Time to Plan for Iraq Partition?

by Carl Eric Scott

I’m no better than most Americans on the subject of Iraq — I have not kept up with the situation since around 2009. So for what follows, just think of me as a non-expert guy talking aloud at a bar about the subject who wants to hear what you think. Fifteen points:

1. Baghdad is not going to fall. No way. Those other cities fell quickly due to a corrupt army, and non-Shia populations hardly sad to see it go. The price for Obama letting Baghdad fall is abject U.S. humiliation, as Richard Fernandez spells out. Far more importantly, the price for non-Sunni and non-Islamist Iraqis letting it fall is slavery and death. Perhaps ISIL will make a few dramatic raids and more bombings, but that’s it.

2. The ISIL strategy is to provoke Sunni–Shia civil war, and making it so that they are the main organization remaining for Sunnis to rally around. But there are plenty of Sunnis who had already been pushed to the brink of open rebellion and beyond by their mistreatment by the Maliki government. See the excellent article on this and whole situation by one Paul Mutter, at The Arabist.

3. As to who in America is to blame, we should say: a) it’s our media’s fault, liberal and conservative, for indulging the American public’s taste for forgetting about Iraq, and b) it’s Obama’s fault, for all the reasons you can read about elsewhere, especially from NRO’s Mario Loyola. However, the Maliki government has been so unreasonable towards the Sunnis and Kurds, so incapable of fighting corruption or establishing competence, that even had Obama been determined not to squander the surge/”Awakening” victory, Iraq might be in pretty much the same boat, albeit without so much territory loss and the dramatic rout in Mosul. Obama would have had to have had a grand regional strategy, supporting the good insurgents in Syria, being tougher on Iran in all ways, and much else. I suppose in the stretched counterfactual where a Hussein dynasty left in power had turned out to be basically manageable for the Middle East, we could say all this is the fruit of our invasion of Iraq. But the proper debate is about what we should do now.

4. The Kurds could hold an independence vote (polls show 60 percent are in favor of independence) and have strong motives for doing so now, after they’ve gained Kirkuk and with the Iraqi army powerless to move against them. They are working closely with Turkey on oil exportation, and that business is really taking off. While Turkey is increasingly governed by oppression and a paranoid style, it nonetheless seems inclined to foster friendly ties with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. The Turkish foreign minister recently visited, and made a surprise appearance at the American University in Iraq, Sulaimani, AUIS — here is his unremarkable-for-its-content talk (English begins about 2 minutes in) at that remarkable institution.

5. On the off chance that Obama wants a boots-on-the ground response beyond a handful of advisors and special ops, Republicans should say no. This president has proven his word is worthless time and time again, and God only knows what sort of deal he would later cut with ISIL, Maliki, or Iran. No-one should want our soldiers having to fight under his command any more than is absolutely necessary. 

6. If you’re a conservative who accepts my point 5, you are obligated to ditch the Obama-is-losing-Iraq rhetoric. Don’t criticize the guy for not doing what you would not support him doing. (I have no objection to Obama-lost-Iraq rhetoric, despite a few qualifiers I’d add from point 3.)

7. It may be that the only way those Iraqis with an incentive to fight for Baghdad will do so is if the rally point is around Maliki’s government. But note the “may,” and consider the likelihood that the apparent danger to Baghdad will have passed within a few weeks. Perhaps there are others in the wings who can either a) better lead an Iraq that remains unified, or b) better lead the Shia portion of Iraq once the likely split comes. So let us not aid the Maliki government more than we must.

8. ISIL seems as evil an organization as can be imagined, and their controlling any territory will bring humanitarian disaster and more terrorism against the West. However, there is evidence that they are fighting alongside Sunni militias and others, folks we made alliance with during the Awakening. We must not let our panic about Baghdad, or our outrage over ISIL atrocities, become used by Maliki to wreak havoc upon those non-Islamist Sunnis in temporary alliance of necessity — as they may see it — with ISIL.

9. One of the ways Iraq could remain unified is by Maliki becoming a Shia version of Hussein, and crushing the Sunnis and the Kurds, which could only happen by means of massive Iranian help, but which could be significantly helped by an initial burst of U.S. aid and strategic strikes. A horrid outcome.

10. It may be that the only way we can want Iraq to hold together, given the way the continued attraction of ISIL-like groups for Sunnis seems to be an inevitable aspect of Maliki and Maliki-like political practice, is if a decent alternative to him emerges, and very pronto. 

11. Iraq is very probably going to divide into three. This is not a good thing, but the window of opportunity for avoiding it may have closed. Yes, to Obama’s shame, he lifted scarcely a finger to keep it from closing. But that is irrelevant to discerning the policy choices before us. Neither the Sunnis nor the Shia seem able to trust the other to hold the government, a trans-sectarian nationalist civil society identity simply has not emerged in strength (neither has a trans-sectarian party), and most Kurds are merely waiting for the best chance to leave (which I think has to be now). That is, the real question is not whether partition happens, but how. Does it as India’s did, with sectarian violence that kills nearly a million? Does it leave the Sunni portion governed by ISIL, which will enslave its population, gobble up most of Syria, and carry war into Jordan, Lebanon, Manhattan, etc.? Or does it happen more on our terms, with the most reasonable Sunni militias and strongmen relying upon us for support? With, perhaps, a government admitted by all three sides to be one intended to transition them to partition? If ISIL has to fight against Sunni groups, against the Kurds, against the Shia, and against our help, it has no chance. But if by dumb policy we make the choice for the Sunnis (and the Kurds) to be one of living with ISIL or living under Maliki-ism, its prospects grow immensely.

12. My last point is too neat, however. To the see the messiness of the contemporary Iraqi political landscape, and the why the prize of the central government is going to be fought for tenaciously, watch this recent panel by Iraq experts, also at AUIS, especially the second and third speakers. For many Iraqis, the idea of a partitioned Iraq remains unthinkable. And how could Baghdad be divided between the prospective Sunni and Shia nations?  

13. So a bloody war of partition, which some will call a civil war, is quite possible. If that happens, U.S. policy should be to do what it can to keep the leadership of the Sunni side out of Islamist hands, to encourage the continuance of certain parliamentary democracy practices and at-least-rhetorical independence from Iran by the Shia side, and everything it can short of NATO-admission to guarantee the security of the Kurds, our natural allies and friends. Behind the scenes, we can hold out the carrot of aid to both sides, and threaten to withhold it or switch if they start slaughtering Christians or other minority groups.   

14. Perhaps, the outcome most mainstream U.S. politicians will pretend is easy really is possible. Namely, that by our help and renewed Iraqi focus upon the stakes, government forces can quickly re-capture ISIL areas this summer and fall, and Sunni leaders can convince Sunnis to take Awakening-like actions against ISIL. That is to say, perhaps things can be returned to something like the 2009 situation, and a more chastened and compromising politics by both Shia and Sunni leaders will result from the ISIL-scare (and the concomitant Kurd-exit scare). Not impossible, with judicious U.S. help, but let us admit that it is fairly unlikely. If ISIL is not rolled back rapidly once the government catches its breath and gets a little American wind in its sails, that will tell us something fundamental both about Sunni loyalties, and about the governments’ ability to act, even temporarily, in an Iraq-first manner. 

15. So despite the howls of protest that will come, and from many Iraqis most of all, I say it will be prudent for the U.S. to begin talking and acting — assuming rapid progress against ISIL is not forthcoming — as if partition is the most likely destiny, albeit one designed as much as we are able to keep ISIL out of power. Contrary to what some like Richard Fernandez might say, such a policy would not be one of defeat or surrender. We shouldn’t want American policy to be a factor that actually draws out the refusal of Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, to make the choice they must.