Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ba'athing in the Euphrates

Perhaps the most simultaneously heartening and distressing piece of news in the interim has been the announcement of cessation of combat operations by US forces in Iraq. The drawdown leaves behind some fifty thousand troops for training Iraqi security forces ("advise and assist"),   deterring the various internal security threats plaguing that country, and securing key US interests across Iraq. American media and the US administration have routinely used the word “withdrawal” to describe the change in force levels, signifying the start of an irrevocable process by which to arrive at an agreeable conclusion to that deplorable misadventure. Iraq is one of the two Wars inherited from the previous administration, and bringing it to a swift and – insomuch as it is possible – painless conclusion has been one of Obama's key priorities and campaign promises (WP); Obama has to ensure that the withdrawal is carried out – irrespective of the security situation in Iraq and the implied strategic failure of the Surge – to limit the political fallout from Vietraq come 2012.

Iraq herself is likely to be destabilized further as the deterrent represented by US forces is diminished and fragmentation of the population along ethnic and sectarian lines continues: a process frozen in place by the Surge in 2007. President Obama's recent speech marking the end of designated combat operations sidestepped the important issue of a longterm American footprint in Iraq. How will the administration respond if requested by the Iraqi government to extend the tenure of US forces in Iraq or expand the scope of their mission? Such a request would be entirely rational given the security challenges facing that country.

The other, perhaps more dreaded specter of an Iranian Iraq is also a lot closer to reality than in 2003. The Iranians have, through sponsorship political parties and support of Shiite militias and resistance groups, gained a strong political foothold in Iraq. As this Foreign Policy article points out: the political gains made by Moqtada Al-Sadr in the recent elections and subsequent horse-trading have placed Iran in a powerful position to influence Iraqi politics. In the absence of a strong US military presence in Iraq – under a clear mandate to deter and rollback the various militias, from which potential antagonists derive much of their hard-power – the role of Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, and hence and his Iranian backers, will continue to increase.

The fact, however, is that none of the minority groups opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq – the Kurds for example – is capable, even when acting in concert, which they are unlikely to do, to acquire a decisive proportion of political power in the Iraqi government. The US-made new constitution of Iraq seems to have made effective governance only possible when a broad consensus is shared. In the absence of this consensus, Iraqi political factions reserve the right – and preserve the ability – to revert to armed warfare, a nightmare scenario the lawmakers perhaps did not foresee in 2003. Indeed, the various political parties and factions in Iraq find common ground mainly in their antagonism toward one another: a common occurrence wherever democratic systems are paired with politics of fear-mongering and ethnic sensationalism.

Iraq's increasing tilt towards Tehran will have repercussions for more than Iraq herself. The strategy for limiting and countering Iranian influence in the Middle East has thus far revolved around containment. It was to this end that various Arab governments sided with Iraq in her eight-year war with Iran; this same policy guided the Saudi government in 1991 to lobbying to limit the outcome of the First Gulf War to expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait and not threatening Saddam Hussein's regime itself. Saudi Support for the 2003 invasion was limited and given only reluctantly, when it became clear that the Bush administration would not be swayed from the warpath. Iranian gains in Iraq and Lebanon (via Hezbollah) are cause for as much concern in Riyadh and Tel Aviv as in Washington, and may catalyze attempts by regional players to influence events in Iraq. Indeed, absent US assurances - backed up by a hundred thousand pairs of boots on the ground in Iraq - to contain and curtail Iranian influence in Iraq, other players may be left with no choice but to get their hands dirty. Whichever way such a contest may turn, it does not bode well for Iraq.

It is perhaps too early, and ultimately irrelevant, to talk of winning and losing in the Iraq War. Posterity will be judge how the War changes the balance of power in the region and how it affects the development of US policy, and revise whatever inferences we may draw today. The one thing  that is certain, however, is that abandoning Iraq to her fate will close the lid on what appears at present to be a decisive strategic victory for Iran; made all the more impressive because no-one realized they were even in the running to begin with.

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