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Iraq: Time for a Tranquiliser

It’s time for everybody in Iraq to take a tranquiliser. The media will go on fizzing with apocalyptic speculations for a week or so, because that kind of talk always sells, but the war of movement is over.

It never was much of a war: a third of Iraq was captured by ISIS and various Sunni militias in one week at a cost that probably didn’t exceed a thousand lives (plus however many were murdered by ISIS afterwards). The Islamist radicals have now reached approximately the limits of the territory in Iraq that has a Sunni Arab majority, and they’d be mad to throw away all their gains by trying to conquer Baghdad.

There are lots of young men fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant) who would love to be martyred in such an attack, but ISIS is run by grown-ups. They know that they can’t go any farther without running out of the popular support that let a few thousand fighters sweep through the Sunni lands so easily.

Baghdad is defended by Shia militias that already number in the tens of thousands and will probably soon pass the hundred thousand mark. Most of them know far less about fighting than the ISIS veterans, but they are just as keen on martyrdom and they would outnumber the ISIS fighters twenty-to-one, maybe fifty-to-one. Two or three days of street fighting in the huge, now mostly Shia city of Baghdad and ISIS would have no more troops.

So ISIS has advanced about as far as it is going to go. And, by the way, so has the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG’s Peshmerga troops now control not only the disputed oil city of Kirkuk but almost 100 percent of traditionally Kurdish territory in Iraq, compared to only about 70 percent two weeks ago.

During most of that time the Peshmerga and ISIS observed a de facto ceasefire while they concentrated on the territory that really mattered to them. There have been some exchanges of fire between ISIS and Peshmerga in the past few days along the ill-defined border between their new holdings, but nothing very serious.

There might have been a major clash around Tel Afar, where KRG President Masoud Barzani offered to commit Peshmerga to the city’s defence just before ISIS attacked, but President Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad rejected his offer. The Kurdish troops withdrew, and the city fell to ISIS.

Almost certainly, the reason Maliki declined Barzani’s offer was that it came with major strings attached. Having grabbed the territory he wanted, Barzani was asking the government in Baghdad to recognise Kurdistan’s new borders. Maliki’s reason for  refusing, even though it meant losing Tel Afar, would have been that he still hopes for a third term and could not afford to be seen giving away “Arab” territory to the Kurds.

In ideological terms, ISIS would like to incorporate Kurdistan into its ever-expanding Islamic caliphate, which would erase all borders within the (Sunni) Muslim world, but in practical terms it knows that it cannot do that, at least for the moment. In ideological terms, ISIS would also like to convert or exterminate all the Shias in the world, starting with the 20 million in Iraq, but in practical terms it cannot do that either.

So the borders of the three successors to the current state of Iraq, Kurdish, Shia Arab and Sunni Arab, have already been drawn, with the important addition that the Sunni Arab successor extends across the old international frontier to include eastern Syria as well. These changes will not be reversed: the Shia-majority rump of the former Iraqi state that extends from Baghdad to Basra does not have the strength to restore the old centralised Iraq.

Is this really such a disaster? Not for the Kurds, obviously, and not really for the Shia Arabs either: they still have all of their own territory (i.e. Shia-majority territory) and most of the oil. Nor will the Baghdad government which still rules that territory need US air power to save it. (US President Obama has probably just been stalling until that became clear).

The problematic bit is the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. They are clearly delighted to have shaken off the corrupt and oppressive sectarian rule of President Nuri al-Maliki, but for the near future at least they will have to contend with the unappetising prospect of being ruled instead by the incorruptible but brutally intolerant leaders of ISIS.

It should be borne in mind, however, that even now the great majority of the armed men who have created this new Sunni proto-state are not ISIS fanatics. Most of them are either tribal militiamen or former members of the Baathist-era army that was dissolved by the invaders after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They belong to organisations that have real political power, and they vastly outnumber the ISIS fanatics.

Those same organisations broke the hold of “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, the ancestor to ISIS, in western Iraq in 2007-09, and it’s entirely possible that in a few years’s time they will end up doing it again to ISIS. But the borders of the new Sunni Arab state, stretching from western and northern Iraq into eastern Syria, may survive. There’s no particular harm in that.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 8. (“There are…easily”; and “There might…Kurds”)

Kurdistan’s Big Chance

Every disaster creates opportunities for somebody. If the Kurds of Iraq play their cards right, they could finally end up with the borders they want, fully recognised by a government in Baghdad that has been saved by Kurdish troops.

The Kurds have this opportunity because the large but totally demoralised Iraqi army has fallen apart over the past week. The Sunni Islamist fanatics of ISIS are now less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, and Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is the only military force left in Iraq that could take the offensive against them.

It is very unlikely that the ISIS fighters can take Baghdad. There are probably no more than 5,000 of them in Iraq, and their stunning recent victories were achieved more by frightening the Iraqi army to death than by actual fighting. Most of those ISIS troops are needed to hold down their recent conquests, including the large cities of Mosul and Tikrit.

ISIS couldn’t spare more than a thousand or so of its fighters for a push into Baghdad, which has seven million people, most of them Shias. The Shia militias, which are taking in tens of thousands of volunteers a day, don’t have much in the way of military skills, but they would fight – and street fighting in a big city eats up soldiers’s lives.

Either ISIS will not attack Baghdad, or it will try and fail. However, what remains of the Iraqi army will certainly not be able to take the offensive and drive ISIS out of all the territory that has already been lost. Short of direct Iranian or American military intervention on the ground, the only force that might be able to do that is Peshmerga.

Peshmerga has advanced to take control of territories abandoned by the Iraqi army that were historically part of Kurdistan, most notably the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields, but so far it has not tried to stop the ISIS fighters moving south. “There is no need for Peshmerga forces to move into these areas,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Pesh Merga Affairs.

But Peshmerga forces are close enough to the roads leading south from Mosul to Baghdad to cut the ISIS line of communications and stop the advance on Baghdad if they were ordered to. The ISIS fighters have significant support from the Sunni population in the area they have overrun, so trying to drive them out of Mosul and Tikrit would cost Peshmerga many casualties, but it’s the only force in Iraq that is even in a position to try.

So the Kurdistan Regional Government must now be considering what price it could charge Baghdad for that service. As an adviser to the KRG told the Washington Post, “The Iraqi government has been holding the Kurds hostage, and it’s not reasonable for them to expect the Kurds to give them any help in this situation without compromising to Kurdish demands.”

What would the Kurds demand in return? What they want most is to recover the territories that were taken from them by the Baathist regime in Baghdad between the 1960s and the later 1980s. Under Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and hundred of thousands driven from their lands. He then changed the provincial boundaries, and the stolen lands were repopulated with Arab settlers whom he brought in from the south.

Peshmerga troops have taken back control of much of this land in the past week, but nothing will be settled unless Baghdad formally restores the old provincial boundaries. It would also have to accept that a lot of those Arab settlers will be removed to make way for returning Kurdish families.

Such a concession would be politically impossible in normal times, but if Baghdad wants Peshmerga to fight for it, that’s the price it will probably have to pay. And it should bear in mind that the Kurds also have another option. They could just hold those territories by force, and declare independence.

The Baghdad government could do little about it: the advance of the ISIS forces means that it no longer has a common frontier with Kurdistan. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds were deterred from declaring independence because Turkey threatened to invade them if they did – Ankara worried about the impact of Kurdistan’s independence on the large Kurdish minority in Turkey – but things have changed there too.

Turkey is now the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, and regards the KRG as a reliable partner. In any case, the Turkish government will have its hands full dealing with the sudden emergence of a hostile Islamic caliphate along its southern border. Kurdish independence would still be a gamble, but the odds are that it could succeed.

One way or the other, Kurdistan is probably going to be a big winner out of this. But it will probably take the lower-risk course of trying to make a deal with Baghdad first.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“ISIS…lives”; and “So…demands”)

ISIS rises in Iraq

THE IRAQI ARMY will have to destroy Mosul in order to save it—and it’s not clear whether it can do the job even then. It isn’t so much an army as a vast system of patronage providing employment of a sort for 900,000 people.

When fewer than a thousand ISIS jihadis fought their way into Mosul, Iraq’s second city, over the past few days, most of the government’s soldiers just shed their uniforms and fled.

The government troops never felt comfortable in Mosul anyway, for they are mostly Shia Muslims and the vast majority of Mosul’s 1.8 million residents are Sunni. (Or maybe it’s only 1.3 million people now, for up to 500,000 of the city’s residents are reported to be fleeing the triumphant jihadis: Shias, non-Muslim minorities, and even Kurdish Sunnis have faced execution in other areas that have fallen under the control of ISIS.)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (an Arabic word that can mean the entire Levant, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine) began as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” during the American occupation, but it’s the Syrian civil war that turned it into a regional threat.

ISIS actually spent more time fighting other rebel forces in Syria than the Assad regime, but it gained recruits from all the Sunni Arab countries just by being on the right side.

It also got access to the money and arms that were flowing into Syria for the anti-government forces. In the past two years it has established effective control over most of sparsely populated eastern Syria, and it started moving back into western Iraq in force late last year.

In January, it seized the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, only 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, and the Iraqi army was unable to retake the city although it had suffered about 5,000 casualties, including 1,000 killed, by the end of April. But at least it stood and fought in Anbar. In Mosul on Monday, it just ran.

It ran although it outnumbered the ISIS fighters who attacked the city by at least 15-to-one, and it may not be willing to fight very hard to take it back.

The entire Iraqi government is an “institutionalised kleptocracy”, as one of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s own ministers said, and the army is no exception. Soldiers who go unpaid because their officers stole their wages are rarely willing to die for them.

The only real fighting force left in Iraq is the Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is a tough, well-armed force, but it serves what is a separate state in all but name. It apparently still holds the part of Mosul east of the river Tigris, which has a large Kurdish population, but it may not be willing to take the large number of casualties that would be involved in street-fighting to recover the main part of the city.

At a minimum the KRG would want the Baghdad government to make major concessions on the revenue and oil-exporting disputes that have poisoned its relations with the federal government before it commits its forces to a major offensive against ISIS. Or it may just decide to stand on the defensive in the Kurdish-majority territory it now holds, and use the crisis to move even closer to its ultimate goal of an independent Kurdistan.

ISIS has sent the occasional suicide-bomber into Kurdistan, but it realizes that its main fight is not with the Kurds. Having taken most of Mosul, its forces are advancing not east into Kurdistan, but south through Tikrit (which fell on Juine 11) towards Baghdad. It will not try to take Baghdad itself, most of whose seven million people are Shia, but by the end of this month it could end up in control of most of western and northern Iraq.

At this point the old Iraq-Syria border would disappear and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham would become a reality, extending 400 kilometres from Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq to Deir-es-Zor, Raqqa, and near Aleppo in Syria. It would be mostly desert and it would control only about five million people and almost no oil, but it would be ruled by an Islamist organisation so extreme that it has even been disowned by al-Qaeda.

The remaining bits of the new regional map would be the western half of Syria, still largely under the control of the Assad regime; the semi-independent state of Kurdistan; and the densely populated, Shia-majority core of Iraq between Baghdad and Basra, hard up against the border with Shia Iran. None of this is yet inevitable yet, of course. It’s a war, and wars can take unexpected turns. But it’s certainly a possibility.

It’s also a possibility that the war could get wider, as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all consider whether they need to intervene militarily to protect their own interests.

But that’s unlikely to happen this month. Later is anybody’s guess.

Iraq Ten Years Later

16 March 2013

Iraq Ten Years Later

By Gwynne Dyer

Why did George W. Bush choose 19 March, 2003 to invade Iraq, rather than some day in May, or July, or never? Because he was afraid that further delay would give United Nations arms inspectors time to refute the accusation (his sole pretext for making an unprovoked attack on an independent country) that Saddam Hussein’s regime was working on nuclear weapons.

The US president couldn’t say that, of course, and so instead his administration’s spokesmen mumbled about the need to get the war over and done with before the summer heat made fighting impossible. Yet American soldiers proved perfectly capable of operating in that summer heat during the ensuing seven years of fighting, in which over 4,000 of them were killed.

That was nothing compared to the number of Iraqi deaths. At least five times as many Iraqis have died violently in the decade since the US invasion as were killed by Saddam’s regime in the ten years before the invasion. The exact number is unknown, but Saddam’s secret police were probably killing less than 2,000 people a year in 1993-2003. An estimated 121,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the military and political struggles of the past ten years.

Iraq’s infrastructure has still not recovered to its prewar level. More than a million Iraqis still live in internal exile, unable to return to the homes from which they were “cleansed” during the Sunni-Shia sectarian war of 2006-2007. Another million have fled the country for good, including a large proportion of the country’s intellectual and professional elite.

Iraq ranks eighth from the bottom on Transparency International’s corruption index, ahead of Somalia and North Korea but below Haiti and Equatorial Guinea. The government in Baghdad, though dominated by sectarian Shia politicians, does little for the impoverished Shia majority. The Sunni minority fears and hates it. And the Kurdish ethnic minority in the north just ignores Baghdad and runs a state that is independent in all but name.

Iraq’s courts do the regime’s will, torture is endemic, and the swollen army and “security” forces (used almost exclusively for internal repression) eat up a huge share of the budget. And from the perspective of American grand strategy, the main result of the war has been to weaken the position of the US in the Gulf region and strengthen that of its perceived opponent, Iran.

The United States spent about $800 billion on the Iraq war, and will eventually spend at least another trillion dollars on military pensions, disability payments and debt service. Yet it achieved less than nothing. Why on earth did it invade in the first place?

Even the defenders of the invasion have stopped claiming that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaeda terrorists who were plotting to attack the United States. They were also plotting to overthrow and kill Saddam, as everyone with any knowledge of the Middle East already knew.

The UN weapons inspectors never found the slightest evidence that Saddam had revived the nuclear weapons programme that had been dismantled under UN supervision in the early 1990s. The people in the White House who took the decision to invade must have known that there was no such programme: the way they carefully worded their propaganda in order to avoid explicit lying is ample evidence of that.

The strategist Edward Luttwak once suggested that the real reason was that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had been too easy. After 9/11 the American people really wanted to punish somebody, and Afghanistan had not provided enough catharsis. So another invasion was an emotional necessity, and (given the American public’s ignorance about the Middle East) almost any Arab country would do.

There was certainly a parallel desire among the neo-conservatives in the Bush White House to restore American power to unchallenged dominance after what they saw as the fecklessness of Bill Clinton’s administrations in the 1990s. That required a short and successful war that would put everyone else in awe and fear of American military might – but, once again, any weak and unpopular country would have done. Why Iraq?

The closest we can come to a rational answer is the argument, common in Washington a decade ago, that permanent military bases in Iraq would give America strategic control of the entire Gulf region.

The role of those bases would not be to ensure prompt delivery of the region’s oil to the United States at a low price: only 11 percent of US oil imports come from there. The bases would instead enable the United States to block Gulf exports of oil to China if the United States found itself in a confrontation with that country. (Geo-strategic arguments are often frivolous.)

None of these explanations can justify what was done, and we haven’t even gone into the damage done to international law by this blatantly criminal act. But can we at least conclude that the world, or even just the United Nations, has learned a lesson from all this?

Probably yes for the United States, at least until memories fade. (Give it ten more years.) Not so much for the rest of the world, but then most other countries are less prone to invade faraway places anyway.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 9. (“Iraq…name”; and “Even…that”)