Iraq in turmoil: The rise of ‘Syraq’

Colonial politics may have led to the problem, but current crisis was sparked by Iraq government’s poor policy choices.

Iraqi men raise their weapons to show their support for the call to arms by Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani [AFP]

The obituaries for the Iraqi state disintegrating along Shia-Sunni lines have proliferated after the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took Mosul and a string of Iraqi cities last week. Iraq is not facing imminent disintegration; it is being challenged by tribal links and a terror group that straddles the borders of Syria and Iraq in a zone I would call “Syraq” – but Iraq has faced similar crises in the past and has proved resilient.

Syraq would be analogous to the US policy neologism, “Afpak”, where tribal links straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border allowed the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to carve out areas under their control and destabilise both states. However, the Afpak crisis has not resulted in the disintegration of Afghanistan or Pakistan. While the emergence of Syraq may challenge Iraq’s sovereignty, it is still too early to declare the end of the Iraqi state as commentators have done in the last week.

The Afpak problem had its roots with the Great Game, when a British-Russian compromise divided the ethnic Pashtun tribes along the 1893 Durand line, a border that reflected imperial compromise without taking into account how it split tribal communities.

The Iraqi-Syrian border was formed in the same manner, out of British-French collusion after World War I, dividing a predominantly rural Arab Sunni tribal population inhabiting a contiguous geographic region between the Tigris and Euphrates known as al-Jazira. The line also affected those living in the cities. Historically, the city of Mosul has had just as close relations to Aleppo in Syria as it did with Baghdad.

Shared tribal affinities

Blaming the current crisis on European partition plans only provides a partial explanation as to how the fall of Mosul emerged. Shared tribal affinities explains why arms and fighters flow freely in both directions across the desert that straddles the Syria-Iraq border. Colonial politics may have created the structure that led to the problem, but this conflict crisis was sparked by a series of poor policy choices on behalf of the Iraqi state.

First, the Iraqi state failed to reward Iraqi Arab Sunni tribal leaders who ejected al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2008 with the spoils of patronage, a dynamic that has characterised politics in Iraq before and after the fall of the Baath Party in 2003. If the Iraqi state could offer community leaders and tribes the largesse that characterised patronage politics in the past, they would have an incentive to eject their ISIL coreligionists from the Anbar, Nineveh and Diyala provinces today.

While shared tribal and sectarian affiliation may explain why Arab Sunnis in Iraq and Syria have joined ISIL, or why sympathetic Arab Sunni tribes allowed it access into Iraq, it would be erroneous to see the conflict in the Syraq zone as the beginning of the partition of the Iraqi state.

Governments in Baghdad have faced similar scenarios before. After the Gulf war of 1991, an uprising led to 15 out of Iraq’s 18 provinces falling out of Saddam Hussein’s control, dividing Iraq along Shia, Sunni and Kurdish lines. Saddam was able to reassert Baghdad’s authority within a month, albeit in one of the most brutal counterinsurgencies in the history of the Middle East. A de facto Kurdish state existed in the north of Iraq for more than a decade following that uprising, protected by a no-fly zone, yet the Iraqi state formally remained intact.  

Furthermore, the recent ISIL push does not mean the state will fragment along sectarian lines. ISIL happens to be a transnational Sunni movement, but it has demonstrated that it will kill fellow Syrian Sunni rebels and Iraqi Sunni religious and tribal leaders who get in its way. The Iraqi Shia political parties are also divided on this crisis. It was those same parties that failed to give incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki an overall parliamentary majority in the country’s recent elections

The US response

The US response so far has been to blame the fall of Mosul and other towns on Maliki’s leadership. This is a time when the US should avoid the blame game. The US, after all, also bears some blame. Maliki was Washington’s preferred man for prime minister in 2006 over Ali al-Adeeb, another potential candidate who was deemed too close to Iran. In fact, George W Bush called Maliki “our man in Iraq” – much to Maliki’s ire.

Washington also failed to develop a foreign policy that took into account the emergence of Syraq since last year. The US had failed to act on Maliki’s call for expedited delivery of weapons to combat ISIL, or for aid in air strikes against ISIL camps in Syria which were used for attacks against Iraq.

The need to see the Syria and Iraq conflicts as linked will perhaps be the final impetus for the US and Iran to reach a grand bargain over resolving Syria’s civil war, and thus bringing some relative stability to the Iraq-Syria border zone.

The US has pressured Maliki to pursue a process of national reconciliation among the various ethno-sectarian communities, as he should have when he first came into office. The re-emergence of ISIL might be the final impetus for Maliki to begin a reconciliation process before it is too late.

Maliki’s dependence on Kurdish military support will hopefully also provide another impetus for Baghdad to finally reach a compromise with Kurds over oil revenues and the disputed city of Kirkuk.

Syraq is a reality today, but it is simply a zone that challenges Iraq’s sovereignty rather than resulting in its demise. The decisions the Iraqi leadership will make in the following weeks, will ultimately decide if disenfranchised Iraqis and Iraqi politicians will have the incentive to decouple Iraq from the Syrian conflict.  

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of ‘Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History’.

Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi