This time things won't be different in Iraq

15 August 2014

Obama needs a strategy for a post-Iraq Middle East, not a post-ISIS Iraq. More importantly, he needs to know his history, writes Dr Mathew Davies.

US president Barack Obama in his televised speech regarding the military strike against the Islamic State (IS) last week spoke repeatedly not only of the humanitarian reasons for the precision strikes against the IS military forces, but also of strengthening Iraq as a vehicle for stability.

But these two goals, anti-IS and pro-Iraqi solidarity, are not in harmony, despite the fact that US strategy seems to assume they are one and the same.

Conflating anti-IS military action with strengthening the Iraqi central government promises simply to delay inevitable and painful discussions.

US strategy needs to be concerned not with a post-IS Iraq but a post-Iraq Middle East.

The collapse of central authority that in part powered the emergence of IS is not a temporary failure, but the consequence of the history of Iraq as a state constructed by outsiders that has always been a vehicle for repression of the peoples who found themselves within its borders.

The genesis of Iraq is to be found not in centuries of slow and gradual political development. Rather, in the midst of World War I, two diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes from the United Kingdom and Francois Georges-Picot of France, met in a series of discussions across 1915-16 to discuss how the Ottoman Empire, specifically in the Levant and Mesopotamia, would be divided as and when the Triple Entente were victorious.

This was quite the act of imperial ambition given the stalemate on the Western Front, the failure of the Dardanelles campaign and the botched British invasion of the region that culminated in surrender at the Siege of Kut in April 1916.

With the straight borders so beloved of distant imperialists, the British and French divided the region with no regard to the peoples or cultures who would find themselves either split from their brethren or grouped together with unrelated peoples.

It was an act of imperial whimsy based solely on the geopolitical requirements of Paris and London. The British would take as their zone of influence most of what is now Iraq and Kuwait, while the French would claim what today is Syria and large parts of south-eastern Turkey.

The collapse of European power in the region over the following 30 years would not fundamentally alter these borders. The new states that rose as the Union Jack and Tricolor were taken down lived within the straight lines that Sykes and Picot had drawn. Iraq continued to be shaped much as Sykes and Picot sketched, not because of popular consent, but instead because of the coming together of two trends.

The first was the endemic political and ethnic unrest within the now sovereign state of Iraq that turned political authority into a mechanism of repression. The British started this at the very founding of Iraq by importing the Hashemite King Faisal I from Saudi Arabia and so installed a minority Sunni over the Shiite majority and the Kurds.

This pattern of minority rule over majority population was a well-established late imperial strategy for the British, driving a wedge into local politics that could be exploited to maintain their own interests indirectly. The borders of Iraq for the Hashemite monarch, just as much as for Saddam Hussein, served as a mechanism for the empowerment of Sunni over Shia.

Sovereign boundaries did not enclose a community, they defined a repressive political strategy.

The second trend has been more recent; the traumatising effects of first the Cold War and then its aftermath on Iraq. The geopolitical importance of Iraq, squatting in the heart of the Middle East, atop a large fraction of the world's oil supply and in opposition to Iran, saw an embrace of strong authoritarian governments by the West, including Saddam Hussein's, up until the invasion of Kuwait.

After that, the United States replaced the United Kingdom as patron-in-chief of the Iraqi government, benefitting from the literal and metaphorical lines in the sand that defined Iraq, and paying scant regard to whether or not the country was a vehicle for stability for its people until the 1990s.

With Maliki moving tanks into the capital and defiantly making a televised address that asserted his rights as head of the armed forces, the desire of political agreement seems more distant than ever.

The fragility of Iraq is not a passing phenomenon; instead, it is a permanent testimony to its arbitrary construction almost 100 years ago. In the absence of strong external backing and centralising authoritarian government, the centrifugal forces of ethnic identity, religious division and tribal allegiance naturally reassert themselves. The United States especially, but all who seek to intervene in Iraq, should consider this reality.

The military strikes announced by Obama finally put a hard edge to the US anti-IS position. Yet, in bringing together anti-IS actions and "pro-Iraq" rhetoric, Obama has tied the right tactics with the wrong strategy. The United States needs to recognise that the Iraqi state holds little meaning to many who live within it. Part of the success of IS has been its willingness to openly commit to tearing up the Sykes-Picot agreement, to the point of releasing photos of them removing those arbitrary lines in the sand with bulldozers.

The ongoing political crisis in Baghdad regarding Nouri al-Maliki's position as prime minister reveals the shortcomings of the United States' historically uninformed strategy. Obama and others seem to think that replacing Maliki with someone new, in this case Haider al-Adabi, will mark a step towards political unification as a prelude to national reconciliation.

With Maliki moving tanks into the capital and defiantly making a televised address that asserted his rights as head of the armed forces, the desire of political agreement seems more distant than ever. Maliki is not the cause of Iraq's teetering stability, he is the consequence of it.

Central government, in the absence of open authoritarian repression and at least the benign neglect of Western powers, has never exerted political authority across Iraq organically. Yet the US strategy rests entirely on the vain hope that this time will be different.

What is required is a consideration of not just the desirability of a united Iraq but the viability of that idea in the face of not only the IS onslaught, but the various religious and cultural forces now unleashed.

The lessons of history suggest that US strategy would be better off considering a post-Iraq Middle East.

There are no easy answers here, most importantly to the question of how any division could be structured in such a way that was not ultimately just a reply of distant men drawing lines on a map and calling them borders.

But by simply tying anti-IS military actions to an unthinking support of Iraqi integrity, the US may well be simply creating the seeds of even more violence and trauma to come.

Dr Mathew Davies is a fellow at the Department of International Relations, in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article was first published by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.