The news from Iraq is bad. Four distinct yet intertwined problems—the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the dysfunctional politics of Iraq, the utter collapse of the Syrian state and the larger cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran—have combined to disrupt the fragile stability gained by the Iraqis in the wake of the 2006-2008 civil war. Iraq is, once again, the paragon of a “wicked problem.”
There are, however, a number of rash conclusions being arrived at in the wake of the bad news. One does not have to read very far to find a series of assumptions being made about Iraq’s future—that Baghdad is about to fall, that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s days are numbered, that Kurdistan’s independence is imminent and that oil production is at risk. None of these are certain and some are extremely unlikely. Let’s cover them one by one.
1. Baghdad is about to fall.
This is very, very unlikely. Although comparisons between the 1975 fall of Saigon and the fall of Baghdad have (predictably) emerged, Baghdad is a city of six million people. Six million. It has had a Shia majority since at least 2007, after a wave of ethnic cleansing drove out much of the Sunni population. Iraq’s security forces, the majority of them Shia, will likely fight with much more dedication then they did in northern Iraq. Further, the Kadhamiya Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam, is on the northern fringe of Baghdad. We can expect fanatical dedication to protect this monument from advancing ISIL columns, particularly on the part of newly mobilized Shia militias.
And indeed, the battle lines already beginning to stabilize to the north of Baghdad and Samarra, a mixed city with another important Shiite shrine, the Askariya Mosque. This is happening even before any appreciable amount of airpower—whether U.S., Iranian, Syrian, Russian or Iraqi (via newly acquired aircraft)—has been brought to bear. If the northern front stabilizes and ISIL can hide in defensive positions and cities, then airpower may be of limited utility. If ISIL begins to move en masse toward Baghdad, then the group could present quite attractive targets for airpower.
This is not to say that Baghdad will not be contested. We should be concerned about two possibilities in particular. The first is Baghdad International Airport (BGW), the capital’s primary link to the outside world and a major resupply node for Iraqi forces. BGW sits on the western edge of Baghdad province and is bordered by the majority-Sunni suburbs of Abu Ghraib and Ameriya to the north and east, respectively. The western side of BGW is open desert that leads to Anbar province. It is in a uniquely vulnerable piece of geography.
Second, we should not be surprised to find “fifth columns” of volunteers recruited from among the Sunni citizens of Baghdad. The neighborhoods of Ghazaliya, Doura, Abu Ghraib, Ameriya and Adhamiya could all see a return, or remobilization, of nationalist militias loosely aligned with ISIL (or just ISIL cells) in the coming weeks. I suspect that ISIL’s plan is to use these internal forces to create vulnerabilities that can exploited by their more traditional military units from the north. I don’t think anyone believes that the ISIL forces are capable of further significant moves southward, but this does not mean that we will not see skirmishes in the streets of Baghdad regardless. So, will we see increased violence, much of it sectarian? Yes, quite possibly. Baghdad falling? Utterly improbable.
2. Maliki will be leaving soon.
This is possible, but far from certain. First, barring his early demise, Maliki will only leave through the legitimate process of forming a new government, or so he insists. It is not clear exactly what those who are urging Maliki to leave mean. Under what constitutional mechanism would he “go,” and how would his successor be selected? Nor is it clear what is meant by a “national unity” government—simply ignore the results of the earlier election? One does wish that some of Maliki’s critics read the Iraqi constitution.
The process of forming a new government will be long and complicated—as the results of the first Iraqi Parliament sessions of July 1 and 8 indicated. The parliament met just long enough to clarify that there was no consensus among Iraq’s Sunni as to who should be the next speaker of parliament (traditionally a Sunni post, and constitutionally the first to be designated). The Kurdish and Shia parties, of course, responded that they won’t even talk about who will be president and prime minister until there is a speaker, so expect a long summer. (The parliament initially went into recess until August, but international pressure forced lawmakers to reschedule for July 13.)
When it comes to forming a government, Maliki remains in a dominant position, at least numerically, if not psychologically. His bloc—bolstered in no small part by his personal popularity among his own constituents—won about 28 percent (92 of 328) of the seats in a contest with (arguably) nine major parties. In this system, 28% is a major statement. Recall that the Sunni citizens of Iraq are only about 20 percent of the population (+/- 5 percent—there has been no census in decades), and their vote share reflects that, with the three major Sunni parties combined winning only 59 seats, or just short of 18 percent. These are the electoral realities. For all Maliki’s failings, it will be very important in the coming days not to give the impression to those who have put their faith in the ballot box that the Sunni minority can overthrow that verdict by force of arms. This would be a tragic precedent.
At this point, only Maliki’s own party, Dawa, which forms the core of his State of Law coalition, can tell him to go. And it seems far from certain that this moment has arrived. But though it is numerically possible, it is difficult to see a scenario in which the next prime minister is not from State of Law—be it Maliki or his chosen successor. State of Law remains critical both because of its electoral mandate, but also because it occupies the closest thing to a “center” in Iraqi politics. The other major Shiite parties are both more hostile to the former regime and more sympathetic to Iran.
It is at this point that the United States and other outside actors must be very careful. Statements by the United States, and particularly by states seen as hostile to the Maliki government, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, calling for Maliki’s departure may have unintended effects, such as buoying his popularity. It is also very important that the United States in particular not be seen as “picking” Maliki’s replacement, as the possibility that any successor will deal with the challenges less effectively than Maliki is all too real.
3. An independent Kurdistan is a foregone conclusion.
Not so fast. The Kurds have definitely had a good few weeks. But statehood is still many steps away.
The Kurds have still not developed an independent revenue source, nor are they likely to do so while they are still part of Iraq. Although the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), with Turkish cooperation, has developed the infrastructure to pump oil via pipeline to the port of Ceyhan, Turkey, ownership of the oil moving through that system is disputed. The Kurds claim it is theirs, while Baghdad continues to maintain that all of Iraq’s resources belong to all Iraqis and that therefore only Baghdad has the right to conduct sales.
These are two fundamentally different and incompatible philosophical claims that each sees in the text of Iraq’s poorly written constitution. Who is right is not relevant (and ultimately not provable), but the fact remains that the oil the KRG pumps has disputed title, and that Baghdad has retained a top tier U.S.-based law firm, Vinson and Elkins, to aggressively pursue its claims. Although the Kurds might be able to sell the occasional tanker-full in a rogue sale (one tanker full has been allegedly sold to Israel at a discount, though the Kurds deny it), this does not a reliable distribution system make. No reputable actor, however sympathetic they might be to the Kurds, will want to buy the years of legal fees and pending potential liabilities when there is plenty of oil on the market with clean title.
Were the Kurds to declare independence, and have this declaration be internationally recognized, then that would unencumber the title to their oil. However, it is far from clear that Turkey—the sole country through which the Kurds can export their hydrocarbons—is sympathetic to their declaring independence. The Kurds will need not just passive, but active, support from the Turks if their state is to be viable. Until that is unambiguously in place, the KRG must wait. And even the Kurds themselves admit that they have no viable economy outside of the oil sector.
It’s also unclear what effect the Kurds’ de facto incorporation of the disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, will have on their security situation. To borrow a line from Iraq researcher Cale Salih, “Kurdistan now shares a 1,000 kilometer border with insurgents.” It’s also an open question whether the ethnically mixed population of Kirkuk will accept being brought into Kurdistan essentially by force of arms (even if bloodless). It is not difficult to see a situation in which the newly acquired Kurdish territories become battle zones, with the oil underneath these regions staying in the ground for the next decade.
Finally, it’s hard to envision Iran, with its own Kurdish minority of about 10 percent, being terribly excited about an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. And Iranian influence is a very real presence in Irbil, just as in Baghdad. Iran has strong ties with both major Kurdish parties and KRG leaders make regular political pilgrimages to Tehran, just as do other leaders in the region.
4. Oil production is at risk.
This is the one piece of good news for world markets, which often react to the mere hint of turmoil in the Middle East. Iraqi oil production is actually in very little danger. That said, the chaotic political situation could slow Iraq’s ability to bring its still largely untapped reserves online.
The bulk of Iraq’s oil production, now at about three million barrels per day, occurs in the far south of the country, in and around Basra province. A few smaller but still significant fields in the far northeast of Iraqi Kurdistan contribute another few hundred thousand barrels a day. Neither of these regions are anywhere near the current fighting. Further, each is buffered—by the mountains that rise in the KRG to the northeast, and by hundreds of kilometers of almost exclusively Shia Iraqi geography in the south. The Baiji refinery, a facility that has become a battleground in recent weeks, is focused exclusively on internal oil refinement and distribution and is not a part of Iraq’s export infrastructure. So Iraq is still on a path to be producing four million barrels a day by the end of this calendar year, or shortly thereafter.
The fighting will doubtless slow the further expansion of Iraq’s oil production. Baghdad’s inability to process hydrocarbon contracts, combined with increased security and insurance costs for international oil companies means, that we should now be less optimistic about predictions that Iraq will be producing 6 million barrels a day by the end of the decade. But the idea that Sunni jihadists will be overrunning Iraq’s southern oil fields is extremely far-fetched.
In short, it’s time to take a deep breath. Although Iraq has experienced a significant shock to the system with ISIL’s takeover of Mosul and Tikrit, the situation appears to be stabilizing. ISIL is consolidating its grip on northern Iraq, bending Sunni tribes to its will, while Maliki and various Shia groups are digging in to protect Baghdad and the Shiite shrine cities. For now, neither group appears to have the strength to defeat the other.
Still, nobody is cheering this new reality, and while Iraq is not yet Syria, the past weeks have certainly pushed it in that direction. Although change may well come—there might be a new government in Baghdad, and Kurdish independence is certainly not impossible—it is unlikely to come quickly. Repairing the Iraqi state will take months, if not years.
In the meantime, Iraq will probably continue to muddle through the summer, fighting ISIL to greater or lesser success, with sectarian conflict increasing in all mixed areas of the country. Another major surprise in the region—though possible—remains unlikely. For all the loose talk about the breakup of the country and the “end of Sykes-Picot,” it seems we’re stuck with Iraq as it is, at least for the foreseeable future.
*) Douglas A. Ollivant is a managing partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington D.C., Beirut and Baghdad. He is also an ASU senior fellow in the New America Foundation’s Future of War project.
Source: Politico Magazin, July 09, 2014