Lost in our day-to-day hassles in India, we have all but forgotten the Middle-East which has now become a boiling cauldron of political activity.
One of the ironies of modern day is that the two nations Iraq and Iran – that fought a bitter war for a decade between 1979 and 1989 that left both the countries nearly broke and which soon led to the Gulf War in the early nineties and then to another one a decade later are coming closer.
Many may have forgotten some of the footnotes of Gulf War I.
One of my good political contacts, Chandrasekhar – was then India’s Prime Minister.
I had interviewed him in Race Course Road while making a video movie on the subject.
In an aside, he had said: A lot of persons are going to call me mad for having allowed the US planes to refuel in India and that my support to the allied effort against Saddam may bring down my regime. History will prove all those prophets of doom wrong. I am a Prime Minister who cares, who dares and who does not pretend about anything … and therefore … I am a political anachronism. One day, the world will realise that the globe does require people with my disposition.
During Gulf War I, Saddam sent a lot of his planes to ‘take refuge’ in Iran – a nation that fought with Iraq for a decade resulting in a million deaths of youths on either side.
That act was unexplained.
It still is.
The third and the most current one:
Iran’s nuclear sabre rattling is raising everyone’s hackles. Iran also has been threatening to block the Straits of Hormuz – the oil-lifeline of the world. One cannot rule out World War III on these issues … yet.
Somalia is threatening to upset the world’s oil-apple-cart by disrupting supplies by sea-piracy blaming the entire world for its lawlessness generated by a famine that has stayed on for over a decade. Nobody seems to be revealing how a bunch of half-naked rag tag force is able to hold the entire world’s merchant fleets to ransom in such a sophisticated way. The polite whisper is that the whole thing is masterminded from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Saudi family like many others in the Gulf are feeling the heat and that is certainly not the summer variety. Yemen and Bahrain have already seen upheavals. Across the Suez, Africa has seen its despots like Muammar Quadhafi cruelly cursed and crushed to death by a section of the population, he claimed, was ‘devoted to him!’ Hosni Mubarak is levitating to courts on a stretcher saying he is too ill to stand up and face trial for anti-people activity. Tunisia’s villain Zinedine Ben Ali has escaped to Jeddah like Idi Amin to ‘live peacefully’ with his ill-gotten wealth.
In other words, something is horribly going wrong in the Middle-East again.
Southern Features is making an attempt to find answers to this conundrum.
Here is the first serious discussion between credible international journalist R Tollast and Emma Sky who can talk with authority on Iraq.
Iraqi PM Nouri al Maliki recently said that Turkey was becoming “a hostile state”. At the time of writing, Turkey has fostered closer ties to the Kurdish regional government and is hosting Iraq’s deputy PM Tariq al Hashemi, accused by Maliki’s government of running a death squad which has allegedly killed 150 people. The warrant for Hashemi’s arrest [issued recently] is seen by many as having a political, even sectarian motive, which has subsequently heightened sectarian tension across the region.
In contrast to Iraq’s frosty relations with Turkey and the Gulf states, Maliki’s government remains on good terms with the mainly Shia Iran.
Why does Maliki maintain good relations with a politically erratic Iran (the GDP of which is faltering under sanctions) at the expense of good relations with Turkey, Iraq’s largest trading partner?
Is it the case, as James Traub recently wrote in Foreign Policy that Maliki's government has become a net exporter of sectarianism?
Few observers are better placed to answer such questions than the Arabist Emma Sky, who has travelled extensively within Iraq, spending much time with ordinary Iraqis far from the safety of the “international zone” in Baghdad.
It is all about their politics, stupid!
RT: You’ve talked about the impressive ability of the US military to adapt to the situation on the ground in Iraq post 2005. This can be summarised as the transition from a culture of enemy centric counterinsurgency / conventional war-fighting to what was soon dubbed “population centric” counterinsurgency. Commanders such as H.R Mcmaster, David Petraeus and Travis Patriquin began this shift at the tactical level before it evolved into the first plausible exit strategy in the form of “The Surge”.
This gradual adaptation was no easy transition. It involved putting in place new leadership in Iraq, a total reinvention of accepted wisdom about the war (particularly that the US had failed and should get out as soon as possible) as well the politically difficult move of sending more troops, even as Iraq became more violent. At almost every stage the new approach faced tough opposition both within the military and within Congress. The fact that Iraq is less violent today is in part due to the success of this gamble.
But the change in approach was allowed partly because the US military places value on academic achievement and critical or “disruptive thinking”. The fact that specialists like yourself were in Baghdad with Odierno and Petraeus at this time is a testament to that. One could argue now that the Iraqi military and politicians need to make the same leap of imagination to defeat terrorism in Iraq. Counterinsurgency theory shows us that insurgency poses a primarily political problem, but Maliki’s government seems as far from any political solutions as ever. His hubris almost echoes that of the neocons in 2003. Based on your experiences in Iraq, do you think the Iraqis can make a similar leap of imagination as the Americans did with the surge, or will Maliki’s autocratic style stifle the creative thinking required to solve Iraq’s problems?
ES: One of the main issues for us resulted from our conceptualization of non-legitimate extremists battling against legitimate government. This conceptualization led us to focus our main effort on building up the capacity of "government", particularly its security forces, and helping it to crush its opposition through force, rather than on brokering political consensus among the competing groups or helping build up the institutions or the processes to manage conflict and competition. What we are witnessing today in Iraq is in part the result of our building up the “security state” at the expense of the “democratic state”.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we created ‘elite bargains’ which excluded key constituents. The excluded groups refused to accept their marginalization, and turned against the Coalition as well as the new elites that we had put in power and who they did not regard as legitimate.
The violence in Iraq decreased due to a number of factors which led to local accommodations and ceasefires. Sunnis realised they had lost the battle for Baghdad to the Shia militia, and only by turning against al-Qaeda and realigning with the US military, could they see any hope in pushing back the Shia militia. Once the Shia population saw the Sunni Awakening preventing al-Qaeda attacks on them, they became increasingly less willing to tolerate the militia activity of Jaysh al-Mahdi. And the Iraqi Government committed through Operation Fardh al-Qanun to protect all Iraqis - and to target all extremists regardless of sect. The change in the approach of the US military during the Surge helped persuade Iraqis to shift their strategic calculus - and reinforced these positive developments. The Surge was a key factor – but it was not the only factor that brought down the violence in Iraq. It is important to recognize the impact of US military tactics, but to put this within a strategic perspective.
Despite the improvement in the security situation, a political agreement still has not been reached among Iraqi elites on the nature of the state, the powers of central government versus regional government, how Iraq’s oil wealth should be developed, how Iraq’s internal boundaries should be agreed, and foreign policy orientation. In fact, they are as far apart as ever. The democratic checks and balances that were established post-2003 to prevent a return to authoritarianism have been dangerously undermined and are unable to provide a check on the Executive.
If there is anything that we should learn from our experiences of the last decade it should be: "it is all about their politics, stupid".
Baghdad, the Kurds and Oil...
RT: KRG President Massoud Barzani recently accused Iraq’s Deputy PM Hussein Sharistani of acting like a Ba'athist. This is quite a serious accusation considering Shahristani was brutally tortured and wrongly imprisoned for 11 years by the Ba'ath party. Barzani even alleged some Shia in Baghdad had discussed "a military solution" if rifts with the KRG continue.
Sharistani has responded by repeating accusations of oil smuggling. Both accusations indicate just how dangerous the intersection of oil politics and federalism can be in the new Iraq, particularly in light of the current disputes involving Baghdad, Erbil and Exxon. I am reminded of a remark you made to Tom Ricks about the future of Iraq:
"If you look at countries that have been in civil wars, I think it is more than 50 percent fall back into civil war. And that's especially true of countries with great resources, like Iraq."
In Basra, we are already seeing a serious rift with Baghdad that is nothing to do with sect or ethnicity, but oil. Will rising oil exports and revenues put increasing strain on the very fabric of Iraq? Joost Hiltermann recently highlighted how the KRG has signed 40 contracts with foreign oil companies since 2007 without consulting Baghdad...
ES: Tensions between Baghdad and Irbil are at an all-time high and there is a real risk that this could spill over into violence. Following the withdrawal of all US troops at the end of 2011, and the methods used by PM Maliki to crush Iraqiyya, the Kurds are nervous that Maliki will use force against them – particularly once he has acquired F16s from the US.
The management of the oil and gas sector has come to epitomize the dispute over differing interpretations of federalism. Although several different draft laws were put forward and debated, there has been no agreement on a Hydrocarbons Law – viewed as an essential mechanism to keep Iraq unified and to tie Kurds to the State - and Baghdad and Irbil are pursuing separate policies. There are disagreements over how the sector should be managed, where decision-making power on licensing and operations resides, and who has the competent authority to shape policy.
For the Kurds, decentralization of authority over the oil and gas sector, and agreement over revenue sharing are seen as essential guarantors against the possibility of a resurgent central government that could threaten the Kurds – and increases their potential for independence in the future. The Kurds took advantage of the weakness of the Iraqi state post 2003, and their close relations with the US, to extend their control over land and resources. They have signed contracts with international oil companies such as Exxon for fields including within the oil-rich disputed territories, and have deployed peshmerga within these areas.
For Baghdad, control over resources enables it to guarantee Iraq’s sovereignty, further strengthen the ISF, extend patronage, and prevent Kurdish secession. Baghdad tries to restrain the KRG and keep it tied to the centre through control over the region’s budget as well as over the pipeline which the KRG is reliant on to export its oil. For the time being at least, the KRG is dependent on annual transfers from the national budget, receiving a 17% share in Iraq’s overall oil production which is greater than 100% of its own local oil production (which reverts to the Treasury in Baghdad). However, this income is not guaranteed, and central government has threatened to cut it. A stronger central government may try to prevent the Kurds from annexing the disputed territories, particularly oil-rich Kirkuk.
The defence industry versus ethical policy?
RT: Ayad Alawi is only the latest in a growing line of people to accuse Maliki of using Iraq’s security forces for dictatorial/sectarian purposes. Like many others, he has pleaded with the US to make greater use of its remaining diplomatic leverage in Iraq to influence the behaviour of the Iraqi government. Since weapons exports are a traditional tool of leverage for US foreign policy, I am reminded of this quote from US army field manual FM 3-24. Appendix D, section D-34 states:
Congress typically limits when it will fund training or equipment for foreign security forces. If the Department of State has credible information that the foreign security force unit identified to receive the training or equipment has committed a gross violation of human rights, Congress prohibits funding. Such prohibitions impose a requirement upon Department of State and DOD. These departments must vet the proposed recipient units against a database of credible reports of human rights violations.
Do you think the US will stand by the above statement in FM 3-24? It's a wonderful ideal, but I fear Realpolitik will prevail. I am thinking of the current Office for Security Cooperation: Iraq (OSC-I).
ES: It is difficult to use the threat of stopping weapons sales as leverage, particularly as Iraq has plenty of money to buy weapons from elsewhere. Iraq will continue to purchase weapons from other countries to ensure it is not totally dependent on the US. Also, officials can skim off large profits from weapons deals that are not as closely monitored as FMS sales.
The US continues to maintain strong relations with the Iraqi Security Forces as a key part of the enduring relationship, even after the withdrawal of all US forces. Iraqis still need training on the equipment they have purchased from the US, as well as help with maintenance. Furthermore, many jobs in the US are dependent on the sale of weapons so there will always be a powerful lobbying from the defence industry to ensure the contracts go ahead.
No Turkish delight for Maliki
RT: Maliki recently called Turkey a “hostile state”. As far as I can see, Turkey has actually been one of the more constructive countries in the region when it comes to Iraq’s internal affairs (apart from perhaps, when it bombs the PKK.) In terms of trade, Turkey is one of Iraq’s biggest business partners. We might suppose that Turkey's growing friendship with the KRG and support for the FSA is behind Maliki’s wrath, but it is an astonishing, even shocking thing for Maliki to call them hostile. What do you think is behind the breakdown in relations between Iraq and Turkey?
ES: Turkey has played a constructive role in Iraq, working to keep Iraq unified. In addition to its embassy in Baghdad, Turkey has established consulates in Irbil, Basra and Mosul. Turkish companies operate throughout the country. A number of Iraq's leaders such as KRG President Barzani, Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim have complained to Turkey about Maliki's failure to implement agreements, his targeting of rivals, and his increasing consolidation of power.
The flurry of complaints led to PM Erdogan publicly rebuking PM Maliki, who in return branded Turkey as a hostile nation. PM Maliki fears that Turkey is trying to regain the role it played during the Ottoman Empire as leaders of the Sunni world. Maliki fears Turkey is plotting to overthrow Shia regimes in Syria and in Iraq through support to opposition groups. These perceptions are also shared by Iran.
Reviving ancient rivalry
RT: There has been much speculation over the years as to who Iraq will turn to as a strategic partner in the world if it is not the USA. Much speculation involves fear of Iranian influence, but China is also emerging as a big trading partner and potential ally. Iraq is in a great position to woo the big powers simultaneously to its advantage, and is happy to do business with virtually everyone from South Korea to Finland. As international investment in Iraq rapidly increases, one imagines that Iran will lose influence: its economy is starting to dissolve under sanctions, and its threat to close the Straits of Hormuz is making it look like much more of a liability to Iraq than a friend. Perhaps this is why we now see Iraq’s attempted rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Do you think Iran risks losing its influence in Iraq?
ES: Iraq finds itself caught between the rivalries of the US and Iran; the resurgence of the old empires of the Ottomans and Persia; and the sectarian struggles between Shia and Sunni, playing out between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq is increasingly becoming a battlefield for a proxy war between neighbouring countries who fear a resurgent Iran is turning Iraq into a client state, and building a ‘Shia crescent’ in the wake of declining US influence. While the GCC countries, Turkey, and Jordan all want to see Iraq have a strong relationship with the US, Iran is adamantly opposed.
Iraq’s domestic politics not only shape its foreign policy and its ability to project it, but also enable and facilitate external interference in its internal affairs. Iraq’s internal issues – and differing interpretations of threats and interests – make it difficult for the country to pursue a coherent, unified foreign policy and to project its influence.
Iraq’s Shia feel threatened by US and Arab hostility towards regimes in Iran and Syria, as well as perceived US double standards when dealing with oppressed Shia communities such as those in Bahrain and Saudi. Iraq’s Sunnis automatically tend to align with the Arab world, be vehemently anti-Iranian and often conflicted towards the US. Iraq’s Kurds, meanwhile, are very pro-US and are taking advantage of Iraq’s weakness and sectarian rivalries to gain greater autonomy.
Despite the ‘charm offensive’ ahead of the Arab summit, there has been no rapprochement between Maliki and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and Qataris refused to send high-level representation to the summit, continuing to allege that Maliki is an Iranian proxy who oppresses the Sunnis in Iraq. While the Saudis and Qataris support arming the Syrian rebels, Maliki wishes to see Assad remain in power out of fear of the alternative. In the regional sectarian proxy war, Maliki’s foreign policy is inevitably aligned with Iran as he perceives the same threat to Shia.
Courtesy Global Politics Magazine, UK
Global Politics Magazine provides a forum from which the next generation of global policy makers, those who will shape policy on the world stage in the future, can exchange insights, debate viewpoints, and develop new approaches.
Robert Tollast is an English literature graduate from Royal Holloway University of London and has an interest in international politics. He has interviewed various diplomats for The Small Wars Journal.
Emma Sky is currently a visiting professor at the War Studies Department of King's College, London. She previously served in Iraq as the political adviser to General Ray Odierno from 2007-2010.
Southern Features is a news agency that depends purely on voluntary contributions of those who use its output.
Cheques drawn on Southern Features may be mailed to TSV Hari, Editor, Southern Features, Tower I, #603 Mantri Synergy, 1/124B, OMR, Padur, Chennai 603103, India.