Iraq before our invasion was three separate pseudo-states held together by a powerful security apparatus under Saddam. If you like historical explanations, this disparate collection was midwifed by the British following WWI, as they drew borders in the MidEast to their own liking, with often no connection to the ground-truth of the real ethnic, religious and tribal boundaries.
That mess held together more or less until the U.S. foolishly broke it apart in 2003 with no real understanding of what it did. As Saddam was removed, and his security regime dissolved alongside most of civilian society, the seams broke open.
The Kurds quickly created a de facto state of their own, with its own military (the peshmerga), government and borders. U.S. money and pressure restrained them from proclaiming themselves independent, even as they waged border wars with Turkey and signed their own oil contracts.
The Sunni-Shia rift fueled everything that happened in Iraq, and is happening now. The U.S. never had a long game for this, but never stopped meddling in the short-term. The Surge was one example. The U.S. bought off the Sunni bulk with actual cash “salaries” to their fighters (the U.S. first called them the Orwellian “Concerned Local Citizens” and then switched to “Sons of Iraq,” which sounded like an old Bob Hope road movie title.) The U.S. then also used Special Forces to assassinate Sunni internal enemies– a favored sheik need only point at a rival, label him al-Qaeda, and the night raids happened. A lull in the killing did occur as a result of the Surge, but was only sustained as long as U.S. money flowed in. As the pay-off program was “transitioned” to the majority Shia central government, it quickly fell apart.
The Shias got their part of the deal when, in 2010, in a rush to conclude a Prime Ministerial election that would open the door to a U.S. excuse to pack up and leave Iraq, America allowed the Iranians to broker a deal where we failed. The Sunnis were marginalized, a Shia government was falsely legitimized, Iranian influence increased, the U.S. claimed victory, and then scooted our military home.
But the departure of the U.S. military, and the handing over of relations to the ever-limp fortress American embassy, left Iraq’s core problems intact. Last year’s Sunni siege of Fallujah only underscored the naughty secret that western Iraq had been and still is largely under Sunni control with very little (Shia) central government influence. That part of Iraq flows seamlessly over the artificial border with Syria, and the successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a war zone that now takes in both countries should not be a surprise.
The titular head of Iraq now, Nuri al-Maliki, is watching it all unravel in real-time. He has become scared enough to call for U.S. airstrikes to protect his power. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will comply, though covert strikes and some level of Special Forces action may happen behind the scenes. That won’t work of course. What the full weight of the U.S. military could not do over nine years, a few drone killings cannot do. It’s like using a can opener to try and catch fish.
What Might Happen Next
Here are some possible scenarios. The Kurds are the easy ones; they will keep on doing what they have been doing. They will fight back effectively and keep their oil flowing. They’ll see Baghdad’s influence only in the rear-view mirror.
The Sunnis will at least retain de facto control of western Iraq, maybe more. They are unlikely to be set up to govern in any formal way, but may create some sort of informal structure to collect taxes, enforce parts of the law and chase away as many Shias as they can. Violence will continue, sometimes hot and nasty, sometimes low-level score settling.
The Shias are the big variable. Maliki’s army seems in disarray, but if he only needs it to punish the Sunnis with violence it may prove up to that. Baghdad will not “fall.” The city is a Shia bastion now, and the militias will not give up their homes. A lot of blood may be spilled, but Baghdad will remain Shia-controlled and Maliki will remain in charge in some sort of limited way.
The U.S. will almost certainly pour arms and money into Iraq in the same drunken fashion we always have. Special Forces will arrive to train and advise. It’ll be enough to keep Maliki in power but not much more than that. Domestically we’ll have to endure a barrage of “who lost Iraq?” and the Republicans will try and blast away at Obama for not “doing enough.” United States is poised to order a mandatory evacuation of the embassy in Iraq, Fox News reported, but that is unlikely. “Unessential” personnel will be withdrawn, many slated to join the embassy out of Washington will be delayed or canceled, but the embarrassment of closing Fort Apache down would be too much for Washington to bear. The U.S. will use airstrike and drones if necessary to protect the embassy so that there will be no Benghazi scenario.
What is Unlikely to Happen
The U.S. will not intervene in any big way, absent protecting the embassy. Obama has cited many times the ending of the U.S. portion of the Iraq war as one of his few foreign policy successes and he won’t throw that under the bus. The U.S. backed off from significant involvement in Syria, and has all but ignored Libya following Benghazi, and that won’t change.
Almost none of this has to do with al Qaeda or international terrorism, though those forces always profit from chaos.
The Turks may continue to snipe at the Kurds on their disputed border, but that conflict won’t turn hot. The U.S. will keep the pressure on to prevent that, and everyone benefits if the oil continues to flow.
The Iranians will not intervene any more than the Americans might. A little help to Malaki here, some weapons there, but Iran is only interested in a secure western border and the Sunni Surge should not threaten that significantly enough to require a response. Iran also has no interest in giving the U.S. an excuse to fuss around in the area. A mild level of chaos in Iraq suits Iran’s needs just fine for now.
There are still many fools at loose in the castle. Here’s what Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics said: “There is hope… that this really scary, dangerous moment will serve as a catalyst to bring Iraqis together, to begin the process of reconciliation.”
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, brought out a tired trope, on Twitter no less: “The U.S. has a permanent Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We have suffered and bled together, and we will help in time of crisis.”
The war in Iraq was lost as it started. There was no way for America to win it given all of the above, whether the troops stayed forever or not. The forces bubbling inside Iraq might have been contained a bit, or a bit longer, but that’s about all that could have been expected. Much of the general chaos throughout the Middle East now is related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how that upset multiple balances of power and uneasy relationships. The Iraq war will be seen as one of the most significant foreign policy failures of recent American history. That too is inevitable.
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