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Geopolitical Diary

THURSDAY, JUNE 19, 2014 - 20:03  

As the United States, Iran and other international stakeholders are kicking into high gear to try to defuse the rebellion in Iraq, most observers are blaming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the problem and are arguing that resolution to the conflict cannot happen without his resignation. There is no doubt that al-Maliki's policies have played a major role in the renewed Sunni rebellion and that, had he engaged in more inclusive policies, the current situation could have been avoided. That said, ethno-sectarianism is a geopolitical reality of the Iraqi nation-state, and specific personalities and groups can do only so much to avoid conflict.



U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday announced that he was dispatching 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to help Baghdad deal with the threat of a jihadist-led Sunni uprising that has led the government to lose control of Sunni provinces. Obama said he could also approve "targeted and precise" airstrikes if the situation on the ground required it, adding that Washington had increased intelligence gathering to identify potential targets. Obama stopped short of calling for al-Maliki to step down, saying, "It's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders," but obliquely warned the prime minister when he said "only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda" would succeed in once again bringing the Sunnis back into the political mainstream.


It is indeed clear that the Shiite-dominated central government cannot retake Sunni areas militarily -- the only way would be through a political negotiation that would lead the majority of Sunni stakeholders to align with Baghdad and turn against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. This is exactly what happened in 2007 when U.S. occupation authorities, in a deal spearheaded by former U.S. military commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus, were successful in defusing the Sunni insurgency that raged for four years.


Before the United States completely withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, it had left al-Maliki with the conditions for his government to move toward political stability. Al-Maliki, however, did not waste much time in squandering the opportunity; within days of the departure of the last U.S. soldiers, he began a policy of repression against the Sunni minority by moving against the country's highest-ranking Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. Al-Maliki accused al-Hashimi, whom fellow Sunnis had long denounced as a Shiite collaborator, of involvement in terrorism and sentenced him to death. The move began a gradual process of pushing the Sunnis away from the political system, a process that in 2013 erupted into mass protests and in the past few weeks has turned into a full-scale armed rebellion. 


But the Sunnis were not the only group that al-Maliki alienated. His government also pushed away the Kurds, who were the traditional allies of the Shia in their joint effort to rid the country of Sunni autocratic rule and build the system that now has come close to meltdown. Al-Maliki's inability to reach a settlement with the Kurds over energy exporting rights reinforced separatist tendencies among the Kurds. Worse, his own Shiite allies accused him of being a despot and said he threatened their communal interests through his politics of exclusion.


There is considerable merit in the argument that had al-Maliki conducted himself differently the situation might not have reached the dangerous proportions that it has now reached. However, there are limits to how far personalities and groups can alter geopolitical fundamentals through alternative policies. In the case of Iraq, any other Shiite chief executive would have the same imperative: consolidating Shiite dominance over post-Baathist Iraq.


This involves making sure that the Sunni minority -- backed by the region's Sunni powers, particularly Saudi Arabia -- is not able to threaten the nascent Shiite power, and limiting the extent to which the Kurds can enjoy autonomy, especially as it applies to their ability to unilaterally export crude oil. The Iraqi Shia, given their historically weak position, have been dependent on Iran for their geopolitical well-being, but Iran has its own interests. This became more acute in light of the Sunni uprising against the Alawite-dominated regime in neighboring Syria, which has been a threat to the Iraqi Shia and their Iranian patrons.


Al-Maliki could have managed the situation more prudently, but ultimately, like any other actor, he has limited options. This point is extremely important as various stakeholders seek to address the crisis. Removing al-Maliki now amid the crisis is going to be extremely difficult and won't necessarily help matters. In fact, it could worsen the situation.


Right now, the Iraqi Shia are more concerned with countering the Sunni jihadist threat. It was only a few weeks ago that al-Maliki's two main Shiite competitors, Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, were actively trying to deny al-Maliki a third term. Those efforts have been put on hold indefinitely, and both are now mobilizing fighters to meet the security threat from the Sunnis.


Likewise, if Iran supported Syrian President Bashar al Assad despite the fact that his forces killed some 150,000 people, it is unlikely that Tehran would be willing to replace al-Maliki during a crisis that is far closer to home than Syria. Assuming that somehow the turn of events leads to Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies agreeing to replace al-Maliki, it would still be unclear how much of a difference his successor would be able to make. There is an extremely polarized sectarian situation in the region, and the Shia do not want the Sunnis to be able to take advantage of it and make gains against them. Similarly, the Kurds are out to fully exploit the sectarian crisis so as to exact concessions from the Shia that the latter would normally not be willing to entertain.


Thus, al-Maliki's successor would face the same constraints and would behave not much differently from the incumbent prime minister, especially when the war has begun.





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