With the stunning success of ISIS revolutionaries spread throughout Sunni territory Iraq has reached a stage of upheaval that threatens destruction of the country as a nation state. The situation is too intricate to summarize well in a post, but I will give it a shot nonetheless. Please allow me leeway as far as generalizations go. As they say in business, it is the view from 30,000 feet, so it doesn’t capture many details. (More details are given in the examination of the situation found in this Vox.com link: A guide to the bitter political fights driving the Iraq crisis)
As usual, President Obama’s critics are blaming him for not doing enough fast enough to deal with the surprising success of ISIS, and they blame him for not making a deal with al-Maliki to keep a U.S. contingent of troops there in 2011.
The latter point merits a book to sort out, but the former point was quashed by General David Petraeus last Wednesday, when he agreed publicly with Obama that U. S. military support should be contingent on a change of government. Ironically, John McCain, one of Obama’s constant critics, had recommended Obama trash his security advisers and seek advice from Petraeus.
Setting political theater aside, the single biggest source of the present situation has been Prime Minister al-Maliki’s failure to incorporate Sunni’s (and Kurds) into his government which is what has led to ISIS troops knocking on Baghdad’s door. ISIS has been called a splinter group of Al Queda, which now disowns them. Both are Sunni, but in their radicalism, are not fully embraced by Sunnis, just seen as preferable (at least for now) to al-Maliki’s Shia non-inclusive government. On the other hand, some Sunni tribes are fighting along with ISIS. The picture is not clear cut.
But the bottom line is that ISIS has been so surprisingly successful because they have made their way from Syria to Baghdad through Sunni territory. Now Shia volunteers have poured into Bagdad to enlist, and it seems likely the Shia dominated government will put up a better fight as time goes by. However, many of those enlistees are joining Shia Militia’s, which are not exactly under the control of the Iraqi army, leaving room for them to act on their own accord and provide their own form of viciousness to the fight.
All is in flux as Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad conversing with al-Maliki and Sunni and Kurd moderates to see if a more united front can be developed, but al-Maliki’s attitude has been let’s deal with ISIS first and then work on widening the government later.
That position is not going to fly with Sunni’s in particular, while the Kurds have essentially developed their own state, which includes oil reserves, and they seem content to stay out of this dog fight if just left alone. Having recently taken control of Kirkuk they can send their oil to Turkey from there, avoiding dependence on Baghdad to channel the oil. Though the Kurds, like the Sunnis, have also been dependent on Baghdad for funds, the Kurds have a unity and a way forward to be self-sustaining over time.
What might this portend? Well, al-Maliki’s willingness to step down is the key issue when it comes to developing a more united front, and he hasn’t shown any inclination to do so, though a statement by the Shia leading Iraqi cleric, Ali Sistani, that a change of government is needed, may prove the deciding push out the door. But stay or go, there is no guarantee that another central government which would also be Shia dominated could induce many Kurds and moderate Sunni’s to support it.
Given the dubious prospect of a united government being formed, there is talk by many of the possibility of dividing Iraq into three areas related to their ethnic origins, a suggestion Joe Biden made years ago and was largely dismissed. Of course, this would have its own set of problems, perhaps the biggest one being that the Sunni territory is not economically viable, having little oil and largely subsidized now by money from Baghdad. The only thing that really might help the Sunnis is to defeat the Shia, and though unlikely, that would leave them with a radical ISIS government, which many Sunni would not like.
Unless moderate Sunnis in now occupied ISIS territory can somehow be persuaded to abandon ISIS, as the tribes in Anbar province did with Al Queda during “the Surge” years ago (and that was with much American help), we seem to be looking at a Shia/Sunni civil war in the making, which ISIS can only win by keeping their fellow Sunnis’ in line and forcing the Shia to give up. The Shia’s chances look better as they have more resources, more people and aid from Iran and some aid from us, since we, too, have reason to want ISIS to be crushed.
But here is another fly in the ointment. We want to avoid being Shia identified and thus alienate Sunni nations, in particular our allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE. Illustrative of the twisted nature of this situation is the backing Saudi Arabia has been giving ISIS in Syria – as fellow Sunnis – while now ISIS is threatening Saudi Arabia (details in this article link).
So the fantasy is: We want to destroy ISIS without making war on the Sunnis as a whole, like picking out the few rotten grapes in a bunch without touching any others. And while we don’t mind some help from Iran in beating ISIS we don’t want Iran becoming “too helpful” to the al-Malaki government, which it continues to back, as it already has more influence than we do at this point. And more Iranian involvement would risk wider Sunni reaction, i. e. from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, as this is only the latest chapter of a sectarian struggle that goes back centuries.
Developing our foreign policy for Iraq seems much like tip toeing through a mine field, with plenty of potential for things to blow up. It may not prove Mission Impossible, but how it will play out seems impossible to predict.