Date: 03/12/2020
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Harold Rhode on the Threats of ISIS and Muslim Extremism in Iran, Russia and China

Dr. Harold Rhode

We interviewed Dr. Harold Rhode about his seminal role in rescuing the Babylonian Jewish archives in Baghdad in 2003.  They were ultimately brought to Washington and through public and private resources restored by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They were exhibited at the National Archives in Washington and at other US locations in 2013 and 2014. See our latest NER interview with him, “The Future of the Babylonian Jewish Archives” (June 2014).  Subsequently Rhode has been spending the year in Israel, with occasional side trips, lecturing and writing, since his retirement as an Islamic Affairs Analyst in the Pentagon. He recently returned from an extensive lecture tour in China where he spoke at several universities about Sunni Muslim extremism. We hope to bring you another interview with him about that fascinating episode.

Following his return to Israel he sent us one of the few clear-eyed analyses of why, in his opinion ISIS is a threat to the world. It was an interview with him by Daniel Otzori published in the December edition of Oil Magazine.  It is produced quarterly by Eni S.p.A,  the Italian multi-national energy company with operations in more than 79 countries.  Rhode presents cogent observations on the necessity for the US and its coalition partners  to implementing a well thought out strategy for the expressed goal of “degrading” and destroying”, the Islamic State, formerly ISIS.  He addresses why Russia and China should also be concerned, in view of their significant Sunni minorities prone to Muslim extremism. In China’s instance he notes the problematic irredentist Uyghurs, a Turkmen Muslim group in the Western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. They have ties to the Islamist government of President Erdogan’s AKP party in Ankara. The Chinese Foreign Ministry recently rebuked  Ankara regarding an offer of sanctuary in Turkey for several hundred Uyghur human trafficking victims in Thailand.  Rhode confirms what other experts have concluded regarding Turkey’s and Iran’s roles in facilitating the emergence and expansion of the Islamic State.  He does not hold great promise that the Administration has an effective strategy for eliminating ISIS, which Rhode considers a threat to the world.

“The American Role: proving itself a winner.”  Oil Magazine, December 2014, Eni, S.p.A.

By Daniel Otzori 

Oil provides the Islamic State with funds to buy weapons and, as a result, demonstrate its growing military power. This hard power also has soft power effects. For this reason, the United States must work on showing that it is stronger than the Islamic State, as it did with al Qaeda. Harold Rhode, who served as a Pentagon analyst for 28 years until retiring in 2010, provides his view of the Islamic State, presents the perspective of other countries, including China, Iran and Russia, and suggests what America needs to do to obliterate ISIS once and for all.

HAROLD RHODE is an American expert on the Middle East. He worked as an analyst at the Pentagon for 28 years. Rhode has traveled extensively throughout the Muslim world, and studied and done research at universities and libraries in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Currently he is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute in New York.

 In your view, is the Islamic State only a regional issue or is it a wider threat to global interests and security, including energy security?

The Islamic State (IS) is a threat to the world.

The Islamic State is in control of some oil ?elds.  What do they do with the oil they extract?

They are now selling oil from 30 USD a barrel on the international market. They pay all sorts of people to export oil. Turkey helped the Islamic State to export it. There is no other way that oil can get out. There is no physical way that this can happen. Once oil gets into Turkey, no one knows anymore where it comes from. Then, it is put onto tankers and shipped abroad. Once oil is at sea, it is a fungible asset and could end up anywhere.    

What is the importance of gaining oil wealth to the Islamic State’s strategy?

They buy more weapons. They want to take over the world. Their message is easy, it’s simple, and it works for many Sunni men with no future.   The Islamic State has made clear its intention to redraw the map of the Middle East.

 In your view, does the current phase of turmoil represent a sign of crisis of the Arab state system established by the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement, which reorganized the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War I?

 The 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement borders served colonial interests. They are artificial. They mean nothing to the locals. There is no reason why these borders should exist. In the Middle East, identities are based on families and tribes. The whole map of the Middle East could be redrawn. For example, I see no reason why there should not be an independent Kurdistan. 

What should be the Western strategy toward the Islamic State?

There is no way to compromise with the Islamic State and there is no appeasing it. The Islamic State is a Sunni organization. It hates Shiites, as well as other Sunnis it disagrees with. If Sunnis in the Middle East see that the Islamic State is succeeding, more Sunnis will join it. Middle Easterners love winners. So, we must defeat them; we must show them to be losers. As fast as ISIS got created, that’s how fast it can be defeated. There cannot be any compromise here: ISIS must be destroyed.


If we do not want to have troops on the ground, we cannot succeed. So far, we are not inflicting serious damage on them with aerial bombardment alone.

Does the Islamic State also represent a threat to other countries, such as China?

China has two types of Muslims. The first are Han; they understand that they must get along with the government. Their approach is similar to Indonesian Muslims. That is not the case in Xinjiang: their Muslims are Turkish. They are closer to Istanbul than to Beijing. There are Uyghurs fighting on the side of the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. 

And what about Russia?

The reason why Russians hate the Islamic State is because many young Muslim men in Russia have no future. They get into drugs, sex, and then into mosques, which are funded by the Wahhabis and other Salafists. Suddenly, these downtrodden Russian Muslims feel they are somebody - they feel important: they are in the vanguard. That is why, for Russians, the elimination of the Islamic State is so important.

In your opinion, should the West cooperate with Russia against the Islamic State?

Russia is concerned about its satellite state, Syria. But anyway, we should work privately with the Russians if they don’t want to do this in public.

What is Iran’s role?  

Iran is the largest Shiite power in the world, and ISIS hates Shiites. So in theory, Iran has to oppose the Islamic State with all its might. Yet Iran helped create it in the beginning. The Iranians thought they could control ISIS, or at least have some influence over that organization, but it did not turn out that way. If ISIS conquers Najaf and Karbala, it would destroy the Iranian government’s honor and position in the Muslim world. Now, Iran wants America and the West to concentrate their attention on the Islamic State, so the Iranians can develop their nuclear power. And a nuclear Iran is more dangerous than the Islamic State. Iran says: “We will help you, if you give us concessions in the nuclear deal,” i.e., “We will have our cake and eat it too.”

 In conclusion, what strategy should the U.S. adopt at this moment?

American leaders should lead and inspire. That’s how America defeated al Qaeda in Western Iraq during the Surge in2007. Then, the U.S. demonstrated resolve. It destroyed al Qaeda and worked with the local authorities. The great American General David Petraeus convinced the Sunnis that the Marines were the strongest “tribe” and could be counted on to win and protect them. In order to defeat ISIS, America must again demonstrate that America can be trusted—that it will not lose interest and run. America must lead, and show the Middle East that it is the strongest horse and will again protect its friends and allies. Otherwise, America is doomed to fail. As the greatest living Middle Eastern professor, Bernard Lewis, once said, the Middle Easterner is constantly looking to identify the bandwagon in the traffic jam. When America demonstrates commitment and resolve, America will gain allies, and ISIS will be eliminated. But, given the current leadership in Washington, is America prepared to do so?  For now, President Obama appears detached, aloof and disinterested. This is not a recipe for American success in the Muslim world; it is a recipe for failure.