Whatever government structure is finally developed for an ethnically segregated Iraq it should not be as dysfunctional as the Dayton constitution proved to be for Bosnia. Avoidance of an equivalent post-conflict catastrophe must be the predominant goal of the international policymaker.
By Matthew Parish
Watching events unfold at the time of writing, it is tempting to view the renewed Iraqi civil war through a pessimistic lens of unprecedented catastrophe. A Sunni insurgency is in the midst of annexing substantial tracts of the country’s territory, and a threat has even been made upon the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The Sunni group involved, the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), is determined to create a Sunni territory at the expense of the Shia-dominated central government. ISIS’s actions have also alarmed the Kurds, whose armed forces the Peshmerga are mobilising to protect territory east of the “trigger line” (the de facto line of control between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq). They have also taken advantage of the Sunni-fomented chaos, seizing the contested city of Kirkuk and cementing their control of the oil-rich region of which it is the centre. ISIS has almost total control over the Sunni-majority province of Anbar in the west, and controls Iraq’s borders with Syria and Jordan. Its goal appears to be creation of a Sunni-majority state in the Levant forged out of tracts of Syria and Iraq, thereby unwinding the Sykes-Picot settlement of 1916 dissolving the Ottoman Empire in the region into British and French spheres of influence unrelated to the ethnicities of the local populations.
The final results of ISIS’s adventure in territorial annexation are yet to be determined. Iraq’s formal army appears incapable of resisting the threat upon the country’s capital, to the extent that informal Shia militias have emerged to take their place. The size of ISIS’s armed forces is currently estimated at only slightly more than ten thousand, but the movement has survived three years of Syria’s civil war on the presumption of generous Gulf funding. The capacity of a relatively small, but well-financed, irregular military Sunni minority force suddenly to occupy the major Iraqi towns of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit suggests total collapse of the security institutions of the Iraqi central government.
Perhaps the principal determinant of this civil war’s eventual outcome will be the attitudes of the various interested foreign powers. The two principal such powers, the United States and Iran, while traditionally implacable enemies turn out to have a common goal: to maintain the authority of the Shia-dominated Baghdad government. Their incentives to pursue this goal are different: for Iran a Sunni Iraq is dangerous, precipitating as it did the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. For the United States, the collapse of the Iraqi central government will be the apogee of an abject failure in post-Cold War state-building.
The principal question at the current time is whether the commitment by the United States and Iran to defeat ISIS consists merely of proxy warfare (i.e. funding and supply to domestic militias, as Russia is doing in Donetsk) or the actual contribution of domestic troops to fight ISIS forces. The latter course would be more decisive; there is no way the moderate numbers of ISIS troops could withstand sustained assault by the technologically sophisticated US military or the numerically massive Iranian army. But the situation has the elements of a prisoners’ dilemma: if either of the United states or Iran sends troops in significant numbers then the other will have to do so as well, lest its implacable foe obtain a dominant foothold within the country.
Hence each stands on a hair-trigger, watching the actions of the other. If one power enters Iraq, the other must do so, resulting in degenerative disaster for both. Moreover the US is constrained by public opinion: it has just managed to extract itself from a catastrophic occupation of Iraq, and any politician supporting immediate re-entry to the same disastrous scenario risks paying a heavy electoral price. Furthermore for both the US and Iran there is no credible exit strategy: Shia domination of the entire country appears impossible to maintain without indefinite military occupation in the face of intractable sectarian violence. Moreover if either country invaded Iraq now, the tentative rapprochement between the two states involving Iran’s abdication of its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for relaxation of international sanctions would be surely eviscerated.
Hence some form of proxy war, amidst an uneasy informal accord between the United States and Iran not to send ground troops into the country, seems the most likely outcome but not an inevitable one. Neither side wants the Sunni insurgency to undermine Iraq’s central government. Neither do the Kurds, who are content with the status quo in which they already possess substantial autonomy and may come to perceive a centralised Sunni authority as a threat to their privileged status within Iraq’s federation. So the Iranians and the Americans will send covert financial and military support to Iraq’s central government to ensure its survival, while the Kurds will take advantage of the chaos to ingrain their autonomy.
Nevertheless things will not be quite so simple. ISIS has made this degree of progress thus far because it has the natural and unequivocal support of one of Iraq’s three ethnic groups, the Sunnis, in a country whose dominant political impulse has often been sectarian. A small and informal militia has been able to make such dramatic territorial advances so quickly because there is no question of hearts-and-minds loyalty. Iraq’s central government is so overtly pro-Shia in its sentiment – its Sunni Deputy Prime Minister fled after a warrant was issued for his arrest – that it is impossible to persuade Sunnis to harbour any loyalty towards it. ISIS could only be dislodged by brute force on the part of pro-Shia forces, not only against ISIS troops but against the Sunni populations of Iraq as a whole. The vast majority of the Sunni community is providing a support network to ISIS and tacitly assisting it wherever it goes.
One might regard this alarming dynamic as unprecedented. But it is not. It has a remarkably similar analogue in recent history. In the early 1990s Bosnia and Herzegovina dissolved into tripartite ethnic warfare, albeit as a result of rather different historical catalysts. In Iraq, the Sykes-Picot accord had installed minority Sunni domination over Iraq’s two other ethnic groups until a series of events beginning with the invasion of Kuwait and concluding with US invasion of Iraq in 2003 dislodged the Sunni government in favour of Shia majoritarianism combined with Kurdish autonomy. In Bosnia, a complex but oppressive constitutional arrangement divided power between Serbs at Yugoslavia’s federal level and Muslims at Bosnia’s sub-sovereign level. The catalyst for collapse was again the imposition of democracy in 1990, following which the constitutional logic of Yugoslavia’s balance of power could no longer be maintained when each ethnic group voted for parties with irreconcilable nationalist agendas. Nevertheless even if the causes of conflict in each case were distinct, the outcomes have parallels.
In Bosnia fighting started, much as it has in Iraq, after a build-up of armed forces following a war in a neighbouring country. The Croatian war in 1991 resulted in establishment of militias with stockpiles of arms that spread over into Bosnia. When the war started in Bosnia in late March 1992, everyone was ready for it. In Iraq, the Sunni military build-up was precipitated by development of militia activities in neighbouring Syria. Again people seem to have been ready; Shia militias have now emerged seemingly from nowhere but presumably long-financed by Iran, proclaiming the defence of Baghdad. When the Sunni seizure of territory began the Kurdish Peshmerga were quick to overrun Kirkuk, again suggesting an element of preplanning.
In Bosnia the overt and immediate agenda was ethnic division of territory and within just a few weeks of the start of war a discernible front line was drawn between the three sides. Within a few months, ethnic division of territory had been reinforced by ethnic cleansing as the country’s three distinct population groups became refugees, removing themselves to the territories which their own ethnic group controlled. Minority population groups that stayed in hostile territory were liable to forcible expulsion or murder. Much the same patterns have already been seen in Iraq. Since the US occupation of the country in 2003 and the subsequent severe ethnic unrest beginning in 2005, the country’s Sunni and Shia groups have more or less voluntarily partitioned themselves while the Kurds have remained segregated in their autonomous territory since 1991. Even in Baghdad, the sole remaining major multi-ethnic city, Sunni and Shia groups have built walls and checkpoints between their neighbourhoods. In this, Iraq’s capital has followed models established in Sarajevo and Belfast.
If ethno-territorial partition in Iraq is already all but complete, then the political consequences of that – military conquest of each mono-ethnic region by militias loyal to each ethnic group – was surely only a matter of time. Indeed the cost in terms of human lives of ethnic partition in Iraq has to a great extent already been paid during the US occupation. The rise of ISIS might be seen as the final step for Iraq in completing the Bosnian paradigm of political separation. Once ethnic partition has occurred, it is natural that the Sunnis will establish their own statelet within Iraq; ISIS is the militia giving effect to this outcome.
The Bosnian war continued for some time in a stalemate after ethnic partition had occurred, and the current Iraqi conflict may follow the same course. None of the three parties to that conflict could or much wanted to achieve military conquest of territories belonging to the others, because that would entail absorption of other populations when the premise of the conflict was that they be separated. Nevertheless given the competing political narratives each side adopted about their victimhood and the course of recent history, formal reconciliation between the separated sides proved impossible. Eventually the Bosnian war was brought to a conclusion in November 1995 as a result of massive foreign pressure. The United States forced the three sides into an unworkable confederal constitutional arrangement. This was achieved by fuelling proxy war: Croats, then Muslims, were supported in their military efforts in order to draw the Serbs to the negotiating table. The greatest victims of this policy were residents of the pockets: minority populations within enclaves surrounded by Serb forces. As the Serbs came to realise a coerced external solution was to be imposed upon them, they did everything they could to finalise the process of ethnic cleansing in anticipation of the finalisation of territorial boundaries. The men and boys of Srebrenica were the principal victims of this course of events.
For now the development of Iraq’s conflict seems relatively predictable. Recent military gains by Sunnis and Kurds will prove difficult to reverse. Baghdad may suffer a siege, as did Sarajevo. The Sunnis will establish their own institutions of government in their areas of territorial conquest. But as in Bosnia, Iraq’s ethnic pockets are also vulnerable if the United States – or Iran – ultimately attempt to intervene too decisively to impose a resolution upon the parties. Iraq as a modern state has collapsed, and as in Bosnia this is likely to prove irreversible. Also as in Bosnia, an unworkable confederal arrangement may ultimately be imposed upon the country by the US and/or Iran in the name of saving their own faces. But this needs to be done with greater subtlety than occurred in Bosnia, lest intervention aggravate the bloodletting.
Perhaps most fundamentally, whatever government structure is finally developed for an ethnically segregated Iraq it should not be as dysfunctional as the November 1995 Dayton constitution proved to be for Bosnia. The instabilities inherent in an unworkable attempt at power-sharing within an ostensibly sovereign state between three implacable foes has stunted Bosnia’s political and economic development for nearly twenty years and there remains no sustainable settlement in sight. Avoidance of an equivalent post-conflict catastrophe must be the predominant goal of the international policymaker, now wondering what steps to take in trying to reconstruct Iraq from the ashes of ethnic civil war.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland, and a frequent writer on international law and international relations. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and was named by Bilan magazine as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. His third book, “Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law”, will be published later this year. www.matthewparish.com