Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24
Most of the time, it may be difficult for readers living in other regions of the world to understand what’s going on in the Middle East. That’s quite normal, since there are so many actors and the interests followed by them may not be the same over the middle run.
The geopolitics of Iraq has definitely changed after the US occupation in 2003. Besides small religious and ethnic minorities (such as Turkmens, Christian peoples like Assyrians, Armenians, and others) there are mainly three important populations as represented by three different set of political parties or forces. Of course, this is not a very democratic picture: Political attitudes and organizations are divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. These ethnic and sectarian divisions are partly of a historical heritance, partly deepened and exploited by imperialist-colonialist polices of big powers, and partly still exploited by the ruling elites of the foregoing ethnic and religious populations and the regional powers supporting them.
First, there are Kurds in the north. After the US occupation, they have built a largely autonomous region called “Iraqi Kurdistan.” But keep in mind that Kurdish people are divided into four nation states (Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria) with the majority living in Turkey.
Then comes the Sunnite Arabs, who are governed mostly by tribal chiefs, Sunnite religious leaders, and high ranking members of the old Baath regime overthrown by US occupation. Sunnite Arabs live in the central region, which includes Baghdad, Tikrit, Salahuddin, and Mosul (the latter mixed with Iraqi Kurds). During the old regime, Sunnite Arabs were overwhelmingly supporting Baath Party of the Saddam Hussein and they were largely taking advantages of the benefits provided by his administration. Of course one should be attentive, when such terms as “Sunnite Arabs” are used. Naturally we mean not the entire Sunnite Arab population, but their elites. However the general living standards of the Sunnite Arabs were far better before the occupation.
After the US occupation the Shiite elites representing the largest Muslim sect in Iraq (about 60 per cent of the total population) become predominant in determining domestic and foreign policies especially after the general elections held in late 2005. The Shiites live mainly in the southern Iraq (more precisely beginning from the south of Baghdad) in the Karbala, Al-Kut, Al-Najaf, and Al-Basra provinces. Since 2006 we have Nouri al-Maliki as the “powerful” Prime Minister (PM) and also the leader of Shiite al-Dawa Party. He has two big political rivals struggling for the representation of the Shiite population in Iraq: Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and Moqtada Al-Sadr having a popular support.
The Reasons behind the Emergence of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) as a Seemingly Powerful Actor
As I tried to say above, we should keep in mind the following points in order to understand the power play in Iraq after the US occupation: The elites of all the three main ethnic and sectarian groups (the Kurds, the Sunnite Arabs and the Shiites) are striving to enlarge their domain of dominance and their economical and military advantages. That’s quite normal since there aren’t any democratic participation channels which the ordinary peoples can use and thereby influence the policy decisions. These elites composed of tribal leaders, war lords, sect leaders, and others alike are plundering natural resources and wealth of Iraq by involving in oil smuggling, car trade, and all sorts of corrupted business via networks of patronage and military protection for such affairs.
ISIS calls itself as a “radical Islamic organization”, but in reality they have nothing do to either with “radicalism,” or with “Islam” as a religion. They have never fought against the forces of Syrian regime; they resorted to brutal tortures, beheaded and/or delimbed people and raped even very old women in the regions and villages they captured. So how this notorious “jihadist” group could have succeeded in capturing the Ninova province and the second largest city of Iraq, Mosul, on 10th of July? Ninova province is inhabited overwhelmingly by Sunnite Arabs.
Many commentators agree that what’s behind this “success” is indeed a “Sunnite Arab uprising” and the leaders of this uprising are Sunnite tribe chiefs, Baathist ex-military officers as well as some Sunnite high clerics. This is quite understandable, when we think of how Sunnite Arab population and its elites have been excluded from the governing of Iraq –therefore denied access to material advantages– since the occupation. Indeed it has always been Sunnite Arab elites, who have governed the country since its foundation. The Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south were always the usual victims, oppressed and sometimes massacred brutally. Probably Sunnite Arab elite seek to regain some portion of the power they have lost due to the US occupation and they are not willing to share, in any way whatsoever, the power over the Sunnite dominated territory with the other two large communities. Moreover, parts of the Sunnite Arab region host some of the richest oil fields of Iraq such as the city of Mosul captured by ISIS recently.
Therefore we should focus on this power play between various ethnic and sectarian elites instead of ISIS because many serious commentators believe that without the strong backing of Sunnite tribe chiefs and Baathist nationalists, ISIS could be easily defeated in a short time. And we should also discuss, of course, the regional powers, which strongly support one or the other ethnic and/or sectarian communities. Indeed all the regional and global powers are actively participating in this power play: Turkey along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar supports the Sunnite block (involving the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] under the leadership of M. Barzani, and the Sunnite Arabs elite having deep roots in the central part of the country). On the other hand Iran and now considerably weakened Syrian government provide active support to the Shiite block. If these regional powers, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia could succeed in empowering their allies (including ISIS) sufficiently, a divided Iraq into three parts (an Iraqi Kurdistan, the Sunnite Arab region in the center and the south dominated by Shiites) will be to their advantages. Indeed almost everybody interested in the developments in Iraq agree that sooner or later Iraq (as well as Syria, probably) will be divided into three sub-states on the basis of ethnic and sectarian “territories”.
The Disintegrating Forces in Iraq, their Regional Allies and US
Let’s review briefly the goals of these regional powers as well as the United States.
After the occupation, US could not establish a client regime in Iraq, which was its main target in order to secure the flow of oil from Iraq under its control. Instead the Shiites resisted and then took control of the central government. Nouri al-Maliki’s government since 2006 developed strong relations with Iran, the main Shiite regional power. So it turned out that while US aimed to weaken the regional position of Iran in Middle East by occupying Iraq, it was Iran, which greatly benefited from the post-invasion developments in Iraq. Iran increased its regional hegemony by the active participation of the Shiites elite in the administration of Iraq.
Consequently Iran had always advocated the unity of Iraq as a nation state. The reason was obvious: with Shiite parties maintaining the central power, it could control not only the Shiite dominated south but also Iraq as a whole. This means that Iran will defend the integrity of Iraq as long as the Iraqi Shiite elites are the real decision making power in the country. And interestingly enough US government under Obama was collaborating with Iran in order to maintain the unity of Iraq.
Now, with the Sunni uprising in the predominantly Sunnite region (for which ISIS is merely a combat force on display), with Sunnite’s grievances that grew stronger and stronger during a decade because of their exclusion from the central power and especially with the strong backing of the regional powers (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar), it will be more difficult to maintain the integrity of Iraq under the exclusive rule of Shiite elites. Whether the Shiite elites could be convinced to share power with the Sunnites, God knows, but it doesn’t seem very likely.
And what can the US do amidst such a chaotic situation? Now as a declining global power with an economy still in recession the United States can only hope to reshape Iraq as a really federative (or should we say “confederate”?) state by putting pressure on the rulers of the main ethnic and sectarian divisions (and by cooperating with Iran of course). In that case Iraq will be consisting of three federative regions with strong autonomies vis-à-vis the central power. Will that option work, we will see.
But it seems to me that we are approaching to the end of the status quo in the Middle East created by Britain and France right after the Word War I. Having been created on the old territories of the Ottoman Empire, the political entities that we now call “Iraq” and “Syria” came to be regarded as “nation-states”. However we should not forget that these two states could only survive as “nation-states” under the dictatorships of the Baathist parties. Especially the Baathist party in Iraq could maintain the integrity of the country by oppressing very severely the Kurdish and Shiite populations on behalf of a Sunnite minority.
The US sanctions, subsequent to the invasion of Iraq, the hard power struggle among the ethnic and sectarian elites after the US the occupation, and lastly the growing involvement of the regional powers for obtaining economic and geopolitical supremacy seem to have already torn apart the country.
But even if Iraq to disintegrate in the middle run, there will remain a big, unresolved problem and indeed deeply buried in the ground when Britain and France were designing the Middle East in early 20th century: A people of forty millions being deprived of a state of their own –the Kurds. How the international and regional powers will handle the Kurdish question this time? Will they point to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan –under another tribal leadership and transforming increasingly into a client state of Turkey– and tell the Kurdish people living in four countries “here is your country, be content and happy with it”?