As a political-risk analyst, it is easy in the rush of every day to lose sight of what truly matters, the patterns behind the headlines that actually condition the world we find ourselves in. No region is this presently more true of than the Middle East, where immediate, dramatic stories tend to dominate the headlines and one’s thinking, and at times threaten to obscure the quieter but more important forces shaping things.
This past week three very disparate stories – on the face of it, none very important in and of themselves – have made clear a longer-term trend that is just now becoming dimly apparent, but which has the potential to upend any number of comfortable realities about the Middle East in general.
For Iraq as a political entity is ceasing to matter, as it is quickly becoming a state only in name.
Hapless, if well-meaning government
The first indication of this seminal event was the recent (and wholly justifiable) frustration that the U.S. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter exhibited about the hapless – if broadly well-meaning – government of Haidar al-Abadi. As ISIS has risen, the government in Baghdad, greatly worried it was about to lose total and final control of the Kurdish north and the Sunni centre and west of the country, demanded that Washington re-route all military supplies through the central government in Baghdad, to then be doled out to the restive regions. That way the Abadi government would in theory maintain some tenuous control over the situation.
Increasingly, Iraq is no longer an actor on the Middle Eastern stage. Instead, like swathes of Syria, it is fast becoming merely an arena where other powers do as they like.Dr. John C. Hulsman
But in practice the system has not worked well enough, in American eyes. The Kurds have been helped, but grudgingly, and the crucial Sunni tribal leaders, not much at all. Yet without a repeat of the Sahwa militia movement – when Sunni tribal leaders successfully turned on ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), with American guns and logistical support – there will be no end to the massive instability in the region. In Secretary Carter’s mind, combating ISIS trumps the bruised sensibilities of the inept Abadi government. He made it clear that if the tribal leaders rise up, America will help arm them, directly if necessary.
Little comfort at home
If the Americans have had enough, Prime Minister Abadi has found little comfort at home, either. On Nov. 2, the Iraqi parliament voted to put an end to the premier’s tepid efforts at reform, which was just as well as the program did nothing to bridge Sunni-Shia divisions in the country, fight ISIS more effectively through revamping the Iraqi army, or combating the scourge of corruption. In other words, the plan deliberately ignored the larger issues pulling the country apart, instead focusing on the less controversial (and less important) need to better administer the bloated Iraqi government.
The reform agenda began in August 2015, in a blaze of optimism. In response to large protests in Baghdad and in the Shia-dominated south of the country, particularly relating to corruption and a lack of basic services (there were electricity black-outs in one of the hottest years in Iraq ever recorded) the timid Abadi at last moved to act. Bolstered by the full-throated support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, easily the most popular and reputable man in the country, Abadi proposed streamlining government services.
But, as was true with the Americans over the armaments issue, there was simply no real follow up. Just three months later the reform agenda upon which Abadi seemed to stake all his limited political capital has come to nothing, ending in the damp squib of the past month. If the Abadi government have only a tenuous hold over possessing a foreign policy, they no longer seem to have a domestic programme, either.
But the Turkish incursion of the past week was probably the most humiliating blow of all. It seems that for the past year, the Erdogan government has been training its allies in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the north of the country. Abadi was not informed of the Turkish deployment of hundreds of troops 30 kilometres northeast of Mosul, even though the Obama administration had long known of it. Instead, the Turks came at the request of their Kurdish allies.
Predictably, Baghdad was enraged, more for looking so completely out of their depth, than for any other reason. Calling in the Turkish Ambassador to Baghdad, the Abadi government is demanding the immediate withdrawal of Turkish forces, making it clear they considered the Turkish presence ‘a hostile act.’ Of course, this is not Turkey’s only incursion into what is nominally Iraqi territory; the Erdogan government has been regularly shelling their foes, the PKK, over the past few months, as the long-dormant conflict between Ankara and the Turkish Kurds has sprung back to life.
All these seemingly very different stories are in reality one increasingly powerful narrative: Iraq is increasingly no longer an actor on the Middle Eastern stage. Instead, like swathes of Syria, it is fast becoming merely an arena where other powers do as they like. Be it the Abadi government’s haplessness regarding the arming of sub-units of the Iraq state, its pathetic reform agenda, or Baghdad’s inability to control its borders (or even know what goes on within them), all signs point in the same ominous direction: Iraq is melting away.
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.