The onslaught of Sunni extremist militants in Iraq will have violent repercussions in Syria and could bring wider war in the Middle East, a United Nations panel warned on Tuesday, The New York Times reports:
The conflict in Syria “has reached a tipping point threatening the entire region,” the four-member United Nations commission of inquiry on Syria told the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Attacks in northern Iraq by forces affiliated to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have brought “unimaginable suffering” to civilians and are likely to cause greater foreign involvement in the Syrian conflict, including an influx of more foreign fighters, the panel said.
“ISIS has shown itself willing to fan the flames of sectarianism both in Iraq and Syria,” the panel warned, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “Any strengthening of their position gives rise to great concern.”
The chance to consolidate democracy and stability following the 2010 surge and successful election was squandered, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN.
“Iraq could have capitalized on that progress at the time and avoided this fate if it had implemented the roadmap that was prescribed in the constitution,” he writes for The National Interest:
Instead, a number of mistakes were made. Contrary to the constitution, the party that won the largest number of seats in the 2010 election—the secular and cross-sectarian Iraqiya led by Ayad Allawi—was not allowed to form the government. Instead, in a deal backed by the United States and Iran, Prime Minister Maliki remained the country’s prime minister. Instead of implementing a power-sharing agreement, which was the basis for Maliki remaining in office, he began to eliminate political rivals (especially among the Sunni Arabs), politicize the military and security services, and monopolize (rather than share) power. He also undermined the implementation of the federal system that was clearly stipulated in the country’s constitution.
The consequences were twofold, notes Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:
First, large segments of the Sunni community lost trust in the government, and more dangerously, lost hope that they would be treated with dignity and fairness as partners in governing the country…..Second, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan region also deteriorated to the extent that Kurdish leaders became convinced that Iraq’s federal structure had failed because the Maliki government repeatedly ignored or violated the political compact enshrined in the constitution, which was the basis of Kurdish assent to remain in a new Iraqi federal state.
“Despite the rapid success of the Sunni campaign, it is a kamikaze attack that will make the Shiite hold on the Iraqi state stronger, not weaker,” says Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, formerly the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2012.
The insurgents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have made sweeping gains, but an assault on Baghdad, or its capture, can only end in defeat — and the strengthening of the insurgents’ sworn Shiite enemies in Baghdad and, especially, Tehran, he writes for The New York Times:
First, consider the brute demographic reality. Unlike in Syria, Sunnis are a relatively small part of the Iraqi population, about 25 percent — though they are a majority in some areas of the west and north. And in Baghdad their numbers are minuscule….If the insurgents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, enter Baghdad’s residual Sunni neighborhoods, they will likely be welcomed, but they won’t have much to work with, nor will they have the strategic depth they will need in the street fighting that ensues.
Moreover, rather like what happened in Syria, the Sunni offensive is likely to spur a transformation of the Iraqi Army from the sorry mess it is now into a more resilient and operationally effective force.
In Syria, the army reeled in the face of the rebellion in 2011; desertions were rife and large sections of territory were lost to the insurgency. But as incompetent commanders were killed or relieved and a new leadership emerged, the army was able to bring its vastly greater firepower to bear on an increasingly fractionated adversary. Its combat capability was multiplied by the successful integration of civilian militias and the intelligence and tactical advice supplied by Iran. This trajectory is likely to be replicated in Iraq.
ISIS’ s self-interested pursuit of its absolutist ideals has made it countless enemies in Syria, and it will face huge challenges to avoid a similar fate in Iraq, according to Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, where his work focuses particularly on terrorism and insurgency in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon
“This latest offensive is arguably the most significant event in Sunni jihadism since 9/11,” he writes for CNN’s Global Public Square:
Having already challenged al Qaeda’s ideological legitimacy, ISIS has now underlined its perceived military superiority to a receptive younger and more fanatical generation of potential recruits around the world.
While al Qaeda and its affiliates are embracing a more patient locally focused strategy, ISIS manifests a determination for rapid, dramatic results. It’s certainly just shown these in Iraq. But whether this will prove a more effective long-term strategy remains to be seen.
“The U.S. invasion of Iraq destroyed the main Sunni bulwark against Iran, with two consequences,” says Olivier Roy, an expert on political Islam at the European University Institute in Italy: “the solidifying of a de facto independent Kurdistan, the secession of a large Sunni populated area in Northern Iraq that shifted from Baathism to Jihadism and straddles the border with Syria. Saudi Arabia, instead of allying itself with the mainstream Sunni organizations (like the Muslim Brothers), wants to crush them, while it supported for decades the very radicals that are now taking the lead in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. Thus Iran is the great beneficiary of the collapse of the dominant order built between 1918 and 1948, with a minimum engagement on the field,” he tells the New Republic.
Going forward, the situation is likely to follow one of two paths, says former envoy Khalilzad:
First, Iraq’s leaders could seek to restore stability through renewed power-sharing arrangements among the three large communities—Sunni, Shia and Kurd. Based on conversation with Iraq’s leaders, there is a consensus that Maliki must be replaced with a new prime minister to restore unity. This could unfold in two ways. Iraqis could establish a supreme national council consisting of the major leaders of the three communities, which could include Maliki, but which would have a new prime minister. Alternatively, the three communities could agree on a new Shiite leader to replace Maliki as Prime Minister…..
If a new power-sharing arrangement is reached in Baghdad, local Sunni Arab leaders, including tribes, are likely to cooperate with the government against ISIS. This is what happened in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The Kurds, too, might defer exercising the option of going their own way.
The second path for Iraq—in the absence of compromise—will be fragmentation. Kurdistan, which now controls all the disputed territories that were in dispute with Baghdad and has also acquired the oil and gas resources that can make it financially independent, will likely decide to go its own way, forging strong ties with Turkey and the West. Iraq’s southern provinces and the Baghdad government will come under increased Iranian influence. In these areas, militias including some Shiite extremist groups with ties to Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force will gain control…..
Following the recent outbreak of violence in the Ninewa governorate and the spread of violence to other parts of Iraq, 500,000 people were displaced from within and around the city of Mosul, in the course of just one week, the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) reports:
Since the end of last year, about 1 million people got displaced inside Iraq due to violence in Anbar, Ninewa and the surrounding governorates. Given the increased likelihood that this conflict will keep spreading to other Iraqi governorates, the number of IDPs will increase even more in the near future.
In response to this protracted crisis, the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) is increasing its information sharing activities. The enabling of a free flow of information is important within NCCI’s mandate for coordination and is particularly important with regards to the current humanitarian situation in Iraq, which is changing rapidly. NCCI was already issuing weekly reports on the security situation in Anbar and the main needs of Anbar IDPs, and has now also started to include information on Ninewa IDPs in these weekly updates. Additionally, NCCI and its member NGOs have developed a mapping of activities that are being carried out on the humanitarian response by the range of different NGOs, which will be further expanded and will be regularly updated.
Will the crisis in Iraq lead to a rapprochement with Iran? Will the effort to strike a nuclear deal expand into a broader agreement? asks Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams;
That is the nightmare of many of our allies in the Middle East, including the Gulf Arab states, Jordan, and Israel. My colleague Max Boot in his blog today explains why it is a dangerous idea to think that we have common interests with the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. At the Commentary Magazine web site, Max has written “Getting Fooled by Iran in Iraq.” Here is an excerpt: Read more »