The capture of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS) by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in early April – with the help of US airstrikes and Iranian advisors – appeared to simultaneously preserve and undermine the Iraqi state. In addition to representing a significant territorial victory in the fight against the IS, media reports indicated that the group’s expulsion was followed by a wave of looting, summary executions and other atrocities, tarnishing the town’s ‘liberation’ and the forces associated with it. While it was the ISF that formally and visibly did the capturing – and took most of the credit – Iraq’s Shia militias dominated the first two weeks of the assault. It is these same forces that largely operate outside of state control, in spite of the recent move of Prime Minister HaiderAl-Abadi to bring them under his authority as commander-in-chief, and that do most of the fighting against the more Wahhabi– (Sunni) inspired IS.
The event fits well in the common narrative of the conflict on which much of the West’s intervention against the IS in Iraq is based. The main elements of this narrative – often espoused by US-, Israeli– or Gulf-based media and analysts – are doubts about the chances of survival of the Iraqi state, consideration of the IS as a “significant threat” through the lens of global terrorism, framing Iran as the region’s challenger of the status-quo, and suggesting that a fight for hegemony is taking place across the Middle East which pits Sunni against Shiite regimes and groups. However, this narrative is misleading on a number of counts that need to be discussed in greater detail to generate international policies and responses that can help resolve the present crisis.
First, it is doubtful that Iraq’s days as unitary state are numbered. This proposition is mainly based on the combination of the centrifugal domestic political forces at play in the country, most prominently the differences between its Sunni, Shia and Kurds, and the centripetal regional forces influencing its national affairs. However, none of Iraq’s key neighbors (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) wish to see Iraq disappear as a unitary state. They may prefer a weak Iraq for various reasons, but they fear the effects of implosion in terms of the insecurity, radicalism, refugees and aspirations of self-determination that may cross their borders. In addition, Iraq’s Sunni have no viable alternative. A Sunni rump state is not only politically impossible given the track record of the last ten years of radical groups emerging from Sunni populated territories, but also financially untenable. Finally, Iraq’s Kurds are unlikely to declare independence in the face of resistance of both Turkey and Iran – resulting from the sizable Kurdish populations that these countries themselves have. As long as Turkey transfers payments for Kurdish oil to the treasury in Bagdad instead of Erbil, the Kurds cannot really afford it either, which will factor into their calculations too.
Second, and related to the previous point, Iraq’s Shia are more nationalistic as well as more fragmented than one may think. While some groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah, essentially owe allegiance to Tehran, far from all Shia militias are Iranian proxies. Consider, for example, Muqtada al-Sadr’s ‘Mahdi Army.’
While it was Iraq’s Shia that took up arms when the IS arrived at the gates of Baghdad, this was much less a sectarian mobilization than a response to the strident nationalistic call in defense of the Iraqi nation from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that showed little symphathy for sectarian narratives. Several such calls have followed.
Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence is significant and he is perhaps as close to a national figure as one can presently find in Iraq. It bears reminding that in the Shia world Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s religious authority rivals – or even surpasses – that of his Iranian counterparts.
Third, it is not just Iranian influence in Iraq that strengthens incentives for violence. While it is undisputed that Iran’s influence is significant in the material sense (advisors, weapons and funds), years of Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabism to Iraq – its extremely conservative interpretation of the Islamic faith – has also played its part. For example, it has been instrumental in radicalizing parts of the country’s Sunni society and religion. It is also jihadi-Wahhabism that is at the ideological heart of many extremist groups, including the IS. As socio-religious influence, Wahhabism spreads more under the radar and with a greater level of deniability than Iranian arms deliveries or pictures of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Qud’s force, but it is not necessarily less of a hindrance to resolving Iraq’s governance crisis.
Fourth, Iraq’s Sunni are not necessarily true believers in the ideology of the IS. But they are deeply distrustful of the Iraqi state. Since 2003 they have been consistently marginalized by the Iraqi government, its bureaucracy and its corrupt ‘checkpoint army’. Over time, Iraq’s state institutions have increasingly moved away from treating the country’s citizens in an equal manner on the basis of their constitutional rights and duties. Although only a shell of the Iraqi state remains today, it is perceived as having been captured by Iraq’s Shia. At the same time, it benefits from significant international military support. This is perceived as deeply threatening by many Sunni communities – especially in the light of atrocities such as those that followed the capture of Tikrit.
Fifth and finally, the international community can continue to pretend that the crisis in Iraq can be resolved without addressing the crisis in Syria, but this is wishful thinking. It is not just the IS that operates freely across the border – and re-emerged in Iraq after having regained strength in Syria – it is also the combination of the respective outcomes of these wars that feature in regional calculations. In short, regional involvement is only likely to become more constructive if a solution for both conflicts can be identified that is acceptable for the main regional players: Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
These five points provide, perhaps, a counter-narrative of the present crisis in Iraq. What is disturbing, is that most of the West’s intervention – and much of its media reporting – does not seem to take such complexity of the crisis in Iraq into account all that much. For example, by seeking to drive the IS out of Anbar province and Mosul city, the US-led international coalition is not focusing quite as much on helping Iraq become a state that functions for all its citizens. By engaging in Iraq but ‘ignoring’ the war in Syria, Western countries risk strengthening the IS, or creating another one sooner or later. By accepting or reinforcing simplistic Sunni v. Shia framing, Western countries reduce the agency of Iraqi actors that can play a more constructive role.
In consequence, it seems timely to acknowledge some of the realities discussed above. This can help to bring better Western policies and actions about in support of a sustained process of peacemaking and peace-building [if that’s hat they’re really after]. Effective support requires a nuanced understanding of the various groups of regional and domestic stakeholders, as well as the use of a greater range of instruments than just humanitarian assistance and military intervention. The risk of the current approach is that the violence will be brought to a halt in a way that merely heralds the silence before the next storm.