In Iraq, a Mess That Knows No Borders

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published September 02, 2009, issue of September 11, 2009.
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As the Obama administration leads America out of Iraq, mayhem may be galloping in. The American public, however, does not seem perturbed: Afghanistan is now the controversial conflict du jour.

Yet it is increasingly clear with every passing day that the underlying assumption of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the Bush administration — that the United States could somehow mold Iraq in favor of democracy and American interests — lacks any foundation in reality.

The very best-case scenario that experts seem to be able to conjure for Iraq’s post-American future is of a Shiite leader with authoritarian tendencies who will rule a managed democracy in Baghdad; he would have close ties to Iran but seek to remain at least outwardly independent and to cultivate respectful relations with Turkey and Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbors.

It is stunning to contemplate an Iraq allied, however loosely, with Iran as the best outcome of President Bush’s scheme for remaking the Middle East. But best-case scenarios rarely materialize. Odds are that the reality in Iraq in a year or so will be worse — not just for Iraqis but also for the rest of the Middle East and perhaps beyond.

The Obama administration is obviously worried enough to put Iraq-related issues on its agenda for talks with Syria and possibly Iran. But it is devoting its primary military and nation-building energies to Afghanistan.

Iraq’s Arab and Turkish neighbors are expressing their concern about the country’s fate. But it is increasingly clear that the Arab state system is weak and incapable of influencing its surroundings, even as it grudgingly acquiesces in the emergence of a Shiite Arab state in its midst.

The overall atmosphere recalls Greek tragedy: As the painful outcome inexorably emerges, all we can do is watch.

Iraq’s Kurds, the only pro-American element in the country, are on edge about an Arab challenge to their autonomy as the United States departs. Arab-Kurd friction is already emerging over the fate of Kirkuk, Kurdish exploitation of oil resources and assorted ethnically charged border disputes that nobody is currently doing anything to resolve. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, after creating “Awakening” militias, subduing Al Qaeda and exploring paths to reconciliation with a Shiite-majority government, are also increasingly fearful about their future.

Recent audacious bombings of Iraqi ministries in the heart of Baghdad seem to signal the potential for an Al Qaeda or Baathist resurgence and for Sunni-Shiite bloodbaths once the Americans leave or even before. The bombings have already led Baghdad to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus over Syria’s alleged sheltering of Iraqi Sunni extremists. Sunni-Shiite conflict inside Iraq could have ramifications for its moderate Sunni Arab neighbors, particularly Jordan, which has absorbed huge numbers of Iraqi refugees, including several hundred thousand Shiites.

Finally, a Shiite-dominated Iraq with close ties to Iran could conceivably place Iranian forces or proxies, and even missiles, on Iraq’s borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan. (The latter, lest we forget, provides Israel’s “strategic depth” looking eastward.) The very existence of the first Shiite-ruled Arab country in modern times could have far-reaching ramifications for restive Shiite minorities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, militant Shiites in Lebanon and the Shiite majority in Sunni-ruled Bahrain — particularly if Iran sticks to its pattern of fostering unrest wherever there are Shiites in the Arab world, and certainly if Iran is bolstered by nuclear clout.

None of these developments is inevitable. There are plenty of Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq who just want a peaceful and prosperous country. And Iran’s influence may be limited by the serious political-theological differences between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites. Moreover, what happens between Washington and Tehran could have far-reaching effects on events in Iraq. So could a successful American-Syrian rapprochement built around a Syrian-Israeli peace process that weakens Iranian influence in the Levant and prompts Syria to do something about its porous border with Iraq.

Yet it is difficult to escape Middle East realities. The United States is leaving Iraq, no matter what — indeed, an Iraqi referendum in January could produce a majority vote demanding that Washington pull out even earlier than the present timetable. The Arabs are weak and in disarray: Yemen is now following Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq itself in descending into strife and schism. A post-election Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard sidekicks promises to be more extreme than ever, with Iraq first on their hegemony list.

Events in Iraq could be bad, and they could overflow Iraq’s borders in every direction. Sadly, while it was President Bush who set this destructive process in motion, the fallout will happen on President Obama’s watch.

Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications.


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