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This Is Civil War: Brookings Experts Discuss Iraq Crisis Policy Options

Fred Dews

“This is civil war,” said Ken Pollack during a recent Saban Center for Middle East Policy event on the Iraq crisis and policy options for Washington. “We are not on the brink of civil war. We are not heading toward civil war. This is what civil war looks like,” Pollack continued. He was joined in the discussion by three other Brookings senior fellows: Center Director Tamara Cofman Wittes, who moderated the event, Suzanne Maloney, and Michael O’Hanlon.

Wittes opened the conversation by putting the current Iraq conflict into the context of wider regional issues, including the problem of the United States prioritizing security threats and thus “overlooking deficits in governance in the region that in fact contribute to instability.”

This is the broader context that the Obama administration faces when it looks at the crisis in Iraq which presents challenges and threats for regional order and stability but also potentially more directly for the United States but it also doesn’t present a whole lot of good options for the United States.


This is Civil War; Options for a Unified Iraq

Pollack, author of a report last summer, “The Fall and Rise and Fall of Iraq,” said that the situation is a revival of the civil war of 2006-08, but that it’s possible to imagine Iraq remaining unified as a country. For that to occur, he said, it requires either “a bloody, bloody victory by one side, that will probably take years to make happen, and certainly tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of deaths,” or “a reconciliation.” That is why, he said, he has been pressing for “a plan that would involve both the United States being willing to assist in a whole variety of different ways, military and non-military, but only if there is a political component to it. We’ve got to recognize that military force without that critical political component will be at best useless, and at worst could be counterproductive.”

He underscored this point: “I think it would be a mistake for the United States to embark on an air campaign in Iraq either unilaterally or in conjunction with the Iraqi government as it is currently constituted.”

Pollack said that while a variety of actions by a variety of Iraqi leaders has driven Iraq to this crisis point, “first and foremost among them is Prime Minister Maliki, who by his consolidation of power and his arbitrary actions against a whole variety of his political rivals has alienated important elements of Iraqi society,” especially the Sunni community.

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Pollack explained that the “only way that we’re going to have a unified Iraq, a peaceful Iraq, a stable Iraq” is if Sunni tribal groups now reluctantly supporting ISIS are brought back into the political process.

And that is going to require very significant change, political change … broadly speaking it is going to require limits on the prime minister’s powers so that Iraq’s minority groups do not fear once again being oppressed under this prime minister or the next prime minister. It is going to require a more inclusive government, which unfortunately I think means a national unity government despite the problems that will be inherent in that. And it is going to require a thoroughgoing reform of the Iraqi armed forces to take them back to where they were in 2009, a time when Iraqis loved, respected and felt safe being protected by their military. Not today, when many Iraqis feel threatened by that very same military because it has been politicized over the past three or four years. And that’s a very tall order, and I am doubtful that it will come to pass. But if we can get that kind of political change, then under those circumstances I think U.S. military assistance takes on a very different complexion.


But we’ve got to put the horse before the cart, and that means political reform is the key, and no military effort, either unilateral or in conjunction with the current Iraqi government, makes sense unless we have got that political component.

Pollack hopes that Prime Minister Maliki “will see this as a wakeup call” and will “take this opportunity to shift gears, to accept limits on his power, to bring the Sunnis back in, and for that matter to make concessions to the Kurds and a whole variety of other groups to create a more inclusive government.” But he remains skeptical, and it is more likely, he forecast, that “you are going to see a de facto partition of Iraq for the foreseeable future.”


Listen to full audio of the event here:


Iranian Interests and Prospects for U.S.-Iran “Cooperation”

Maloney gave an analysis of Iran’s interests and the potential, as some U.S. policymakers have suggested, for U.S.-Iranian cooperation in the crisis. “Cooperation is probably the wrong word,” she said, and then explained the reasons why “much of the U.S. government really can’t contemplate the prospect of direct cooperation with Iran.”

These include what she called “ideological,” that in the Iranian security bureaucracy, “there’s really no appetite in Iran for direct cooperation with the United States on Iraq.”

Also, she described “a bit of a hangover from the cooperation that did take place, somewhat tacitly, with respect to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.” She explained that some Iranian reformists have said that, “we helped you in Afghanistan and instead we remain part of the axis of evil.”

Third, Maloney pointed to “some fairly obvious logistical hurdles” to direct cooperation between the two countries, notably the fact that “the most important components of the Iranian military, the ones that play a direct role in Iraq, are actually designated foreign terrorist organizations.”

“There’s really no explicit way that you could imagine military-to-military cooperation,” she said. “Ultimately,”

there’s a real divergence in aims between the United States and Iran with respect to Iraq. Both sides have an interest in a stable Iraq, both sides have an interest in curbing the influence of jihadist groups, and in fact, to some extent at least, in containing the sectarianism that appears to be fueling much of what we’ve seen over the course of the past few weeks. But ultimately the Iranians can live with a Shia rump state in Iraq. They can live with a prime minister who inflames Shia passions and alienates Sunnis, precisely because they don’t trust the Sunnis.

That said, Maloney did emphasize the role of regional dialogue and a role for the United States. She explained that:

When I dismissed the idea of direct military-to-military cooperation between Iran and the United States, I didn’t mean to suggest that in fact there isn’t some room for dialogue or even coordination. There is a long history of this … back to the first Gulf War when the Iranians provided, at least indirectly, some assurances about how they could conduct themselves during that crisis in a way that was supportive to U.S. aims. And I think that we can find a mechanism for some kind of a regional dialogue and I think we perhaps need to be the ones to lead that effort at this time given our investment in Iraq, given our relationships with our partners in the Gulf, and given, ironically, the fact that we’re now engaged in this direct, sustained, and urgent dialogue with the Iranians on the nuclear issue.


Does Rebalance to Asia-Pacific Limit U.S. Military Options in Middle East?

O’Hanlon, when asked if the U.S. can even contemplate military re-engagement with the Middle East at a time when it is rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region, replied that “we can do both.”

We can do the rebalance and we can do what’s needed in the broader Middle East. Because the rebalance, the military component of the Asia-Pacific rebalance, is primarily about big Navy ships and big Air Force capabilities, and to some extent Marine Corps and regular Army capabilities.


But in the first instance, the Asia-Pacific rebalance militarily speaking is about the Navy and the Air Force, and the Middle East is about Special Forces and limited, specific capabilities. Obviously there are going to be competitions and constraints over specific drones, specific satellite usages, specific specialized aircraft. But for the most part I don’t see a dilemma.


Is Partition of Iraq an Option?

O’Hanlon also spoke to a question about the possibility of a partition solution bringing an end to the violence. Along with Ed Joseph, O’Hanlon was author of a 2007 paper, “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq” in which he explored the “nitty gritty” of partition, finding that “the nitty gritty is pretty complicated.”

“Partition, O’Hanlon explained, “can mean a couple of different things.”

What it can mean is a de facto relocation of some populations, and maybe some more autonomy within Iraq for the Sunni population in the north and west, akin to the Kurdistan concept. It could mean a redrawing of formal state boundaries. It could mean that the individual autonomous zones each have their own military force as the Kurds essentially do. Or it could mean that they’re really governing themselves in terms of economics and policing, day to day operations of government, but they still all contribute to a national security force.

And then there are additional questions, such as who is going to protect populations that are relocating? And, will people be compensated for the loss of their property, the loss of their homes? “There are all sorts of very hard, practical questions to make partition work,” O’Hanlon said.

Citing a conversation related to the partition of Yugoslavia that he had with former Greek Prime Minister Papandreou, O’Hanlon explained that partition can’t come in the heat of conflict:

If people want to cooperate in making this happen, or they get to a point where there are new political forces and new political priorities that people are focused on, then maybe it’s not quite as destabilizing. If you just do it right now in the heat of conflict it actually creates as many problems as it solves, or at least it could.


On the Question of “Who’s to Blame” for Iraq’s Crisis

Each of the panelists addressed the issue that has been talked about recently of who is to blame for Iraq’s current predicament. “With all due respect to Iraqi friends,” O’Hanlon started:

in this particular situation I feel like we Americans have beaten ourselves up enough and that by the end of 2011, the Iraqis did have a pretty good basis for moving forward. As Suzanne pointed out, we struggled very hard, put in a lot of money, a lot of American lives, a lot of high-level attention, and I believe that the Iraqi political system writ large squandered the opportunity. Now the blame within that is primarily Mr. Maliki … But I’m not personally inclined to blame either George W. Bush or Barack Obama that much. I think by the end of 2011, the Iraqis had a fair chance. And yes we should have done more, we should have stayed engaged … but fundamentally I would give 90 percent of the blame to Maliki and company and only a modest amount at this point to the United States.

Maloney, however, pushed back against the question being relevant at all, saying that the right question to ask is how to move forward:

I actually just want to push back on this notion of the blame game entirely. Who broke Iraq, who lost Iraq is effectively irrelevant today. We have a political system in Iraq that is clearly broken. We have a security situation which is profoundly dangerous. To which I think there is enormous amount of blame that can be spread all around the region, including toward our allies in the Gulf whom were pressed for years to engage constructively with Baghdad and who have found greater opportunity to be supportive of groups that are involved with destroying the Iraqi state than those that are involved in stabilizing the Iraqi state.


And so I think that focusing on to what extent Maliki is to blame, to what extent George Bush is to blame, to what extent President Obama is to blame is really asking the wrong question. The right question today is, How do we put it back together?

Pollack said “we are all to blame.” He added that:

I think that President Obama made a series of terrible mistakes in Iraq, including some issues around the SOFA. I think that it is a wild exaggeration to blame what happened on the Iranians. …


As much as I am unhappy with the decisions that President Obama made, many of them have their antecedents in mistakes that President Bush made and you cannot separate the two. And Mike is also correct that Prime Minister Maliki did things that he didn’t have to do, that exacerbated the situation. And Suzanne is right that there are any number of other states in the region that contributed to this. We are all to blame.


Wittes finished the program by returning attention to the Iraq conflict in the scope of the wider region, stating that “This isn’t just about Iraq.”

This is about the region. And the conflict that we see within Iraq isn’t just about sectarian politics or identity politics. It’s about politics. It’s about power, the distribution of power and resources. And in that sense, the conflict that has re-energized in Iraq today is part of this broader struggle over the future of the region and who gets to determine that.


Now, obviously the United States has a stake but the greater stake is held by the people of the region and the governments of the region. And so one can hope that the current degree of crisis which bleeds across borders, which is having posing profound effects and posing profound challenges to good friends of the United States but to key states all around the Middle East, one hopes that this will focus the minds of regional actors as well as folks here in Washington on how do we reestablish regional order. And rather than thinking about this as a zero sum game, where people are looking to take advantage in an environment of disorder, it’s about how do we get back to regional order.


Get full event video and audio here.

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