The war weariness of America, together with the unmanageable chaos in Syria, and now the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have all combined to create fast-shifting regional politics. Some commentators have pointed to an inevitable cooperation between the United States, Iran, and Turkey. Others view any military cooperation—if not political dialogue—between Iran and the United States unlikely for quite some time to come. Meanwhile, the ISIL territorial advances, into a vast swath of Sunni-inhabited Arab lands in Iraq, are likely to degenerate into further sectarian and ethnic tensions.
The fragmentation of Iraq — a possibility now more real than in the past—into three states would not fail to generate new tensions, which in turn would spill over into the neighboring countries of Iran, Turkey, and Jordan. That might easily fuel foreign intervention to end or contain the chaos in the region.
Some observers have noted that U.S. Democrats’ design for the partition of Iraq is finally coming to fruition. Since 2006, the U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden has spoken of and written about transitioning to a federal power-sharing arrangement in Iraq as the only way to stop the killing and chaos, while still holding Iraq together. While the federalist strategy offers an alternative to current insecurity in Iraq, it clearly lacks specifics such as the mechanisms by which oil wealth and power would be fairly distributed, given the lack of national consensus on such a system. But then the question arises: what does sending 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq with a fairly vague mission mean?
Another key question that needs to be addressed is: How did we get here? The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2013 left Iraqi security forces (ISF) in charge of a highly divided country with an evidently disorganized army in central and northern Iraq. All this, while the Saudis and other Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region kept funding—through public support as well as private donations—a variety of militant Sunni groups in both Iraq and in Syria. Their goal has been to counterbalance Iran’s influence in Iraq, and to bring down the Assad regime in Syria. It is clear that without such funding, sectarianism in Syria and Iraq might very well have reached a dead-end. Now, the next logical question is: who will benefit from a dismembered Iraq?
Surely Iran’s grip on southern Iraq, where the vast majority of Shiites reside and oil reserves are plenty, will become tighter. This prospect is bound to enhance Tehran’s role in the region. Likewise, Turkey will most likely reach an accord with the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, making it possible to control the forces of the PKK and their attacks inside Turkey. The more the Kurdish government in Erbil exports their oil to Turkey, the more addictive their already strong economic ties to Turkey will become.
The Sunni-inhabited areas of Iraq will, by contrast, fall short of constituting a viable entity in large part because they are bereft of any natural resources and thus lack necessary financial resources to survive, let alone prosper, as an autonomous state. Although the majority of Sunni groups in Iraq do not belong to—or even approve of—ISIL at the grassroots level, some of them identify with it. On balance, however, the mainstream Sunnis are divided and immensely weak. Forming an independent state is a losing proposition for the Iraqi Sunnis. They are almost certain to suffer devastating economic and political consequences if they do.
Barring any unforeseen events, Iraq is headed for either a decentralized, federal system at best or partition at worst. These dynamics will create a new regional political game, in which Iran, Turkey, and the neighboring countries of the Persian Gulf, most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, are compelled to stake their claims in the future Iraq. It would be premature to hazard a guess as to what motive lies behind each country’s policy, given that all these neighboring countries pursue conflicting interests in Iraq. What is evident, however, is that the U.S. ability to influence the formation of a new government in Iraq remains unclear, despite the fact that the Obama administration appears bent on forcing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down.
Mahmood Monshipouri, Ph.D., Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University, and Visiting Professor of Middle Eastern Studies/Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
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