Saturday, April 25, 2015
Is Iraq Toast?
When the British and the French carved up the post-WWI Ottoman Empire, they were only focused on solidifying their regional colonial holdings. While some of the national boundaries they outlined during in the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement roughly reflected justifiable groupings, other border designs were just lines on a piece of paper to be dealt with later. That’s where modern-day Iraq was born, with little in the way of addressing putting people in a country where they actually got along and had long-standing cultural ties. Kurds in the north were locked into a nation with Arabs in the south. Even within the Arab delineations, Sunnis in the southwest were blended with their traditional religious enemies, Shiites (the majority), in the rest of the country. Putting it mildly, this design was hardly natural or traditional; it was simply arbitrary for the convenience of the colonizers.
In 1920, the British secured their “mandate” over this newly-defined “Iraq,” and it became an independent “kingdom” in 1932, a rather unstable monarchy. Britain reoccupied the land during a period of instability less than a decade later, ending that military conquest shortly after WWII. The monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and replaced by a serially unstable set of military coups. A Ba’athist takeover in 1968 eventually resulted in Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which began in 1979. He was a brutal leader, a member of the 20% minority Sunni sect, and particularly violent and repressive towards Kurds and Shiites. As you can see, the Sykes-Picot Agreement created a perpetual roiling mess, one in which good government and stability were never able to take root.
We had the First Gulf War (reacting the Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait) in 1990, where American-led forces stopped at deposing Hussein, but the 2003 “weapons of mass destruction” incursion (the Second Gulf War) led to a naïve American imposition of a representational “democracy,” one in which the 60% Shiite majority quickly took rather harsh control of the government. They wasted no time inflicting retribution on their former Sunni rulers, which only accelerated when U.S. forces ceased combat operations, making life pretty miserable for these now minority Sunnis, who in turn began bombing Shiite targets, most dramatically in the mixed residential capital of Baghdad. The Kurds in the north quickly circled their wagons and created an effectively autonomous region in the north, letting the Sunnis and Shiites hammer it out between themselves in the south.
Iran was laughing at our stupidity, since this new Shiite-dominated nation (one with which they had fought a war in the 1980s when Iraq was run by the minority-Sunnis) was their most natural ally in the world. Although the Shia faith represents only 15% of all Islam, it accounts for over 90% of Iran’s population. We literally handed Iraq to Iran. With the Shiite-Assad family in Syria effectively running that country (which is 80% Sunni), Shiites had a pretty solid bloc in that region, to the consternation of the surrounding Sunni countries, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey. Assad and Iran moved to take over unstable Lebanese politics, and Israel watched as Iran began to build what they were certain was a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. The other Sunni powers weren’t/aren’t too happy either.
Meanwhile, some of the harshest impacts of global warming settled on the Sunni region in Iraq and the neighboring area in Syria, a never-ending drought that sent millions of farmers, now without productive farms (and hence their homes), angry and without any assistance from their malevolent Shiite rulers, into open rebellion. Some fought the Assad regime in Damascus, others turned to radical Sunnis who pledged to feed them and to take back their lands from the despised Shiite leaders in Baghdad. Al Qaeda was getting middle-aged or worse; the willingness of new extremists to go to the max to protect Sunnis and kill Shiites or anyone else who didn’t support their view of Sunnism seemed attractive… and so ISIS began to take traction in the area.
Unfortunately, once the reality of ISIS settled in, it was pretty clear that, except for a very small element that is innately attracted to such extremism, this new leadership was not a solution most regional Sunnis wanted to live with for very long. Kurds in the north fought back ISIS as it moved against nearby-villages, but in other areas, it was a very different story.
As Iraqi troops, bolstered by fighters and commanders from Iran, moved against ISIS, local Sunnis saw a different set of their enemies – Shiite-dominated military forces – moving in to “rescue” them. Many, who truly despise ISIS, feared Shiite conquerors even more. They no longer trusted Baghdad and its Shiite-dominated government, remembered the atrocities inflicted upon them by their Shiite “brothers,” and winced. Many believed that the coalition of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis called “Iraq” could never work for them. They watched as the obvious Shiite Iraqi/Iranian cabal began operating openly as a cohesive unit.
Complexity compounded as Iran-supported Shiite Houthis in Yemen rebelled against their Sunni leaders, and Saudi Arabia (with a few fellow Sunni allies) threw its military assets against these rebels. So American-supported Baghdad – Shiites allied with Shiite Iran – was attacking to “rescue” Sunnis in ISIS-held lands, effectively putting Iran and the U.S. on the same side, just as American-supported Saudi Arabia was attacking Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
“A remarkable clash between two key American allies in the Middle East burst into the open here on Wednesday as the Iraqi prime minister publicly criticized the Saudi air campaign in Yemen and a top Saudi official retorted that there was ‘no logic to those remarks.’… The exchange, driven by sharply opposing views of Iran in the region, reflected the challenges facing the Obama administration as it tries to hold together a diverse coalition, including Sunni Arab states and Shiite-dominated Iraq, in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Iran is a sometimes patron to Iraq but an ideological archrival to Saudi Arabia.
“The United States remains caught in a difficult balancing act as it tries to keep the Saudi air campaign in Yemen on track against Iranian-backed Houthis. But in its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, the Obama administration finds itself supporting an Iraqi military offensive that is also backed by Iran.” New York Times, April 15th.
In a few short years, the new government in Iraq has become wildly corrupt and has violently fractured along those Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite lines that were never really compatible when Iraq was first formed. It’s a whole lot worse today. Even Sunnis that would like to see Iraq hold together are extremely skeptical that the current government structure, one that places almost unbridled control in the Shiite faction, could ever work. Shiite leaders in Iraq had issued arrest warrants for most senior Sunni leaders, arrested and tortured “Sunni dissidents,” refused to aid disenfranchised Sunni farmers and legitimized Shiite militias (some of which have been absorbed into the Iraqi military). Marginalized Sunnis have responded with violence, exacerbating the situation and “justifying” Shiite repression. ISIS has pressed well into Iraq, almost to Baghdad itself. The lumbering and corrupt Iraqi army, particularly on its own, is no match for ISIS soldiers.
Meanwhile, Syria has also lost vast stretches of its own Sunni lands to ISIS militants. You only have to look at the above map – which is in a constant state of flux – to see what’s happening. The region seems to be creating a new Sunni state out of combination of lands from both Syria and Iraq. And Sunnis in this nether region may hate being under ISIS’ thumb, but they’ll be damned if they will resubmit to their former Shiite leadership in either Syria or Iraq. The incumbent governments, to effect any form of reconciliation among the factions, have to go a very long way to reverse the perception that these Shiite forces are anything but malevolent conquerors. Unlikely.
So if you had to read the tea leaves, the answer to the title question seems to be veering sharply to “yes.” It seem unlikely that the existing government in Baghdad can offer anything attractive to the Sunnis currently in ISIS-controlled lands to justify reunification. The same can be said of Assad’s Syria. We are probably going to see lands from both Iraq and Syria consolidating into a new Sunni country, perhaps even two separate Sunni countries (representing ISIS and non-ISIS factions, like to be at each other’s throats), and watch as Iraqi Kurds (who have eyes on fellow Kurds in Syria and Turkey as well) declare their independence as well. This will leave a Shiite supermajority government in the remaining Iraqi lands. Three or four countries, with hostility towards neighboring nations, where one once ruled. This really could happen, no matter what American regional wishes might be. Kind of leaves you wondering what those trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of American and local casualties and our incurring of a massive budget deficit were all about.
Which also leads to an even bigger set of questions: If a new nation forms in these new ISIS-controlled Sunni territories, will ISIS solidify their holdings and install a functional government? Will this become another pariah country, attempting to deploy their global Sunni caliphate concept, to which radicals in Libya and Nigeria have already pledged allegiance, around the world? Will the inherent instability of decapitating, genocidal militants evoke a different form of international military response? Will the people within such a new nation rebel against these inherently cruel masters? Will civil war erupt quickly, perhaps serving as a surrogate battleground for regional powers? What new border conflicts are likely to erupt? Simply put, if you think what exists currently in the region is a nasty mess, perhaps you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
I’m Peter Dekom, trying to make sense of regional Middle Eastern factions and explaining exactly what thoughtless U.S. intervention in the area has wrought.