Current chaos in the Middle East cannot be separated from the situation in Iraq. So, I pick Iraq in the series on the Middle East that I began last Friday. It shares border on its eastern end with Iran, meaning that following the trail westwards gives a link to the narrative. With the removal of its former dictator, Saddam Hussein, governance had collapsed in Iraq. The Allied Forces hadn’t much of a plan for filling the vacuum they created. The divides – racial, sectarian and political – which Hussein had conjured to disappear through repression and the blood of thousands of Iraqis thereafter became obvious. Kurds, separate from Arabs, who have always been keen to break away from Iraq, seized the opportunity to further consolidate their hold in the northern areas. Shiite and Sunni rivalry became more intense. The administration in Baghdad found itself confronted with sectarian violence that it couldn’t control. In fact, for long its control didn’t extend beyond a few cities outside Baghdad and American forces had to play a significant role in this.
Different forces exploited the situation, armed themselves, and made themselves lords in their enclaves. Others existed simply for the purpose of forcing the Americans and their allies out of Iraq. When Islamic State (a Sunni-inspired group) rolled into Iraq and harnessed territories for itself, Baghdad could do nothing. IS declared a caliphate for itself and invited jihadists from across the world to join it. In a nation that is Shia-Sunni, IS becomes a divisive force.
Baghdad finds it difficult to put together a national army that doesn’t think Shia-Sunni. Sordid attacks that claim lives in dozens come in sectarian forms, and they seem meant to deepen the divide.
Largely, occurrences in Iraq in the last two years have been about efforts to dislodge IS from the territories it takes. But IS isn’t the only problem Iraq has. There is the Iraqi al-Qaeda. Although the US had pulled out of Iraq in 2011, two parties made it consider returning. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and IS. In 2014, the US president, Barack Obama, sought for funds to send men and materials to Iraq, especially because of IS which the Americans had begun to refer to as the deadliest killer cult on earth. True, most people on social media had watched regular display made by IS of westerners it had seized and how it beheaded them. The activities of IS were shocking. They were calculated to shock. They were meant to cow. The West kept repeating that it refused to be cowed by acts of terror, that it would not pay ransom for anyone that IS seized and that it would come after IS. Western leaders did hold meetings over this, noting that their western values were under attack, and they must come together to deal with threats. So, they made pledges of contributions, took a series of actions, co-opting allies along the way. One of the actions taken was to block avenues of resources to IS. The other was to take the battle to IS. The battleground? Iraq.
It’s important to note that the West is seasoned in this kind of matter. They know that no civilisation just strolls past without confronting resistance to it. In history, civilisations which lasted for any length of time were those that were able to successfully crush oppositions when they arose. Opposition may come in different forms, and it may come at different times, but it must come. The West has this understanding and, in fact, has projected ahead solutions for a few of the possibilities. This can be seen when one goes through the writings of many western academics especially in the field of Political Science, International Relations, Strategic Studies, and Diplomacy. In them, one would find how much of such thinking they do for governments with regard to maintaining West’s hegemony. Some people just have to be in the business of thinking for government. Plato, I believe, is the one who mentions this as an important structure of the society. Western governments take him seriously. So, they value their academics. They commission them to engage in research, provide report and recommendation on issues such as the best ways to continue to promote western values, lead the rest of the world, the possible threats, and how to best combat them. This has been the pattern for decades. Against this background, the rise of IS isn’t a surprise to the West that knows the Middle East and Islam still provide the greatest challenge to its core values.
The decision to confront IS in Iraq provides the West different opportunities. This is especially so for the US. Engaging in aerial battle alone gave it the opportunity to support the government in Baghdad that it had earlier been pressured to abandon with its headache. It is also a win for the argument that fighting far off from home is the best way to enjoy peace at home. Equally, IS can destabilise the Middle East, leading to overthrow of governments using locally-grown units; if this happens the US knows it has a region in a mess on its hands. A Middle East under the control of anti-West elements is inconceivable. This is of interest to the West that counts Saudi Arabia and Jordan as moderates and with which the interest of the West is protected. More than this, any territory that IS successfully holds serves as an inspiration for killer cults of its type anywhere else. After IS captured territories in Syria too, everyone was convinced it needed to be placed under intense fire.
Allies in the Middle East joined in the plan to set fire to IS. Saudi Arabia, traditionally not linked to such battles, was in Iraq. IS is a threat to its royal leadership. At a stage, Syria sent in planes to bomb IS positions in Iraq. The Iraqi leader had praised the Syrian move although he said it wasn’t carried out in conjunction with his government. It meant any nation could fly in and deliver bombs on IS and it would just be fine; that was how weakened Iraq had become. Iran had also been offering its support, often by proxy, because Shiite sympathisers were in control in Baghdad; and of course an Iraq that was weakened was good omen for Iran’s ascendancy. The Americans hate this, but there was nothing they could do about it.
From outside the region, Australia sent its troops to fight from the air. I did note on this page at the time the fact that Australia which was so off the path of IS voluntarily sent troops. It tells about the definition of the West. It’s not just North America and Europe, it is every nation that shares the same core values with them. Australia considers a threat to those values as threat to itself. So it came to Iraq to defend itself. Other nations from North America and Europe weren’t left out. They were involved mostly from the air, picking out IS targets and bombing them. They’ve scored high points, exterminating top IS commanders from time to time. IS replaced its lost leaders, of course. But in the process, and in the cutting off of sources of fund to IS, some breathing space had been created for Baghdad which moved its troops to fight and recapture territories seized by IS. The battles are ongoing.
The battles, sectarian violence and high unemployment have rendered Iraq a most unstable nation in the Middle East. Repairing relations among its embittered religious communities is an impossible task in the short term. Government in Baghdad with its Shiite Arab majority isn’t a plus for the process. Nothing can change this for as long as Iran continues to support Baghdad. So the Sunni population will remain unhappy. Dislike ricochets in every direction across the land even among the population that’s not asking to break away like the Kurds.
As for Kurds, they will continue to work towards breaking away. They control their own government and security forces up north, and they’re already engaged in a struggle with Baghdad over the division of oil profits from wells that are mostly in their territory. With that scenario Iraq can hardly be expected to emerge later as one nation. In fact, its situation may contribute to the splitting up of other nations in the Middle East.