For those who care about defeating the Islamic State, repelling Iranian overreach, and restoring security to Iraq, the two most tone-deaf, counterproductive strategy proposals out there are, first, to divide Iraq and, second, to arm directly Sunni Arab tribes or political factions outside of any coordination with Baghdad.
The problems with the first strategy are multifold:
- Blessing an Islamic State safe haven won’t solve core problems since the desire to restore the caliphate and erase nation-states is ideological rather than grievance-based.
- Second, Iraqi Sunni politicians and their lobbyists might claim that empowerment will bring peace and stability, but the basic problem remains a lack of leadership among the Sunni community. Carving out a Sunnistan will simply raise the stakes on what has been a quiet, intra-Sunni civil war.
- Third, those who seek to divide Iraq are profoundly ignorant of the human terrain in Iraq. Even after years of civil conflict, ethnic and sectarian dividing lines are not clear-cut. Division will spark a new round of ethnic and sectarian cleansing; and,
- Fourth, despite all the problems Iraq has faced, the notion that Iraqis don’t have an identity is counterfactual. That doesn’t mean Iraqis don’t fight amongst themselves, but the concept of Iraq extends back centuries before its formal creation in the wake of World War I. Indeed, while Americans consistently underestimate the psychological impact of occupation, the Iranians always underestimate the importance of Iraqi nationalism. To try to strike a blow at the sanctity of the Iraqi state is to make the Iranian mistake.
As regards the idea of arming separately the Sunnis, too many proponents seek to recreate the Surge. Much of the lionization surrounding the surge rests more in General David Petraeus’ careful cultivation of the press and a close coterie of analysts, rather than in reality. (Nicholas Krohley’s important new book is a necessary corrective to some of the hagiography surrounding the surge). True, the surge was bold and successful militarily in the short-term, but politically it was a disaster since it simply convinced certain elements among the Sunni that they could win concessions through resistance and violence. In effect, the promises made during the surge convinced too many Sunnis that they could bypass the ballot box in their quest to restore the power they once enjoyed. Once the money dried up, however, any semblance of a change of heart faded. It is all well and good to blame elected governments in Baghdad for instability and discrimination but, to be perfectly blunt, Baghdad’s suspicions were warranted. The suicide bombers blowing themselves up in Baghdad were not originating in Najaf or Karbala. Too many Sunni leaders — including some of those who participated in the surge and others who now lobby in Washington — justify terrorism and rationalize the Islamic State as the natural result of not getting their way.
But, quibbling over the surge aside, would arming Sunni tribes in the wake of the Islamic State’s takeover of broad swaths of Iraqi territory work? Could it hurt? The questions are no longer theoretical. Turkey has unilaterally begun aiding, arming, and assisting a Sunni militia answering to Atheel al-Nujaifi — a Sunni politician most famous for a combination of having failed to use the money allotted to him to develop Mosul, having been unable to detect the infiltration of the Islamic State among his own constituents and failing to acknowledge the terrorist organization’s strength, and, finally, fleeing Mosul — allegedly dressed as a woman — in the city’s hour of need.
The provision of arms hasn’t made Nujaifi any more popular. If anything, Iraqis see him as even more hapless than before. His willingness to betray Iraqi sovereignty to a foreign sectarian interest wins him no friends. Pundits might argue that this is exactly what some Shi‘ite politicians have done vis-à-vis Iran. And they would be right. The wrongness is in betraying Iraqi sovereignty to any self-interested, sectarian power. To the Iraqis’ credit, they have largely thrown the most sectarian individuals from power, and isolated those of whom they could not rid themselves.
All that the decision by Turkey to increase its occupation (it has long stationed forces in Iraqi Kurdistan) has accomplished is to rally the pro-Iranian hardliners against moderates and nationalists like Prime Minister Haider Abadi. To support directly arming Sunni leaders in Iraq or building militias for them is to hand pro-Iranian leaders the gift of popular outrage and weaken more technocratic leaders like those now in power in Iraq.
At the same time, the affront to Iraqi sovereignty has caused Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose influence has long been moderating, to urge the government to take more concrete steps to defend Iraqi sovereignty. Frankly, the Iraqi government should. The longer Turkish forces remain in Iraq, the more like it is that some will come home in body bags much like their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps equivalents have in Iraq and Syria. Few Iraqis will shed tears.
The reality is that Turkey is intervening in Iraq not to restore stability, but rather because Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees himself as a sectarian warrior. His bluster and aggressiveness have transformed Turkey into a regional pariah. That Erdoğan has managed to make himself persona non grata in Abu Dhabi, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Moscow, Ramallah, and, quite possibly, Riyadh is a reflection of how hamfisted his policy has become.
For Turkey itself, the precedent will be disastrous. If Turkey can support sectarian militias in Iraq, allegedly in the guise of communal security and justice, is it now proper for foreign powers to support ethnic militias inside Turkey so that Kurds or other groups can better defend themselves against the Turkish state? Imagine the reaction if someone did seek to arm and train the Kurds, for example, inside Turkey. It would rally ethnic Turkish chauvinists and lead to further violence.
Turkey has unleashed a very dangerous game. The only question is whether the casualties that will result from its policies in Iraq and the corollary blowback in Turkey will be numbered in the hundreds or thousands.