Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces
Looking at the atrocities committed, the sable rattling on both sides, and the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, many have asked me in the past week whether recent events in Iraq might be the prelude to the end of Iraq as we know it. There is surely no easy answer to this question. When approaching the question one has to bear in mind the historical legacy of Iraq, its domestic sectarian dynamics and the arbitrariness with which France and Britain marked out their spheres of influence in the Middle East – ultimately defining the territorial integrity of Iraq today. The result of the Franco-British Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was the shuffling together of sectarian groups not based on their cultural heritage but based on the strategic interests of the Great Powers. Thus, some might say that there is nothing natural about Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds living under one rule in one country – particularly not when this country’s central government is dominated by either one of the groups. So the question of whether ISIS’ operational victories will translate into the effective end of Iraq as we know it can mean different things. For one, will Iraq’s territorial integrity seize to exist with all three groups seceding from the unified state of Iraq? And two, will the current American-built Shi’a dominated governance system under the leadership of Maliki disintegrate giving way to a more effective and inclusive governance system?
The short answer is, yes Iraq as we know has inevitably seized to exist. As territorial gains stand today, Iraq in the short-term is effectively divided into Kurdistan in the North, a Sunni heartland dominated by the propaganda machine of ISIS and a Shi’a South. Turning towards the north of Iraq, the Kurds are probably the great winners of the current state of anarchy. Ever since 2003, the Kurds have enjoyed a degree of autonomy from Baghdad that almost equals quasi-independence. With Kurdish territorial gains in the Kirkuk area, Kurds might now exploit the current situation to take another step towards independence uniting Kurdish majority areas under its green-white-red flag. Kurdistan will then control the significant hydrocarbon riches of Northern Iraq. At this point it seems unlikely that ISIS can rally the necessary support in the Sunni community to snatch these areas away from the Kurds. Equally, in the South, Shi’as will probably be able to withstand the advance of ISIS into its Southern heartlands where most of Iraq’s current hydrocarbon revenues are being generated. Iran, Hezbollah and even the US would not allow ISIS to advance on the Shi’a shrine cities of the South: Najaf and Karbala. Shi’as will put up a fierce fight to protect their oil-rich heartland. Considering the number of Western oil companies operating there and the number of private security companies securing these facilities, it would be a fight that ISIS cannot win. Also, despite the West’s recent reputation of drawing almost transparent red lines in the sand of the Levant, an ISIS advance southwards would be a red line the West would have to defend. Further territorial gains of ISIS in Baghdad seem to be unlikely as well. Neither Iran nor the US will want to see Baghdad fall into the hands of the ‘Islamic State’. Apart from Iranian Al Quds Brigades, the Iraqi Armed Forces’ Special Force units, neighbourhood watches and Shi’a militias will fight fiercely to defend their homes in urban combat. While the battle can be bloody, it is not one ISIS will ultimately win. Thus, looking at Iraq in the short-term, the country will remain at least de facto tripartite. Yet, ISIS might not be the big winner in the short-term. The mujahedeen will be left with those territories in the North-West, which are not as rich in hydrocarbon resources as the rest of the country. Nonetheless, looking at the financial resources, equipment and arms they have acquired over the past weeks, they might be able to retain key areas in Anbar Province and around Mosul even against a US-supported Iraqi offensive. This certainly depends on whether ISIS will continue to enjoy the support of Sunni militias.
What is going to happen with these three areas of responsibility in the mid or long term? Option number one: maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq under new governance structure, appreciating the new status quo. Thus, Iraq will not return to a pre-ISIS state with Maliki as its head. Although the Shi’a population might continue to support him, Maliki has lost most support among Sunni and Kurdish communities. He has failed to create an inclusive governance system able to provide socio-economic and physical security equally to all people in Iraq. Maliki’s Iraq has developed into a state where some were always more equal than other. So if Iraq was to continue to exist within its current borders, the system has to be reformed. There needs to be a stronger focus on federalism granting all groups more autonomy within their majority regions. Similar to the Kurdish status within today’s Iraq, Sunnis and Shi’a alike should be allowed to develop their own policies on the provincial level while trusting a more consocialist federal government to determine matters of foreign and defence policy. Needless to say, Maliki and his patronage system would not be part of such a system. Since for the Sunnis he embodies the corrupt and nepotistic governance system of Iraq, the future of Iraq, if it had any, would be one without Maliki. Yet, what candidate would be able to lead a consocialist system inclusively? It is hard to imagine that the highly diverse and internally divided Sunni community could agree on an alternative candidate – leave alone Iraq’s highly divided society. The current apparent unity of the Sunni front is a fragile and cracky reality of temporary nature. What unites local Sunni militias and the mostly foreign mujahedeen of ISIS is the animosity towards the ‘Maliki System’ – a flimsy form of negative integration. The huge ideological differences between ISIS and Sunni militias are bound to cause friction as soon as the inevitable happens: Maliki leaves.
Option number two would be thinking the unthinkable: the disintegration of Iraq into three de jure independent states. Thinking outside the box, a redrawing of the externally imposed borders might be a solution to the intractable conflict of the Levant and Iraq. Rethinking the borders might be a bold move but one that ultimately might solve the long-standing sectarian friction. Some might say that what is happening in Iraq right now is evidence for the end of the consocialist experiment of building multi-sectarian nation-states in the Middle East. In times when transnational, sub-state or subnational affiliations are on the rise, when religious, tribal or clan affiliation supersede national affiliation, the end of the territorial arbitrariness in the Levant and Iraq might give birth to more inclusive governance regimes.
Nonetheless, it is important to highlight that the redrawing of the borders should not be left to a jihadist, fundamentalist organization such as ISIS – an organization that neither respects Western nor Islamic norms of inclusive governance. A future of Iraq, whether as a united entity or three separate states, should be one without ISIS. Stopping ISIS means targeting its current centres of gravity, namely first, its local support of Sunni militias, and second, the influx of foreign mujahedeen. Particularly, winning over the Sunni militias and their social base will be crucial in undermining the organization’s momentum. US air strikes even with the support of ‘advisors’ are only cosmetic short-term military solutions that might contain the spread of ISIS but will not defeat the idea of the caliphate. Eventually, it will be a created rift between the mujahedeen on one hand and popular as well as militia interests on the other, that will weaken ISIS tremendously. It is up for the Arab World to identify and support those Sunni militias who might have joined the cause of ISIS not out of ideological but self-interested reasons. Promising these Sunni militias a stronger stake in any future of Iraq, might be just the way to win those armed men over. Both the GCC and the weak giant of the Arab League ought to become more proactive to act responsibly on behalf of the people of the region instead of their own individual national interests. The West should refrain from fiddling any further with Iraq’s internal affairs. ISIS is a threat to the region, both to Iran and Iraq’s Arab neighbours. That is why both sides should consult with each other on how to tackle this common problem before setting off to discuss the future of Iraq.