30 December 2014

Iraq -- illusion and reality

The tide of war in Iraq has now clearly turned against ISIS.  The recent Kurdish victory at Sinjar is the most obvious demonstration of this, and there's more -- Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the most important place held by ISIS, is now almost cut off, and it's now groups suspected of favoring ISIS, rather than those who fear it, who are looking for places to flee to.

It's easy enough to see why, too.  US and allied airstrikes have weakened ISIS, while training and other aid from Iran and the US have helped both the Kurds and the Iraqi army fight more effectively.  Despite the usual Republican hysterics, Obama's decision to use air power but no ground troops has been justified by events.  There are plenty of boots on the ground, but they're Kurdish and Arab.

An even more promising development is that at least some of the Sunni Arab tribes in western Iraq have turned against ISIS.  Iraq's Sunni minority have long felt alienated from the Shiite-dominated, US-backed government in Baghdad, enabling ISIS to position itself as the defender of Sunnism.  But now the group's brutality seems to have alienated even its natural constituents.  The Sunni Arab tribes, too, are asking for US help against ISIS.

Now, here's the problem:

The US is evidently proving reluctant to provide military aid to the Sunni Arabs as an independent force, as they now are.  It's been pressuring the Iraqi government to create a national guard which Sunni fighters could join and which the US would support -- that is, it wants to help the Sunnis only in a new role as part of an integrated Iraqi force.  And the Iraqi government has been dragging its feet on taking even this step.

What this tells me is that the US is still seriously hoping to reconstitute Iraq as a unified state after ISIS is defeated.  It doesn't want the Sunni Arabs to become a real independent force, because that would enable them to resist Baghdad's rule later on.

Trouble is, the Sunnis are strongly motivated to do so.  The Baghdad government's hostility to Sunnis is unlikely to fade; Iraq's Shiite majority carry too many memories of the ghastly abuses they suffered under Saddam Hussein's secular but Sunni-dominated regime.  The Sunnis know this.  No amount of exhortation or pressure from Washington will make more than cosmetic difference on this point.

As I've expressed before, Iraq never was a nation and is no longer a viable state.  The forces impelling its three main populations -- Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs -- to go their separate ways are simply too powerful.  Further, Iraqis of all three groups are unlikely to tolerate being bossed around by the US when it's they, not we, who have been doing the actual fighting on the ground to defeat ISIS.  The US needs to recognize that reality and adapt its future policies accordingly, rather than trying to squeeze reality into unrealistic policies.

And for the Sunni Arabs, we are not the only game in town.  Exasperated with US reticence, they are now threatening to turn to Iran for aid.  This may seem surprising since Iran is a Shiite state, but the Sunnis also know that the Iranian regime is (a) a lot more pragmatic than the Iraqi one, and (b) likely to end up dominating Iraq when the war is over.  While they'd doubtless rather keep both Baghdad and Tehran out of their hair entirely, they do have something to gain by putting out feelers to Iran now.  And if the US won't help them against ISIS on the terms they want, what choice do they have?

Iran's presence in Iraq is already large and growing.  It's probably Iranian training and guidance which have allowed Iraq's army to turn around its former dismal performance against ISIS.  The motivations are easy to see, too.  Shiite southern Iraq includes the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbalâ -- a point of some interest to the Iranian theocracy -- and the bulk of Iraq's oil.  If southern Iraq ends up as an Iranian protectorate, Iran's power in the Middle East and beyond will be hugely strengthened.  If it can also extend its influence to the Kurdish and Sunni parts of Iraq, that's icing on the cake.

American media and pundits are most comfortable covering the Iraq conflict primarily in terms of policy debates in Washington, framed in the familiar terms of Democrat-vs-Republican arguments.  This feeds the delusion that it is American actions, not those of local forces, that primarily shape events in the Middle East.  It also means that most Americans are practically unaware of Iran's role in the situation, and are still hazy about the relationships between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, the Iraqi government, ISIS, the Yezidis, and so on.  But it's those factors that are the critical ones.

The US still seems to think it can preserve a unified Iraqi state and prevent Iran from extending its influence.  We can't.  We need to accept the reality on the ground and adapt to it by building relationships with local players whose help, to put it bluntly, may prove useful in the future.  Supporting an independent Kurdish state, and helping the Sunni Arabs against ISIS on their own terms, would be a good start.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ghosts of empires....and treachery.

30 December, 2014 18:29  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Not sure you're getting the point.....

31 December, 2014 13:11  

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