Iraq Slides Back to Its Natural State

Disclaimer:  Iraq’s natural state is not a violent, psychopathic Madmax-esque land of broken dreams and slaughtered sects.

It’s natural state is actually a divided one.

First, let’s take a run-down of Iraqi history and geography to understand how it got to where it is today.

Ancient Iraq was not called Iraq; also, it was independent only as long as it was the most advanced state in the region

You can debate why Mesopotamia ended up with civilization before everyone else ’till the cows come home (or the al-Qaeda militiamen come to seize your cows), but the fact is, the only time in human history that a state based out of Iraq was safe was when there pretty much was no other state nearby.  As soon as nearby groups coalesced into governments and armies, the riverlands were easy targets – and targets they became.  The last native dynasty of Iraq were the Babylonians back in a time when the Romans were still raping Sabines.

Iraq’s more natural place in the world.

Iraq’s open to attack from just about every direction, making native rule impossible until the modern age

Like Syria next door, Iraq’s easy to attack and hard to defend, but unlike Syria, it’s also wedged between two regions that have historically given rise to rather powerful empires – Turkey and Iran.  It’s no accident that Iraq was a football between the Romans out of Syria and Turkey and the Parthians out of Iran.  While the Muslim conquests temporarily unified the region and turned Iraq into a center of government, the early Shi’a/Sunni wars took place in Iraq precisely because it is a natural frontier region.

Like many states, it was brought into being as a result of Europeans playing with the map

After the region fell to the Allies in World War I, Britain and France drew up the modern Middle East to serve their own interests.  Britain created Iraq and gave it to a loyal tribe, who theoretically would remember that Britain had been so generous.  To remind the Iraqis of how generous they’d been, Britain invaded during World War II.

After World War II, borders worldwide were frozen by superpower rivalry.  Iraq was a football again, but this time between the Soviets and Americans, who jockeyed for influence.  Meanwhile, Iraqis themselves, after having violently murdered the monarch and his whole family just to really drive the point home, proved unable to govern their own country well for most of the 60s, as various Arab parties overthrew one another.  This wasn’t all that off from what was happening in neighboring Syria, which also lacked the trained elites necessary to create a nation-state.  And just like Syria, stability was bought only by giving power to a totalitarian regime.

Saddam: The man of many bad plans

Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists brought political stability but at great cost.  Iraq as a state was a weakened thing, riven with differences caused by its role as a borderland.  Few Iraqis could agree on what being an Iraqi meant – with Sunni Kurds in the north not wanting to be Arabs, Sunni Arabs in the west not wanting to be Shi’a, and Shi’a Arabs in the south not wanting to be Sunni, it was hard for any state to do much besides just keep a lid on tension.  Saddam had an opportunity in the 1970s to build up education and briefly made Iraq a decent place to live.

But Saddam himself was an unstable leader with delusions of grandeur.  Seeing an opportunity in the chaos of Iran’s revolution, and realizing that such a revolution could easily spread to his Shi’a regions, Saddam invaded Iran and got stuck in a long, hard war.  He would have lost had the Iranians not alienated both the Soviets and Americans, who generously provided Saddam with kit to keep his army together.

Plus, he invaded Kuwait, challenged the most powerful nation on Earth, and lost predictably.  Later, he got strung up by his enemies.

That brings us to today

One of the Americans’ greatest problems was keeping the Iraqi state together.  Al-Qaeda, whose mad goals involve making everyone as crazy as them through generous helpings of murder, saw a weak point in the state and targeted Shi’a mosques and communities, helping to spark the civil war of 2006-07.  America’s surge managed to turn the boil down to a simmer, but the tensions remained, and grudges were held.

Iraqis are doomed to this pattern of violence for the near future

The three communities – Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’a – are both tribal and religiously based.  Few pan-Iraqi parties exist, and so power becomes a zero-sum game.  The Kurds have been left largely alone because they are the third force that could tip the balance between Sunni and Shi’a down south.  Meanwhile, the Shi’a, increasingly under Iranian influence, are making a play for permanent dominance of the state, fearing a return to Sunni domination should they weaken their resolve.

It’s a recipe for further killing.  The Iraqi state has not recovered from the 2003 invasion and the Iraqi military is still a shell of its 1980s self.  Large chunks of territory can and will fall away when certain groups realize they can operate on their own without retaliation.

Syria next door is hardly helping

Not particularly interested in good governance.

It once was radicals went through Syria to fight the Americans in Iraq.  For a while, it was the other way around.  Now, al-Qaeda and those like it are hoping to grab the desert regions of western Iraq and eastern Syria to turn them into bases for further expansion.  These are, not coincidentally, the least valuable regions of both countries, and have therefore been less contested than the oil fields or river valleys.  Both the Syrians and Iraqis are stuck with al-Qaeda for a long time now.  Even if Iraq pushes al-Qaeda back out of Fallujah, they will not succeed in eradicating them from the region, as they’ll just slip into the chaos in Syria, regroup, and try again.

The obvious solution is to break up both states

Some policy makers used to favor breaking Iraq into three states to just wash their hands of the whole affair.  That’s still not a bad idea.  Iraq and Syria are both informally balkanizing, and will continue to do so over time as their differences become more and more violently irreconcilable.

Iraq’s split is relatively clean, with a Sunni west, a Kurdish north, and a Shi’a south, with Baghdad probably going to the Shi’a.  Syria, on the other hand, is messier, but basically an Alawite state would take up the coast and some of the hinterland while the Kurds grab up their Kurdish villages.  Sunnis would govern the rest, including Damascus, with Christians possibly fleeing to join the Alawites.

But the international community doesn’t want that

The Americans won’t want to see a broken Iraq – they fear that the Shi’a state would become a far-too-effective puppet of Iran.  The Russians don’t want to see a broken Syria, having doubled down on their support for what’s left of the Syrian state.  With those key players holding the reins, de facto partition becomes impossible.  Events on the ground may move past them, but history shows that such things take a long, bloody time.

Woe to Iraq.  Its best days are behind it.

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3 thoughts on “Iraq Slides Back to Its Natural State”

  1. When anything fails to sustain its “natural state” the question has to be asked why? Obviously, the answer is, as you point out in the last paragraph, both Russia and the U.S. would prefer to keep the states of Syria and Iraq artificially united. But that still begs the question, why? Why would the U.S. want to perpetuate conflict, misery, bloodshed, and inefficiency? This is where geopolitics gets super (to borrow a phrase!) because this is where what seems to be really isn’t. Oh, we might proclaim we want nothing but peace and prosperity for the world and it may even be believed by a majority of policy makers in Washington, but a peaceful and prosperous world is the last thing the American empire wants.

    Our hegemony depends on no one regional power dominating any more than is allowable. To prevent this, we perpetuate the underlying causes of conflict rather than eliminate them. Our seemingly futile attempts to hold together Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine are but three examples of how we prefer to artificially perpetuate disjointed nation-states as a preference to smaller, more homogeneous, more efficient regimes that prosper and flourish. We would love nothing better than to see Iran dissolve into chaos like Iraq. We are at odds with Iran exactly because it has NOT fallen into this trap. Our issues with Iran have little to do with its animosity toward Israel or it’s history of being unkind to Americans (Really,other than take a few hostages and periodically chant death to America, what has Iran ever done to us?). Vietnam killed thousand of our boys and we have no problem giving that country a great big hug now that they’re willing to play ball with us! No our issue with Iran is that it has it’s shit together and has the potential to dominate that region. We cannot allow that. Nor can we allow it to go away either, since its very existence is a check on the other regional power – Saudi Arabia.

    It is a game of chess within a game of chess. The Goldilocks Theory of World Domination! Ensure there is just enough conflict and dissent in just the right number of countries, in just the right places to keep no one country from succeeding too much. I’d say we’re doing a bang-up job at it!

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    1. Excellent points and I agree wholeheartedly. The current geopolitical regime worldwide resembles a game of Risk in many ways, except there’s no way the U.S. can conquer the world to win but instead must merely remain in the lead when it comes to troop counts.

      The main issue is the existence of nation-states. This cycle of hegemon, chaos, hegemon, can only be broken if our political system worldwide no longer has territorial units that compete with each other. The UN is a failed step towards that, but with the permanent Security Council will never going much further than slowing competition rather than ending it. Maybe a EU-type model sometime in the next century? Whatever happens, it’ll be slow – and we’re unlikely to live to see it, alas.

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