A few weeks ago, close associates of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent Washington an S.O.S. message, saying that the time had come to get Maliki out of power in a way that would allow him to save face, or prepare for the prospect of a bloody civil war in Iraq that will only end with the country partitioned, if not fragmented, in parallel with terrible growth in Islamic extremism and devastating sectarian conflict. Washington, as usual under President Barack Obama, took its time and slowly weighed the repercussions of any step it might make in Iraq or Syria for its nuclear talks with Iran.
But today, with the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) seizure of the Nineveh province, it is time for Washington to start seriously thinking about its available options before it is too late. The first step should be a bilateral understanding with the Islamic Republic of Iran to banish Nouri al-Maliki to a neighboring country that is friendly to Tehran, for example, Oman. This is if Washington really wants to save Iraq from fragmentation. But if the plan is to partition Iraq and hand over south Iraq to Iran as part of the map of regional understandings, then allowing ISIS to grow, as a small mobile army through the Iraqi-Syrian border, could be part of that plan.
How will the Obama administration engage Iran over Iraq, after ISIS routed the Iraqi army and forced it to withdraw from Mosul?Raghida Dergham
What happened in Iraq this week is shocking. The second collapse of the Iraqi army is reminiscent of its first collapse at the hands of former President Saddam Hussein in particular, when he left it in tatters on the roads without informing the army that he had lost the war. The collapse of the Iraqi army under Maliki did not come from a vacuum. The prime minister came to Baghdad from Tehran under U.S. protection, which claimed that spreading democracy was the purpose of its invasion and occupation of Iraq. The withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq would not have been possible without the success of David Petraeus's strategy known as Al-Sahawat, or the Awakening, where the Americans partnered up with Sunni tribes to combat extremist groups like al-Qaeda and its many offshoots.
Nouri al-Maliki assumed that U.S. protection for him and the Iranians clinging to him equate to support for his dictatorship against all those who oppose him believing he puts Shiites first and Iraq second. In truth, Maliki now offers Iraqi Shiites and Iraq itself as ammunition for out-of-bound wars and cynical U.S., Iranian, or even ISIS-led plans and the plans of all those who stand behind this terrorist organization.
Maliki must step down
It is time for Nouri al-Maliki to step down. He has lost the popular base that makes up the fabric of Iraqi unity, and today, he is begging ordinary people to volunteer to compensate for the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from the fight. Maliki is dismantling the Iraqi army in doing so, whether intentionally or inadvertently.
The problem is that Tehran controls the decision of whether Maliki stays in power or not, and so far, the Islamic Republic of Iran has strongly clung to him.
The Western powers claim that they have started discussions with Iran regarding its regional roles, from Iraq and Syria (and Lebanon), to Yemen. Iran will not abandon Iraq, which constitutes a victory for Tehran provided by the United States of America under George W. Bush through his war on terrorism in Iraq. That war completely eliminated Iraq from the strategic equation with Iran and Israel, and neutralized Iraq from the regional balance of power. Iraq was a precious American gift to both Iran and Israel, but also to Turkey, as Iraq was pacified and withdrawn from strategic equations.
Saddam was a strategic threat
Iran will not stop at having had the strategic threat from Iraq removed as represented by Saddam Hussein. Iran is adamant about domesticating Iraq and placing it in the Iranian barn, and sees that Nouri al-Maliki delivers to Tehran what it wants, which is why it does not want to relinquish him voluntarily. If the choice is between a unified Iraq with no influence for Iran though Maliki and a torn Iraq, Iran will prefer a partitioned Iraq where it would have permanent influence over the south and a way to bring into existence that Shiite belt or crescent - as neocons called it under George W. Bush - stretching from eastern Saudi to Iraq and Iran, and parts of Syria and Lebanon on the border with Israel. Their idea was to divide Arab countries in the context of removing them from the strategic equation with Israel. Their idea was also based on developing the historical principle of peace between Persians and Jews, to contain Sunni dominance and defeat Sunni extremism that was behind 9/11. What happened in the Syrian war during the past three years is part of those calculations, as it is clear today. It is also clear that Tehran is part of that thinking, and sees the regime in Damascus as a guarantee for it in Syria, and would not allow it to fall except if forced to.
Yemen might be the only arena for concessions and compromises between the Western powers - especially the United States - and Iran, which has a role there. Yemen is less important for Tehran than Iraq and Syria, and there is wiggle room there especially in the context of any Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. There are even some in the camp that comprises Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq who say - to justify Iran's hold over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon - that the bargaining room involves giving Saudis concessions in Yemen and in Bahrain.
The Obama administration uses drones in Yemen to fight al-Qaeda and its offshoots. This war kills al-Qaeda leaders but not its armies. They do not impact al-Qaeda's base, and for this reason, the victories it brings are illusory.
Furthermore, the alleged victories in the wars in Iraq and Syria against al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, ISIS, or other groups are precarious and they often backfire. This applies also to some extent to recruits in mobile armies and their backers, be they Sunni or Shiite extremists, or individuals, governments, organizations, families, militias, or companies. The Arab actors taking part in fragmenting Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon - no matter their affiliation, claims, or justifications - are collaborators with terrorism and an instrument in the plot to split the Arab region.
In truth, the United States is not innocent of these plans. In the minds of many, it is the side that manufactures and encourages extremism, be it Sunni or Shiite, to divide the Arab region and allow Iran to dominate it, with Israeli collusion. The Kurds have realized that the new map of the Middle East may be the opportunity they have been waiting for the future of Kurdistan. For this reasons, the equations of traditional hostility with Turkey have been upended, and oil-related calculations have risen up the list of priorities to attract Western support for Kurdish ambitions.
While ISIS, with its haphazardness, destructive ideology, and appalling ignorance, spreads from Deir al-Zour to the borders of Kurdistan, achieving its wretched victories, regional and international powers are rushing to take advantage of the situation to further their interests. And while Hezbollah believes itself a strong regional force that even the United States takes into account, and not just Iran, Iraq, or Syria, Hezbollah remains a transient part of illusory victories, because in reality, the Shiite party furthers Iranian interests as conceived by the neocons, that is, as overlapping with Israel's at the expense of Arab interests definitely.
All trans-border armies think themselves as makers of a new history by overturning Sykes-Picot. These are the armies of destroying and abolishing borders. As it seems, no one is standing in their way no matter how much NATO powers pretend to be panicked and no matter how many concerned statements the United Nations make. What is frightening is that there are international forces supporting mobile radical armies in their bid to cross borders, to use them in wars of attrition against traditional armies, with a view to partition existing countries in the Arab region.
ISIS not the response to the plans to fragment the Arab region and strengthen Iranian hegemony but is actually an instrument in those plans, whether ISIS is aware of this or naïvely oblivious to the fact. ISIS is destroying the Arabs and undermining Sunni moderates, because it is part of a sinister project to which it was driven voluntarily or by coincidence. All those extending help to ISIS and similar groups like al-Nusra Front, and other Salafist or Wahhabi militias, are directly contributing to the collapse of Syria and Iraq, no matter how much they think they are making history.
Iraq today is on the brink of collapsing into civil war and partition, if not fragmentation. No one will come out victorious in the coming Iraq war - with the exception of Kurdistan perhaps.
The U.S. rush to withdraw from Iraq in the wake of a war that cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives remains a mystery. The only convincing explanation is, perhaps, that the United States took stock of its own massive oil reserves, which would spare it from needing Iraqi oil if not all of Arab oil. Perhaps the other explanation is that the U.S. defense industries were done testing their new weapons in Iraq. The result is that the United States abandoned Iraq and left it easy prey to anyone willing to take it, after waging a war on terror in Iraqi cities to spare American cities from such a war.
The question now is this: How will the Obama administration engage Iran over Iraq, after ISIS routed the Iraqi army and forced it to withdraw from Mosul? How serious is the Western strategy in the negotiations with Iran regarding Syria? In other words, are ISIS's "achievements" in Iraq and Syria a previous gift to the Iranian negotiator, to propose Iran as a serious partner for the West with a view to eliminate Salafist extremism? The answer is most probably affirmative.
Nouri al-Maliki hinted that he might be willing to allow the U.S. air force to conduct strikes against al-Qaeda positions inside Iraq. For its part, Washington decided to send new weapons to fight terrorism in Iraq.
Turkey has called for an emergency meeting for NATO, after ISIS kidnapped 48 of its citizens in addition to 28 others. Turkey might see ISIS as an opportunity to deepen its military incursion into northern Iraq - even when Ankara is now more than ever open to the idea of establishing the state of Kurdistan.
Iran might be conformable with the ISIS "gift" in the context of its negotiations with the West, but ISIS remains a thorn in Iran's side, both in Iraq and Syria. It will not be easy for Iran to defeat ISIS, regardless of whether it attempts this directly or through its ally Hezbollah. In effect, entrusting the task of fighting ISIS to Hezbollah could lead to mutual exhaustion and attrition - which is sweet music to American ears.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 13, 2014.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine.
She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.