The lightning speed with which the ultra-hard-line fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have gobbled up territory in northern Iraq is a measure of the extent of the rot in the Iraqi state.
The outlines of a de facto Sunni mini-state emerged in some of ISIL’s conquests over the past week, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and its largest oil refinery, Beiji. The extremist movement that operates on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border says it intends to build a medieval-style Islamic caliphate in the territory it has seized. Iraq’s U.S.-trained armed forces fled or folded in the face of ISIL’s advance, demoralized and weakened by the sectarian governance of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia strongman whose security services were conducting mass detentions of Sunni political rivals even before U.S. troops left the country in 2011. And moves by Iraq’s other sects and ethnic groups — the Shia Arabs in Baghdad and the south remobilizing sectarian militias; the Kurdish peshmerga occupying the long-contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk — have accelerated the centrifugal forces that have long threatened to pull Iraq apart.
Many commentators inside and outside the Middle East now ask whether the modern map of the region drawn by the victorious European colonial powers after World War I will survive. Iraq, stitched together by the British out of Ottoman Mesopotamian provinces, looks particularly vulnerable. Absent a strong regional security paradigm to reinforce those boundaries, both Iraq and Syria are threatening to collapse into smaller, purely ethnic or sectarian sovereign states.
Thus the nasty circular logic to Middle Eastern conflicts: The region’s religious and ethnic groups each feel weak and threatened by the others. Each group seeks the support of larger foreign powers, which use the region as a proxy battlefield — a lower-cost option than direct confrontation with their main regional rivals. Peace, or at least a semblance of stability, has historically come either when one power has utterly vanquished its rivals — Babylonian-, Roman- or Mongol-style — or when world and regional powers have brokered deals to contain the danger of a wider war.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed the sectarian tensions that the dictator from the Sunni minority had suppressed and manipulated. It also brought on the end of the Pax Americana that had persisted since the first Gulf War in 1990, in which the U.S. was the uncontested military power in the region. That’s because the occupation of Iraq, ironically, revealed the limits of American power: The massive “shock and awe” application of overwhelming force may have toppled Saddam’s regime, but the eight-year U.S. occupation failed to produce a regime friendly to U.S. regional interests.
The resulting decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East coincided with Iran’s determination to expand its own regional reach (and Saudi proxy warfare to roll back Tehran’s influence), the failure of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and the emergence of new players on the scene such as Russia and Turkey. That, and the increasingly violent cycle of revolution and counterrevolution that began sweeping across the Arab world in early 2011, has put the Middle East, and Iraq in particular, back in play in the bloodiest of ways.
Still, as deadly as ISIL is, it doesn’t represent a viable new political order in the Middle East. With about 10,000 fighters, many of whom hail neither from Syria nor Iraq nor even the Arab world, the group doesn’t have the numbers, capability and indigenous legitimacy to conquer and rule over a huge, diverse capital city such as Damascus or Baghdad.
It’s not just the mass executions that are going to leave a bad taste. In the chain-smoking Arab world, the days are numbered for a regime whose interpretation of Islamic law is so severe that it bans cigarettes. And an ISIL regime in northern Iraq can’t exactly put oil on the international market, or get Beiji‘s barely functioning gasoline refineries and pipelines up and running at full speed. The billions of dollars in U.S.-donated war materiel that ISIL is now capturing from the Iraqi army can’t really be put to effective use without substantial maintenance, training and support capability that ISIL lacks.
Substantial checks also remain on the nationalist impulses of both Kurds in the north and Shias in the south. The southern city of Basra may have a ton of oil and access to the Persian Gulf, but if it broke away from the rest of Iraq with a Shia sectarian agenda, it could find itself dangerously isolated or becoming a battleground for Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Kurdish leaders in the north have consistently shown more interest in consolidating control and the economic viability of the Kurdish region than in national independence. For all their success at boosting trade and relations with their neighbors — particularly Turkey and Iran, each of which has large Kurdish minorities with national aspirations of their own — the old rules still apply. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has power, and the support of these key neighbors, as long as it is bringing stability to its part of a weak Iraqi state. It makes enemies if it declares statehood.
The Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk is a case in point. Kurds regard the city as their cultural capital, from which they were ethnically cleansed by Saddam in the 1990s, but annexing the multiethnic city could bring the Iraqi civil war into the KRG domain for the first time. Kirkuk has remained relatively stable throughout the post-Saddam era, in part because the city’s multiethnic and multilingual leadership class — made of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen — made a point of trying to always work together. Since the Kurdish takeover, that spirit of cooperation is already under threat, with at least one Turkmen group staging a heavily armed press conference calling for the Kurdish forces to leave. And disenfranchised Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk could become a conduit for ISIL attacks inside the Kurdish region. That’s something that the Kurdish ruling parties — which run Kurdistan a lot like an old-fashioned Middle Eastern security state — may end up taking more seriously than nationalist aspirations for Kirkuk. Their legitimacy and power rest in large part on keeping Kurdistan free of the violence that has engulfed the rest of the country.
But if reports of Iraq’s demise are much exaggerated, the end of the Iraqi civil war seems years away. When the Obama administration came to power in 2009, there were high hopes of a grand bargain over the Middle East, an openness to talks with Iran to settle the major conflicts of the region. Today, even if negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program prove to be a precursor to cooperation in Iraq and the region’s other hot spots, a grand bargain in all probability is a pipe dream. That’s because every country with regional leverage stakes appears locked into using wider Middle Eastern conflicts to channel its own domestic, often sectarian conflicts.
The sources of Iraq’s problems are both domestic and foreign. Resolving them will require a level of rapprochement on both fronts that, thus far, seems beyond the imaginations of the key players.