The Sunni and American Catch 22 in Iraq

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The “should I stay or should I go” and “is the surge working” debate in the U.S. have highlighted the U.S.’s untenable position in Iraq. Last week, The Economist published an article explaining why the U.S. should stay in Iraq. An obvious argument for leaving is that the situation in Iraq is so precarious already that it could hardly get any worse even if the U.S. pulled out. On the other hand, there is a geo-political and humanitarian argument (not to mention the economic reasons for not abandoning its presence) for maintaining a presence similar to the one that led to intervention in the Balkans in 1990s. While the U.S. faces its own Catch 22, I also think that the Sunnis will soon be facing a similar Catch 22. Here is my own uneducated estimation:

During the Cold War in post World War II Europe, the fabricated state of Yugoslavia was held together by Tito’s iron fist. This artificial state incorporated what was left over of the dueling Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, finding within its treaty-drawn borders Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Muslims. Then, Tito died and everyone was killing each other. Over the next ten years, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo emerged as new nation states.

Tito held them together, and then they went after each other’s throats. Trying to pacify these warring tribes was not without its own international political intrigue. The West always needs a bad guy and decided that the bad guy was the Serb. But the Serbs were the natural allies of the Russians (and the Greeks), and the Russians refused to condemn their Serbian brothers. The Europeans felt naturally aligned to the Croats and refused to condemn Croat aggressions. Meanwhile, the Americans were afraid of the Turkish fault line and wanted to protect the Bosnian Muslims from genocide, and thus prevent a potential domino effect of instability in the Region (Bulgaria, the new Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Turkey, and ultimately Iraq).

How different is Yugoslavia from Iraq? Iraq, a nation created in the 20th Century after the First World War by a treaty between England and France, held together Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds by the brute force of Sadam Hussein. Then the U.S overthrows Sadam, and we are left with the Balkanization of Iraq. Although it appeared that the Iraqis themselves actually wanted a unified nation shortly after the US invasion, that unity is quickly dissipating. Meanwhile, you have all of the international neighborly intrigue. Iranians and Syrians are rooting for the Shiites, the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and other Sunni Arabs are rooting for the Sunnis. The Turks are lobbying hard to make sure that the Kurds don’t get their own independent homeland.

And the US? The US doesn’t even know where to begin. The U.S. just destroyed Sadam Hussein, the Middle Eastern peace buffer between two warring factions, and in doing so, the U.S. actually dealt a deadly blow to its own vital regional interests by empowering its longest standing enemy in the region, Iran. To add salt to the wound, it appears that the biggest thorn in the U.S.’s side is coming from the Sunnis and those who have entered Iraq to fight in favor of the Sunni’s interests … and these mercenaries everyone is calling Al Qaeda.

The US is blaming Syria and Iran for allowing the terrorists to enter into Iraq and mount the insurgency. This is a bit confusing because theoretically, both Iran and Syria (who are allies) support the Shiites. Also, theoretically, the Al Qaeda insurgents who have entered Iraq support the Sunni interests against the Shiite ones. And theoretically, Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization that fights both against the U.S. (and any Western presence on Muslim soil) as well against Shiites. This may not be entirely true. Al Qaeda is nothing more than a franchise or “brand” and small, up-in-coming terrorist groups (both Sunni and Shiite) are trying to win the Al Qaeda brand label. As I have mentioned in a previous post, it should also be mentioned that both the Iranians and Syrians support Hezbollah whose goal is the destruction of Israel. This would also appear to be one of the goals of the “Sunni” Al Qaeda, and this leads to the confusion of the conflicting interests when waging war against both Israel and the West. (Notice that Hamas is Sunni and Hezbolla is Shiite).

In any event, we can safely say that Iraq is presently divided amongst Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, and international insurgents (that we’ll call Al Qaeda). The Kurds want independence and have achieved the greatest stability in the north. The Shiites, the country’s majority, have the largest chunk of the land with most of the oil. The Sunnis, who were in power during the Sadam reign, have lost the most and have the most to lose. Consequently, the Sunnis see the U.S. as an enemy and occupier and the Shiites as their bitter enemies. Finally, you have the Al Qaeda insurgents. Under Sadam, Iraq was a secular state under Sunni rule, and Al Qaeda was anti-Sadam. So why would Al Qaeda enter in support of the former secular power structure?

One argument is that Al Qaeda is fighting the foreign presence on Muslim soil and another is that it is supporting its Sunni brothers. A more pragmatic argument would be that Al Qaeda is taking advantage of the chaos in Iraq to promote its brand. Al Qaeda benefits from the brand awareness and from proving to the world that it can stand up against the all powerful U.S. military machine, thus winning support throughout the Muslim world.

This leads us to question as to who benefits from the insurgency in Iraq? There are two parties who directly benefit from Al Qaeda. First, there are the oil companies who benefit from the status quo of inflated oil prices. They have no reason, in the short term, to want stability in the region, as stability would change the present oil oligarchy. Next, the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and other Sunnis in the region benefit from the insurgents. As long as the Shiites do not take official control of Iraq (and its oil reserves), they see themselves protected against Shiite hegemony in the region. So when asked who is funding the insurgents, one should first look at who has the most to gain from their presence. Ironically, those who benefit the most from Al Qaeda are all the U.S.’s best allies in the region. Even Israel in a sense benefits from Al Qaeda in Iraq if it means keeping both Iran and Syria at bay.

Should I stay or should I go? Just as the Balkans was a fault line, the U.S. now is concerned, and rightfully so, with the potential geopolitical repercussions of a pull out. It begs the question to mention that the potential for a change in the region’s power balance was created (or precipitated) by the US invasion, and absent the invasion, we would not be in this situation today. The fact of the matter is that an unchecked civil war in Iraq could mean a much more dangerous regional war affecting Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, the Gulf states, Turkey, Afghanistan (and potentially southern Russia), Pakistan and India, and beyond.

But how real is this? The US invaded Iraq on a series of false pretences and misjudgments, all of which have led to enormous military and civilian casualties. How many more US lives will American citizens be willing to sacrifice to unravel the harm their country has already done? The solution in the Balkans, where the geopolitical nightmare turned out to be incredibly overstated (in part due to the stability of the neighboring countries), was to bring in the peace keepers. Although peace keepers are unable to protect civilians from all sectarian violence and human rights abuses, they do add an international legitimacy to the idea of peace that is simply not present at all in Iraq.

For the time being, the U.S. is holding onto its “one Iraq” vision, as opposed to allowing the country to follow the Balkanization path whereby it would be separated into smaller nations. A unified nation would not have been sustainable in Yugoslavia and most likely is not in Iraq. Nevertheless, the U.S. does not want to see independent Iraqi states. Because of its relations with Turkey, the U.S. is reluctant to let the Kurds go, and because of its fears of Iran and just as importantly its fear of losing all of the southern oil reserves, the U.S. does not want to an independent pro-Iranian Shiite state. The logical solution mentioned above with regards to an international stabilizing force is frustrated because (i) Iraq simply is not safe enough to create the security by which other countries would be willing to send their troops, and (ii) the U.S. does not want to share the Iraqi oil bounty with any other nation.

So what is the U.S. left with? If the U.S. stays, it can’t win and will only breed more terrorism and the unnecessary death of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. If the U.S. goes, it risks losing the oil and causing a potential domino affect in the region. It would also support Iran and Syria (although this relationship is probably doomed in the long term) and screws its regional buddies. If the U.S. stays, it is fighting Iraqi Sunnis who are supported by the U.S.’s regional friends and will be protecting the Shiites, the U.S.’s regional enemies.

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Ironically, the Sunnis also face a similar dilemma. Their position is just as untenable. They are fighting the American occupation and the Shiites. The struggle with Shiites is not just about culture and ethnicity, it is also about vitality, as they risk losing access to the nation’s most valuable oil resources. What happens to the Sunnis if the U.S. military abandons Iraq? They lose everything. Their worst case scenario would be achieving their goal of defeating the U.S. and essentially handing over the economy and the culture over to the Shiites. This would also be an ultimate disaster for the neighboring Sunni nations and a huge victory for the Iranians (Iran and Iraq respectively have the number two and three largest oil reserves in the world).

It seems to me that both the Sunnis and the Americans face complimentary dilemmas. Why they don’t meet on the same side of the fence, in part I imagine this is because the Sunnis see the Americans as pillagers. Nevertheless, a good start would be for the U.S. to start pulling out, and to then see how long it takes for the Sunnis to want them back in. The U.S. can only hope that this works because as things stand there is absolutely no way that it will ever achieve anything other than disaster in the region. The ultimate formula is for an international presence like the one in the Balkans, and that is far from happening today.


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