Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse June 27, 2014
Republished by Ammon News
Much of the coverage of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/Syria’s (ISIS) rampage through Iraq has focused on one of three things: 1.) who is to blame(the shallower pieces say the US/Bush/Obama, many of the more thoughtful pieces say Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikibut do not give Bush or Obama a free pass, either), 2.) the really bad awful terrible stuff ISIS is doing, and 3.) will/should the US intervene? These aspects all deserve to be covered, but the real issue that people should be worrying about is how does the nation known as Iraq continue as a single entity going forward, and if it cannot, what then?
The big story behind the success of ISIS is that it has made painfully obvious the total failure of al-Maliki as Prime Minister, of his policies, and of his government. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, terrorist groups like ISIS could only dream of such success. Before it was called ISIS, the al-Qaeda stepchild al-Qaeda in Iraq helped to stoke a near civil war in 2006 when it basically destroyed one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines in Samarra (the rest was more-or-less finished off in another attack in 2007). Yet even then, Sunni Iraqis were not flocking to its banner, and the Sunni Awakening saw Iraqi Sunnis unite to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group never controlled much territory and never had broad support.
Fast forward to today, and the culmination of al-Maliki’s governing as if the Shiites were the only Iraqis that mattered, his going back on promise after promise, and his using the government security forces to target his Sunni political rivals is that much of Sunni Iraq is now welcoming ISIS’s challenge to al-Maliki’s authority, with ISIS now controlling territory and population equivalent to that of a small country. Many Sunnis were already in revolt before ISIS’s recent advance. Now, even some of al-Maliki’s own Shiites are distancing themselves from him, blaming him for alienating Sunnis as they seek the formation of a new government and look for a replacement for him. Even more so than at the height of sectarian violence under the U.S. occupation, the concept of Iraq as a nation has never been more fragile or weaker since Iraq’s very early days after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Most of Iraq’s Sunni areas are now in full-scale rebellion, with many Sunnis allying with ISIS or welcoming the ISIS’s militants as liberators. The Kurds want none of this conflict and are doing everything they can to not have a relationship with al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. For years, the Kurds coveted oil-rich Kirkuk; with the disintegration of Iraq’s military in the region in the face of an impending ISIS advance, Kurdish paramilitary forces have occupied the city and it is hard to see them giving up the reins to Baghdad. Iraq’s north, more than ever before, is now in the hands of an autonomous Kurdish government that owes al-Maliki nothing. To summarize: essentially, two-thirds of Iraq is now outside of the central government’s control, and al-Maliki seems to be clinging to power, needing thousands of Iranian military personnel to cross into Iraq and come his aid and a citizen-call-to-arms from Iraq’s top religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that is by any standard a desperate measure which reflects the weakness of al-Maliki’s government.
In all likelihood, with thousands of Iraqi volunteers and with elite Iranian military units backing al-Maliki in Baghdad, in addition to a large, professional Kurdish militia ready to defend the north, ISIS will almost certainly not be able to take Baghdad, the Shiite south, or the Kurdish north of Iraq. But it is unlikely the Kurds will want to venture into Arab Anbar province, or that al-Maliki’s Shiite citizen volunteers or Iranian allies will want to fight battles in Iraq’s Sunni heartland to reestablish government control there.
The devolution of Iraq is now more complete than it ever was when U.S. troops were on the ground, with three de-facto states and three separate, de-facto governments.
Al-Maliki pushed the Sunnis too far, and they don’t seem to be willing to come back into the fold anytime soon. It is likely that after some time the Sunnis will want to eject ISIS and form a de-facto government that is Iraqi and homegrown, and not run by a group even al-Qaeda Original says is too extreme, and this will almost certainly not involve an invitation for Shiite-dominated central-government forces to return.
At this point, al-Maliki’s capital with Iraqi Sunnis could not be any lower. Whether the U.S. carries out a few airstrikes or whether ISIS fights a battle or two in or near Baghdad before being pushed back are both beside the main issue here; Iraq’s Shiites are not going to let their territory fall to Sunni extremists like ISIS, the Kurds are comfortable where they are and are even more powerful now compared to weeks earlier, and nothing al-Maliki can do will win the trust of Sunnis now. The real question is, is there any Shiite leader who could bring the Sunnis back to “Iraq?” Looking at the raging sectarian killing occurring among Sunni, Alawite Shiites, Kurds, and others in Syria, right next door, from which ISIS launched its attack on Iraq, it does not seem likely that the Sunni Arabs on the Iraqi side of that border would have any reason to trust anyone other than a Sunni.
Dan Magnia, a retired captain of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq from early 2005 to early 2006, noted in e-mail correspondence that during his tour there was a general sense that there were deeper conflicts between different Iraqi groups under the surface of the U.S. military’s fight in Iraq, conflicts that would continue after any eventual U.S. withdrawal. For him, “in reality Iraq is headed towards what has long thought to be [its destination]: separate regions for Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis.” The world has likely just seen the beginning of one of the first redrawings of the map of the Middle East since its decolonization. Dr. Robert Strong, Professor of Politics (particularly foreign policy) at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, remarked in an e-mail that he “was actually skeptical about [then-Senator Joseph] Biden’s analysis after 2003 that what would emerge from the U.S. intervention would be three states not one. It would now appear that he was on to something.” Echoing similar sentiments but in an even starker manner, Professor (Emeritus) Ira Sharkansky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem remarked in an e-mail that “If there is a New Middle East on the horizon, it does not look anything like that which Barack Obama envisioned in his Nobel-winning Cairo speech of 2009.” This is especially true, he continues, now that so much of the world’s anxiety “concerns the undoing of two countries [Iraq and Syria] that were cobbled together after World War I.”
How does the international community deal with these new realities on the ground? That is the question that needs to be asked right now. When prodded for a final thought on the future of Iraq, Professor Sharkansky replied, “As Iraq, I’m not sure it has one.”
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