Iraq, the country established on the land of the Assyrians and Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia, is one of the most bitter fruits of the Franco-British imperialist nation-building efforts in the post-WW1 scenario that was the ‘Sykes-Picot’ Accord, signed on May 16, 1916.
British, French and, to a lesser extent, Russian diplomats decided how the former Ottoman provinces (of what now comprises the Middle East) would be divided. It was a secret agreement: neither the British nor the French parliaments ratified or even discussed the arrangements. Nor, of course, did the governments of the future States, which Sykes-Picot would spawn parliaments of the two countries or discussed at an international conference.
Arguably, the ‘accord’ can be blamed for many of the root causes of the problems of the contemporary Middle East. The diplomats, who drew up Sykes-Picot drew borders, failed to consider religious, ethnic and tribal complexities that are rarely confined to distinct geographic regions. There was (and is), considerable overlap among linguistic, religious and tribal loyalty networks, which explains why the Ottomans, who controlled the region for five centuries, never defined clear borders.
The European post-WW1 colonizers, on the other hand, applied a ‘divide et impera’ approach, which had little regard for nuances, relying only on cartographic precision, expecting the various elements to combine and react without consideration for fallout. The predictable result was instability and non-governability.
It might be suggested that the Islamic State/ISIS phenomenon is but the most recent (and extreme) product of the Sykes-Picot arrangement, as the so-called Caliphate purported to erase the border between Syria and Iraq, to revive the traditional unity’ of the ‘Umma’ in the Middle East. In this sense, Iraq, more than even Syria, has endured the full brunt of the Sykes-Picot agreement. The United States, and the United Kingdom, led a war against Iraq on March 20, 2003 (based on – false – allegations that Iraq possessed, and was ready to deploy, an arsenal of ‘weapons of mass destruction’) eliminated the regime of Saddam Hussein. Washington and London justified their military effort as an effort to bring democracy to Iraq. In other words, the wear was a ‘crusade for democracy’. Now, 16 years later, the results of that war and Iraq’s prospects for the future are questionable at best. While anyone with a good understanding of the dynamics that have shaped Iraqi society since Sykes-Picot laid the foundations of this State (formally established at the SanRemo Conference in April 1920) would have known that the war on Iraq would be senseless, at best, the aftermath has removed any lingering doubt.
The war, moreover, rained down on the Iraqi people after suffering untold hardships due to the embargo that the United States enforced – through the United Nations – against the Government of Saddam Hussein in the 1990’s. Not surprisingly, the Anglo-American coalition won a swift battle (it’s still too early to say whether it won the war, given the results to date). It then dismantled what was left of Saddam’s State, replacing it with an entity managed by the Americans, which then unleashed unbridled chaos, fueled by the reawakening of ethnic, tribal and confessional feuds between Sunnis and Shiites, culminating in the rise of the Islamic State or the Caliphate.
The deconstruction, or destruction, of the Iraqi State sent shockwaves of violence throughout the Middle East and beyond, which continues to raise doubts about the fate of that country and the region. Arguably, more than establishing a ‘democracy’ in the Middle East, the immediate results, or effects, of the war might be a relative strengthening of Israel’s geo-strategic positioning in the region and the (theoretical at least) potential for the U.S. to use post-Saddam Iraq as a base from where to threaten Syria and Iran. The wider and deeper effect, on the other hand, may have been the failure of any idea that democracy can be ‘exported’.
The war in Iraq did not end when U.S. President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham aircraft carrier in May 2003. It was after that declaration that the real war began. It did not take long for sectarian and ethnic conflicts to erupt in Iraq. Al-Qaida, or groups claiming allegiance to it, reared its ugly head in Iraq. Since then, terrorism and sectarianism only intensified in quality and quantity. Elections brought nominal democracy, but in effect they replaced the rule of the Ba’ath Party with the rule of Shiite dominated political forces, bent more on revenge than fairness and establishing institutions to allow the whole population to participate. Islamic State or ISIS/DAESH (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria / Dawla Islamiyya fi Iraq wa Shams) is but one, of the most terrifying, political-military creature to emerge from the ashes of post-Saddam Iraq.
Brief History of Modern Iraq
The British, quite literally and figuratively, invented ‘Iraq’ in 1920. To this day, it remains a State rather than a nation, for it is made up by three distinct ‘nationalities’ or ‘ethnicities’: Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs.Iraq is none other than the unification of three historical and autonomous Ottoman provinces, under a British Protectorate, from North to South: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, each of which had distinct customs and laws. More importantly, each distinct confessional and ethnic affiliations: in the North, there were mostly Sunni Arabs and Kurds. In Baghdad, there were mostly Sunni Arabs, while Arab Shiites (with some Persian influence as well) dominated Basra and the South.
On August 23, 1921, the British installed none other than an outsider, King Faisal I, as King of Iraq. Faisal was the third son of the Grand Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, who proclaimed himself ‘King of the Arab lands’ in October 1916. He was born in Mecca – not any of the Iraqi provinces.
The appointment of the King was a reward for the assistance he offered the British (remember Lawrence of Arabia?) Faisal, who encouraged unity between Shiites and Sunnis; and he also proposed Pan-Arab ideas – the same that would shape the Ba’ath Party managed to declare Iraq to be an independent State in 1932. But it didn’t take long before the peculiarities of this new independent country to emerge. The Kurds, who were promised a State of their own in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, rejected being ruled by an Arab King. For their part the Shiites rejected being ruled by a Sunni King – and it must be stressed that the two holiest shrines of Shi’a Islam, Najaf and Karbala, are in Iraq. The rivalry between the two branches of Islam , in Iraq, further intensified after the British backed the Sunnis to exert a hegemony, however weak it may have been. Ironically, in 2003, the British and the Americans would end up reversing that arrangement, weakening the Sunni establishment to favour the Shiites. And this rivalry might be the most evident and exploitable weakness of Iraq, exposing the Country to potential manipulation by invaders.
Yet, Faisal did not give up his nationalist aspirations and he sided with the Germans in WW2, prompting another wave of British occupation. In 1958, the Army (typically dominated by Sunnis) led a coup, which would, after a succession of infighting episodes and coups would lead to the establishment of the Ba’ath Party. On July 14, in inspired by the Nasserite revolution in Egypt, 1958, General Abd-al-Karim Qasim and his followers seized Baghdad and overthrew the monarchy, leading to the proclamation of the Republic and the end of the monarchy.
General Qasim established an authoritarian regime and shifted relations away from the United States and closer to the Soviet Union. But, in 1963, another coup, by the Ba’ath Party, deposed him, leading to another phase of instability. Ironically, it was during this phase, that Iraq became one of the leading oil producers in the world. Since 1968, Iraq was ruled by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. The latter figure ruled Iraq through one of its most significant and progressive periods. He was a member of the Ba’ath Party and helped General Qasim take power in 1958. But, like many fellow members, he went into hiding after General Qasim’s repression of the Ba’ath in 1959, living in exile until the General was overthrown in 1963 by Marshal Aref. After 1963, al-Bakr served as Prime Minister for Aref, until he led his own coup against the latter in 1968. Al-Bakr, more than any other Iraqi leader (until Saddam Hussein was forced to accept defeat in the First Gulf War of 1991) granted considerable autonomy to the Kurds – even as he refused to grant the formation of an independent Kurdish State. Al-Bakr also liberated political prisoners; he accepted and legalized the Iraqi Communist Party and nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company allowing for more generous State policies and welfare programs, while also modernizing society, starting from the advancement of women’s rights.
Al-Bakr’s vice-president Saddam Hussein, behind the scenes took over the levers of State, effectively becoming the sole authority by 1977 – but formally only in 1979, as al-Bakr resigned. Saddam Hussein made the State more ‘personal’ and rather than appease opponents, as his predecessor had done, he restricted the rights of the Kurds and the Shiites. Having settled territorial disputes with Iran, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 shuffled threw the Middle East into turmoil, and provided Saddam with the opportunity to aim for regional hegemony – and not without considerable encouragement from the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and the United States. It was Saddam who initiated the war against Iran between 1980 and 1988. In the aftermath, a financial dispute (related to the war with Iran) with Kuwait (once part of the Ottoman Province of Basra), Saddam ordered the invasion of the tiny oil-rich State. In hindsight, the invasion of Kuwait of 1990 was the beginning of the end of modern Iraq.
The invasion of Kuwait served as an opportunity for the United States to intervene against Iraq, destroy its military and social infrastructure, weakening it to the point it no longer represented any threat to Israel. Indeed, while Saddam would remain in power twelve more years after he lost the First Gulf War, he led an exhausted Iraq, subject to intrusive American military control, the loss of most of its defensive and offensive capability and oil embargo. Whereas, Saddam had once been able to use his power – despite the Iran-Iraq war – to modernize Iraq, perpetuating the secularization efforts of al-Bakr, what power was left after the Kuwait debacle, he used to exacerbate fear, further crystallizing tensions between the Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.
The American invasion has not improved this legacy. Shiites, by and large, now play the role once enjoyed by Sunnis, while the Kurds, left to pursue greater independence within a looser Iraqi State, have faced run-ins with the Turks, eager to prevent the formation of their own independent State. Nevertheless, the ISIS phenomenon, more than any other has underscored the failure of the U.S. democracy export experiment, playing on deep fractures that successive Iraqi governments, whether ruled by kings, generals or Ba’ath presidents have struggled to manage since the country was created. To this effect, it’s important to understand how the mechanisms of confessional divisions worked, how these have contributed to emergence of ISIS and why Iraq’s future remains fragile at best. The war has exasperated complex social dynamics, failing to transform the sectarian policy that has characterized Iraq since its establishment. (A.B.)