(Originally published in The Nation on 23rd June, 2014)
The looming threat of civil war in Iraq can be traced back to at least three different historical events. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) surprised most observers by seizing control of cities and towns in Western and Northern Iraq in the last few days. Using the northern part of Syria as a springboard and training ground, ISIS attacked Iraq’s second largest city-Mosul-and Saddam Hussain’s hometown, Tikrit. Iraq’s national army did not defend the cities and two divisions of the force (almost 30,000 men) simply turned and ran in the face of the assault. In December 2013, parts of Fallujah and Ramadi (in the Anbar province) were overtaken by the ragtag army made up of militants from around the world; an “Islamist” legion of sorts.
The first fault line of this conflict was drawn more than fourteen hundred years ago in the Arabian Peninsula. The conflict that arose after the death of the Prophet Muhammad regarding the right to succession as Caliph blew out into a schism that continues to this day. Sunnis believe that Abu Bakar, the senior most companion of the Prophet was rightly chosen as Caliph while Shias are of the view that Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and a member of his clan deserved the position. This internecine conflict has caused innumerable deaths whenever one group has gained ascendancy over the other. The Umayyad Caliphs were ‘Sunni’ and Shias suffered heavily under their reign. When the Abbasids (who claimed to be descendants of Abbas, Ali’s Uncle) rose to power, they unleashed a wave of terror towards the Umayyads. The last Umayyad caliph was tracked down to a church in Nile Delta, where his head was chopped off and his tongue was fed to a cat.
The animosity between the Umayyads and Abbasids was apparently political in nature but the underlying cause was sectarian. The second event that casts a shadow over the emergence of ISIS is the Sykes-Picot agreement that was signed during the First World War. It was a secret agreement signed between the governments of the United Kingdom and France, with the assent of Russia, defining their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East should the Triple Entente succeed in defeating the Ottoman Empire in 1916. Mandates from the League of Nations gave France control of Syria and Lebanon. Britain held mandates over Palestine, Iraq, and the newly created Transjordan. In this way, new countries were created out of an existing monolith based on no particular parameters. There were no physical boundaries (like a river or mountains etc) between the new countries and arbitrary lines drawn in sand divided them. As a result, there are no well-defined, internationally recognized boundaries between countries in the Middle East till today (Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was based on the fact that the boundary between the two countries was never properly established).
The last piece of this puzzle is the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saddam Hussein was ruling only through sheer force, and not because he was immensely popular amongst the common people. His Ba’ath party favored the Sunni minority of Iraq and oppressed the Shia majority. Saddam’s regime targeted Shiite groups such as the ‘Dawa Party’, of which the current Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri Al-Maliki was a member. His forces used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population during their reign of terror. But Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which was the raison d’être presented by the United States before launching their war. In February 2011, the defector who convinced the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons’ programme admitted that he lied about his story, as reported by The Guardian.
Following the war, American policymakers made huge tactical errors, which resulted in a Shia-Sunni armed conflict that is yet to be resolved. Gideon Rose, in his book “How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle,” is of the view that, “wars actually have two equally important aspects. One is negative, or coercive; this is the part about fighting. The other is positive, and is all about politics. And this is the part that, as in Iraq, is usually overlooked or misunderstood.”
In the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, a secular Iraqi leader named Ayad Allawi gained the majority of votes but he was not allowed to form the government due to a contentious court ruling. The Americans could intervene and point out how this contravened the Iraqi constitution but they hedged their bets by supporting Maliki, who spent most of his life as a violent Shia activist.
ISIS and its methods are so extreme that even Al-Qaeda distanced itself from the group. They were initially bankrolled by Sunni Arab states including Saudi Arabia. A recent news report mentioned that before capturing Mosul, ISIS’s total cash and assets were $875 Million. Afterwards, with the money they robbed from banks and the value of military supplies they looted, they could add another $1.5 billion to that. They recently released a series of photos titled “The Destruction of Sykes-Picot.”
Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, Turkey and Syria are alarmed by the rise of ISIS and at least Iran and Turkey are contemplating the use of direct or indirect force to stall their advances. Turkey is supporting the Iraqi Kurds who seem to possess the only military force that has defeated militants and taken control over the vital city of Kirkuk. Iran’s clergy has called upon able-bodied men to take up arms and defend the holy sites of Shi’ism.
The most worrying aspect of this conflict is the potential for a Shia-Sunni civil war as ISIS fighters gain control over Sunni-dominant areas in Iraq; the Iraqi forces that deserted without fighting also had a lot of Sunni members. Sunni groups such as Majlis Thuwar Al Anbar, Jaish al-Mujahideen and Jaish Ansar al-Sunnah are providing tactical support to ISIS. It would seem that deep trouble now brews in Mesopotamia.