Iraq post-invasion is still a hotly debated topic. Most commentary focuses on where to place blame for the failures of the U.S. and Coalition efforts to build a stable state after Saddam. Yale’s Emma Sky, an expert on the region, has the advantage of actually having served there: as an advisor to U.S. General Raymond Odierno and as an official of the Kirkuk Governate. Here she explains the forces driving Iraq’s fragmentation and why the Sunni/Shia divide might be far less important than many analysts argue.
Octavian Report: How do you see the political and national security issues currently afflicting Iraq playing out there over the short and medium term?
Emma Sky: The crystal ball question. It is really hard to see how this is going to go. We all want to feel that there’s going to be some happy ending, that war ends and life continues. I think when you look at Iraq, and Syria, there’s probably a lot more conflict and insurgency still to come. The focus in Iraq, or the Western focus, is on Daesh, the Islamic State. There’s other focuses on the ground; for the last year or so, or probably more than that, there have been regular protests at governance in Iraq.
There have been crowds that have gathered every Friday. They gather by the Parliament, and they actually ransacked the Parliament a few months ago. There’s no word in Arabic for kleptocracy, but when you listen to the chants, they’re saying: “You are all thieves.” Which is a pretty accurate translation of kleptocracy. Their concerns center on the fact that Iraq, which should be a wealthy country, has poor infrastructure, poor electricity, and with a drop in the price of oil, falling wages.
There’s a lot of frustration among people at their political elites. Since 2003, the same elites have been in power. They are seen to have stolen so much of the wealth of the country and extracted the resources. They’ve bought houses in the Gulf or in the U.K. This seems like having used the state’s coffers to buy patronage and serve their own interests. You can blame the U.S. and the Coalition’s mistakes in Iraq, but no, it’s quite clear that Iraq’s political elites are to blame. There’s no one else to blame for what’s going on at the moment.
All these internal politics, the whole way that ministries are handed out as personal fiefdoms to different political parties — all of this has become more and more apparent to people through the media, through the internet. Iraqis are more aware of not just the incompetence of their elites, but their corruption. There’s all this scheming and machinations that continue to go on. This led to the removal of Minister of Defense Khaled al-Obaidi in August through a vote in Parliament. Big rivalries among the different Sunni groups that others have been exploiting led to the Minister of Defense being accused of corruption.
Iraq now has no Minister of the Interior, and it has no Minister of Defense. The way in which the vote against the Minister of Defense was taken, just by simple majority, is not in keeping with the Constitution. Now, there’s some speculation whether Iraq’s political elites, those who want to remove current P.M. Haider al-Abadi, are looking at ways that Nouri al-Maliki can make a comeback and whether they can then use votes of no confidence in Parliament to remove Abadi and anybody who is seen as close to Abadi — such as the Minister of Defense.
Why I mention all of this at the beginning is because this is the real issue. I see ISIS, Daesh, as a symptom of a much larger problem. That problem being the governance. If the conditions that enabled the rise of a group such as Daesh are not dealt with, we’re going to see the crushing of this iteration of Daesh only for another iteration to come along in the future.
This current iteration will be defeated. I’ve not seen anywhere a plan for the day after. Who will be in charge of Mosul? Who will be responsible for the reconstruction and the reconciliation that will need to go together? If there isn’t anybody in charge, then you can imagine a scenario where there will be lots of revenge killings, when people turn on each other, accusing each other of having collaborated with Daesh or been part of Daesh. The Kurds have ambitions to extend their territory, and since Daesh came into the area, the Kurds have taken Kirkuk and other villages and have made them de facto part of Kurdistan.
Iran has its own agenda with the Shia militias, making sure that they participate in the battle for Mosul. Mosul is seen as the heartland of Arab nationalism. All these different agendas are taking place, and Mosul — the success of Mosul the day after — is really key because that provides an opportunity to show a better-governed province that can restore respect to particularly the Sunni Arabs who live there, and to show a better way of living than under ISIS, than under Daesh.
I don’t see that happening. I expect Iraq will continue to just go on with its current levels of violence, with insurgency, while its politicians continue to steal what’s left of the wealth of the country. Does Iraq continue as a country? Iraq is more a state of militias. The non-state actors are stronger than their state. Some people say, “The only solution is to break it up into three bits,” but when the Kurds got their safe haven in 1991, the first thing that happened up there was an intra-Kurdish civil war. You can see in the Sunni areas a split between Daesh versus non-Daesh, so they’re already fighting. In Shia areas you have a big struggle for power going on. People are fighting much more for power and resources than they are over God, over theology.
OR: Do you see the nuclear deal with Iran changing anything?
Sky: It depends on how the next U.S. administration proceeds. At one level, you can say that the deal with Iran is good, as it removes potentially Iran’s ability to develop nukes. It’s good at trying to bring Iran back into the family of nations. But Iran is still projecting power way beyond its borders. It’s still participating in very nefarious activities, and other countries in the region really fear Iran’s expansion and Iran’s projection of power. If a new administration looks at balancing Iran and its rivals, and pushing back on Iran’s projection of power, then that could help bring an end to the proxy wars.
The Iraq War, and the way in which we left Iraq — we left Iraq as a weak state — enabled the resurgence of Iran. Iran and Saudi and others have been supporting these extreme actors in different countries, which has led to local grievances over poor governance becoming regional proxy wars. There’s no way of ending the civil wars in these countries unless the proxy wars, which fuel the civil wars, are brought to an end.
If the Iran deal is the first stage in terms of a difference in engagements of the U.S. in the region, with the next stage being the U.S. plays an active role in calling Iran out for bad behavior, pushing back on Iran’s projection of power, and reassuring U.S. allies in the Gulf (especially the Saudis) that the U.S. knows what Iran is doing, doesn’t approve of it, and is pushing back on it, then that can take some of the pressure off Iraq and Syria.
If the deal is just part of the pivot to Asia, then the deal might be looked at in years to come as something which escalated conflicts in the region rather than de-escalating them. It all depends.
OR: Do you think there’s a possibility that ISIS is successful in repelling the effort to take back Mosul?
Sky: No, I really don’t.
OR: Why do you think they haven’t been pushed back earlier?
Sky: The local population. You can read of incidents of the local population trying to stand up against ISIS, and they’ve just been brutally murdered. ISIS rules through fear. It’s terrifying. That has pushed resistance underground, but you still heard every few days before the offensive began of a member of ISIS being assassinated inside Mosul. The resistance is there, but the reason for the delay in the liberation of Mosul was over the issue of who’s going to liberate it. The Iraqi security forces dissolved in Mosul. They fled from Mosul. Rebuilding the Iraqi security forces is taking time. The most effective fighting forces are the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shia militias.
People in Mosul have said they’re terrified of peshmerga and they’re terrified of the Shia militias. They want to be liberated by the Iraqi Army, which is not yet capable of liberating them. The Coalition is doing whatever it can to try and build up the Iraqi Army, and to make sure that the Iraqi Army is leading the operation.
OR: Why are they afraid of the peshmerga?
Sky: They’re afraid that the peshmerga will cleanse their areas, take their houses, push them off their land. This has happened in plenty of places in disputed territories.
OR: Do you think that the Obama administration withdrawing from Iraq led to this chaos?
Sky: I think the chaos we see today is because of what happened in 2010, when the U.S. didn’t uphold the election results. It was a tightly contested election, and a very good election with high turnout. The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, didn’t win the most seats. In any parliamentary system, such as Iraq, and in keeping with Iraq’s constitution, the winning bloc should have had first go at trying to form the government. The winning bloc was Iraqiya, led by Ayad Allawi. There was big disagreement within the U.S. system over what to do, and General Ray Odierno, my boss, believed the U.S. should uphold the right of the winning bloc to have first go at trying to form the new government.
We didn’t think Allawi would be able to do it with himself as Prime Minister, but he thought it could lead to an agreement between Allawi and Maliki, or the selection of a third candidate to be Prime Minister.
Joe Biden didn’t take that advice. He listened to the Ambassador, and the Ambassador said, “Iraq’s not ready for democracy, Iraq needs a Shia strongman, Maliki’s our man.” Biden went along with this, and said, “Look, Maliki will give us a follow-on security agreement to keep troops in country. Maliki’s our friend.” Biden said, “I bet my vice presidency that Maliki will give us a follow-on security agreement.”
That, in my mind, was the fateful decision. The Iraqi political elites had spent the previous two years trying to remove Maliki from power through a vote of no confidence in Parliament. They were fearful that he was becoming a dictator. Every time the U.S. intervened and said, “Look, now is not the time, the security situation is too unstable, keep Maliki for now. If you want to remove him, do it through a proper election, not through the Parliament.”
When the national election happened, and people turned out en masse and voted, and Maliki, the incumbent, didn’t win, there was great expectation that there would actually be a change in power in Iraq through the elections. The U.S. did everything it could to try and keep Maliki in power, and it put big pressure on its allies to try and support Maliki, and they just kept refusing. Iraqiya kept saying, “We won the elections.” Iraqiya had the support of Iraq’s Sunnis, Iraq’s secular Shia, and a lot of Iraq’s minorities, and was campaigning on “Iraq for all Iraq” and saying “No” to sectarianism.
Iran stepped into this moment, because Iran saw an opportunity. Iran stepped in, and decided it, too, wanted to keep Maliki in power, but with the support of the Sadrists who hated Maliki because Maliki had gone after them in 2008 in Basra. Iran said, “Look, keep Maliki in power, we will ensure that all U.S. troops leave Iraq, and that Sadrists get key positions.” The Sadrists agreed to that deal, so Maliki had his second term basically due to the Sadrists. It was never going to be possible for Parliament to pass a vote to keep U.S. troops in-country after that. The U.S. wanted to get out, basically; it was no longer so engaged as the previous administration had been.
Maliki, as soon as he got his second term, accused the Sunni leaders of terrorism and drove them out of the political process. He reneged on his promises to the tribal leaders, who had fought against Al-Qaeda in Iraq with our help. He arrested Sunnis en masse. This led to protests across the country, and Maliki sent in the security forces to crush those protests, and it created an environment in which the Islamic State could rise up out of the ashes of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and present itself as the protectors of the Sunnis from the Iranian backed-sectarian regime of Nouri al-Maliki.
That’s what created the conditions for the Islamic State to take over a third of the country. I know a lot of people will say it was because we withdrew all our troops. But even if we’d kept troops in country, with the wrong policy, how would that have helped things? In my mind, the big mistake, when you look at the whole Iraq War — well, the invasion itself was a huge mistake. But after the invasion, the military collapsed the state and that led to civil war. We helped to rebuild the state and bring about stability through the Surge, and then the big mistake of the Obama Administration was not to uphold the election results of 2010.
I think the situation in Iraq would be very different today if those election results had been upheld, because I think it would’ve led to a compromise between Iraq’s elites. It wouldn’t have given the image that Iran drove Americans out of Iraq, and there could have been a compromise among the elites that wouldn’t have created the conditions in which ISIS could pop up again.
OR: Do you think President Obama’s handling of the chemical-weapons “red line” in Syria has played a role in the growing chaos in the Middle East?
Sky: I think the red-line issue is a hugely important issue: if you’ve set a red line, you have to uphold it. Even though it wasn’t set, when you listen to the story, as policy. It just came out in a comment. People believed it was a red line, and if you’re a superpower and you set a red line, you have to uphold that red line. It’s really important to show yourself as a reliable ally. That is critical, and when Obama didn’t uphold that red line, that gave an impression that America had no will to do anything.
We saw very quickly after that Putin moving into Crimea and Russia playing a much more active role in Syria. The Obama administration kept saying, “There’s no military solution, there’s no military solution.” Russia has basically shaped the situation in Syria and has shaped American involvement. You can look at Iran. You think, “Iran’s got none of the power, militarily or economically, that America has.” But look at how Iran is projecting its power.
Everyone in the region sees this as the Great Game. Everyone except for America, which doesn’t want to play.
OR: Do observers overrate the importance of the Sunni/Shia divide in explaining the Middle East’s current problems?
Sky: I think the root of the conflict is a power struggle. There’s a power struggle between Iran and Saudi. It’s a power struggle that’s been exacerbated by the Iraq War, which changed the balance of power in the region in Iran’s favor. You can look at the levels of sectarianism that we have today: they are just off the scale. The region’s never been like this before. You can look at the powers in the region, how they have instrumentalized religion. The basic thing that they’re fighting over is power, but they’ve instrumentalized religion to mobilize people.
Experts date this use of sectarian identity, or the politicization of sectarian identity, to the Islamic Revolution in Iran. That being a turning point, but the bigger turning point, the bigger tipping point, if you like, being the 2003 Iraq War. In the West, because these things are very complicated, it becomes easier to say that this is ancient hatreds bubbling up, that it’s always been this way. At one level, that’s just, I suppose, the most simplistic of looking at the region.
At another level, it’s a way of saying, “Oh, it’s nothing to do with us, or what Western powers have done in the region.” In another way it’s a way of saying, “Oh, well, this is the way these people are, there’s nothing that we can do about it.”
OR: What do you think, with some hindsight now, really went wrong with the Iraq War?
Sky: It’s easy to point out the mistakes, and there are plenty of them. The Chilcot Report that came out in the U.K. back in June and July listed all these mistakes, but it never came up with alternative ways in which we could’ve done things. I’m always wary to say, “Well, if only we’d done this, or we’d done that, then things would’ve been all right.” We really, really don’t know. The idea that you can just invade somebody else’s country, and treat them as the passive recipients of our benevolence, is a little bit crazy.
Now, the violence in Iraq came about because we collapsed the state. I don’t think any country in the world could’ve survived intact what we did to Iraq. If the Chinese invaded America, dismissed all the civil servants and dismissed all the security forces, what would happen? It wouldn’t look different from Iraq. I don’t think any country could survive that, because it’s the state that provides the framework for different people to compete. I think competition is very much inherent in human nature. If you remove that framework, then people just turn against each other.
One of the big mistakes, apart from collapsing the state, was that when we tried to recreate it, we recreated it on a sectarian basis. We said, “That job’s for a Sunni, that job’s for a Shia, that’s for a Kurd, that’s for a Turkomen.” Instead of focusing on Iraqi-ness and building up an inclusive sense of Iraqi national identity, all our efforts were focused on sub-identities.
Take a town like Mosul. Instead of saying, “These are going to be the representatives of Mosul,” we made it all about sects and ethnicity.
We did this at the local level, we did it at the national level. The focus was always on what divides people, not what unites people. Always about difference. The electoral system that we set up at the beginning played on this. Instead of people being the representatives of the geographical locations in which they lived, and so their national identity, we set up a system that had everybody mobilizing based on their sect and ethnicity.
Again, it’s like coming to Americans and dividing everybody into blacks, browns, and whites. You can imagine how that then creates more divisions between people, rather than bringing them together for a common purpose, to improve their society in which they live.
OR: Do you see any potential positive developments coming out of the realignment of Israel towards the Emirates and the Saudis?
Sky: Saudi, I think, is really interesting, because I think the reform proposed by Mohammad bin Salman is very extensive. You could argue at one level that it’s unrealistic. At another level, if they’re moving in that direction, if they have the intent to get there, then this could really be an interesting development. The previous king sent so many Saudis abroad, and these people will be coming abroad for their education and then coming back to Saudi.
Recently there’s been articles in the media detailing how Western officials have gone to Saudi and think things are changing there. Change is at a slow pace, and the reactionary forces in Saudi are quite dangerous. Things are happening there, things are moving there, and things haven’t moved in Saudi for a very, very long time. It’s interesting to watch.
The Saudis know they’re going to be out of oil within twenty years or so. They have to diversify the economy. They have to get Saudis working, and not just using imported labor. People talk now about when they visit Saudi, they see people actually working long hours. They’re talking the right talk. I think it’s a fascinating thing to watch: how is Saudi going to change? Can the monarchy lead that change? You’re going to build these different power centers within the monarchy, some supportive, some not supportive.
In terms of Israel, there are opportunities with this new realignment in the region. I was in Jordan a couple of months ago. I’ve been going to Jordan for, I don’t know, 25 years. Usually wherever you went, it was always Israel, Palestine, Israel, Palestine. Now when you go to Jordan, people just don’t talk about it. It’s just not spoken about anymore, because the fixation is on the Arab Spring, the counter-revolution, Daesh — so many worse, terrible things have happened.
Potentially, there are opportunities for Israel to create a positive future for itself, to realign, to not conceive itself as perpetuating the state of war. To have peace deals with some of these Arab countries, because they have a common threat, which is Iran. For any of this to happen, and to stick and to be successful, there has to be a Palestinian state. It’s in Israel’s interest — for its own security, for its survival — to have a Palestinian state. Without the existence of a Palestinian state, time and demographics are against the Jews.
I can’t see Netanyahu being the guy who grasps a big strategic opportunity. I think he would just focus, continue to focus, on tactics. It would require new leadership in Israel, and the shift of public opinion, and other things to happen, for people to look at or to accept the possibility of new opportunities in a changing region.
OR: Do you think there needs to be new leadership on the Palestinian side as well?
Sky: Probably. The major player in all of this is always Israel. Israel is the stronger player, the much stronger player.
OR: Do you think that the BDS movement and public opinion in Europe is a dangerous trend for Israel?
Sky: I think it erodes Israel’s legitimacy. If Israel gets perceived increasingly like South Africa under apartheid, that erodes its legitimacy in the international community. Not at the moment, because there’s so many bigger issues in the Middle East, and the fixation is on Daesh, there’s much less attention on Israel/Palestine. But Daesh will be defeated.
OR: Do you think that if Israel was willing to negotiate on those terms, that the Arab states would be willing to push the Palestinians to arrive at a deal?
Sky: It takes lots of different things to align. If you look back at where Israel was pre-first Intifada, and how public opinion changed during the Intifada, and what a difference the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin made, you can see that this requires leadership. Leaders who’ve got that credibility, as well as that will, to make those decisions. This is not all about the details in a plan. This is about vision. At the moment, Israel doesn’t have a leader with that vision.
OR: Do you see a de jure Kurdistan emerging from all the regional chaos?
Sky: It’s been over a century that there have been discussions about a Kurdistan. One of the main problems the Kurds have had has been agreeing where the borders of Kurdistan would be and having an agreed leadership.
When you look in Iraqi Kurdistan, you’ve got competing powers there. The KDP, Barzani’s lot, lean much more towards independence, where Talabani’s group, the PUK, lean much more towards being part of Iraq.
The tensions between them are real. The KDP turned to Ankara, the PUK turned to Tehran. They also are part of a regional play. Inside Syria, there are again different Kurdish groups. Inside Turkey, the Kurds have been campaigning to be equal citizens within a democratic Turkey, rather than having their own independent state. I can’t see an independent Kurdistan that includes the areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey where Kurds live. I just can’t see that greater independent Kurdistan ever happening.
OR: Do you see any solution to the Syria conflict?
Sky: In Syria, there are so many players and it is so complicated.
The way that it is framed by the U.S. is very much about it being about ISIS. The conflict in Syria stems from, I suppose, the context and legitimacy of Assad’s regime.
I can’t imagine the solution being Assad remaining in power. Assad is responsible for the deaths of about 400,000 Syrians — ten times more than what would’ve been killed by ISIS.
I think the solution in Syria, if there is a solution, is very much a decentralized state where there is much more say in local areas about how they are governed. At the center, there has to be a regime that doesn’t have Assad at the helm. The trouble is how to maintain some of the instruments of the state, some of the structure, the framework of the state, but without Assad there; how to bring representatives of other groups into that political agreement — and for Assad to exit.
It’s going to be really, really hard to get to that solution because there’s so many players involved. At one level, Russia wants to show itself as the victor against America. At another level, it’s the Saudi-Iran tensions playing out. Then there’s all the competition between different Sunni groups inside Syria, let alone all the minority groups. It’s very hard to see how this will happen.
Half of the Syrian people are displaced. How are they ever going to get back to their homes? It’s very hard to see how this will end, but it will end one day. Wars do end.
OR: Do you see anyone in Iraq today who could step up and be the leader that Allawi potentially was? Or are the country’s politics irredeemably broken?
Sky: I think in Iraq, what’s possible today is not what was possible in 2003 or 2010. You can’t wind the clock back now. There are structural constraints facing any leader in Iraq. Those structural constraints — this institutionalization of sectarianism that we introduced back in 2003; the economy being a rentier state — are there. Having said that, individual leaders can make a difference.
You can look at Maliki’s style versus Abadi’s style of leadership. Individuals can make a difference. What is difficult is that Iraqis will only agree on the leader who they see as really, really weak, and unlikely to be a threat to anybody. When they selected Maliki back in the day, it was because he was an unknown, and they thought he was weak. Then when he became too strong, they got rid of him.
Abadi was selected because he was seen as the weakest person — pliable, mutable. That makes it difficult. I do believe that individuals can make a difference. It’s just very hard for honest, upright, leaders to come forward in an environment such as Iraq.
Emma Sky is director of Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program and a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute.