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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.