June 17, 2014
The astonishing ability of the militia forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to take over several Iraqi cities reveals more about the dismaying weakness and divisions within Iraq than it does about the military prowess of ISIS. Yet this is not some jihadi apocalypse. ISIS as a strategic military force in Iraq is not to be feared. What is to be feared is the ideological defection of large numbers of Sunnis who will no longer fight for the state they see as no longer theirs.
The reasons for Sunni alienation are well known. They were the supreme losers after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, overthrew Saddam Hussein, destroyed the ruling Ba’th party–the bulwark of Sunni control–and dismantled the Iraqi military. The oppressed Shi’ite majority took over the state, determined never again to be relegated to political weakness. Sunni Iraqis spearheaded armed resistance against the decade-long U.S. occupation–along with some Shi’ite forces. In a country driven by fierce nationalist sentiments, even secular former Ba’thists made common cause with Sunni Islamists and jihadis to expel the U.S. occupiers. We are now reaping the whirlwind of destruction.
The Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could have built a new national consensus based around a broader “Iraqi nationalism,” but the newly ascendant Shi’a always feared the Sunnis would try to reverse the political equation and seize supreme power again. Saudi Arabia’s open contempt for new Shi’ite power in Baghdad reinforced Shi’ite fears, particularly when Riyadh went all out to back even the most radical Sunni forces to overthrow the (nominally Shi’ite) Asad regime in neighboring Syria.
In his own paranoia and penchant for Iraqi-style strongman rule, Maliki further alienated Sunnis by excluding them from positions of power in Baghdad. The new Iraqi army became essentially an instrument of Shi’ite power operating with a heavy hand in Sunni areas. Today the presence of Sunni jihadis enables Maliki to link all Sunni political activism with “terrorism.”
Most Iraqi Sunnis have little sympathy for the extremist ideology and tactics of the ISIS and its jihadi predecessors. But they also see it as a key instrument for restoration of Sunni power–if not to rule the country, at least to maintain a powerful traditional voice in governance. If the stunning rise of ISIS upsets Maliki and his government, all the better, say the Sunnis–perhaps Maliki will see reason and embrace a more inclusive government. In the meantime, ISIS operations establish the groundwork for greater Sunni regional sovereignty – in what is emerging as a likely three-way federalist structure of Sunni Arab, Shi’ite Arab and Kurdish regions–the only way Iraq can survive intact for the foreseeable future.
There is no way Washington should attempt to reenter this Iraqi agony again. The U.S. already destroyed the political, economic and social infrastructure of Iraq, turning it into an anarchic free-for-all of every clan for itself. We in the West try to deny the ugly consequences of our own actions by shrugging our shoulders and noting that Iraqis are, after all, “eternally tribal.” But who do you turn to when the proverbial excrement–the destruction of your country–hits the fan? Most people revert to their core social identities–their clans, tribes, sectarian or regional groups–the only ones that can provide security against anarchy and enemies. There is no longer any state to provide protection. And you do not dare turn your security over to an untested, untrusted new state structure for a long, long time.
There are in fact two regional players with some clout and credibility in the region–Turkey and Iran. They maintain a modest rivalry. But Turkey does not seek to be the “champion of the Sunnis.” Nor does Iran simply seek to be the “champion of the Shi’a.” Iraqi Shi’a are grateful for Iranian support in time of crisis, but they are an ancient and proud Arab people; they are not Iranian and will resist Iranian efforts to dominate them. Both Turkey and Iran clearly share a desire for a united Iraq under some sectarian balance. Neither Turkey nor Iran want jihadis to rule Iraq, or even the Sunni regions. Turkey does want greater acknowledgment of Iraqi Sunni rights. Actually Iran wants the same–once the jihadi threat has passed–because an unstable Iraq wracked by civil war does not serve Iranian interests either.
The single most destructive regional power at this point is Saudi Arabia and its satellites who bankroll the extremist Sunni jihadis in both Syria and Iraq. Its blatantly sectarian stance has everything to do with Gulf geopolitics and little to do with Shi’ism as such: Iran would be a rival to Saudi Arabia even were it Sunni to the core.
Iraq, perhaps with help from its two neighbors, must come to terms with its own internal crisis. It can do so; sectarianism as a guiding obsession is not written in stone. Strong sectarian identity currently reflects the insecurities and fears of a complex society in chaos and political and social transition. U.S. intervention, already once disastrous, can only delay the day when Iraqis must deal with each other again. We cannot fix it. Television images of ISIS aside, the problem belongs to the region more than it does to us.
May 21, 2014
I’m delighted to report that my new book, “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East,” has gotten off to a very good start on Amazon. After ten days it now ranks # 1 on Amazon in the category of Middle East politics! For all that I owe my readers a huge thank you!
This is gratifying from another important perspective as well. As most of you know, I took the risk of self-publishing this one, after so many years of publishing with commercial NY publishers. I know many of you are interested in this phenomenon of self-publishing yourselves, which is certainly a fast-evolving field that has thrown traditional publishing concepts and practices totally off course.
So far I have mixed experience with it, and faced a considerable learning curve.
My first self-published book was in 2012, “Three Truths and a Lie” – my memoir about our son Luke, adopted from Korea at age one, and who died of crack cocaine at 21. It received very warm comments from many readers on Amazon, but has been very slow in sales and has received virtually no publicity.
The key problem, as many of you know, is getting reviewers to review the book. This is always a problem with any book but especially with self-published ones since many journals have, or have had, policies against reviewing them. But the field is changing fast and it can no longer be summed up as simply “vanity press.” So many serious writers are now experimenting with going indie. But even the greatest book in the world needs reviews if anybody is to know it’s out there.
So with this new book on Turkey I’m hoping that the fact my name is already reasonably well known in the field will override some reviewer reluctance. But that hope has yet to be demonstrated one way or the other—after all, the book has barely been out for two weeks. So far sales have come from a life-time list of friends and colleagues who have received word via various emails about the book’s publication.
I sincerely want to thank you all again for having expressed interest in this book—and for purchasing it. I hope you might even consider reviewing it in some medium or other, including reader reviews on the book’s Amazon page.
There’s much more to be said about Turkey itself at this juncture—a fast moving and dramatic situation. I’ll have much more to say about that, and other issues, in coming blogs.
April 14, 2014
Why is it I’m struck, but not surprised, by The New York Times article today on the ugly killing of three Americans visiting a Kabul hospital – deliberately killed by an Afghan policeman?
This case is particularly sad since the visitors were linked to what is the more positive humanitarian face of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. While Americans have a right to be angered by this action, we should not be surprised by it. If we are surprised, then the more fools we.
American troops and a smaller number of allies have been in Afghanistan for more than 12 years. They have brought devastation and death to a country that has a long history of rising up in anger against foreign armies on Afghan soil to expel or kill them — see the three Anglo-Afghan wars against Britain in 1839–42, 1878–80 and in 1919, followed by the war in the 1980s against Soviet troops. Now it is our turn. Yes, Washington toppled the harsh Taliban government in Kabul in 2001, but for all the regime’s unsmiling Islamic fanaticism, a rough justice had prevailed under the Taliban across the country, after over a decade of destructive civil war among anti-Soviet mujahideen. The US has delivered some benefits to the Afghan population in the process, but it comes under the aegis of military occupation. Huge sums have been wasted, as in Iraq, with similar results (see “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project).”
The point is not to debate whether Washington’s hand-picked leadership is better or worse than the Taliban; the issue is how much domination – by nervous and often trigger-happy foreign military forces, dictation of policies, and years of death by U.S. drone strikes – has created a situation for which Afghans have limited tolerance. It should have been clear from day one that large numbers of Afghans — although certainly not all — would quickly resent the prolonged presence of such foreign forces who possess scant understanding of the dynamics of Afghan factions, politics, or society. Given America’s own history of rebellion against English-speaking British soldiers (virtual kinsmen) in the American colonies in the Revolutionary War, how is it we are routinely so tone-deaf to powerful nationalistic impulses in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world where U.S. occupational, or security forces, are a law unto themselves?
Whatever the intentions of American policy have been, that policy has relied primarily upon military instruments in an immensely complex tribal society and has contributed heavily to the wave of anti-American anger across Afghanistan and beyond. Terrorism is metastasizing across the region. Do we really want to keep a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan for another decade, to be targets of angry Afghans — in a feckless effort to micro-manage that country’s chaotic political evolution?
© Graham E. Fuller 2014