Interesting Times In Iraq

Iraq’s chronic disease of sectarianism has flared up again with the blood-soaked advance of ISIS (“Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham”, meaning Iraq and the Levant) and allied Sunni groups, who have seized the major city of Mosul and a number of other towns in the past few days. The Shiites, understandably alarmed, are mustering for a counterattack but may have a lot of difficulty retaking Mosul, a Sunni-dominated city where many people are apparently fed up with the Shiite-dominated national government. The Kurds, who are mainly Sunnis but have a distinct identity because they are not Arabs, have taken advantage of the general disorder to seize control of their historic capital of Kirkuk.

America is making some ambivalent noises about airstrikes and perhaps deploying some special forces whose very special mission will be to do anything but actually fight, while staunchly Shiite Iran has already sent in the formidable General Ghasem Soleimani of the Quds Force to help push back the Sunni militants. Especially with Soleimani in the middle of things, the Iraqi government may end up resorting to the slow and brutal but undeniably effective tactics that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has been using to turn the tide against the largely Sunni insurgency in his own country: surround rebel districts in Mosul and elsewhere, and then proceed to starve them and pound them with artillery and crude airstrikes until resistance crumbles.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki does, of course, have options other than simply trying to crush the Sunnis. One would be to pursue some kind of national reconciliation, as a Stanford-based “Middle East analyst” called Larry Diamond is quick to point out:

He added that unifying Iraqis across sectarian lines to repel the militants starts with government.

 

“I think the only way it can truly be stopped is by constructing a broadly inclusive government in Baghdad that Iraqis of all types want to fight for,” he said.

That sounds unrealistic considering the savagery of the recent fighting in Iraq, the parallel civil war taking place next door in Syria, and the general atmosphere of Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East. Maliki’s only real alternatives may be to either fight tooth and nail or allow the Sunnis to set up an autonomous enclave similar to the one the Kurds have already established, effectively partitioning the country along sectarian lines. This strikes me as an entirely reasonable outcome in principle, and one that could work well even for the Shiites if it meant they no longer had to deal with a powerful and rebellious Sunni minority inside their borders. The difficult part might well be ensuring that a faction saner than ISIS ended up in control of the Sunni enclave.

Whatever happens next, history is on the march in Iraq, and we live in interesting times. In Canada religion is a fairly well-domesticated beast, but in parts of the world – the Middle East and Africa in particular – it seems to retain its power to fuel conflict of the most uncompromising kind. I would argue that this is especially true of the hardline brand of Sunni Islam espoused by ISIS and similar groups, who remind me of Cromwell’s Puritans at their worst. I won’t be sorry if Soleimani and Maliki manage to crush ISIS for good.

11 thoughts on “Interesting Times In Iraq

  1. The West and our very own Canada have enough of their hands dirty, strike that bloody, that I don’t think Atheism aligning itself with any sort of “nailing”, “starving”, “pounding” or “crushing” is a very good idea.

    It being fun to do so or not.

    A much wiser choice would be to take the opportunity to display how Atheism presents a much more benevolent, humane, moral, and comprehensively insightful alternative.

    • I suspect you’re using the word “Atheism”, complete with a capital “A” that strikes me as frankly a bit dubious, to mean what I would call humanism. Allowing for that, we can preach all the humanism we want to the Iraqis, but we’re unlikely to get much traction at the moment. They are, after all, in the middle of something approaching a civil war.

      I’d argue that neither humanism nor atheism is coherent enough, as a movement, to align itself with much of anything in the practical realm. Canada could conceivably intervene in the deepening mess in Iraq, but I hope Stephen Harper has the sense to follow Jean Chretien’s excellent example and steer clear.

      • Why do you think Harper should “steer clear” of using public diplomacy to shame all outside contributing parties to the bloodshed?

        Is it because you fear some of the retributions it might incur from our allies?

        Don’t you think, at this point, Harper should put Canada’s interests ahead of other countries’ interests?

        • I was thinking of steering clear in the sense of not providing military support to either side, or trying to impose any particular outcome. That wouldn’t preclude talking about the situation, and indeed I wish our politicians would habitually be more open with their thoughts on important events in Canada and abroad. However, I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “public diplomacy”, or what trying to shame “outside contributing parties” would accomplish. Tony Blair, for example, was as much of an outside contributing party as anybody, but he seems quite happy to own up to his role in sending British troops into Iraq and indeed to defend his actions to the hilt.

  2. Well I certainly hope you didn’t mean supplying military support to either side, especially given how disastrous the whole affair has been until now and how it seems to just keep on getting worse (and expensive and resource consuming).

    And I’m pretty sure the West’s whole “we are completely invovled” / “we have nothing to do with it” psychotic, criminal, bipolar mania is not helping matters at all.

    And now we have everybody both happily and relievedly glomming onto this Shiite vs. Sunni mirage, completely forgetting the fact that there never really has been any noteworthy Shia Vs Sunni belligerency prior, at least not in modern times, the closest thing possibly being the Iraq-Iran War which was never cast as a Sunni Vs. Shia war in the first place but rather a Secular Vs. Religion war.

    I call that fomentation as opposed to observation.

    And I can say to the poor innocent women and children caught up and killed in all this is to hang on tight, because in 30 years from now, oil will be finished and then you can get your retribution.

    • *And all

    • And I’m pretty sure the West’s whole “we are completely invovled” / “we have nothing to do with it” psychotic, criminal, bipolar mania is not helping matters at all.

      I think there’s a lot of truth to that, especially since Western involvement in the Middle East tends to be a somewhat incoherent and feckless mixture of pursuing straightforward interests and trying to impose arrangements that strike Western elites as morally and politically palatable (i.e. “promoting democracy” or “upholding universal values”).

      And now we have everybody both happily and relievedly glomming onto this Shiite vs. Sunni mirage…

      The notion that Shiites and Sunnis are locked into some kind of eternal war is a mirage, but the Sunni-Shia divide is very real. I’m sure it has sometimes exacerbated tensions and hardened attitudes, just like the Catholic-Protestant divide in the West. As I understand it, the Iran-Iraq war was driven by several different factors, including the secular-religious conflict you mention, but the fact that the “secular” side was made up of Arab Sunnis probably didn’t exactly dampen tensions given that the “religious” side was made up of Persian Shiites.

      • but the fact that the “secular” side was made up of Arab Sunnis probably didn’t exactly dampen tensions given that the “religious” side was made up of Persian Shiites.

        Unless you can show me that the southern Iraqi shiites rose up against Saddam to side with the “Persian” shiites in any but a cursory way during the Iran-Iraq war, I’ll have to correct you and say that the “secular” side was made up of Arab sunnis, Arab christians, Arab shiites, Arab seccularists, Arab capitalists, arab communists, persian communists, persian capitalist, and all of those minus the “persian” and “arab” qualifiers in general.

        As far as the Catholic-Protestant divide I’m not sure it has resulted in anything “serious” for probably close to something like 200 years, the Ireland problems likely always much better framed as Republican vs. Monarchism/Colonialism, especially given that irish republicanism and the IRA include liberal protestantism as a major branch of its early roots.

        As far as what’s going on in the middle east, who knows what’s really going on there, but for some very odd reason I suspect that oil might play some kind of part, all the tell-tale signs notwithstanding. I just hope that Israel has a plan, better than what i’ve seen so far, for when the oil has all but evaporated, because something tells me the West is gonna sorta lose interest.

  3. The problem with interfering is the problem of imperialism. Until the people decide for a better way, any imposed civility is likely to be seen as mere oppression.

    I have no problem with supporting democracy and human rights abroad, but trying to act as police for other countries… is essentially ignoring the history of fail.

    • Not only that, but it invariably leads to a lot of useless and time wasting mass murder, war crimes, unwarranted and exculpatory self-aggrandizements, and general unproductive and resource draining chaos when a much better outcome could have easily been achieved by going about things just a tad bit more morally and honestly to begin with.

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