Commentary by Riccardo Dugulin – 5 November 2011
The start of the Iraq war in 2003, with all the protests that it sparked, the diplomatic ballet that it unleashed, and the dictator that it toppled, is an event that marked a generation. Chances are that the end of the US military mission in Mesopotamia, marking the last stop of Washington’s second longest armed engagement to date, will not stir as much attention. Victory during WWII had its imagery and so did the US’s defeat in Vietnam. Iraq will most probably fade away. Moqtada Al Sadr promised that there won’t be any major attack on US troops while they are leaving Iraq. Aside from the incidental threat posed by Al Qaeda in the region, US servicemen and servicewomen should not expect any widespread violence as they prepare their drawdown after more than eight years of engagement.
This situation is evocative of the media coverage Iraq received during the last twelve months. While virtually every Arab country has been enjoying increased global attention, Iraq has seen its share in discussions and debates substantially diminished. With no major movement related to the ‘Arab Spring’, no political transition and ‘only’ a few terrorist attacks worth mentioning, Iraq has entered a routine. The West has developed a certain fatigue with regard to the country, and Arabs are far more fascinated by the events unfolding in Syria, Libya and Tunisia.
The US withdrawal raises many alarming questions. Militarily, the Iraqis will have a very difficult time in replacing US military-related tasks such as intelligence gathering, logistics and air defense. Doubts also surround the autonomy and competence of Iraqi forces in the management of day-to-day affairs. For this, the departure of US military units from Iraq will represent an unprecedented strategic shift for Arab countries in the Near East and the Gulf.
Direct effects: the Gulf in danger
Aside from considerations regarding Arab fraternity and an overall sense of International Law, the Gulf Monarchies objected to the 2003 operation for a purely pragmatic reason. Saddam’s Iraq was an effective buffer zone between Iran and the rest of the Arab world. Infiltration by Al Quds revolutionary forces and Iranian covert agents were more problematic, while Iraq maintained a form of militarized system. As Saddam Hussein fell, Saudi Arabia became one of the largest donors and most active sponsors for Sunni militants and insurgents in Iraq. This was done with the strategic objective of preventing a Shiite take over which would pave the way for an Iranian influence over Mesopotamia.
As US forces will leave the country, the Iraqi army and security services will not be able to counter the Iranian influence. Numbers, logistics and politics do not enable the Iraqi army to have a complete grip over the entirety of the country’s borders. The aftermath of the American drawdown will result in the increase of Iranian influence over its western Arab neighbor. For Arab elites in the Gulf, this constitutes nightmare. A northern giant like Iraq turning toward Iran will certainly add to the pressure the GCC is feeling from Persian interferences in Bahrain, in Yemen and from President Ahmadinejad’s multiple declarations regarding the Strait of Hormuz. With Iraq, and most of all its Southern Provinces, under Iranian influence, Arabs will lose one of their most valuable strategic assets: the control of energy routes. Iranian forces will be able to impose their policies overtly or covertly on Shatt Al Arab and on Hormuz, thus limiting the GCC strategic capabilities with regard to oil trade and influence.
A ‘Persianized’ Iraq may also be seen as a forward operating base for further disruption in the Gulf. Since 1979, all major foreign policy decisions taken by the Saudis may be read as a choice aiming to defend themselves against Iranian interference. As the Al Sauds are bracing themselves for a new round of intra familial power politics regarding the succession of King Abdullah, the fear of increased Iranian expansionism may produce more conservative and restrictive positions in Saudi Arabia and a more assertive standing in the region.
Further obstacles and the “Arab Spring”
While the world has its eyes set on Syria and the enduring effort of Syrians to prevail in their struggle for freedom and justice, it must not be forgotten that Al Assad’s regime might have time on its side. From an embattled and isolated leader he may boost his strength in the year 2012. If the Islamic Republic has grown wary of its historical ally, it will not abandon its long term foreign policy interests in the Near East. As US troops will leave Iraq, the already well tested smuggling routes between Syria and Iran will reshape the course of events in the Near East. Weapons and cash flow will have a facilitated transit toward Damascus and Southern Lebanon.
What now are the characteristics of the Arab Spring in the region, the democratic uprising in Syria and the diplomatic quest by the Palestinian Authority for a Palestinian State will effectively be blocked by an Iranian interventionist policy. The already proved presence of Iranian elements in the Syrian army ranks will exponentially increase as the strategic paths in Iraq will be re-opened owing to the inefficiency of the Iraqi army of controlling its borders. The result of such an event will be the enhanced crowd control capabilities of the Syrian regime and a higher degree of violence as Iranian foreign operatives will not be restricted by personal contacts in the country in which they will be operating. On the other hand, the already massive military help provided to Hezbollah and Hamas, is expected to increase. Such a situation will by no means favor peaceful negotiations over the future of the region.
The Israeli government, feeling as besieged as never before will read this situation as an existential threat. This could in effect push the Israelis to taking pre-emptive actions, a move that would further destabilize the region. In light of the power struggle in the Middle East, leaks have already emerged of a consistent plan by Israel to diffuse the Iranian nuclear threat, an action that would not fully displease the Gulf Monarchies.
Furthermore, the departure of US troops will encourage incursions in Iraqi Kurdistan. The region surrounding Suleymaniyyeh has been regarded as one of the safest places in Iraq with foreign companies investing heavily in northern Kurdistan. The retreat of US combat units from Iraq may boost Iranian assertiveness in Kurdistan with the aim of weakening Kurdish trans-border movements operating in the area.
The last US troops leaving Iraq will mark the beginning of a new era of instability in the region fuelled by the expansion of the Shiite-Sunni rift in the multilateral power struggle that is now taking place in the Near East and the Gulf.
In the industry of political analysis, when dealing with a client’s request concerning a given country, one of the procedure of addressing his case is to propose a set of scenarios including ‘best’, ‘worst’ and ‘most likely’ options. With American troops leaving Iraq, all three of them may involve a threat of instability to the Arab countries in the region. A best case scenario would see a semi-democratic parliament become a weak and inclusive representative system, with Shiites holding a majority. Such a case would downplay the risk of overt large-scale conflicts, but in the long term would benefit Iran, as it would gain a further ally in the region, something that would alarm many of its regional rivals.
A worst-case scenario would see the disintegration of Iraq and the development of a countrywide civil war. In such an event, diverging regional actors would engage in a proxy war and exploit local rivalries to assert their national interests. Such a scenario was already visible in the period between 2006 and 2007, yet the US surge effectively diffused the situation. The most likely scenario consists in the present political status quo. A weak civilian power will try to rule through long legislative battles over the country, while militias and strong groups will influence policy making. The army will not be fully competent to protect the sovereignty of the country. Foreign infiltration and sporadic large-scale terrorist attack will be part of the Iraqi daily life.
Riccardo Dugulin is a Master Student at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po Paris), specialized in International Security. He is currently working as a trainee in a security consultancy firm. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut. In December 2010, he published a paper for the Gulf Research Center (Dubai): Dugulin Riccardo, A Neighborhood Policy for the Gulf Cooperation Council, Gulf Research Center, Dubai, 2010.