The Two Competing Middle-Run Scenarios for Iraq

Commentary No. 380, July 1, 2014

The worldwide attention to the growing strength of the forces led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has spawned an enormous debate about what ought to be done by all non-ISIS actors to contain what is widely perceived as a very dangerous movement. At some point however, the expansion of ISIS will reach its limits, and Iraq and the larger region will settle down into some de facto arrangement and set of boundaries. We might think of this as the middle-run scenario.

The world actors can only decide – and promote – one of the two really competing middle-run scenarios for Iraq, and they are very different indeed. One is a partition of Iraq into three autonomous ethnic states (at least de facto, possibly formally). The second is a reunified inclusive Iraqi state, based on Iraqi nationalism. These alternatives, to the extent they are openly discussed, are usually presented as an analytic debate. They are in fact a political debate.

The partition of Iraq into three ethnic states – Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd – has been discussed and promoted long before ISIS appeared on the scene as an aggressive movement. The basic argument has usually been the existence of inherent and long-standing ethnic hostilities in Iraq combined with geographic concentration of the three major ethnic groups. The proponents tend to say that the ethnic hostilities are unending and the only way stability will be restored to Iraq is to recognize this reality.

There are problems with these arguments. The first is that the so-called inherent hostilities have long been compatible with contrary practices, such as intermarriage between the groups and peaceful cohabitation in many areas, especially urban areas. The historic ethno-geographic concentration has been magnified and consecrated in the last ten years by a considerable amount of ethnic purging, a consequence rather than a cause of the current intense conflict.

The second is that partition will not create ethnically homogeneous states, since there will remain ethnic minorities in the three new states. I speak here not only of the surviving non-purged persons of each of the three main ethnic groups, but of course also of the smaller ethnic groups, such as Christians, Turkmen, Shabak (Shiite Kurds), and (unavowed) religious agnostics. Perfect ethnic homogeneity is an unrealizable objective anywhere.

To see how true this is, one has only to look at Yugoslavia, where the concept of breaking down a unified state into its “ethnic” components has been played out – with the serious and continuing consequences that we know. The Yugoslav example underlines the third and most cogent argument against this scenario. Before partition, Yugoslavia was an important geopolitical actor with a strong economy. It is no longer. After partition, shall we also say of Iraq that it had once been an important geopolitical actor with a strong economy, but is no longer?

If we turn to the alternative scenario, its merits are that it precisely avoids the pitfalls of the first scenario. But on what basis would it be possible to construct such a scenario? Obviously only one: opposition to the imperialist role of the United States (and the western world in general) in Iraq. This is exactly why some groups favor it strongly, and others oppose it strongly. Inside Iraq today, this outcome is being pursued by only one major Iraqi actor, the Sadrists. Muqtada al-Sadr heads a Shiite movement that has both political and military strength and was severely persecuted under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless he has said from the beginning that he wants to work both with serious Sunni movements (those located in the sheikdoms and those among urban intellectuals and professionals, even ex-Baathists) and with the main Kurdish movements. His one proviso is that they will collectively oppose any further role for the United States in Iraq.

There are many open questions in the very short run. One is how far the United States is ready to go to foil the Sadrist scenario, and how much capacity it has to stop al-Sadr. The second is how ready Iran is to sanction the dilution of a purely Shiite government in Iraq in favor of an anti-imperialist but multiethnic Iraqi government. The third is who will assume the role of champion of the non-ISIS Sunni groups in Iraq. If the United States seems to be trying to play that role by making a deal with Iran, would Saudi Arabia not prefer to play that role, and thereby remain a major geopolitical actor in the region? The fourth is how Turkey can best extract itself from the ISIS nightmare it partially helped to create.

And of course, whichever scenario turns out to be the chosen alternative has great implications for Syria and Lebanon – and for Palestine.