The End of Iraq? Or Not….

We again welcome a guest post from James Devine:

With ISIS’ shocking invasion of Mosul this week, there has been speculation that this turn of events will eventually lead to the collapse of the Iraqi state along ethno-religious lines, and perhaps even the establishment of a Salafi Islamic Emirate straddling what is now the border of Iraq and Syria. This may eventually come to pass, however it is still too early to say where this week’s events will lead. There is a complex web of political dynamics at work in Iraq and its environs, some tearing the state apart, some also holding it together.

Given the sudden nature of ISIS’ victory in Mosul and the equally stunning collapse of Iraqi national forces in the city, it’s easy to imagine the militia running the table in Iraq. Within 24 hours of seizing Mosul, ISIS grabbed Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home village and a Ba’thist strong hold, and is moving toward Baghdad with approximately 6,000 fighters. This is in addition to large parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, which ISIS has controlled since the beginning of the year. The seizure of Mosul also netted ISIS approximately $425 million dollars, making it by some estimates the richest “terrorist” organization in the world. As ISIS’ successes mount, and its resource base expands, it will be able to attract more political followers. While ISIS has already been able to mobilize some disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis and anti-government tribes, it remains a relatively small organization. Mosul, for instance, was taken by approximately 800 fighters. However, if it can hold Mosul and make further gains around the state capital, ISIS’ following will likely grow and the Iraqi state would be fractured.

While this scenario is possible ISIS faces a number of substantial hurdles. First, and foremost, routing the Iraqi national army is one thing, fighting the Kurdish Peshmerga is something else altogether. The Peshmerga is well prepared and combat tested in Najaf (2004) against the Mahdi Army, and the second battle of Fallujah (2004) against Sunni insurgents. They are not likely to cut and run at the sight of 800 members of ISIS. They already appear to have taken control of Kirkuk and are likely preparing for Mosul. Moreover, President Hassan Rouhani has volunteered Iranian support and there are already reports of Iranian military units being dispatched to Iraq. It is not in Iran’s interest to have Iraq dissolve into chaos, and the IRGC along with Hezbollah are already fighting ISIS in Syria. Finally, ISIS continues to face threats to their home base in Syria. ISIS is not just fighting the Syrian government and its allies, but Syrian Kurdish groups and even other Salafi groups such as the al-Nusra Front. If ISIS stays in Iraq they will be fighting a war on two fronts against multiple enemies.

Having said this, while the military defeat of ISIS would end the immediate threat of Iraq splitting apart, it may trigger a slower but no less unstoppable breakdown of the state. Mosul and Kirkuk are on the Green Line that marks territories disputed by both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous government in Erbil. Tensions between central government forces and Peshmerga forces have been high, particularly since the creation of the Dijla Operations Command in Kirkuk in 2012. Erbil saw the creation of this military command as a land grab, but did not use force to stop it. The decision not to confront Baghdad at the time received a great deal of criticism from within the Kurdish political community. It is therefore very unlikely that Erbil will give up the control it now has over Kirkuk, or the control of Mosul it would have if it expels ISIS in the future. These cities are important symbolically to Erbil, and important because they are the home to large Kurdish populations. They are also important because of oil. Indeed, it has been argued that controlling the energy resources around Kirkuk would give the KRG the income necessary for it to make the final break with Baghdad.

Even if Erbil did not decide the time was right to declare independence, the fact that the Iraqi state had to be saved by the Peshmerga and the IRGC may simply be too much. Iraq spent eight years at war with Iran in the 1980s and has been fighting the Kurds off and on since the country achieved independence. Now they are all that is left holding the Iraq state together? Certainly this would further alienate the country’s Sunni population. It would also signal the Shi’a population that the Malaki government is not up to the job. Although Malaki has earned his share of criticism, given the political divisions within Iraq, it is unclear that anyone else would be able to fill his shoes. Political deadlock and dissatisfaction could erode the state on their own while the Kurds simply wait out the process .

Despite all of this, there is reason to believe Iraq may continue to muddle along. While the state may be in disarray internally, none of its neighbors want to see it break up. Neither Turkey nor Iran wants to see an independent Kurdish state because of the potential impact on their Kurdish populations. Neither, of course, do the Syrians. The Syrians may not be able to do much about the situation but Iran and Turkey can. Both states have heavily infiltrated the Kurdish autonomous region and could create havoc if their interests were threatened. To the extent Iran helps fight ISIS, their influence over Iraqi internal politics will be significantly enhanced. Turkey also has leverage over the KRG because it is the main destination for Kurdish energy exports. The KRG has tried to build good relations with Turkey so that one day Ankara may not see and independent Kurdistan as a threat. However the relationship between the two has been strained by the fighting in Syria where Ankara has supported the opposition, includingISIS and other Salafi groups that have clashed with Kurds in the eastern part of the country.

The Saudis and the other Sunni states would be equally opposed to the breakup of Iraq. They see Iraq as a fellow member of the Sunni community. Not only would they be opposed to its dissolution on principle, if it were to break up they fear the immediate beneficiary would be Shi’a Iran. From Riyadh’s perspective in particular, things are already going far too much in Iran’s favor.

Given the opposition of Iraq’s neighbors, and the potential for instability, it is difficult to see the US supporting the dismemberment of Iraq either. There may be sympathy for Kurdish independence in Washington, but the US is focused on making a deal with Iran and managing its troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is even harder to see the US going along with idea if there was any possibility that it would allow an Al-Qaeda-like Salafi organization to set up its own state right in the middle of the Levant.

The point being made here is not that Iraq will or will not break up because of what has happened this week. The point is simply that there is no straight line between ISIS’ capture of Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi state. While this week’s events will leave an indelible mark on Iraqi politics, there are too many unknowns in the equation to make long term predictions. As we should have learned through the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 80s, and the current civil war in Syria, there is no way to predict what kind of alliances may form or how they may influence the outcome of events. Who knows, ISIS is a threat to the interests of the Americans, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Shi’a, the Kurds, and to moderate Iraqi Sunnis. They have even fallen out with Turkey. Perhaps this crisis will give them common cause to cooperate. Or, not…

 

Defining the Arab State

Issandr el-Amrani has a very angry response to Aaron David Miller’s piece on the post-Arab Spring decline of the Arab state. Though el-Amrani raises a couple of important points, the piece seems as full of misperceptions that he accuses Miller of.

El-Amrani’s underlying point—that the Arab states are not simply “tribes with flags”—is a strong one, and I think Miller undermines his own argument by falling back on that assertion. But contrary to what el-Amrani seems to indicate, Miller wasn’t arguing that the state has collapsed everywhere in the Arab world, much less so in the Middle East (where he notes Israel, Turkey, and Iran have remained coherent and strong). El-Amrani uses the examples of the UAE, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to prove his point. But apart from the fact that Miller explicitly put Saudi Arabia in the category of states “holding their own,” these examples underline Miller’s point that it’s about “basic coherence and governance.”

It’s not about feeling good about the Arab Spring, as el-Amrani dismisses Miller’s piece, but about questions of legitimacy and governance. That’s a legitimate concern to note, as different groups compete with each other, either violently or non-violently, to define the state and its basis for legitimacy, laws, and norms.

Indeed, Karl reMarks notes this in his own response to Miller, and which el-Amrani cites approvingly. He acknowledges that “the collapse of the state, in varying degrees in each of the three states [Egypt, Iraq, Syria], is an undisputable phenomenon.” reMarks’ critique is centered on the reasons for the failing nature of these states, and that’s certainly something to engage and debate.

Also contrary to what el-Amrani seems to assume, Miller wasn’t providing a normative take on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but more like a logistical take. Will these Arab states remain functioning as central authorities, with institutions capable of asserting that authority across all of society?

I share el-Amrani’s yawn with the language Miller uses in his piece, which is—as with his other ones—filled with clichés. I suspect this is because Miller simply writes too much, and for a non-specialist audience. It seems the easiest thing to do. But that’s a different motivation than the implicit orientalism that el-Amrani hints at.

Finally, el-Amrani inserts his own cliché as much as he criticizes Miller for doing so. Referencing Miller’s take on the Hamas-Fatah split and the sectarian divisions in Iraq, el-Amrani faults Miller for ignoring the Israeli occupation and the American invasion. Obviously both are relevant, and I seriously doubt Miller isn’t aware of these as constraining factors. (In fact, he references colonial interference as a contributing factor.) But neither was relevant to his particular point, which is that Palestine and Iraq are simply unable to get their internal houses in order so as to provide good governance to their people. Explaining why certainly requires an account of the Israeli and American presence, but that wasn’t the point of Miller’s piece.  Moreover, Miller puts Palestine and Iraq in the category of “pre-Arab Spring” countries with governance problems.

The underlying problem seems to be that Miller and el-Amrani are approaching the issue from two different angles. Miller doesn’t claim that states don’t exist in the Arab world, or even that they will collapse entirely tomorrow. He admits that borders are well entrenched, and that efforts to redraw them have been few in number, and failed completely. Rather, Miller defines the state as “effective” and “possessing the capacity to protect the wellbeing of all of its citizens.” Surely, with the violence being visited upon the citizens by the governments and other citizens, this is an obvious and legitimate argument to make.

El-Amrani seems to assume that Miller is making the opposite argument. He contends that Miller confuses “the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state.” But that line of thinking doesn’t appear in Miller’s argument. Nowhere does he say there is the absence of a state; at best, only Lebanon is listed as a “non-state,” but Miller doesn’t connect this to the Arab Spring but its own long-standing internal divisions and problems.

Perhaps El-Amrani disagrees with Miller’s proposals for stabilizing the Arab states, which include strengthening national institutions and broadening their legitimacy. After all, if the Arab state is already doing fine, then it requires something else to fix the problems currently roiling them.

Miller’s assumptions of the weak foundation of the Arab states—something that’s been a perennial concern throughout the literature on the Arab state—should be engaged on their merits. Otherwise, serious policy solutions can’t be debated.

Too Soon to Predict American Defeat in or Retreat from the Middle East

In the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra considers the “inevitable retreat” of the US from the Middle East. Certainly the argument is important to debate, but the article itself contains too many assumptions and problematic comparisons.

Mishra is correct that there are similarities in current conditions to the beginning of the Iranian Revolution: there, too, the uprisings against the regime were composed of different groups—some Islamist, some not—alongside intra-group struggles for domination and a share in power.

It’s also true that the US has a long history of clumsy and ill-advised interventions in the Middle East. But that history has been there for a while, as has the dissatisfaction with it. The frustration, anger, and resentment that has been expressed lately has been expressed many, many times before; the only difference is that this time in some places the authoritarian governments that contained them are no longer around to do so.

Mishra also begins by assuming the Middle East and the Muslim world are interchangeable; they are not. Afghanistan, which Mishra compares to Egypt, is not part of the political, security, economic, and cultural structures of the Middle East, which have a totally different dynamic.

Afghanistan also has a long and separate history of dealing with foreign interventions, the experience of which is very different from the Middle East. At the time of the 2001 American attack on Afghanistan, observers were already noting the British and Russian/Soviet history in the region, predicting similar responses to a US presence. The specific attack referenced in Mishra’s piece is not something new or in any way unexpected, and occurred under very different conditions, expectations, and historical experiences than the embassy and consulate attacks in Egypt and Libya.

The article then claims that a “more meaningful analogy” to the US struggle against radical Islam in the Middle East is Vietnam in 1975, and the American withdrawal from Indochina more broadly. But this example, too, falls short of historical experience and contemporary conditions.

Mishra rightly points out that the US perceived the area to be on the frontline of the defense against Communism, and therefore worth involvement in. But the difference with the Middle East is that in the latter there is hard and tangible physical and other evidence that its presence is based on more than perception.

The US has close and longstanding security, economic, and strategic ties with several states in the Middle East that it didn’t have in Indochina. It also has publicly committed itself many times to the defense of some of these states (particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia)—and has demonstrated this commitment with force of arms.

One might argue that the US has faced similar moments of “withdrawal” from the region before. But close examination reveals that these were really only in response to short-term and contained violence (Lebanon in 1983) or about tactical redeployment to elsewhere in the region (Saudi Arabia some years after the 1991 Gulf War). When it did have hundreds of thousands of troops in the region (1990-1991), it was deeply committed to maintaining them there for a very short period of time with a limited war aim; after that, most of the thousands of troops that remained were moved elsewhere in the region not as a retreat but a tactical and strategic redeployment in some cases, and due to a lack of need in others.

The one example of a large-scale American military commitment to the Middle East that might rival Vietnam was the occupation of Iraq. At the time, many did argue that Washington’s ill-advised invasion was opening the door to Iranian influence, at the expense of American influence. The American withdrawal of forces from there is comparable, but it was also on Washington’s policy agenda before the outbreak of the Arab Awakening, and it was not conditioned upon a larger removal of American presence from the region—as the Vietnam example was.

More broadly, Mishra’s argument that retreat is inevitable is not supported by the contemporary relationships the US has with regional actors. It remains very close to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel.

In fact, according to Mishra’s implication, the US has only really “lost” Egypt at the moment, and even that deserves qualification since we are still at the beginning of a transition. There is no way to know whether America’s military aid to the Egyptian military and Cairo’s need for aid and money from international organizations and creditors won’t act as a vehicle for a continued American role, however different, in the future of the country.

As has been pointed out several times already, the “mob assaults” against the US have been just that: small groups of people who haven’t been able to sustain any real momentum, rallied by individuals engaged in their own intra-communal struggles or the work of violent groups committed to attacking the US regardless of how the population as a whole feels. These are disconnected from the larger structural conclusions Mishra is pointing to.

Certainly, the moment has arrived at which the US has lost its ability to control events there. And there is no reason to think the demonstrations and what they represent will end any time soon. This is a period of adjustment for the Middle East and for outside powers involved in it.

Mishra’s argument rests, in the end, on a historical comparative case for a “compelling” American “strategic retreat” from the Middle East. But because these comparisons are incomplete or too different, this recommendation, too, falls short of careful consideration. One could argue that the exact opposite of Mishra’s recommendation is necessary—that the US can help transitions in the region to some form of democracy, peaceful coexistence and shared tolerance, healthier economies, and so on.

This doesn’t require the kind of intervention and sinister influence the author implies is the only option for the US, but it does require some careful consideration of available options and ideas, not to rushed judgment about the inevitable future. The conclusion might be the same as Mishra’s, but there should be some time devoted to such a discussion first.