Why America Can't Save a Divided Iraq

June 17, 2014 Topic: Military StrategyCounterinsurgencyTerrorism Region: Iraq

Why America Can't Save a Divided Iraq

Amidst ISIS’s recent victories, U.S. hawks are demanding airstrikes, aid to the Iraqi military, and arms for the Syrian opposition’s moderates. It won't work. 

Last week, the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), having already overrun large parts of Sunni-majority Anbar province in the west, swept north into Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and capital of Ninawa province. The movement’s advance offers additional proof that Iraq no longer exists as a coherent polity and cohesive country.

In reality, what now passes for “Iraq” is three polities contained within boundaries that Britain drew after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in the wake of World War I. The first of these entities is the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north. The second is a violence-ravaged Sunni-majority statelet-in-the-making in the center and west. The ISIS, bolstered by the strategic depth offered by adjoining areas held by anti-Assad Sunni militants, is fast establishing dominion there. The third is an Iraqi central government that claims sovereignty over the entire country, but in reality represents the Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and the Shiite expanses extending south and southeast from the capital. Such power as it wields in the rest of the country has been tenuous at best and is becoming more so because of the ISIS juggernaut.

The Sunnis’ continuing alienation is among the ISIS’s greatest sources of strength and has enabled it to revive an insurgency that lost steam after General David Petraeus (as commander of the coalition forces in Iraq and later as CENTCOM chief) tapped the Sunni tribes’ anger over Al Qaeda’s inroads into their homelands by providing them the money and arms to fight the organization.

That move and the 2007 American military “surge” deflated insurgency, which had been raging for three years. Yet the hope that the success would be sustained was premised on the belief that the Shi’a-dominated central government would build on it by drawing Sunnis into the institutions of governance and the military and security forces, thereby depriving the insurgents of support.

That premise proved to be a pipe dream. Maliki, who became Prime Minister in 2006, had no intention of allaying Sunnis’ fears. Indeed, just about everything he has done in politics has alienated them from the central government. His main objective, which resonates among Shiites, who have long seen themselves as underdogs and remember in particular the brutalities inflicted on them by Saddam, has been to destroy the Sunnis’ historic domination of Iraq. But Maliki’s marginalization of the Sunnis revived the insurgency and helped ISIS assume the role Al Qaeda had played. It has become a formidable force that has broadened its base by forging partnerships, albeit tactical, with various Sunni militias, including some led by Saddam-era Ba’athists. Following his coalition’s victory in May’s parliamentary elections, Maliki won another term. But Iraq’s Sunnis had no reason for hope. Most continue to see his government as a Shiite-dominated apparatus that doesn’t care about their inclusion and welfare and moreover, leans on Shi’a Iran.

The goal of ISIS’s ruthless campaign in the Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar and Salahuddin, and Ninawa and Diyala more recently, is a caliphate covering the Sunni lands of Iraq and Syria. Now, the Iraqi army is in retreat, the movement is publicizing its executions of Shiites and Sunni collaborators, and people are fleeing by the thousands. Iraq’s Shi’a-Sunni divide and the corresponding territorial demarcations are deepening—precisely what ISIS seeks.

In Iraq’s north, the KRG has established a domain whose stability and prosperity, aided by substantial energy deposits (estimated at 45 billion barrels in proven oil reserves and 100-200 trillion cubic feet of gas), represent one of post-Saddam Iraq’s few success stories. Kurds still hold important positions in the central government: Jalal Talabani, though ailing, continues to be president; Hoshyar Zebari is foreign minister. But the KRG has tried to have as little truck with the rest of Iraq as possible. And it’s no secret that independence has deep appeal, something that influential Kurdish political figures admit openly. The Kurdish language, which Saddam had banned, thrives. The Iraqi national flag is a rare sight, the Kurdish banner and emblem ubiquitous. The Peshmerga, a separate army, does not answer to the central government; its mission is to ensure that the Kurds never lose the freedom they gained following the collapse of Saddam’s regime.

But for American and Turkish opposition, the KRG may well have formalized what amounts to secession. As Iraq becomes even more chaotic, however, the KRG’s leaders must be wondering whether Kurdistan will be sucked into the maelstrom that’s gaining strength elsewhere in Iraq. To paraphrase Trotsky, though the Kurds are not interested in the vortex, the vortex may become interested in them, especially as non-Kurdish refugees fleeing from ISIS seek succor in the KRG and the Peshmerga occupies Kirkuk, which, having long been claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, has been a venue for violence.

Whether the KRG will ever be able to strike a deal with Turkey (with which it has developed substantial trade and investment ties) that permits it to exit Iraq remains to be seen. For that to happen, the KRG will have to somehow assuage Turkey’s fear that that will enable a greater Kurdistan encompassing Turkey’s Kurdish southeast and Kurdish regions of northern Syria, where the Damascus government’s writ no longer runs. Even without an agreement along these lines, ISIS’s northward march and the spiraling violence across its border—which Ninawa abuts—will impel the KRG to put additional distance between itself and the rest of Iraq.


With the KRG all but independent, and the central government having lost control in many Sunni regions, the Iraqi Humpty Dumpty can’t be made whole again, no matter how fervently policy makers and pundits here insist that an “Iraq” abides. The Kurds will continue paying lip service to that ghostly concept for now, but ISIS will be a far tougher customer than Al Qaeda ever was. Thanks to the anti-Assad insurgency in the Syrian territories adjoining Iraq, ISIS can (much like the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have been able to) count on a steady flow of funds, fighters and cross-border havens. And because Iran will now increase its support to the Iraqi Shiites and foreign fighters, and Persian Gulf funders will do the same for Syria’s Sunni insurgents, the internal sources of Iraq’s breakdown will be strengthened by external pressures.

Amidst the ISIS’s recent victories, our hawks are demanding airstrikes, aid to the Iraqi military, and arms for the Syrian opposition’s moderates. These steps won’t overcome the larger centrifugal forces at work within and around Iraq and are a prescription for deeper involvement in two conflicts. Iraq’s turmoil can be traced to the Bush administration’s starry-eyed quest for “regime change,” which unleashed ethnoreligious forces that did it not understand, let alone anticipate, and could not control. The idea that President Obama can now tame them, without any military presence on the ground and in the face of a war-weary American citizenry, gives new meaning to the cliché that hope springs eternal.


Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the Colin Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York, and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.