Monday, June 16, 2014
Why Iraq should consider separate Sunni and Shia regions: Article for The Guardian by Ranj Alaaldin
Below is the article for The Guardian, 13th June 2014 by Ranj Alaaldin
Why Iraq should consider separate Sunni and Shia regions
The seizing of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, by jihadists has sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. TheIslamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), now controls or operates with impunity in territory stretching between Syria and Iraq, and will attempt to push to the south, take control of Baghdad and effectively put an end to Iraq as we know it.
But Iraq can still be saved. In the short-term the country, with the support of either regional powers such as Iran and Turkey or the broader international community, must hit back fast and hard at the Sunni north.
The Iraqis have already asked the US for air strikes. That could go a long way. It is imperative the government reassures the Iraqi people that Isis is no match for it; that Isis is not a force for the future, lest it swells its ranks with more Iraqis and expands its support bases. It must be given a bloody nose.
The military option in the short-term might empower and give moderate Sunni Arab forces a chance in the longer run, but for this to happen – and for Iraq to sustain itself – the country must accept that the notion of a centralised and unified Iraq has been a failed exercise.
The problem is essentially one of authority. The Iraqi state and its armed forces are seen as being Shia controlled, and therefore lack respect and recognition in the Sunni north. It is no coincidence that Iraq's most stable areas are those that are most homogeneous, where security and governance is in the hands of local actors seen as legitimate by a supportive local population, as in the case of the Kurdish north and the Shia south.
As the Americans did, the government has tried to rely on local tribes to stabilise Sunni Arab areas. However, they are seen as government proxies. During the course of conflict in the north, particularly in Anbar, most switched sides to fight against the state.
This week in Mosul, Iraq's Arab Sunnis effectively welcome Isis with open arms because of a sense of fear as well as widespread agitations toward the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The continued rejection of the post-2003 Iraq by Arab Sunnis has given Isis the chance to capitalise, with maximum effect, on feelings of marginalisation among the Sunni Arab community.
Giving moderate Sunni Arab leaders the chance to self-govern within an autonomous region, if and when extremists elements such as Isis have been contained, constitutes a realistic way forward that accepts the Shia-dominated Baghdad government lacks the legitimacy and support to challenge militants for the hearts and minds of Sunni Arabs.
Regionalising Iraq into different ethno-sectarian regions has been proposed in the past. It can no longer be dismissed. Sectarian conflict is no longer identified simply as a problem that came and left with the Americans, but as an Iraqi problem that will dominate Iraq for decades to come.
Further, moderate Sunni Arab actors now welcome the idea of an autonomous region, accepting that they miscalculated when mobilising their communities to reject the new Iraq in 2003. They now hold prestigious government posts, accept the new Iraq is here to stay, and regret that it was their mobilisation of Sunnis that allowed extremists to rise.
The Kurds have proved that autonomy is not synonymous with partition. It is ironic that the Kurds, long derided by their Arab partners for making the most of their autonomy and weakening Iraq, are now its most unifying force.
The Kurdish peshmerga forces are Iraq's most organised, effective and disciplined military force and have deployed heavily in areas that separate Iraqi Kurdistan from Arab Iraqi areas currently controlled by Isis. In Syria's north-east, the Kurds have fought Isis and other Islamists with great effect and have proved they have the capacity to contain and eliminate them.
If Isis becomes too much of a threat, then the Kurds will act to protect their own population and territory. But the Kurds will not save Iraq at the expense of Kurdish interests. They suffered heavily in the past in the hands of either dictatorial or Sunni Islamist entities, and will look to avoid being dragged into a conflict that is not yet theirs to fight.
Therefore, unless Kurdistan's interests are threatened, a Kurdish intervention can take place only if the Kurds' Arab partners guarantee Kurdistan's interests in Iraq. That means giving the Kurds increased autonomy, energy rights and control over oil-rich disputed territories like Kirkuk. But the Kurds may now get all that anyway.
Control of Kirkuk takes the Kurds all the more closer to independence. The Kurds have also proved their worth by taking in more than 700,000 displaced Iraqis from Mosul. The question and litmus test for them is whether their Arab partners are ready to reciprocate.