Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Iraq After Maliki

DENVER – Nouri al-Maliki’s fitful departure from Iraq’s premiership recalled many other cliffhanger exits by unpopular political leaders. His leaving did not come a moment too soon for the many Iraqis who have laid all of the country’s current troubles at his doorstep.

Maliki, according to this view, was endlessly divisive, driven by authoritarian tendencies, lacking in elementary political skills, and incapable of leading an army in disarray. But his greatest failure was his inability to grasp that successful governance in Iraq requires reaching out to other communities, notably the Sunnis and Kurds. Instead, Maliki ordered preventive arrests of young Sunni men, supposedly in anticipation of their defection to terrorist groups, and hounded his political opponents, in some instances driving them out of government (and in one case into exile).

No doubt, much of this narrative has a basis in fact. But if it were the whole story, the mild-mannered, Western-educated prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, would have an easy task in stitching things back together. After all, Iraq’s Sunnis would have every reason to support Abadi now that Maliki has gone.

In fact, Abadi will have his hands full. Iraq has been falling apart not just because of Maliki’s failure to reach out to the country’s 20% Sunni minority, but also because of the Sunnis’ failure to embrace a country whose majority political expression is Shia.

The Islamic State, to take the most obvious example, is not a consequence of Maliki’s failure to engage in Sunni outreach. There is little evidence that the Sunni IS has the slightest interest in outreach by any Shia leader. What it wants is the destruction of the “apostate” Shia community’s members and shrines. Murky as the IS may be, its position on this point is unambiguous.

Though much of the IS leadership and many of its recruits are Iraqi, the group emerged as a well-funded and well-equipped force during the civil war in Syria. But the IS was not content to eliminate Alawite power there; rather, it has taken aim at any challenge to its authority as the true representative of the Sunnis in the Levant and beyond. Thus, it attacked elements connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Salafis, and the Free Syrian Army with great ferocity – so much so that the Syrian army sometimes let them do its work.

The IS, like many such groups before it, may yet vanish in the desert, leaving only its victims’ families to recall the crimes it committed. But what will not be forgotten, especially among the Kurds and Shia Arabs, is the deafening silence of the Sunni world. Rather than denounce the IS’s barbaric behavior, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the preeminent regional organization of Arab states, issued a series of tepid statements denying support for it in the wake of its entry into Iraq. The GCC countries mostly blamed Maliki for not doing more to address Sunni political frustration, as if that explained the IS’s campaign of mass murder.

Similarly, neither Sunni leaders in Baghdad nor tribal leaders in Western Iraq (some of whom have accepted IS payments) have done much to denounce the group. Instead, Iraq’s Sunnis have cynically used the IS’s invasion to enhance their leverage in the ongoing process of forming a new government.

It is time for Sunnis in Iraq and beyond to speak and act with much greater clarity and consistency on this existential threat to civilization in the cradle of civilization. For starters, aid to the IS, some of it emanating from the Gulf, needs to stop. From 2005 to 2008, interdicting foreign fighters and assistance to the IS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, contributed significantly to quelling the Sunni insurgency.

A solution that neutralizes the IS also needs to provide a way forward in Syria. Such a solution will need to be multidimensional, and will probably include airstrikes against the IS in Syria itself – an eventuality to which no one is looking forward.

But Syria will not be stabilized with airstrikes alone. There must be a renewed diplomatic push to build consensus – first among external powers, and then among the warring parties – on what Syria will look like in the future. Will it be a federated republic? A system based on cantons? Perhaps it should have a bicameral parliament with a communal-based upper house that could veto what a Sunni-majority lower house enacts.

Articulation of future political arrangements in Syria, as pie-in-the-sky as it may seem today, is probably the best way to help the country’s beleaguered moderate opposition and expose the rejectionists. President Bashar al-Assad should not be a part of Syria’s future, but that issue can be deferred for the time being – while well-functioning channels of communication with the Alawites and others who continue to fight for him are established.

There will be those who say that this should have been done two years ago. But we should not console ourselves with the thought that late is better than never. Given the Syrian civil war’s momentum and complexity, it is likely that fighting will continue two years from now, when some will no doubt look back and say that some other path should have been taken – you guessed it – two years ago.

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  1. CommentedMaurizio Melani

    Christopher Hill is right. The sectarianism of Maliki and its policy of exclusion (of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and to a certain extend also other Shia factions), have certainly fuelled the disaster in Iraq and the growth of IS. But they are not the only factors to blame. The political expression of Sunni Arabs, and their sponsors abroad, should accept, as they have not done up to now, majority rule and what it implies in terms of power sharing. On the other side Shia parties, and Iran, should accept a fair and adequate participation of Sunni Arabs to power, security manegement and economic avantages.
    This is the challange that Heider Al Abadi has to takle, with the help of President Fouad Masun and of Kurds despite their strenghtenig in the balance with other components of Iraq because of their role in the fight against IS and the increase of their military capabilities thanks to western support. Their claims in the fields of authonomy, disputed areas and hydrocarbon management will grow, and the GOI of Iraq will be obliged to take into account the new reality.
    The common major threat by IS could facilitate the process.
    Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Monarchies should realize that the defeat of IS has become a security objective more important than the disruption of the stabilization of Iraq under a Shia majority having good relations with Iran and of its growth as a major oil and gaz producer and exporter and therefore as a recovered regional and OPEC power. The fact that IS has become a threat which needs the broadest possible coalition has been voiced by Egypt within the Arab League, and it is fair to guess that there are consultations with Saudi Arabia and others on the matter.
    It is clear, however, that a sine qua non condition for such positive development is a full, verifiable guarantee that Iranian nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes cannot be weaponized. If this aspect is not adequately settled Iran will not succed in avoiding increasing sanctions and isolation and in having its role as a major regional power accepted by the other countries of the region, including Israel and of course Turkey, hopefuly within a new regional security framework.
    The US and the EU should strongly work in this direction, involving Russia and China, in front of the common IS ennemy.
    Finally, concerning the tempting idea, frequently put forward, of a partition of Iraq within a redrawing of the post WWI map of the Middle East, we have to take in mind that this would likely imply ethnic and religious cleansing, with great suffering for the peoples concerned, much bigger and painful than those seen up to now in the region or, in prevous decades, in the Balkans.

    Maurizio Melani
    Former Italian Ambassador to Iraq and to the Political and Security Committee of the EU and former Director General in the MFA.

  2. CommentedDavid Morgan

    Sunni and Shia Islam are like cats and dogs, they will not work together as there is an ingrained hatred of each other. The effects in Iraq caused by the Illegal war of George W. Bush are reverberating throughout the Middle East. The Sykes Picot agreement has been torn up and burned the map of the Middle East will be forever changed, and yes Malaki's behaviuor in government has contributed to the turmoil. The gulf states will not escape the cleavage between the two main factions of Islam. The Islamic State may yet vanish in the desert, but it will leave a lasting legacy of death, destruction and hatred.

  3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Christopher R. Hill lays out his vision of, how "Iraq after Maliki" should look like. Much hope is put in Maliki's successor, Haider al-Abadi, who is not going to have an "easy task in stitching things back together". Only time tells, whether he really will be able to reach out to all Iraqis and hold the country together. It requires efforts from all sides, most importantly from the Shia-led government under al-Abadi and the Sunnis to make peace.
    Apart from accepting the fact that they only make up some 20% of the country's population, the Sunnis also have to come to terms with reality that they no longer can rule over a Shia majority. Their "failure to embrace a country whose majority political expression is Shia", may be the biggest obstacle to national reconciliation, unless Haider al-Abadi opts for a secular Iraq, like Saddam Hussein did. This would no doubt irk the ultra-conservative Shia community, which supports its own extremists.
    Iraqi Sunnis' support for IS is a political tool, used to extort as much as possible from the Shia-led government, which they say have the monopoly of power. Most of them are not willing to reject the Islamist State's regime of terror and fight the extremists, as long as they don't get what they want from the government and if it doesn't fight the Shia militias, whom they see as "terrorists" butchering Sunnis. Their anger twowards Baghdad has been exploited by the IS militants, whose barbarism will be tolerated, as long as they are useful.
    Indeed it's a "cynical" game that the Sunnis are playing in the region. The Arab leaders in the GCC countries had initially used the Islamists to fight their proxy war against their Shia adversary, Iran. Yet they underestimated the vagaries of wars, especially when they have lost control over the groups they sponsor.
    Mr. Hill sees a "solution that neutralizes the IS also needs to provide a way forward in Syria".
    The overlapping conflicts could be dealt with, if IS stronghold in Syria be destroyed. One reason the jihadis have captured large swaths of land there is that they fight the Syrian rebels instead of Assad, who basically allowed them to thrive, as long as they didn't attack his forces. It's still too early to tell how the civil war there will end. One thing is sure, there will be no status quo ante in Syria. The social-ethnic fabric is torn beyond repair.
    The "future political arrangements in Syria" that Mr. Hill envisions - "a federated republic? A system based on cantons? Perhaps it should have a bicameral parliament with a communal-based upper house that could veto what a Sunni-majority lower house enacts" - may just be "a pie in the sky", as national reconciliation may no longer be realistic.

  4. Commentedhari naidu

    With due respect, I suggest this sectarian conflict scenario will not end in next five years; and, by then, we shall see exactly what GCC is up to in the region with their oil revenue.

    The most serious development for GCC (Sunni's) is the possibility of détente between Iran and P5+1 - on nuclear issue - and lifting of sanctions. And should Iran-US/EU détente become a paradigm shift in ME, it'll inevitably isolate Sunni's and create further turmoil - end of globalization - oil supplies being curtailed, etc.

    Also Egypt will then have to choose sides....against Turkey.

    Meanwhile, a new state of Kurdistan emerges on ME scene and transforms (former) Iraq and its domestic politics. Turkey under Erdogan in driving seat with recognition of Kurdistan sovereignty.

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