Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Iraq in its Geo-Political Context: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria

Recently I made a presentation to the Italian Navy at its base in the Venice Arsenale, “Iraq in its Geo-Political Context: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria.”  The talk offered my thoughts on recent political developments in Iraq, particularly how they have been affected by its neighbors. What type of arguments did I offer?
Entrance to the Venice Arsenale Naval Base and Museum
It was appropriate to make such a presentation in the Arsenale, the first industrial complex in the world, whose etymology can be traced to the Arabic language.* Begun in 1104 CE, the Arsenale developed a shipyard in which some of the most technologically advanced ships of the time were built using assembly line techniques.  Still a shipyard today, as well as a naval base, the Arsenale covers a large portion of Venice.  It is the reason Venice was able to dominate the Adriatic Sea, the Veneto and later parts of Italy’s terra firma, the Dalmatian Coast and the eastern Mediterranean Basin.
Comandante Paolo Gregoretti, base commander

I began my analysis with the proviso that understanding Iraq and its political development is only as good as the conceptual framework on which such understanding is built.  Specifically, framing Iraqi politics in the narrow sense of sectarian identities – namely using the “unholy trinity” of Shica Sunni and Kurdish identities – or through an abstract concept known as “Islam,” provides limited insights into Iraqi politics.

Rather than focusing on the recurring problems generated by framing Iraq through such well-worn stereotypes, a theme of many prior posts on The New Middle East (http://new-middle-east.blogspot.com/2009/01/10-conceptual-sins-in-analyzing-middle.html), I was more interested in examining how Iraq has been influenced by “neighborhood effects.”  Specifically, I sought to avoid a narrow case study which views Iraq as a “stand alone” nation-state.  Instead, I sought to demonstrate how the impact of Iraq’s neighbors both constrains domestic policy-making as well as offer opportunities for new political initiatives.

The verbiage emanating from neighboring regimes in Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria belies the underlying power struggle within the eastern MENA region.  No longer the military power it once was under Saddam Husayn, Iraq has become a battlefield for other regional states.  Thus to understand Iraqi politics, requires a broader purview than focusing on its domestic politics alone.

Iran and Iraq
It is ironic that the most powerful external actor in Iraq today is Iran, once characterize by the George W. Bush administration as a member of the “Axis of Evil.”  However, Iran exercises more of a veto power in Iraq than the ability to control the country’s politics on a day to day basis.
Venice Arsenale Officers Club
The core of Iran’s power is in the degree to which its commercial and construction sector has penetrated Iraq’s economy.  Hotel construction in the shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala’ is dominated by Iranian companies.  Imports of Iranian fruits and vegetable have devastated what was already a weak and neglected agricultural sector under Saddam’s regime.  In many respects, Iraq can be viewed as a satellite of the Iranian economy.

Of course, Iran exercises important political influence as well.  This influence has been magnified by the role Shica militias or Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs/al-hashad al-shacbi) are playing in fighting the so-called Islamic State (Dacish).  While not all PMUs are under Iran’s control, those which are have given Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces the opportunity to send military personnel into Iraq to train and oversee militia activities.  Working alongside the PMUs, Iranian forces are privy to much intelligence information, including US cooperation with the Iraqi Army.

More disturbing is the integration of PMUs into the Iraqi Army. This power play is meant to insure the continued political influence of pro-Iranian PMUs after Dacish is defeated. Having loyal units within the Iraqi Army gives Iran an ongoing say in military policy. 

Although the presence of loyalist PMUs within the Iraqi Army is viewed by many Iraqis as a dangerous development, an influential political committee, comprised of powerful Shica as well as Sunni politicians, has proposed a new law for a comprehensive process of national reconciliation which would be offered as a national referendum. Part of the proposed new legislation is the elimination of the PMUs. 

One long term aspect of Iraq-Iran relations which has not been given much attention is the developing commercial ties between the private sector in Iraq and Iran.  Many Iranian firms operating in Iraq are arms of the Islamic Republic. 
However, there are private sector firms which do not support the massive corruption which plagues the Tehran regime and its Revolutionary Guard forces.  To the extent that the private sectors in both countries can develop positive economic ties, there is the possibility of a counter-veiling forces developing to promote moderate political forces on both sides of the border.

Turkey and Iraq
Turkey poses a serious threat to Iraq’s stability.  Much of Turkish foreign policy under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reflects his desire to create a “new Ottomanism.” In this vision, Turkey would shed its secular Kemalist republic and establish a new Islamist state, a process which is already well underway.

As the Erdoğan regime has assumed an increasingly authoritarian character, it likewise has become much less predictable in its behavior, not just in domestic but in international politics as well.  The three variables which structure Iraq-Turkish relations are those related to the Kurds – in Turkey, Iraq and Syria - the type of regime which will emerge after the Syrian civil war, and oil resources in northwest Iraq.

After the toppling of Saddam Husayn in 2003, Turkey was most concerned with the model that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) might provide for its own rapidly expanding Kurdish population. For a time, it seemed as if this issue would be tempered by negotiations between the Erdoğan regime and the Iraqi Kurds, especially after the Turkish energy giant, Genel, began investing in the KRG and oil began to flow into Turkey.

The formation of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), led by a partnership between chairwoman, Figen Yüksekdağ, a Turk, and Selahittin Demirtaş, a Kurd, undermined the negotiations.  This was especially true after the party performed well in Turkey’s 2014 presidential elections and then became Turkey’s third largest party after the June 2015 national parliamentary elections. 
Erdoğan found the idea of a secular, leftist coalition between Turks and Kurds, one which sought to transcend the ethnic divide between the two communities, an anathema.  He was angered that the 2015 parliamentary elections did not provide his AKP with enough votes to emend the Turkish constitution.

The Kurds angered Erdoğan from another perspective as well.  His regime has watched with increasing concern and trepidation as the Syrian (Rojava or Western) Kurds have established and institutionalized their own semi-autonomous region in northeast Syria.  The model of the Rojava Kurds has been more appealing to Turkey’s Kurds, with whom they are closer culturally and ideologically, than the authoritarian and corrupt model offered by Iraq’s Kurds and the KRG.

That the Rojava Kurds have established a regime which promotes gender equality, fights corruption, and treats the many minorities living within its region with respect and tolerance provides a sharp contrast to the sectarian and corrupt practices of the Erdoğan regime and the AKP. That one of the Rojava Kurds’ cantons (administrative units) is ruled by a female Prime minister, Hevi Ibrahim Mustafa, and that women and men co-direct administrative and civil society organizations, contravenes the conservative gender politics of the AKP.

How do these developments affect Iraq?  First, Turkey has maintained a very equivocal relationship to the Dacish in Syria and Iraq.  With one of the most powerful armed forces in the MENA region, it has the capacity to crush the Dacish and eject from their presumptive capital of Raqqa, less than a 100 miles south of the Turkish border.  Instead, the Erdogan regime has allowed the Rojava Kurds and, more recently, Iraq’s Kurds, to bear the brunt of casualties in Iraq’s efforts to defeat the Dacish.
Nevertheless, Turkish troops have been stationed inside Iraq without the permission of the Iraqi government, despite requests by the Iraqi government that they be withdrawn.  In another disturbing move, Erdogan is now training KDP Pesh Merga forces to help it seize territory from the Rojava Kurds, using the excuse of fighting the PKK.
In what appears to be an effort to gain access to oil resources in northwest Iraq, Turkish forces have also begun training Sunni militias to offset the power of PMUs loyal to Iran.  This is why Turkey stationed its special forces troops near the village of Bashiqa in northwestern Iraq (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/24/world/middleeast/turkeys-push-to-join-battle-for-mosul-inflames-tension-with-iraq.html?_r=0).

Thus Turkey, even more than Iran, has been actively involved in destabilizing Iraq.  On the one hand, it seeks to create a wedge among Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds through developing an alliance with the KDP to fight the Rojava Kurds and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).  On the other, it promotes Sunni Arab identities in region around Mosul at a time when many Iraqi politicians are working to supersede the Shica-Sunni divide. 

Turkey also seeks to use Iraq’s Turkmen population to enhance Turkey’s interests in Iraq.  Having a major presence in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Turkmen still maintain cultural ties to Turkey based on their Turkish heritage. Divided into Sunni and Shica communities, often based along tribal ties, opportunities exist for manipulating divisions among the Turkmen based on tribe and/or sect which can serve the Erdoğan’s interests.

Erdoğan mischief-making in Iraq will be somewhat constrained by his recently established working relationship with Russia. From a low point in relations after Turkey downed a Russian jet which had strayed into its airspace in November 2015, Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin have developed a rapprochement.
No longer does Erdoğan stridently call for removing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from power.  Nor does he attack the Islamic Republic of Iran for its support of al-Asad and for sending Revolutionary Guard trainers into Syria.  Because Russia is allied with both the Asad regime and Iran, Turkish relations with Russian now trump Erdoğan’s severe distaste for Bashar al-Asad.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is not as actively involved in domestic Iraqi politics as Iran or Turkey.  Nevertheless, its regional policies impact Iraq in a negative manner. Ever since the fall of Saddam Husayn, the KSA has feared that the rise of Shica political parties in Iraq threatens to make it a surrogate of Iran. The ongoing “Cold War” between the KSA and Iran, which will only intensify in coming years, means that Iraq will remain a “battleground state” for the foreseeable future. 

Even before the ouster of Saddam and the Bacth, the KSA sought to undermine Iraq and prevent it from reestablishing a powerful army which could threaten the kingdom and the Arab Gulf as it did with the seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 and the January 1991 Gulf War. One of the ways the KSA sought to subvert Saddam was to fund Sunni Arabs who would be willing to promote its violence-prone, anti-Shi a, and culturally atavistic Wahhabi ideology, especially in the Sunni majority provinces of al-Anbar, Ninawa and Salah al-Din.  During the harsh United Nations sanctions regime of the 1990s, women were paid to wear the hijab and men were paid to pray.

Saddam’s so-called “Faith Campaign,” begun in 1993 and designed to coopt Sunnis who had become disenchanted with the Bacthist regime, especially after the post-Gulf War UN sanctions regime had destroyed the national economy, made Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces fertile soil for Wahhabi recruitment.  Funds which poured into Iraq did not just come from the KSA alone but from private Saudi donors, including those from other Arab Gulf countries.

KSA hostility to its Shica minority, which inhabits the important oil producing provinces of the country’s northeast, makes the Iraq model where Shica rule a largely democratic political system particularly galling.  Indeed, Iraq’s efforts – often half-hearted and hesitant – to bridge the sectarian and ethnic divides which developed after the collapse of Saddam frightens the KSA because of the model it provides not just to Shica Saudis but to Saudi society as a whole.

Although a comprehensive study has yet to be completed, there is no doubt that the KSA, Arab Gulf states, and private citizens in these countries (who have been given free rein to support radical Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq) have been a major source of promoting sectarian identities in Iraq.  Until the Wahhabi-Sacud family axis is broken, and the struggle with Iran tempered, KSA interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs will continue.

Syria and Iraq
Of all Iraq’s neighbors, Syria provides the most serious political problems.  Of course, is differs from Iran, Turkey and the KSA by not having a strong regime which can directly interfere in Iraq’s domestic politics.  Nevertheless, the Syrian civil war has greatly harmed Iraq’s efforts to develop a stable political system following the 2003 US invasion and occupation.

After Saddam was ousted, Syria did little or nothing to prevent radical Islamists from organizing in eastern Syria and crossing its borders into Iraq.  Damascus became a refuge for much of the remnants of the Iraqi Bacth Party and a venue for planning ways to undermine the new post-Saddam Iraqi state.
Of course, Dacish used Syrian territory to plan its attack on Mosul which it seized in June 2014.  

While the policies of former Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, facilitated the seizure of Mosul, had the city not been seized by the Dacish, the PMUs would not have had any raison-d-ȇtre to be formed. Further, Iran would not have subsequently had the opportunity to gain military advantage through developing its own loyalist militias.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army has suffered huge losses in its campaign to retake Mosul.  Urban fighting has been extremely difficult as the Dacish have had a long time to prepare for the assault. With the drop in oil prices, Iraq is ill prepared to spend the large sum of funds needed to support the campaign to eliminate the Dacish, US financial and military support notwithstanding.

Finally, the Syrian civil war has opened doors for Turkey to interfere in Iraqi politics, particularly through is efforts to influence intra-Kurdish politics and relations.  By supporting the authoritarian and corrupt KDP leadership of the KRG in the person of President Masoud Barzani, the  Erdoğan regime is hindering efforts at reforms in the KRG and, by extension, efforts to achieve national reconciliation and a stronger federalism in Iraq.

Iraq, “neighborhood effects” and the future
While Iraq cannot control the behavior of its neighbors, it can control its own domestic politics.  Here the recent efforts to achieve national reconciliation, which are absolutely critical after the defeat of the Dacish and the retaking of Mosul, are critical.  National reconciliation undermines the ability of external powers to manipulate sectarian and ethnic cleavages for its own advantages.

Despite its populist and often inflammatory political rhetoric, the Sadrist Trend, unquestionably the most powerful political movement in Iraq, is strongly behind a nationalist politics and hostile to efforts to build political coalitions along sectarian lines.  If a new Sunni movement develops – one which realizes that radical Islamism offers nothing but death and destruction – and can be brought into a national coalition, then Iraqi politics could emerge much stronger after the Dacish is militarily defeated.

In addition to building cross-sect and cross-ethnic coalitions, Iraq needs to tackle its rampant corruption.  Sectarian and corruption – with the concomitant lack of social services – produce a toxic brew which could reignite support for political extremists.  The military destruction of the Dacish is only the first step in convincing marginalized groups in Iraq, especially Sunni Arab youth that extremism offers nothing but a dead end (no pun intended).

Telephone reports from Mosul indicate that the fears which Moslawis had about the Iraqi Army when it first approached Mosul were misplaced.  Its bravery and caution in fighting street by street battles, in an effort to reduce civilian casualties, and the assistance it provided to Moslawis once they were liberated from the Dacish, has given the army a new and highly favorable status in Iraq.  

Including more Sunni Arab forces within the army will go a long way towards assuaging the fears of residents in Iraq’s Sunni Arab majority provinces that the post-Da ish period will result in a return to the status quo ante. Here is an opportunity for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Hayder al-cAbadi to demonstrate that Iraq is entering a new era, one that addresses the needs of the Sunni Arab population, as well other groups, such as the Yazidis, who were severely harmed by the Dacish.

Whether the ties which developed between the Iraqi Army and the Pesh Merga during their joint efforts against the Dacish will produce any long-term ties still waits to be seen.  However, the post-Dacish era is the time to push forward with strengthening federalism, to incentivize Iraq’s Kurdish population to remain within the country, and likewise devolve more administrative and financial power to Iraq’s 18 provinces.

The US should remain actively involved in providing training to the Iraqi Army which was critical in standing up the elite Counter-Terrorism Force and other military units.  The ties between the Iraqi and US armies will work to insure that the professionalism which it demonstrated in the anti-Dacish campaign continues once the terrorists are finally defeated in Iraq and Syria.

*From the Arabic Dar al-Sinaca, or industrial area (lit., “abode of building”).