By now it should be clear to everyone that the nation of Iraq, a convoluted product of the Sykes-Picot arrangement, is no more. Iraq has effectively disintegrated into three distinct parts, Shia, Sunni and Kurd. Atavistic tendencies in the Arab world have unfolded and base tribalism now prevails in that region. So where does all this leave the United States and how can America maintain its strategic interests and influence without embroiling itself in a conflict characterized by full-fledged internecine war?
Shia and Sunni have been at each other’s throats on and off for centuries and try as we may, that will never change. Religious dogma in that region is simply too strong and this is compounded by corrupt and hypocritical Arab leaders who have a tendency of stoking the flames of hate when necessary to deflect attention away from their own venality. This tactic usually backfires, as was the case in the Six-Day War when brinkmanship in the Arab world led to calamitous results and often leads to the creation of xenophobic societies with little tolerance for non-conformists.
The breaking up of Iraq is a forgone conclusion and there is nothing anyone can do about it. To expand its hegemony, which now includes Lebanon and Syria, Shia Iran will attempt to exert its influence among its coreligionists in Iraq. Indeed, IRGC personnel are already operating there and Iran has deployed sizable forces along its border with Iraq in anticipation of a quick thrust across. This poses the dangerous prospect that Iran will attempt to exploit the chaos in Iraq to open a land corridor to its embattled Alawite and Shia allies in Syria and Lebanon respectively.
Watching from the sidelines are the Kurds, who are the main benefactors of the unrest in Iraq and Syria. Intra-Arab bloodletting has enabled the Kurds to establish large autonomous salients in both countries.
The Kurds, who maintain sizable minorities in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, have for centuries been persecuted in their host countries and denied basic civil rights (not that non-Kurdish citizens in those countries fared much better). However, despite some internal differences, the Kurds are far more cohesive than Arabs and far more progressive. Indeed, women fighters figure prominently in the Peshmerga and often maintain checkpoints alongside their male counterparts. They are also more open-minded and have had a good working relationship with the United States military. In addition, the Kurds have maintained links to Israel, though because of their precarious geographical location, these ties are understandably more circumspect.
Statehood for the Kurds is something that is long overdue and the United States ought to facilitate that lofty goal. Iraq under Saddam Hussein used poison gas against them and in its current state, Iraq is a non-viable, fictitious entity making any form of Kurdish integration a non-option.
The recent Kurdish capture of Kirkuk with its lucrative oil fields ensures a steady stream of revenue and the Kurds have an established reputation of being fierce fighters, quite capable of defending their turf, making the prospect of a viable, progressive, stable and cohesive Kurdistan more likely. It is incumbent upon the United States to provide the Kurds with the means to defend themselves and equally incumbent upon the US to provide political backing for Kurdish independence, Turkish and Iraqi objections notwithstanding.
Turkish objections stem largely from Turkish fears of stirring Kurdish independence movements within Turkey. Setting aside for the moment the positive aspects of such aspirations, Turkey’s fears can be placated by guarantees that Iraqi Kurdistan will not provide safe haven to the PKK, the main anti-Turkish guerrilla movement. Iraqi objections are meaningless since, for all intents and purposes, Iraq is no longer a functional state but rather a large swath of arid and semi-arid land divided into three distinct cantons.
ISIS and Iran pose very real problems for United States interests but of the two, Iran poses the greater threat to regional stability. Despite their rhetoric expressing a desire to establish an Islamic caliphate incorporating all of the Mideast, Spain and parts of eastern and central Europe, ISIS’s bark is greater than its bite. ISIS’s attempts to attack Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria have resulted in dismal failure. ISIS thrives in an environment of chaos, like that currently prevailing in Iraq and Syria but would easily be defeated when confronted with a professional army as the Kurdish experience demonstrates.
ISIS can in theory pose a terrorist threat by providing a haven for international terrorists similar to the way the Taliban provided haven to al-Qaida. We must therefore keep an eye out for such activity through increased intelligence monitoring and act militarily when necessary but now is neither the time nor the place. ISIS is but one faction of many operating in a complex, regional ethno-religious war that we should have no part of. Moreover, the Iraqi army, taking cue from its political leadership, is inept and rife with corruption and its rapid collapse in the face of the ISIS onslaught is evidence of that. Those who have neither the desire nor will to help themselves are undeserving of American assistance.
The main and more pressing geo-political problem emerges from Shia Iran. Despite sharp religious and ideological differences with ISIS, Iran is no less extreme than the Sunni group but is far more capable and ambitious. The Islamic Republic is an imperialistic power that wishes to expand its influence and Islamic ideology. It effectively controls Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah, has bought Afghanistan through cash payments to Afghan government officials and tribal leaders and has transformed Syria’s Assad into nothing more than a stringed puppet. It is also the world’s premier state sponsor of political and narco-terrorism, having carried out terrorist actions on five continents including on American soil.
Iran will now attempt to exploit the chaos in Iraq to exert influence and domination over Iraqi Shia and will try to establish a land corridor that extends from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Such a development would have negative repercussions far and wide. It is therefore incumbent upon the United States to thwart any nefarious Iranian moves even if it requires utilization of military assets. The suggestion that we cooperate with the world’s leading terrorist state to blunt ISIS is beyond ludicrous and should be dismissed outright.
America’s military options in Iraq should therefore be limited to thwarting Iranian expansion and providing arms and political support to Iraq’s Kurds. Anything beyond that would embroil the United States in a centuries old ethno-religious conflict that neither side could claim to hold the moral high ground.