Why you should care
Because 11 years later, we’re back to talking about the same ol’ sectarian strife in one of the most dangerous regions on Earth.
It’s too late for an outsider to save Iraq.
It’s been eleven years since the U.S. arrived in the country, and five days since the Islamic extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) seized control of major urban centers of the country. Now, as ISIS presses toward Baghdad, Iraq’s slim hope lies in the chance of a more inclusive government — one that would move the country away from the sectarian and divisive policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and toward a coalition embracing all of the country’s religious and ethnic groups. Which is precisely what the U.S. should try to work for.
But it’s easier said than done, as ever. Suspicion and hatred within Iraq run deep. And ISIS, being the first to establish “facts on the ground,” is controlling not only territory but also the information war.
What’s much likelier is that we will see a partition of the country, ending Iraq as the world has known it since 1920.
And as the borders shift once more, the Middle East is at risk of a full-scale regional war.
There is very little holding the country together.
It comes back to the country’s prime minister since 2006, Shia politician al-Maliki, who has systematically alienated the minority Sunnis in Iraq, pushing them out of positions of influence in government and the military. A former Shia dissident under Saddam Hussein, al-Maliki has used the police and military for narrow partisan purposes, ceased paying Sunni militias that maintained security in their provinces and sought to arrest prominent Sunni politicians, including Iraq’s vice president, the minister of finance and a prominent Sunni parliament member from Anbar province — all while brutally putting down demonstrations protesting these actions. The subjugation of opposition has created a fertile breeding ground for extremism, making it all too easy for Sunnis to either join or harbor ISIS militants.
All the while, Iraq’s third major ethnic group, the Kurds, who occupy a generally prosperous and stable region in the North, are watching this with growing questions about why they should remain part of a warring and dysfunctional state.
There is very little holding the country together at this point.
Second, of course, is the war in Syria that pits Sunni rebels of both extreme and moderate stripe against the Assad regime. The conflict has been a magnet for Islamic extremists from across the globe that would never otherwise have shown up in the region. These same extremists are swelling ISIS’s already populous ranks.
It is the West’s inaction in Syria that has ensured that extremists retain their advantage.
ISIS itself is a linear descendent of the former Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had been led by one of the world’s most brutal and charismatic terrorists, the late Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. During the Iraq War between 2003-2011, the group gained great skill in urban warfare and insurgency tactics, and all of that endures in this successor organization. Meanwhile, funds and weapons flowing to Syria’s rebels from Sunni supporters in the Middle East and Persian Gulf have ended up disproportionately in the hands of ISIS.
But though today it seems that American military presence can’t save the country, perhaps it could have — if the U.S. and al-Maliki had been able to agree on terms for a continuing U.S. presence (a “Bilateral Security Agreement”). U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq after 2011 removed one of the major restraining influences on al-Maliki’s sectarian impulses. It has reduced intelligence eyes and ears that could have been instrumental in both detecting and combating the rising terrorist threat; it’s also removed our chance at fully preparing the Iraqi security forces to handle these ISIS attacks. And it is the West’s inaction in Syria — an unwillingness not only to intervene but even to substantially bolster the moderate forces — that has ensured that the better organized and funded extremists retain their advantage.
Iraq is likely to be redrawn once more — this time into three parts.
The Middle East has never been a less predictable region than it is today.
Assuming the ISIS offensive can be held short of Baghdad, those regions will be: a Kurdish state in the north, a Shia state in the southeast and a Sunni state in the west — the latter possibly including part of Syria and probably featuring a struggle between ISIS extremists and Sunnis who still oppose them. The last time nation-state lines were redrawn in the Middle East was in 1916 when the British politician, Sir Mark Sykes and the French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot did so calmly with a ruler on a map (leaving aside the territorial adjustments after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973). This time, guns and blood will be the instruments, and it will be hard to stop or limit the process once it’s underway.
The Middle East has never been a less predictable region than it is today, amid this violence in Iraq and Syria and in the wake of the Arab Spring. The region itself has complex webs of connection; the Iraqi Shia have Shia-dominated Iran; ISIS has Sunni supporters throughout the Persian Gulf and Middle East; and the Kurds have ethnic brethren in Syria, Turkey and Iran. None of the competing groups, save possibly the Kurds, will settle easily on an outcome. They will want more. It will escalate. Think Syria on a much larger stage — with ethnic groups fighting proxy wars for outside powers or with those powers tempted to intervene directly on one side or the other.
A dark chapter appears to be opening in a Middle East that just three years ago could be seen as on the threshold of a new and democratic awakening. Just as Churchill once said, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume,” Middle East specialists are fond of saying that “what starts in the Middle East seldom stays in the Middle East.” It will spill out — onto the global web of terrorism, onto alliance networks, onto energy markets. We must all prepare for the likelihood that what we see happening now in this small part of the world will have a profound impact on us all.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).