As an author of two books on Middle East politics: War Clouds in the Gulf and Anatomy of Terror as well as a number of articles on related topics posted on my website, I have to confess to a long term morbid fascination with the build up to the current situation in both Syria and Iraq where the respective governments now find themselves facing an increasingly belligerent Sunni insurrection.
I offer the following, not so much as expert informed opinion, but rather more as a way of starting a conversation about Iraq and clarifying some of the main issues for my own satisfaction. It may also be that what I have noticed is helpful to some of my readers – or alternately it may provoke others to add their own insights. Please feel free to comment.
My first observation is that since, in many situations outside Iraq and Syria, the Sunni live in apparent peace with the Shi’ites, it seems more likely that it is long term discontent with local factors in Syria and Iraq that have caused the severe reaction against government control. As with many instances of terrorism there is probably an added dimension in that those offended by current conditions have a belief that violence might succeed in correcting the perceived injustices.
Secondly although both the Sunni and Shi’ite factions in the Muslim world have long believed that the other faction represents a form of heresy for Islam, since those with similar views have tended to settle preferentially among their own groups, those local arrangements have undergone considerable stress when external Eastern and Western powers have encouraged control systems which have resulted in targeted discrimination against one or more of the main religious groupings. For example in the early 1920s, Churchill redrew the boundaries to split Kurdistan amongst surrounding nations like Turkey and Iraq and carved off Kuwait in order to provide Britain with easy access to oil. The regional divisions are best understood as separate territories with each region being united by culture and religious affiliations.
Although dealing with a single state has economic advantages to the superpowers, particularly when it comes to buying oil, imposing artificial unity in Iraq where there are three distinct groups and separate interests has unfortunate consequences. For example every week for months there have been mass bombings – apparently instigated by militant supporters of the two major rival Islamic sects against rival communities. Although the total numbers of civilian deaths are still far below that caused by the US invasion of Iraq, the unease (and at times helpless rage) of the targeted communities makes any peaceful resolution increasingly unlikely.
While the superpowers have been more than happy to decide which of the rival groups they would prefer to deal with, it did not help that Russia finished up supporting Assad in Syria even although he represented a minority faction (the Alawites). In Iraq the US changed from first supporting Saddam Hussein (a Sunni) in the Iraqi war with Iran and then, after the later US invasion, changed their affiliation still further by encouraging a Western model of democracy which took no account of the ill-feeling between the two biggest groups in the country.
Since the Shi’ite faction outnumbered the Sunni, (in total, rather than across regions) this meant the effective disenfranchisement of the Sunni who were strong numerically in the North West and the establishment of a strongly pro-Shi’ite government.
In Syria initially the Al Qaeda breakaway group representing a hard-line Sunni extremist element acted as a focus for a widespread Sunni unease with an increasingly hard-line Shi’ite type government. Buoyed by success in North East Syria and by the by the widening support from private sources in place like Saudi-Arabia, the 7000 or so insurgent mainly Sunni rebels took advantage of the increasing chaos in the Sunni dominated area of Iraq and offered to set up a Sunni biased Islamic State straddling the two countries. The largest and fastest growing of the individual rebel groups coalesced as ISIS (ISIL) This group has a stated goal of restoring a medieval Islamic state, or caliphate, in Iraq and Greater Syria, also known as the Levant — traditional names for a region stretching from southern Turkey to Egypt on the eastern Mediterranean. Pew surveys in Muslim countries show that away from the centres of rebellion there is little support for ISIS and Muslim leaders world wide have been repeating that ISIS actions are unacceptable to true followers of Islam.
The initial success of the rebels appears to have taken the US and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s government by surprise. The US leadership in particular seem bewildered that their US $15 billion spent on training the government forces seemed to have so little effect when the chips were down. The army in the North which on paper clearly outnumbered the rebels simply threw down their weapons and surrendered. At the same time, some of the commentators have been pointing to the inevitability of the rebellion. Firstly the initial area targeted by the militants including the largely Sunni city of Mosul was already a centre of discontent in that Prime Minister Maliki, after an initial and somewhat token attempt to include Sunni in his cabinet had yielded to hard liners and in effect developed policy favouring Shi’ites. Arbitrary changes of legislation and the removal of key Sunni leaders culminated in some Sunni areas being totally neglected. Rivals to Maliki were sidelined and popular radicals like Moqtada al-Sadr were taken out of positions of potential threat. Although in one sense this reduced immediate threat, the loss of popular leaders increased the number of potential enemies.
Another problem dates from when Saddam Hussein had been in control and it was considered mandatory for all senior officials to be members of the Baath party. Because there would have been no official leadership had all the Baathists been deposed, when the Americans arrived, the US had originally insisted that only Baathists with direct involvement with Hussein’s leadership structure be removed. As a consequence many of the other Baathists had continued in positions of responsibility. Because Maliki did not see them as particularly supportive, in 2010 when many Shi’ites were asking that candidates for election should be disqualified for connections with the Baath party Malaki joined in this move. In the 2010 election Malaki actually lost to the party led by Iyad Allawi Iraqi National Movement (INM). Malaki refused to accept the result, and persuaded the courts to rule it should not be the list with the most votes that would form the new government, but rather who could form the largest coalition . The prime minister then out-manoeuvred Allawi by offering government posts to the Sunni who were threatening to object. Subsequently it emerged that a significant proportion of the Sunni votes had been disqualified from the ballot.
Although the 2011 withdrawal of the US forces was made to appear as a hand-over to a government now ready to rule but a number of intractable problems began to emerge. Large numbers of Sunni supporters were mysteriously murdered in Baghdad. The lack of US surveillance on the borders allowed potential enemies freer access to the country and although on paper there were plenty of soldiers in the army, a good number of these were not particularly well trained, and in any case the Sunni soldiers were so disillusioned with the Shi’ite government that they had little stomach for carrying out Government policy in Sunni areas. The police, mainly recruited from local areas, were similarly parochial in their interests and subject to local pressures. The Kurdish part of the army was possibly firmer in their opposition to the Sunni dissidents of ISIS but this was more by way of mounting a spirited defence of their own territory rather than offering support to Malaki’s government. The Kurds had been seriously offended when Malaki had previously tried to establish stronger control in the Northern Kurdish area by settling Arabs in their territory, particularly in the cities of Irbil and Kirkuk.
The prospects for a united Iraq, or a Government in Iraq with the interests of all its citizens at heart seems as remote as ever. No doubt the small number of rebels can be beaten in the short term by superior force, but in the absence of genuine goodwill it is hard to see the underlying problems disappearing.
I invite the readers to add their own understandings to the above.