From guest poster Adam Silverman. Lengthy, and most will be below the fold:
Interests, Proxy War, and Iraq– Adam L. Silverman, PhD*
“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” – Henry Temple; Lord Palmerston
When trying to understand what is happening in Iraq, as well as other parts of the Levant, the Middle East, Central Asia, or anywhere else for that matter, it is important to keep in mind the question of interests. Specifically, what are the interests of the nation-states involved, or if not the entire nation-state, then at least that portion of it that is in charge. It is also important that interests are rooted in a society’s values, and in the case of much of the Levant, those societies are often divided by sect and sometimes, as is the case with the Kurds, by ethno-national and ethno-linguistic identities. Another important concept to consider is risk, specifically how much risk is a state, society, group within that society, organization, etc willing to assume.
The discussion of interests, especially of other states’ and societies’ interests, is usually what is missing in the coverage of foreign and security policy issues. Focusing on interests is important because it provides a window into what is going on not just in Iraq, but also in Syria. While we here in the US, and the US government on our behalf, do have interests in all parts of the Levant, we are not the only ones. Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians have their own interests, but so do their neighbors. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States all have their own interests in the region. Sometimes they overlap with each other’s, sometimes with ours, and sometimes not at all. What we have not paid much attention to is how these states, or specific groups within these states, act on their interests, including how much risk they are willing to assume while trying to secure their interests.
It has been clear for quite a while now that the Syrian Civil War has, at a deeper level, been a proxy dispute between several of the states and non-state actors in the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran have both been trying to secure their interests in the Levant, as well as the entire Middle East, and they have been doing so in Syria. And they are not the only ones. There have been accusations that the Qataris and the Turks have also been involved in manipulating events. According to Dexter Filkins September 2013 reporting in The New Yorker, the Iranians have gone so far as to dispatch the Quds Force Commander, Qasseim Suleimani, to take command of Syria’s military effort. Suleimani’s arrival in the Syrian theater seems to correspond to the turnaround in Syrian government efforts to first stabilize their areas of control and then expand out from them to retake areas under rebel control.
The interests at stake, and here is where Iraq is going to come back into play, are which state gets to be the regional power***. From the Iranian point of view they have both a near abroad and sphere of influence that extends from Iran, through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. Iraq, like Iran, is majority Shi’a. Syria’s Alawite community was officially recognized as falling within Shi’ism** by Iranian religious authorities, specifically the Twelver Shi’ism that is practiced in Iran and Iraq. Lebanon has a sizeable Twelver Shi’a population. Though no one is sure what any of the Lebanese demographics really are as no census has been done in decades. Having the actual numbers would likely further destabilize Lebanon’s fragile inter-communal balance.
Iran’s interests in the Levant are based on both its geographic proximity to Iraq and Syria, its desire, if not need, for a land connection through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon, and its desire to demonstrate its ability to overcome the sanctions and diplomatic isolation imposed upon it. Iran wishes to both show that it has and can utilize its power within the region despite being a pariah state for thirty-five years.
It is important to remember that PM Maliki and his Dawa Party, as well as the Hakims, their ISCI Party and Badr Corps, were stood up and funded as Shi’a opposition to Saddam Hussein by exiles in Iran. To some extent they are still supported by Iran. It is also important to recognize that not all Iraqi Shi’a or Chaldean Christians opposed Saddam Hussein, just as there are many Sunni, as well as Syriac Christians, Druze, etc that support the Assads.
Saudi Arabia’s interest is in projecting its own (economic) power in order to influence the events of the region. It also wishes to check the Iranians and to some extent the Turks ability to leverage their own power. Some of this has to do with the normal geo-strategic issues of who is going to be the regional power. Some of it, however, has to do with Wahabbi Islam’s teachings about Shi’ism. From the Saudi perspective, in terms of power politics, their interests are in being the power directing the politics throughout the Middle East.
This is important in regard to Iraq because, like in Syria, there are multiple conflicts going on at multiple levels. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al Qaeda aligned group in the Levant, may have been able to galvanize Iraqi opposition to the Maliki government, but it is not a self funding organization. ISIL’s funding has come, at different times, from donors in Jordan, Syria, Saudi, and even Iran during the US occupation of Iraq. Regardless of the current funding situation, as ISIL is being squeezed by the renewed competence of the forces loyal to the Assad government, it has moved back across the border and into Iraq. This has provided it the opportunity to try to attack a new target, given that it has not been having recent success in Syria.
Along the way ISIL seems to have served as a catalyst for those Iraqis who feel like they are on the losing end of the Maliki government to once again take up arms. This is related to the ISIL/Maliki government fight, and ISIL will likely try to coopt the non-ISIL Iraqi fighters, at least in terms of strategic communication, but it is not exactly the same fight. Some of this can be seen in the actual tactical details of the conflict; the non-ISIL forces seem to be more competent than the ISIL ones.
While it is likely that the majority of the Iraqi anti-Maliki forces are Sunni, among the more rural and more tribal Iraqis, this may also mean some Shi’a who are not partial to the former exiles. Many of the Iraqi tribes are mixed, having both Sunni and Shi’a members depending on location and who has married whom****. The bulk of the grievances, however, seem to be along the old sectarian fault lines. And as I wrote the other night, scores will be settled. This does not mean, however, that these Sunnis want to see ISIL establish a caliphate in Iraq. The two groups are right now fellow travelers; they share the same immediate interest of overthrowing the Maliki government and the Iraqi order that we helped to establish several years ago. Once that immediate goal is met, it is likely that they will have little in common in terms of how Iraq, or the parts they control, should be ordered, structured, and governed. And here too we see a similarity to events in Syria. The only interest that the various opposition and rebel groups have in common there is the removal of the Assads, beyond that there is no agreement on what Syria should be going forward.
What we are observing in the Levant, whether in Syria or in Iraq, are attempts to maintain, consolidate, or overthrow the existing order. This is partially driven by the interests of Syrians and Iraqis, both those that are currently part of the existing orders and those who have lost out because of them. At the same time the other regional players are seeking to maximize their own interests, as well as minimize their own risks. From our perspective the actions of these different actors may seem irrational, but the truth is they are rational in a bounded way. They make sense within the context of the actors. The key for American policy makers and strategists is to not lose sight of the different actors’ interests, and their contexts, while trying to determine how best to protect our own.
* Adam L. Silverman is the Cultural Advisor at the US Army War College. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College and/or the US Army.
** A fuller discussion of Shi’ism, its different variants, how the Alawites fit into Shi’ism, let alone what makes the Alawite religion different, is outside the scope of this post as it is a (future?) post in itself.
*** While Israel has the ability to project military power, because it is neither an Arab or Muslim state and society, it can never really compete for the role of regional hegemon. The real players competing for that distinction are the Saudis, the Turks, and the Iranians.
**** I met a number of Iraqis who indicated that everyone in their tribe in our operating environment were, for instance, Sunni. Their kin in Basra, however, were Shi’a, because most Iraqis in Basra were Shi’a. Or my teammates and I heard the reverse – they were Shi’a in the northeastern portion of our operating environment, but their kin in Anbar were Sunni. We were also often told something along the following lines: “I’m Sunni, but my mother who is from this other tribe is Shi’a” or “I’m Shi’a, but my sister in law is Sunni because she’s originally a member of this other tribe.” Finally, the Iraqis do have one completely jumbled tribe – the Shamoris. The Shamoris have both Sunni and Shi’a, often in the same areas. There are also branches of the Shamoris in Syria, and if I’m recalling correctly, Saudi Arabia.
Thanks again, Adam.