Iraq: federation or break-up?
5 Jun 2015|


Peter Jennings has recently argued that Australian (and American) ground force personnel, now training elements of the Iraqi army, should accompany them into combat in the future. This change of operational tactics seems necessary following the recent successful assault by Da’ish forces on Ramadi in Iraq and the capture of Palmyra in Syria.

Other observers including Peter Leahy expressed caution on moving in this direction, without a significant debate in the government and parliament on the nature of conflict in the Middle East and its consequences for global terrorism. These challenges, he argued, need a fundamentally more strategic response that counters the ‘epicenter’ of the Islamist threat: their fundamentalist ideology. He predicted that ‘modern secular, mostly Western states’ were involved in an extended ‘hundred years war’ with radical Islamists where ‘ultimately the solutions must come from within the Muslim world’.

Yet, if there is a 100 years’ war, it isn’t so much one directed against the West but rather an epoch in the 1100-year-old dispute between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Like its Christian predecessor in central Europe, this war is as much about the ambitions of princes and prelates as it is about ideology and has ensured that violence in the Islamic world is overwhelmingly Muslim against Muslim.

Within this context it’s difficult to find a strategic epicentre at which to challenge and defeat the ideology of fundamentalist jihad. Jihadi-inspired violence in the Islamic world may be abhorrent, but will it produce a genuine consensus within the Muslim community sufficient to marginalise Islamic extremism? Despite heroic individual efforts, nothing broader has materialised and it would seem wise to disregard strategies that await a groundswell of moderate Islamic sentiment.

In fact, the actions of violent Jihadists are capable of attracting wide support. A recent poll conducted by Al Jazeera Arabic (with mainly Egyptian and Saudi Arabian respondents) found 81% approval for Da’ish. These predominantly Sunni communities were prepared to discount the brutal fundamentalism of Da’ish because it was seen as championing Sunni rights against Shi’ite advances and the military interventions of the West.

The situation in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other Muslim states is unlikely to promote the growth of a moderate consensus. The financial support for Salafism in the Gulf states, the integration of Wahhabism and the house of Saud, and the readiness of Turkey to merchandise Da’ish’s captured resources, all suggest that the regional strategic environment for Da’ish is, at the least, permissive.

It’s hard to see any developments whereby Koranic study will significantly undermine the standing of fundamentalist Jihadi movements among key sections of the Muslim community; especially for any interpretations that would reinforce Western strategic interests. It seems difficult enough to counter radicalisation of elements within Muslim communities in western nations.

Perhaps the only way to seriously undermine Da’ish is encouraging developments which could lead to a revision of political boundaries across Iraq and Syria. Even if foreign military forces are able to engineer the expulsion of Da’ish from Iraq they would be able to regenerate in Syria. Peter Jennings has emphasised that his call for a change in military tactics in Iraq is prompted by a fear that the country is close to fracturing.

Yet should this break-up be resisted? The days when Iraq was a secular state with the highest rates of intermarriage between Sunni and Shi’ite have passed. The majority Shi’ite Iraqi government relies upon the Shia militias because, with skin in the game, they fight to win. The same is true for the Peshmerga forces that jealously guard almost a quarter of a century of de facto Kurdish independence, as it was also true of the Sunni tribesmen who eliminated Al Qaeda in Iraq during the Anbar Awakening from 2006.

Managing a disaggregation of Iraq would not be easy but the US has already facilitated this process by instituting the northern no-fly zone in 1992 and funding Iraqi Sunni tribesmen as part of the US ‘troop surge’ from 2007.

The Americans have now opened more cracks in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Washington’s negotiations with Iran on nuclear energy and the necessity for co-operation in combatting Da’ish have already changed the geo-political dynamics. America’s equivocal Sunni allies must now compete to ensure that their concerns are heard in Washington.

A deliberate policy to encourage political recognition of Iraq’s communal differences might even save the country’s geographic integrity if it resulted in a loose federation. There might even be benefit in interpreting ‘geographic integrity’ loosely, should communities in Syria feel their security lay in associating with like communities in Iraq, thus increasing the area of operations against Da’ish.

Such a strategy would not be without risk. It would require energetic Western support over the long term, and couldn’t guarantee against the revival of fundamentalist Jihadi groups in the future. However, with the current limited military offensive against Da’ish in Iraq and Syria in danger of faltering, there are sound reasons to debate alternative approaches.