Civil War in Iraq?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

August 21, 2006

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This online chat was a follow-up to the Washington Post’s August 20, 2006 Sunday Outlook, “Iraq Runneth Over: What Next?,” by Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack

Van Nuys, Calif.: The de-stabilization of The Middle East seems to be the outcome of the United States and Israeli wars in the area. Does the United States and Israel benefit from this civil war and the potential civil war which will very likely break out in Lebanon? What about Iran? Does it look likely that the United States and Israel will get us into another war in there? It seems to me that the United States and Israel and the Middle East are better off if the United Nations becomes much credible; stronger and independent to impose terms of peace in the region, without participation or intervention from the warring factions.

Daniel Byman: As our piece made clear, the United States does not benefit from a massive civil war in Iraq — it tarnishes our credibility and creates a host of strategic and humanitarian problems. And all this occurs at a horrific human cost and painful financial cost.

In Lebanon, the Bush administration, to its credit, tried hard to push for a Syrian withdrawal and to support democracy there. The recent war is a setback for both efforts — and, as Hizballah has emerged strong, Israel didn’t do well by it either.

Reston, Va.: Prof Byman – Sometimes war in general, and civil wars in particular, actually resolve problems. You did pioneering work on the resolution of ethnic conflicts. Why shouldn’t the Shia be encouraged to unite with the Kurds to defeat the Sunni insurrectionists?

Daniel Byman: Thank you for the kind words on my previous work.

Wars can and do resolve problems — to pick and obvious and important example, fascism ended as a threat because of Allied militaries defeating fascist armies in World War II.

But in Iraq the problem is not good guys versus bad guys, but rather an untidy mix of groups. Some that are U.S. allies are quite brutal and unwholesome — their “victory” would not be good for Iraqis or for U.S. interests. Moreover, the Shi’a show no sign of uniting (and recent fighting in Basra suggests the opposite).

Picking a winner in a civil war is exceptionally difficult. One condition that helps is a high degree of unity among the different factions. This is true to some degree with the Kurds, but not true with the Shi’a.

In part because of this lack of unity, it would be hard, but not impossible, for the Shi’a to defeat various Sunni forces outright. Another problem is that the Sunni are well armed and would probably receive some backing from neighboring states.

Unfortunately, in the end all the options are flawed.

Leesburg, Va.: Dr. Byman, Is there any serious question about whether or not Iraq is in a state of civil war? Is the question a difference of degree or kind? Does it matter for the rest of your analysis and recommendations?

Daniel Byman: The degree of the civil war matters considerably. A massive civil war would lead to an incredibly tragic loss of life as well as economic devastation.

A low level war, which generates few refugees and causes relatively few deaths, would not generate the same degree of problems that we identified in the article. In particular, neighbors would feel less need to intervene, and the destabilizing effects of refugee flows would be diminished.

If the United States and the Iraqi government can reduce the level of violence considerably, then many of the most dire problems for the region may not occur — let us hope this can be done, though I am pessimistic.

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