Very quietly, Iraq is ceasing to exist

Iraq is now de facto split along organic ethno-religious lines into three very distinct sub-states

Dr. John C. Hulsman

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For the tragic country of Iraq, no news presently is bad news. By that I mean that the headline strategic story at present is that nothing major has changed since ISIS’s stunning advances of last summer. Iraq is now de facto split along organic ethno-religious lines into three very distinct sub-states, roughly corresponding to the old Ottoman Empire sanjak provinces. Worse still for the Abadi government in Baghdad, ISIS is increasingly ensconced as merely another nasty political fact of life in the Middle East; it shows no real signs of going away. Instead, political ossification has set in, making the overturning of this gloomy state of affairs increasingly unlikely.

For the Baghdad government remains irredeemingly weak, largely in the pocket of its Iranian benefactors, and unable to do much on its own. Economically, the central government is a basket case. Export figures for the first seven months of 2015 have crashed, leading to predictions of the budget deficit reaching a cavernous 20%. Since the fall of Saddam, widespread corruption has been a cancer on the Iraqi body politic. On August 7, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most respected figure in the country, called on Prime Minister al-Abadi to take ‘drastic measures’ to fight corruption.

The reform-minded premier responded, doing away with 11 of 33 cabinet positions, cutting three Deputy Prime Ministerial posts, and merging four other ministries. As the doling out of cabinet positions has become a major form of clientelism, such a paring back of the bloated central government must be seen as a step in the right direction. However, despite the Grand Ayatollah’s support and regardless of Abadi’s reformist zeal, the odds remain high that the Prime Minister will prove unable to slay the formidable dragon of corruption.

For the motive force behind the Abadi government remains Iranian brute force. The present Iraqi Interior Ministry is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard corps; out in the field Shia militias directed by Tehran have proven themselves for more successful fighters than the laughably corrupt and woeful Iraqi army. As long as the armed forces buttressing Baghdad remain so incredibly weak, it is almost impossible to see how the Abadi government is capable of regaining lost Iraqi territory—be it to the Kurds or ISIS—on its own, and for its own purposes.

In contrast, there are no signs that the relatively capable and highly motivated Kurdish Peshmerga are about to be reined in by Baghdad. With the help of American air strikes, the Kurds have managed to repulse ISIS on the ground, regaining most of the territory they had lost in the summer of 2014. Strong enough to turn their backs on Baghdad, the oil revenue deal between the Abadi and Barzani governments has again broken down.

The Kurds, defying Baghdad, have unilaterally been selling their own oil via Turkey. Sales have amounted to more than 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) since May 2015, amounting to direct revenue for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of $1.5 billion for July-August 2015. If the Kurds can hang onto the contested and oil-rich city of Kirkuk (and there is absolutely no present challenge to them there), their proposed state would prove economically viable. In all but name, Iraqi Kurdistan has for a long while been independent.

ISIS showing real signs of staying power

And the KRG is not the only sub-state in Iraq in rude health. Far more ominously, ISIS is showing real signs of staying power. After more than a year of American-led coalition bombing, amounting (as of October 2015) to more than 10,600 air strikes, ISIS has yet to feel a dent in its economic chest. The sale of oil, ISIS’s main source of income, is generating revenues of up to $500 million a year.

Nor is ISIS being eradicated on the battlefield. Since bombing commenced in September 2014, the American-led coalition has killed as many as 15,000 ISIS fighters, according to US intelligence estimates. However, during this time the group’s military strength has increased, with there now being as many as 70,000 ISIS fighters overall, including 15-20,000 foreigners. Despite some territorial setbacks in central Iraq, such as the fall of Tikrit and the recent liberation of Baiji, ISIS continues to dominate roughly one-third of the country, an area the size of Britain. There are simply no real signs ISIS is going away.

As a strong adherent of ethical realism, I follow the British parliamentarian and thinker Edmund Burke’s admonition that to do good in the world, it must be viewed as it truly is, warts and all, to then be made better. To do so in Iraq must cause anyone an involuntary shudder. For what one sees is a country definitively split in three parts, with ISIS now merely a fact of life in Mesopotamia. Outgoing and highly capable U.S. Army Chief Ray Odierno, on the eve of his retirement, stated forthrightly (and shockingly to American ears) that Iraq might have to be partitioned. I’d say to the general that the horse has already left the stable; in truth it already is. Iraq has ceased to exist.


Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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