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 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
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.