Living with the aftermath of the First World War in Iraq

By Robert Presser on June 26, 2014

Back in 2003 when the US was busy creating a post-invasion democracy in Iraq, Joe Biden, then a US senator, looked at the prospective constitution and had an alternative idea.  He proposed that Iraq be divided into three largely autonomous regions, the Kurds in the north and the Shiites and Sunnis along roughly an east-west axis.  Joe was a decent student of the regional history and came to the conclusion that these sects were unlikely to share power for long.  Biden said that Iraq required a political solution that simplygave each party “a seat at the table and a piece of the pie,” referring specifically to a share of the wealth expected to be created by future oil revenues.

The Bush administration was intellectually wed to an American-inspired model for the new Iraqi constitution and ignored Joe’s advice.  Well, here we are ten years later, thousands dead, trillions spent, and the American experiment in Iraqi democracy has failed.  The US got off to a bad start by selecting Ahmed Chalabi as their winning horse to become Iraq’s PM.  He was distrusted by all the factions and was gone from government relatively quickly, having risen no further than deputy prime minister from May 2005 to May 2006.  The Iranian’s man in Iraq, the current PM al-Maliki, has fared even worse than Chalabi by actually assuming the job twice, this time managing to alienate all the Sunnis to the point that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) are pushing towards Baghdad in order to overthrow his government.  We are used to the US picking losers when they seek to create governments in client-states; the big surprise is that the Iranians have created an even bigger mess with their Maliki blunder, and they should know the terrain better than anyone else since they have been next door for literally, centuries.

How did we get here?  Set the way-back machine for Paris, 1919, and you will find your answer.  As the Great Powers of Britain, France, the US and Italy (yes, Italy) carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire into new states and territories, the starting point was based on a 1915-16 agreement that the British-French team of Sykes-Picot had secretly negotiated.  Sykes-Picot was meant to partition the empire between the UK, France and Russia post-war.  When the Russian Czar fell to revolution, the new Bolshevik regime exposed the secret deal and embarrassed all those involved.  Hardly dissuaded, the 1919 gang ignored promises made to the Arabs by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) for a national homeland called Greater Syria, but instead created a series of smaller states under alternating French and British mandates.  Crossing many ethnic and religious lines with almost comical indifference,  the strife created by the borders imposed at that time form much of the historical redress sought today by ISIS (or ISIL, if your preferred caliphate includes the Levant) as it seeks to create the Sunni empire that Lawrence promised 100 years ago.

The greatest injustice was likely done to the Kurds, a proud, independent and resourceful people who found themselves scattered across four new states; Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.  The dream of an independent Kurdistan burns brightly in the hearts of most Kurds and their recent seizure of control in Kirkuk should be regarded as permanent – their excellent Peshmerga military forces are imposing order for which the ethnically diversepopulation of the city is extremely grateful.  The Kurds have had functional autonomy in northern Iraq since Saddam Hussein fell, and they see the current strife as an opportunity to finally get their state.  They will assert control over the northern oilfields deserted by Iraqi army regulars and will hold that territory against ISIS.  With severe trouble brewing elsewhere in Iraq, the current set of world powers would be best to leave them alone for now and strike a deal when and if the rest of the country can be stabilized.

The catharsis in Iraq has unleashed a veritable re-alignment in the region.  The US and Iran are cooperating to organize the Iraqi army to fight back against ISIS and are imposing an ultimatum on al-Maliki to form a more inclusive government.  The Saudis and Israelis are looking on with alarm and derision and are quietly conversing on how they may counter the new Shiite threat against both their nations.  The Saudis cannot afford to have a coordinated campaign of violence against Sunnis in western Iraq and the Israelis need help to prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling over into their borders. While the US and Iran may have common interests in preventing Iraq from descending into sectarian chaos, their end-games are not aligned; they do not want the same outcome.  The US wants an independent Iraq that can return to the relative stability of the post-surge environment of 5 years ago, but without 100,000 US troops on the ground.  Iran wants a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that will do its bidding and provide a bulwark against Saudi influence in the region.  The end result of all of this may actually result in a prolonged period of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence that is a de-facto proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Forgotten in all of this is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, since the major powers are distracted by hot wars elsewhere in the region.  The Netanyahu government does not trust Fatah’s Abbas after he created a coalition with Hamas, so the waning international pressure to continue the talks in earnest suits the Israelis just fine.  The lack of progress could be fatal for the Abbas group of moderates, since more radical Palestinian groups will not tolerate the status quo for long.  The terrible abduction of three Israeli teenagers in the territories is probably a precursor to further efforts to destabilize the Abbas government and simultaneously fixate the Israeli population on their vulnerability to random, senseless acts of violence.  The longer the conflict in Iraq drags on, the worse the situation is likely to get for both Abbas and Netanyahu.

We are witnessing the long arm of history, the clash of ethnic rivalries that have simmered, then flashed for millennia, coupled with the more recent impositions of the world powers with willful ignorance of the former.  The dissolution of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states over 20 years ago demonstrated that borders and alliances are not permanent, and those were not even as old as the ones created in the aftermath of the First World War.  There have been significant commemorations around the world of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War and the failure of the diplomats of the day to prevent it.  I fear that in 2018-19 we will be reflecting on the decisions made at the end of that war and how the conflicts they sought to end at that time burn strongly still and engulf our attentions to this day.


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