July 26, 2005
The Lounsbury Return: Iraq & Civil War
I'm back from a bloody long trip and quite beat. Regardless, a quick note to draw attention (via Juan Cole) to a New York Times article, cited at the billmon blog, discussing the new emergence of open discussion of the emerging civil war in Iraq. As longtime Lounsbury readers know, I called the "entry into the Lebanese logic" a year or so ago.
Regardless, the discussion at billmon which is useful in many ways although I find the banging on the press uninteresting blog posturing (and I take this opportunity to register my contempt for the "Main Stream Media" line and the contemptibly idiotic abbreviation MSM).
As for the New York Times arty, I haven't the time nor the energy to delve into either in depth, but some items to note:
First, this quote makes a point I have been making for a very long time, when almost two years ago I warned I was seeing the emergence of a "Lebanon" style dynamic that once started would be hard to impossible to abort:
The war's wider pattern has always held the seeds of an all-out sectarian conflict, of the kind that largely destroyed Lebanon. The insurgency has been rooted in the Sunni Arab minority dispossessed by the toppling of Mr. Hussein, and most of its victims have been Shiites, the majority community who have been the main political beneficiaries of Mr. Hussein's demise. Shiites have died in countless hundreds at their mosques and their marketplaces, victims of insurgent ambushes and bombs, their deaths celebrated on Islamic Web sites by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, who has called Shiites "monkeys" and their religion an affront to God.
Last weekend, it was the turn of the small town of Mussayib, where at least 71 people died when a suicide bomber blew himself up under a fuel tanker outside the main mosque. Hitherto, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had urged Shiites not to retaliate, but to focus instead on the American-sponsored electoral process, which brought Shiite parties victory in January and is likely to do so again in voting for a full, five-year government in December.
But this time, the ayatollah, his patience spent, demanded that the transitional government, which is led by Shiites, "defend the country against mass annihilation."
If that was a call for tougher military action against the insurgents, it played into a situation made all the more volatile in recent months by signs that hard-line Shiites have begun to strike back. There have been persistent reports, mostly in Baghdad, of Shiite death squads in police uniforms abducting, torturing and killing Sunni Arab clerics, community leaders and others. In Baghdad, a police commando unit composed mainly of Shiites raided a hospital two weekends ago and abducted 13 Sunni men accused of being insurgents. Sixteen hours later, the bodies of 10 were delivered to a morgue, the victims of suffocation in a locked metal-topped police van in a temperature nearing 120 degrees.
Even the new Iraqi forces, hailed by the Bush administration as the key to an eventual American troop withdrawal, seem as likely to provoke a civil war as to prevent one. The 170,000 men already trained are dominated by Shiites and Kurds, in a proportion even higher than the 80 percent those groups represent in the population. Though there are thousands of Sunni Arabs in the forces, including some generals, Iraqi units that are sent to the worst hot spots are often dominated by Shiites and Kurds, some recruited from sectarian militias deeply hostile to Sunni Arabs.
The contempt this provokes was voiced by Dhari al-Bedri, a Baghdad University professor with a home in Samarra, a Sunni town. "The Iraqi army in Samarra is Badr, Dawa and Pesh Merga," he said, citing the militias of the two largest Shiite political parties, and of the Kurds. "The people feel that the army does not come to serve them, but to punish them. The people hate them."
I don't believe this needs deep elaboration, let me simply reiterate the key points on this that I have made again and again.
(i) The majority doesn't really matter re the civil war dynamic, what matters is whether there is a motivated minority in the sectarian communities that (a) sees an interest in grabbing power, (b) is cold minded enough to see violence as the path, (c) can play on inter-communal tensions.
(ii) Wishful thinking and good feelings are not going to overcome fear and distrust.
As such, I am at a loss to see any way for Iraq to avoid a grinding decade long civil war rather like Lebanon's (well, I can see a way, but it would be more than moderately unpleasant and would certainly throw the US into a panicked frenzy).
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Posted by: eerie at July 26, 2005 03:43 PM
As far as I can tell, there are two schools of thought now among the relatively rational on the question of how America should or should not be engaged in Iraq:
1 - Iraq is a mess, there is already an ongoing civil war, and people will continue to die there for a number of years. However, if America were to pull its troops out now, things would get dramatically worse immediately, resulting in hundreds of thousands, if not more, deaths in Iraq, and possibly the much-dreaded regional war. What America needs to do is grit its teeth and "stay the course" for a number of years, building up a native Iraqi political and security system that will be capable of holding things together, and in the meantime accepting that the US troops will not be able to create an actual peace in Iraq, but only damp things down to something less than open civil war. Michael Young of Reason and the (Beirut) Daily Star is a good example of this school.
2 - The other side of the debate (well encapsulated in the Billmon article cited above) questions whether it is in fact possible to build up an Iraqi political and security structure under the current circumstances. The argument is that, yes, if the US were to pull out tomorrow, there would be hundreds of thousands of deaths in the next few years. But if the US were to stay for five years, there would be tens of thousands of deaths, and it would be faced with an identical dilemma at the end of that period to what it is faced with today: pull out immediately, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths, or continue to "stay the course" more or less indefinitely. In which case, it would be better for the US to disengage now rather than later, as the post-withdrawal scenarios are as likely to get worse as to get better. I personally am inclined to this school of thought.
The key question, I think, is "are the occupying forces making real progress in building up an Iraqi state, or is all the apparent progress a facade that will collapse the moment the occupying forces' support is withdrawn?" I don't know the answer to that.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 27, 2005 05:50 AM
Ah, the irony. America is the new Syria.
Posted by: ascendance at July 27, 2005 06:49 AM
Although there are similarities to Lebanon, there are also important differences. One is that the minority faction in this case comprises of only 20% of the population, rather than half. Yes, insurgents drawn from that 20% could keep the violence going for a while, but hopefully there is enough of a disparity in numbers to establish a strong central government, something I have yet to see in Lebanon. For the purposed of inciting violence, majorities may not matter, but for the purposes of establishing power they do. (Yes, Saddam is an exception, due to external military funding and better comparative Sunni organization at the time.) This may not stop the revenge killings immediately, but it may prevent a descent into tit-for-tat massacres that happen when neither side can dominate. Although in Lebanon small sects were able to keep the animosity alive by committing atrocities, the roughly equal split in Christian/Muslim numbers is what made those acts work at sustaining the violence, despite infighting.
I'm not saying one of the sects should 'win', in the sense of total dominance like Saddam. At least the transitional government is trying to be fair to the Sunnis, and involves them. I'm simply saying Sunnis may be more inclined to slowly back away from insurgent tactics when it becomes clear they can't dominate the country as they used to. It would be harder to convince them of that if their "side" were bigger. It's also easier to convince the Shiites and Kurds not to respond in kind to the desperate tactics due to their majority.
There is also nothing really analogous to the Israeli-Syria dynamic, with counter-invasions and occupations. And I wonder how any of the insurgent forces compare to the PLO when it was in Lebanon; while it was there, it was the dominating militia. Yes, the levels of chaos do feel familiar, but I'm not sure I see the situation feeding nearly as much fire into the conflict as Lebanon. The one thing that would do it would be US withdrawal, at this moment. To assume withdrawing now and five years from now would cause identical carnage would mean assuming that the situation of dominance and central government follows the path of Lebanese history, and I'm not convinced of that.
Posted by: zurn at July 27, 2005 02:29 PM
I personally agree Tom, I have no simple answer to the question, is the occupation really doing any good now?
I am trending to towards the idea that the Iraqis need to kick the shit out of each other like the Lebanese did, to learn not to do so.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at July 27, 2005 02:33 PM
I am trending to towards the idea that the Iraqis need to kick the shit out of each other like the Lebanese did, to learn not to do so.
Well, if you're half-hoping for civil war, then of course you'd be against the occupation.
Yes I realize you're being glib.
Posted by: zurn at July 27, 2005 03:14 PM
Re your comment on the differences from Lebanon, of course I agree. No situ is perfectly analagous of course.
On the other hand, I point to the potential for conflict to not be merely Sunni Arab against Shia Arab, but a three way struggle with the Sunni Kurds, with Iran playing a role as well as the regional Sunni govs.
The ingrediants are there.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at July 27, 2005 03:42 PM
It's true, there are a lot of sides. I don't think the Kurds and Shiites would fight each other much in a civil war though. They both have oil in their part of Iraq, and their regions don't really contact, being at opposite ends of the country. On the other hand, Sunni Arab regions border both, have little oil, and it's the Sunni Arab Baathist government that created so much animosity, and have lost power. If a full scale civil war were to erupt, Kurds and Shiites would both fight Sunni Arabs.
If the Shiites won this hypothetical war outright and imposed Shiite law on the Kurds, then we might see Kurd-Shiite fighting.
There's influence from neighbouring nations, but not extensive, at least not enough to fuel the fires like the Arab-Israeli conflict did for Lebanon. Iranians are Persians, I think that cultural difference is important to Iraqi Shiites, despite the political connections. Most of the real influence comes from exporting terrorists, which certainly cause disruption, but not enough without full national backing.
I suppose one danger might be Kurdish-Iranian unrest leading to Kurdish-Arab Shiite fighting. But I haven't heard anything that would suggest that would happen; it's not exactly likely. There aren't that many Kurds in Iran, and Kurds are more related to Persians than Arabs anyways. The main beef is between Kurds and Sunni Arabs and Turks.
I admit it's really hard to tell what might happen though.
Posted by: zurn at July 27, 2005 05:41 PM
The thing is, if the Kurds become convinced that the Shi'ites really ARE going for supremacy within Iraq, and won't leave them alone, I could easily see them deciding that having a bunch of unruly Sunnis between them and the Shi'ites is a Good Thing [tm].
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 28, 2005 04:47 AM
Wrong, there is a Shi'a Arab - Sunni Kurd contact zone along the north/east (or south/east of Kurdish maximal claims), and further to that, lots of Shi'a Arab were resettled in areas around Kirkuk. Further, the Turcomans are Shi'a (although largely rather heterodox relative to Arab Shi'a practices, but such things will fall away in importance under stress).
There is plenty of opportunity for Kurds to fight Arab Shi'a in the context of Arab Shi'a being wedded to Iraqi nationalism (albiet Shi'a dominated) and on the Iraqi-Shi'a solidarity lines with the Turcomans.
Finally you're wrong in re Kurds in Iran, there is a significant minority: There are approximately 4 million Kurds in Iran. They are the third most important ethnic group in the country after the Persians and Azarbaijanis and account for about 9 percent of the total population. They are concentrated in the Zagros Mountain area along the western frontiers with Turkey and Iraq and adjacent to the Kurdish populations of both those countries. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/kurdistan.htm
I have always understood that a good percentage of Iranian Kurds are Shi'a, although that article suggests they are minority.
Regardless, the overall point to retain is not to look at the Lebanese situ for exact correspondences, but to pull back and look at similar competing constellations of interests and sectarian divides. All the ingrediants are there for a nasty and potentially prolonged civil war - with Iran, KSA, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey each having interests as outsiders in 'taking sides' as the simmering proto-civil war that now exists heats up.
Inevitable? No. Probable, I think so.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at July 28, 2005 06:37 AM
Okay, so we have a much bigger Lebanon with a lot more equivalents of Syria/Israel....
Posted by: kao_hsien_chih at July 28, 2005 11:07 AM
Yes, I've seen the exact same maps you've seen. I don't see that as much of a contact area, it's tiny, especially compared to the overwhelming Arab contact. Although I didn't know about the resettlement in Kirkuk. How big is it?
Yeah, I was doing the math in my head on Iranian Kurds in bed last night and got that same number ironically (let's see, 8 million in Turkey, 20% of 20 million in Iraq, 15-20 mill overall... hmm, maybe 4 mil in Iran). It's higher than I first thought. However, like I said, this only matters if these Iranian Kurds stir things up with the Iranians and this somehow boils over into Iraqi Kurd-Shiite Iraqi violence before the Sunni Arabs are "defeated", despite the minimal contact area.
(Tom: Yes I agree. So it would seem the best Kurd tactic, indeed the one they're probably following right now, is not to get involved at all, leaving the Arabs to fight themselves.)
But back to the original point on occupation. It's easy to come up with various ways a civil war could play out, and consider nightmare scenarios; the area is full of contested claims. And yet in the face of all that, you feel the US should quit entirely, right now when tensions and feelings are running hot? Why, to let the civil war erupt full-scale? (I guess it's what you're half-hoping anyways.) If the US were to fully evacuate, would they be able to pressure the Shiites into keeping the Sunni Arabs at the bargaining table? All my speculations on the likelihood of civil war assume prolonged American presence of some form. If they pull out, yes, I agree, the residing animosities with get the better of everyone.
Posted by: zurn at July 28, 2005 01:16 PM
I should qualify that to mean the likelihood of a prolonged civil war on the scale of the Lebanese civil war.
Posted by: zurn at July 28, 2005 02:11 PM
Did I say I wanted the US to pull out?
I don't recall doing so.
What I did say was that I don't see any way out of a Lebanese style dynamic. It's not doomsday thinking or nightmare scenarios, it's looking at the interplay of forces.
Now, we can quibble as to whether the contact zone is "big enough" or not between Kurd and Shi'a Arab - however the real issue is Kurd and Shi'a maximalism in terms of claims, in Kurd terms claims on territory that the Shi'a Arab consider "theirs" by the Arab angle, and above all Kirkuk with its resettled Shi'a Arab, never mind the Shi'a-Iraqi solidarity angle with the Turcomans - I note ethnic cleansing operations are already being reported. There is more than enough to set off fighting.
How serious? Impossible to tell, but my main point was not "hoping" for something to happen but rather stepping back and looking at the dynamics as I see it. Cold analysis.
On a personal level I would very much rather things turned out well. I stand to profit personally if they do, and not in the naive idiotic speculation that one finds online like at the Iraq Investors Forum.
However, personal interest doesn't make real forces go away.
I note in regards to the Iranians being Persians, that indeed is important on one level - Iraqi Arab Shi'a are not going to desire political union with the Iranians. However that is not the issue, rather Iranian assistance - not terrorists, conventional.
When it comes down to it, I don't see the forces in place at present to stop devolution into civil war. Not enough "dampening" rods to stop the critical mass as it were. I may be wrong, but so far I have been right.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at July 29, 2005 06:30 AM
Zurn is possibly thinking of me - I'm (very tentatively) in favor of withdrawal, because I feel a certain need to have an opinion, but it IS a tentative opinion and depends heavily on the factual question of whether, in fact, progress is being made or could be made with minor policy shifts.
(Going back to ascendance's one-liner above, I think America is not "Syria" to Iraq's "Lebanon" - it seems to me more likely to play "Israel" - sudden catastrophic invasion followed by abrupt withdrawal followed by further destablization and descent into (further) chaos. Iran seems well-placed to play "Syria", swooping in after the other power withdraws to make more pieces of the pieces and then pick some up.)
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 30, 2005 09:05 AM