Interview: Martin Chulov


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18-10-2017 10:37 PM



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18-10-2017 10:37 PM



18-10-2017 11:13 PM

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2017-10-18 22:37:23

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CHULOV, Martin


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Interview: Martin Chulov -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Martin Chulov, thank you very much for being there for us.

As many as 110 Australians are said to be still fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Is it likely some of those are among the cohort of jihadists still in Raqqa?

MARTIN CHULOV, THE GUARDIAN: What we do know is there are at least a dozen senior Australian members of Islamic State who are in the arena, who are still fighting somewhere, whether that be Raqqa, whether that be Deir ez-Zor to the south or the Euphrates River Valley, which is the last redoubt for this group.

The Australians have been prominent. We know of several who have taken senior positions within the external operations arm, and that is the organisation's arm that exports chaos to Europe or it intends to do so.

We do know that some of these Australians remain. We don't know the numbers but we are told reliably by local intelligence that they know of at least a dozen Australians who remain active.

EMMA ALBERICI: Is this, do you believe, the beginning of the end of Islamic State in Syria?

MARTIN CHULOV: Well, militarily it certainly is. Now, when this organisation soared to prominence back in mid-2014 its claim to fame was that it could control geography, it could control territory and populations.

It had this enormous swathe of land all the way from the eastern edge of Aleppo right through to Mosul including Raqqa. Mosul and Raqqa were its two centres of gravity.

And that's where it distinguished itself from other terror organisations which were primarily guerilla. Three years on, we are seeing Islamic State revert to its old ways.

They can no longer control geography so they're trying to say they we can control populations by poping up wherever you are, by causing chaos in your homes and towns. So what we will see, is the group move back to the Euphrates River Valley which was its heartland in the earliest months and years of this organisation, way back in 2004, 2005, 2006.

That's where they will be from here onwards. They'll be difficult to get rid of from there.

But they will continue to pose a threat to security abroad.

EMMA ALBERICI: If Islamic State is driven out of Syria, it does represent somewhat of a pyrrhic victory, doesn't it, in so far as it delivers the people of places like Raqqa and elsewhere, it delivers them into the hands of a very brutal regime backed by Iran, Russia, indeed Hezbollah.

What's likely to happen in the wake of Islamic State's departure, because I presume there is no prospect of a power sharing arrangement with the moderate rebels?

MARTIN CHULOV: Well, that's to be thrashed out, and what happens post-Raqqa is going to be very instructive to what happens to the heartland of the Arab world in the years to come. Just south of Raqqa in Deir ez-Zor there is a fight going on for that city.

It's being fought by the Iranians who are approaching from the east, by the US-backed Kurds who are approaching from the west, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and, as you say, the Russians are all in there.

Everyone wants to take a stake in what emerges from the ruins of Syria as the country moves towards a more stable footing. But their interests are competing. Nobody has a similar vision.

The Iranians want something which approaches a theocracy, the Russians want something which secures their strategic interests - gas and oil and other things.

The Syrian regime want to give themselves a stable footing and they are after some sense of revenge as well.

So, what comes next is going to be thrashed out in some pretty high-stakes geopolitical games that don't necessarily mean that the conflict is over.

It probably does mean that it moves to a newer lower-level phase but this doesn't mean stability in the months and years to come.

EMMA ALBERICI: And when you see pictures of the remnants of a place like Raqqa, it's so devastating to remember that this was a thriving city once with a population near to 300,000 or so.

Who takes up the responsibility of rebuilding that place, so there is some possibility that the locals can return?

MARTIN CHULOV: Yeah, Raqqa has been devastated. I was there just over a week ago. Before the war it resembled the area surrounding me right now. It was a vibrant, thriving Arab city in the eastern deserts of Syria. There's been a really heavy toll taken on the cities of the Arab world by this war against ISIS - Mosul, Aleppo, Fallujah and others. And reconstruction is very much an issue, who is going to pay for this. This is going to run into the hundreds of billions of dollars here. Now there has been some interest from the Saudis in taking a stake in the rebuilding of parts of Iraq. It hasn't yet extended to Syria. But there's a price to pay for their support and that would be a political buy-in to the societies, to the body politic, which remains splintered.

The Sunnis of the region have been disenfranchised by the last 14 years and the ISIS rise plays directly into that. If the Sunnis are to be reincorporated back into political life in Syria or Iraq, there needs to be substantial commitment by political leaders to let that happen.

Power sharing isn't something that they're doing terribly well now. While there will be pledges for reconstruction, it's going to take a lot of effort and a lot of money to actually turn those pledges into real, tangible commitments.

EMMA ALBERICI: Martin Chulov, we really appreciate your analysis. Thank you.

MARTIN CHULOV: You're welcome.