?

FILKINS: No. I think the answer's no. And I think it's the reason - the primary reason we haven't done very much in Syria at all because there's such a concern that anything that the United States tries to do, you know, sending in guns or whatever, sending in anti-aircraft missiles, which they're all begging for, are going to get in the wrong hands. And I really - so when you talk to people in the White House, that's basically what they say. But you have this very broad array of rebels who are fighting Assad in Syria. And you've got at one end of the spectrum, you have the lunatics, you know, it's ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, they also tend to be the most effective. They're the bravest. They are the hardest core. As they would be, it's not super surprising, they're very zealous. They're sort of fired by religion. What's happened over the course of say three years, and it's extraordinary because I mean, I've just been tracking it very closely and it's just an amazing thing over time. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, didn't exist in 2011. They just came into being right at the end of that year. And they have just virtually overnight, gone from nowhere to being the most powerful group, same with ISIS. They came out of nowhere. And so they - the crazy groups, the real radicals have basically taken over the opposition against Assad. And they are actually, they're actually - opposition groups are fighting each other now. So and Assad has actually, believe it or not, come to the aid of al-Qaida in various instances that I'm aware of, when al-Qaida has been fighting against the moderate opposition, which is extraordinary. And so, if you kind of stand back and take a breath and imagine that again - why would the Assad regime, which is, you know, kind of secular, is fighting against the opposition - why earth would they come to the aid of groups like ISIS and the al-Qaida group al-Nusra? Why would they do that? It's unclear, except that, you know, this is the bogeyman. It's the - for Assad, he can say to the West look, I'm fighting al-Qaida. I'm doing the right thing. And you may hate me, but it's either me or it's al-Qaida. And so al-Qaida in a way is good for him. And he's figured that out, and so there's any number of instances where, in Syria, where - and diplomats have told me this, American officials have told me this, where there'll be a say, a firefight between ISIS and a member of the moderate opposition in Syria. And suddenly the Syrian Air Force will appear and will start bombing in - to rescue al-Qaida. So it's amazing. Anyway, it's a very complicated, very complicated three-way fight now. But really, I think Syria, you know, it must be the end of the world there - to be inside Syria, to be a civilian in the middle Syria now.

GROSS: I'm just trying to think through what you're saying - that Syria sometimes supports al-Qaida.

FILKINS: They would deny it, of course. But this is what's happened.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. And he covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times and won several awards for it. He now writes for The New Yorker. He's a staff writer and has continued to cover Iraq and the region. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about the extremist, Sunni Islamist group ISIS, which has taken over territory in Syria and Iraq. Let's get back to our interview with Dexter Filkins, who covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times and now writes about the region for The New Yorker. So what do you know about what the Obama administration is actually doing in Iraq right now? I mean...

FILKINS: Well, now this...

GROSS: We're sending in 300...

FILKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: Advisers - not really sure exactly what that means.

FILKINS: Well, this is the really - you know, this is what's front and center right now. I think, just to back up a little bit, I think that what people in the White House say is, they say they weren't surprised by the ISIS move into Iraq - that they'd been tracking ISIS and they've watched ISIS kind of take over towns in eastern Syria. And they've - so they weren't really caught off guard by it - maybe by the timing or whatever. But they were caught off guard by the utter collapse of the Iraqi army. They were surprised. I mean, this was an American project, and we spent $25 billion training the Iraqi army. But suddenly, now, the Obama administration is confronted - I mean, it's a bunch of bad choices. They are looking at the map of Syria and all these rebels. And who are the - what's ISIS? It's a bunch of guys in pickup trucks, you know, rolled into these towns. There's not that much you can do. I think that the options that the White House has - the military options are really pretty lousy. And they know that. And so what they're trying to do, and I think they imagine - I think they see that the only possible solution here is a political solution, not a military one. I think, frankly, it's probably going to be a combination of the two but that Obama wants to try, I think, to broker a kind of larger, political settlement between, you know, the Sunnis, and the Shia and the Kurds. And frankly, I think that means getting rid of the current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Malki. I think they see him as being, basically, at the heart of the problem. And so, you know, they'll say things like, this is an Iraqi decision, and it's an Iraqi process. But you can bet, and I think it's a pretty good bet, the administration is going to push pretty hard to try to get Maliki out of there. That's just me talking. But that's my impression.

GROSS: And Secretary of State John Kerry is talking to the Iraqis about an inclusive government, which the Maliki government is not. The Maliki government has basically thrown out Sunnis from the government.

FILKINS: Yeah, look. I mean, there's two reasons why all this is happening right now. The first reason is the Syrian civil war, right? That allowed ISIS to have a base, and to get stronger and to kind of, you know, do its thing and then cross over into Iraq. But the second reason is Malki. And it's probably the biggest reason of all. You know, I did a long story on Maliki earlier this year. And I sort of looked at his life. And what I really didn't know and it really struck me was, Maliki has been fighting this sort of Shiite sectarian war against the Sunnis his entire adult life. This is the main war for him. It's - you know, it's not bringing democracy to Iraq. It's bringing down the Sunnis and bringing the Shiites up. And he - you know, he sees himself the as the sort of, you know, the leader of the oppressed, Shiite majority that was oppressed for so long by the Sunnis. And he's been fighting that war his whole life, you know? And he was fighting it before we got there. And then when we got there, you know, he said all the right things, but he still kept fighting it. And so he's driven - he has driven the country to the point where it is. He has so marginalized and alienated the Sunnis. He has so cut them out of the political process. He's arrested or presided over the arrests of thousands of Sunni men, you know, without charges, disappearing into prisons. This is why this is happening now. And Maliki at the - Maliki's at the front of that.

GROSS: You wrote an article for The New Yorker about Qasem Soleimani who is the head of Iran's Quds Force, which is the Iranian paramilitary force. You described him as an architect of the war in Syria, fighting on a side of Assad in Iraq.

FILKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: Iran is on the side of Malki and his government because it's a Shiite government, and Iran is a majority Shiite country. So what's Iran up to in all of this?

FILKINS: (Laughing) Gets more complicated - it is just layer upon layer, but it all fits. Yes, Qasem Soleimani, who's the head of the Quds Force, which is this sort of external wing of the Revolutionary Guards. He's in Baghdad right now, and my understanding is that he's getting the Shiite militias ready to fight. And that's what he does. He's very good at that. He's a good commander. So...

GROSS: So those would be militias defending the Malki government?

FILKINS: Yes. So if anybody's going to go into those Sunni towns, it's going to be these really fired up, you know, 19-year-olds with their Kalashnikovs. I mean these are really, you know, that's how irregular they are. But if you stand back and look at the map, Iran has been trying to sort of build a kind of sphere of influence across the Middle East, and it's basically in areas that are either predominantly Shiite or kind of nominally Shiite. Like - so for instance, Hezbollah, which is a, you know, kind of big army and social service organization - Shiite. They were built, created, funded, sustained by Iran. That's in Lebanon. Next door to that, you have Syria, and that's the Assad regime which is predominantly Alawite, which is kind of nominally Shiite but very close to Iran and they - more important, they're the conduit to Hezbollah. They basically - the Iranians - basically turned the war for Assad. They rescued Assad. He was going to fall. And Soleimani basically flew into Damascus and took over the direction of the war, and the Iranians bailed him out. Now they're doing the same thing for Maliki, basically. They're bringing in, you know - Soleimani's there. They're organizing the militias. There are reports that there are Revolutionary Guards on the ground - I think that's probably true. And so this is a giant Iranian project as well. It's many, many other things as well, but it is a big Iranian project. They want a friendly regime in Baghdad. Maliki's been very good to them, and they want a friendly regime in Damascus. So these two things are linked, you know, very closely.

GROSS: And it's such a bizarre situation for the United States 'cause the United States - well, the Bush Administration, as you described it, basically chose Maliki as the leader of Iraq.

FILKINS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So in Iraq, Iran is on the side of the administration that the United States helped put in there, but that we've now turned against. And in Syria, Iran is on the side of the dictator who the United States is against. So a lot of people are speculating, like, in Iraq are we on the same side as Iran? Do we form an alliance there? Like, what are your thoughts about what this means for American-Iranian relations?

FILKINS: It is one of the great ironies of the American war in Iraq - was that the guys who really got the most out of it were the Iranians. And they have us to thank for that. Yeah, I mean we basically put Maliki in power in 2006, but he has been - he's really not a friend of the United States. He's a friend of the Iranian regime. And he has, you know, served their interests, I think it's fair to say, far more than he's served American interests. So what does it mean now? I think - you know, a lot of people have speculated that, well, you know, the Iranians and the Americans have a common enemy in ISIS, so we're going to get together and we're going to go after ISIS together. You know, I think that's kind of overstated. Look, the Iranians and the Americans are rivals in the Middle East, and I think they will stay that way.

GROSS: What do you think are the odds that what's happening in Iraq and Syria is going to kind of blend together into a big regional war that will encompass other countries as well?

FILKINS: Well, it's kind of already happened, you know? If you just take the Syrian Civil War - I mean it looks like the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, really. It's like everybody's in. So who's supporting the Assad government? The Iranians and the Russians. Who's supporting the rebels? Well, you've got the Saudis. You have the Qataris. You have the Turks. You have the United States. You have Britain. So that Syrian war has basically become internationalized, but I think what the invasion, I think, of Iraq by Isis has done is it's essentially - or it threatens to kind of merge those two wars because you basically now have ISIS on both sides of the border. And you have - actually have ISIS in other countries as well. They carried out a huge car bombing in Lebanon in February - a huge car bomb near the headquarters of Hezbollah, who of course is also fighting in Syria. So that's three countries running, you know, from East to West, all linked together, all basically being pulled into the same war - Iraq, Syria and Lebanon - with all their neighbors involved. You know, this war is already spread. I mean if you look at just the refugee crisis, which is extraordinary, you know, I think the third or fourth largest city in Jordan is the big refugee camp up on the border. That's not a really sturdy monarchy. It's causing a lot of problems in Jordan. I think something close to 25 percent of the population in Lebanon is now refugees from Syria. Lebanon is a fragile, tiny place. It's just not going to last. So the whole region's getting pulled into this thing. But it basically starts, I think, with Syria.

GROSS: Do you see a possibility of Iraq dividing into, like, two or three states - like a Kurdistan, a Shiite state, Sunni state?

FILKINS: Yeah, I mean I think that's kind of already happened. You know, the Kurds are pretty much - you know, you saw that when ISIS moved into the Sunni triangle, basically, the Kurds did not push back. In fact what they did was they moved into the big, disputed city, Kirkuk, which was always one of the big flashpoints. You know, it's a third Arab, and it's a third Kurdish. The Kurds just grabbed it. It's Kurdish now. That's over. And I think that was - you know, the Kurds have been pulling away from the Iraqi state, basically for 20 years. You know, it's very different from the rest of Iraq. It's not Arab. They don't speak Arabic there. It's basically secular. It's very pro-western. It's democratic. It's a great success story, actually. They're kind of pulling away, I think. You know, they have oil there. They don't really need the rest of Iraq. Whether they declare independence or not, it's unclear. And then you have the Sunni lands that ISIS is now occupying. Yeah, I think they have no intention of reuniting with Baghdad. I don't think they want to have any part in it. And so that gives you, basically, an effective partition of Iraq. You know, if not in name - with everybody declaring, you know, this is the Sunni Republic of, you know, whatever - Mesopotamia. You know, whether they declare it or not, I think the country, at the moment, is rapidly breaking up into three parts.

GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times and is now writing about the region for The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Dexter Filkins, who covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times and now writes about the region for the New Yorker. Since Iraq and Syria and - you know, throughout the Middle East, now, there's so much instability. What does that instability mean for the United States and our interests?

FILKINS: Well, I think the main threat at the moment, amid this - all this instability, all this anarchy and chaos - you have this, you know, very visible and very immediate prospect of a huge, ungoverned space on the Syrian and the Iraqi borders, where, you know, every kind of lunatic or religious zealot can go and get military training and get guns and everything else. There are lots of foreigners there. There's lots of Americans. There's lots of Europeans. That's the immediate threat, I think. How far does it go beyond that? Well, you have, you know - the war in Syria, for the region, it's a kind of - it's a black hole. I mean, it's just pulling everything. It's pulling the whole region into it. And of course a lot of this comes back to oil. The instability's already begun to drive up oil prices and - because, I mean, all of this is fungible. And, you know, suddenly it's not difficult to imagine, you know, a lot of chaos across a huge area of the Middle East. You could really start to have, you know, supply disruptions and that sort of thing and that could be pretty catastrophic for the world economy.

GROSS: Have you been hearing people who wanted us to go into Iraq in the first place defending the war now?

FILKINS: No, that's not what I'm hearing. I haven't had too many of those conversations, but I've seen - you know, I've seen the guys who led the invasion are now criticizing Obama for having blown it. Let me just say, I think there's a reasonable criticism to be made of the Obama administration on the way that it left Iraq. I'm not really sure those are the guys to make it.

GROSS: So what do you think we could have done differently when we left Iraq?

FILKINS: Well, you know, hindsight is cheap. But we left Iraq - the United States - the last American soldiers left Iraq in December of 2011. So basically it's been - we've gone for two and a half years. And when we left, it didn't work at all is basically what it came down to. And I think - I was talking to Ryan Crocker about this, a former American ambassador to Iraq. He's a really extraordinary diplomat. And he said the problem is that we built ourselves into the hard drive of the Iraqi system. And it doesn't really function without us. And basically what he meant by that is, you know, the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiite - they don't talk to each other, and they don't trust each other. And they can't cooperate, and they can't make deals. And we were the only people who could really kind of do that. And that was just a fact of life. And so I think the question - you know, I think that's a fair - I think if you look at the record, the way in which the United States left Iraq, you can ask yourself, was there a moment in which, say, we could have left behind - agreed with Iraqis to leave behind, you know, a few thousand Americans - not in combat roles but in the Green Zone. And there were lots of discussions to do just that between Maliki and the White House, and they broke down. They didn't go anywhere. And it's difficult to know exactly why, but I think it's fair to say that the White House didn't push very hard for it. They wanted to get out.

GROSS: Is it also fair to say Maliki didn't want us there anymore?

FILKINS: That's difficult to say. I think he - it's hard to know exactly what he wanted in his heart. I can tell you that a lot of - a three-star American General said to me, who was the deputy commander at the time - Barbero, General Barbero said to me that every single Iraqi leader - the head of every single Iraqi political party told him, usually privately, that they wanted the Americans to stay - that they wanted them to leave people behind. My own sense is that he did ultimately want some Americans behind. I think he was under enormous Iranian pressure to get the Americans out, but he had shown himself to be willing to resist the Iranians before on that question. So we don't really know what would've happened, but I think it's fair to say that the White House was not as engaged on that question as they might have been. I mean, I spoke to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey who sat in through many of these negotiations, and he said, you know, we didn't have any direction. For many months, we had no direction from the White House at all. So the Iraqis - Maliki would sit across from us, and he'd say well, how many troops do you guys want to keep here? And he'd say - he'd kind of shrug and say I don't know. You know, because the White House isn't telling us anything. And so I think there was a - I think that reflected the ambivalence that the White House had itself. I think the White House was just, you know, pretty happy to get out of Iraq, just like everybody was happy to get out of Iraq. I mean, who wanted to stay in Iraq? It was really just a question not of what you wanted, but what you felt like you had to do, you know, to hold the thing together. And so again, it's this kind of really large question which is, OK, we went in in 2003. Whether you agree with it or not, we destroyed the Iraqi state and then we rebuilt this thing - this kind of rickety thing that doesn't work very well. And then we left, you know, and now it doesn't work at all. And so, what's our obligation to go back in and make it work again? It's a - that's a good question.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins, thank you so much for talking with us.

FILKINS: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins writes for the New Yorker. He writes about ISIS and Iraq in the "Talk Of The Town Section" of the current edition. I'm Terry Gross.

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