The Splintering of Iraq

June 18, 2014

Shi’ite militias have mobilized in Iraq to battle the Sunni insurgent group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Shi’ite gunmen have marched through Baghdad and taken control of a town northeast of the capital to stage a battleground to stop the advance of the fundamentalist group.

ISIS has taken a full province, Nineveh province, including Mosul (the second-largest city in Iraq) and parts of three others.

The Iraqi army is falling apart, but it’s being bolstered by Shi’a militias responding to a call to arms by the most influential Iraqi Shi’a cleric in the world (Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani) who said that people should take up arms to defend against this group. He said, “He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honor will be a martyr.”

ISIS in Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said the government would arm and equip citizens who volunteer to fight. Al Maliki has declared a state of emergency and claims he’s been given all powers to fight this threat. According to his critics, however, al Maliki is the reason that ISIS has been so successful in winning Sunni allies in Iraq, because al Maliki has ruled in a very sectarian and corrupt way. He’s a politically embattled figure.

Al Maliki has pushed out a lot of influential Sunni leaders, and that’s why ISIS is getting the support that it has right now, because a lot of the Sunni community in Iraq feels marginalized and afraid of the al Maliki government.

As I said in a post yesterday, ISIS has taken advantage of a wave of Sunni anger in Iraq, and ISIS has gained allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein, and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The authority ISIS wields in Iraq is not yet part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, ISIS relies on divergent Sunni tribes, organizations, and groups that can be antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

Most of the ISIS fighters in Iraq have poured over the border from Syria, and many come from al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. These groups promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. One of al Qaeda’s main reasons for getting involved in the war in Syria has been its grievance that the Syrian regime is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. 

ISIS must retain popular Sunni support in Iraq to ensure that other Sunni groups are willing to work with them if ISIS hopes to maintain its hold on Iraqi territory. However, it is unclear if that support will last.

Some Sunni clerics in Mosul and Tikrit, which are under the control of ISIS, have been executed by ISIS insurgents for not showing allegiance to the organization. ISIS militants are said to have executed around 12 leading clerics in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. According to Al Alam News, an imam in Mosul’s Central Mosque was executed for refusing to join ISIS insurgents in their cause. Executions have also been reported in Tikrit.

Meanwhile, refugees are flowing into the Kurdish north from Mosul and surrounding areas. The Kurds are taking disputed territory abandoned by the Iraqi Army, including a border point with Syria.

Kurdistan is a semiautonomous region.  It has its own system of laws and governance, and it has long wanted its own independent country. The Kurds are also fighting ISIS, but they are taking advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi military at the same time. The Kurds are taking the territories they feel should be part of their future state, including Kirkuk and this border point.

Last week, ISIS used the social media device Twitter to announce that it had executed 1,700 Shi’a soldiers, and it has tweeted graphic pictures of the executed to support its claims.

Why Iraq is Failing

June 17, 2014

On Sunday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed to have captured and slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim soldiers.

Mosul and Tikrit were taken in a matter of days by Islamic insurgents, and those insurgents are now moving toward Baghdad.

Baghdad 22

ISIS looks more like a well-organized army than your typical ragtag insurgent group. ISIS seized at least $500 million in Mosul alone by raiding banks. They’ve also done very well from the oil fields of eastern Syria. The conservative intelligence estimate is that this organization now has cash and resources of around about $1.2 billion.

ISIS is robust, it is organized, and it is very, very disciplined.

ISIS is attempting to press home its agenda, which is to enforce an Islamic caliphate and to oust the Shi’a power base in Iraq. It’s attempting to do this with a two-pronged approach—ruthless military force on one hand and quiet coercion on the other—as it attempts to establish itself among the Sunni communities.

Shi’ite Iran is a key ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shi’a dominated government. Iran is deeply worried that ISIS could destabilize and weaken Shi’ite political influence.

That ISIS could so swiftly move on Mosul and Tikrit reveals the depths of Iraq’s sectarian divide. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city long alienated by the mostly Shi’ite government in Baghdad. ISIS rode that wave of Sunni anger, finding allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein, and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The national army didn’t put up a fight.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria spells out its motivations in its name and now controls a state-sized territory that spans from northern Syria to western Iraq. Two conflicts have been merged—the Syrian Civil War and a larger one looming in Iraq—erasing an international border.

Conflict in Iraq is currently being fought between non-state actors: between a Sunni insurgent group who cares very little about Western drawn and artificial nation-state borders, and Shi’a irregulars who were extremely active in the Iraqi sectarian war in 2006 and are now quickly reorganizing.

That Iraq has remained intact as a nation this long is nothing less than a miracle.

Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled the Arab world via a decentralized system of provinces (vilayets) along tribal, religious, and sectarian lines. These vilayets were subdivided into sub-provinces (sanjak) under a mütesarrif, then further divided into jurisdictions (kaza) under a kaimakam, and finally into communes. Constant regional conflicts made the Arab world a continuously volatile and unpredictable place, and the iron fist of Ottoman rule kept only an appearance of order. Any attempt of a more centralized system of government would have made the Ottoman Empire unmanageable.

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The majority of its non-Anatolian territory was divided up among the Allied powers as protectorates. The Western idea of nation building sought to give a modern agglutination to the Arab world by constructing new kingdoms of their own design. The aim was simple: create new royal families who would yield to Western strategic interests.

Under the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was divided into three vilayets: Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. After World War I, Britain imposed a Hāshimite monarchy over Iraq. Territorial boundaries were drawn without taking into account the tribal, religious, and sectarian politics that plagued the region. The establishment of Sunni domination in Iraq brutally suppressed the majority Shi’a population.

Kingdom of Iraq Arms

Iraq has been a turbulent place ever since. In 1936, the first military coup took place in the Kingdom of Iraq. Multiple coups followed, and Iraq has been characterized by political instability ever since.

The Ba’ath Party took power in 1963 after its leadership assassinated their political rivals. The Ba’ath government stagnated Kurdish insurrection, suppressed Shi’a communities, and disputed territory with Iran and Kuwait. Saddam Hussein, the final and most notorious leader of the Ba’ath Party, maintained power and suppressed Shi’ite and Kurdish rebellions with massive and indiscriminate violence.

The Ba’ath Party was infamous for having a class orientation that marginalized millions in the poorest sections of Iraqi society. Southern Iraq and some areas of Baghdad, populated mostly by Shi’a migrants from southern rural areas, have historically been home to the poorest people.

Iraq’s modern history has seen the most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions following the 2003 US-led occupation. There is plenty of collected anecdotal evidence that suggests that the elites of the Ba’ath Party were targeted by the poor and oppressed before the Ba’athist regime fell to US-led coalition forces. The US-led occupation then exacerbated conditions on the ground by promoting Iraqi organizations that were founded on ethnicity, religion, or sect rather than politics. These policies emphasized differences and divided coexisting communities.

Because the modern nation-state of Iraq is made up of territorial boundaries originally designed and imposed by the British, warring groups over tribal, religious, and sectarian lines have been condensed together. So far, authoritarian regimes have been the only systems of government that have had success at keeping the integrity of these boundaries intact.

Under the Ottoman Empire, territorial borders were changed constantly reflecting the emergence of new conflicts, the changing nature of older conflicts, and the rise of powerful threats. Subdivisional borders were porous and tribes traveled through them constantly giving extreme variability to population figures.

The idea of dividing Iraq into smaller states was floated by the US-led coalition that invaded and occupied the country. If the current success of ISIS in capturing a state-sized territory from northern Syria to western Iraq has shown us anything, it is that the Western idea of nation building is failing in that part of the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire has been gone for less than 100 years, and that is a very short time to expect an entire region of varying peoples and communities to completely change their worldview, overcome their differences, and get along.

Instead, maybe the Western cognitive orientation of the Middle East, based on Western interests and state security, is what needs to be changed. At the very least, it needs to be reexamined. If conflict in Iraq breaks that nation-state back into smaller pieces, is that really such a bad thing? Is it really that important to keep artificial boundaries that were created by Western powers with little to no regard to what the citizens of that country wanted?

Whatever the outcome, the people of Iraq should decide their own fate.

The ISIS offensive has thus far been successful in Iraq, but it will most likely be stalled north of the Shi’a-dominated capital of Baghdad. This will potentially split Iraq along an ethno-religious-sectarian divide. This could lead to a prolonged and bloody standoff that could see the current borders of Iraq crumble.

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