Events in Iraq recently call to mind the English nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty”. Despite arguments among literary analysts about its origin and inscrutable applications such as the title of one of the great American novels, All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, the usage of a line from the rhyme seems more than appropriate for the political state of affairs in Iraq. Can policymakers put Iraq “together again”? Do they even want to? Should they try?
Any cursory look at a map of the Middle East makes one wonder at the architects of the symmetrical border lines that delineate countries such as Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. The answer has its root in the secretive and surreptitious Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France during World War I, an attempt to maintain their imperial presence in the region. The allies were carving up the territories even before they had won the war, without consulting any of the residents or their representatives, of course. The boundaries’ origins probably do not concern the claims of the Middle East’s current wrecking ball, called ISIS or ISIL, and now renamed, “The Islamic State”.
That group has rallied Sunnis of several persuasions, including disaffected Sunni tribes in the west and north of Iraq, remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party, and even inspired recruits outside the Middle East. Having incubated in Iraq during the American presence there a decade ago and taking advantage of a power vacuum in Syria’s east and south, the current group’s political claims seem to have obliterated the border between Iraq and Syria, and The Islamic State has claimed the lofty designation of a “caliphate”.
That would seem to be a remarkable claim given the group’s relatively small numbers and the fact that their hold on power dates back about one month. If I remember my history correctly, claiming the status of a caliphate means that The Islamic State demands the political and religious obedience of all Moslems throughout the entire world; it claims sovereignty over all of Islam. Given the fractious state of Islam, the outright hostility of Shiites in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and the longstanding status of the regional Sunni power, Saudi Arabia, right next door, it is difficult to stifle a chuckle at what would seem to be the grand designs of the Sunni upstart.
Of course what The Islamic State hopes to do with such a claim is to inspire and recruit young and disaffected Sunnis from around the Middle East and the world to come join their cause.
This is no laughing matter to any Sunni government, especially adjacent Jordan, or even to European and American authorities, as reports of the arrest of a Colorado woman seeking to join the jihadis in The Islamic State surfaced last week. Given that other devotees who have or will join the Islamic State carry western passports, European and American officials are already scrambling to thwart anticipated terrorist attempts.
In addition to these grim scenarios, American policymakers like Secretary of State John Kerry are struggling with putting Iraq together again, hoping that a stronger more coherent Iraq could frustrate the ambitions of The Islamic State. Much of his effort has been focused on getting Iraqi Shiite leader Nouri al-Malaki to form a government more inclusive of his Sunni and Kurdish countrymen and meeting with Kurdish leaders to get them to resist the temptation to form an independent state of their own. As recent events have shown, Mr. Kerry might have a sisyphean task ahead of him.
U.S. military advisers recently sent to help bolster the Iraqi army might help stem the advance of the Islamic State. Shiite Iran is probably providing some help to prop up Mr. Maliki’s regime, especially given the presence of Shiite holy shrine at Karbala south of Baghdad. Already reports of infighting among Sunnis in the Islamic State have materialized. The elan of most Sunni adherents to The Islamic State might wither under the extremely strict lifestyle demands and draconian punishments of the governing authorities. Maybe it is the Islamic State that will come to resemble Humpty Dumpty after all!
But we must resist the impulse to see anything comic in these events. Maybe a more serious and controversial question might be, “Should we even try to put Iraq back together; would everyone, especially the Iraqis, be better off as three separate entities?” Certainly the Iraqi Kurds seem to have developed their own secure, coherent state. Would it be possible to marry the Syrian Kurds to that entity without threatening Iran and Turkey, countries with Kurdish populations too. The Shiites might feel most secure with their own state in the south, but would it become a tool for Shiite Iran? And even a Sunni state in the north and west of Iraq, by itself or even overlapping with some areas of Syria might not turn out to be the threat we all believe it to be. Given the fissures that already seem to be emerging among the Sunnis in The Islamic State, would it be unrealistic to let the more “moderate” elements in that area challenge the original fanatics of ISIS? Would Saudi Arabia bring assets to bear to moderate such a state?
Of course each of the three entities would need to have secure access to oil resources, but looking at various maps that might be worked out. Would it be possible for the Administration to approach the Iranians and Saudis and try to arrange a conference with the Russians and representatives of the Iraqi parties and work out a deal? The Saudis could lean on the Sunni groups, the Iranians on the Shiites, and Turkey would need reassurance regarding their Kurdish population. But such a scenario might bring more security to all and in the long run, probably a better chance of democratic reforms.
Unfortunately, such a plan might strike some as far fetched. It certainly might anger American soldiers and their families who sacrificed to keep Iraq together. American Interventionists who reflexively reach for military responses would howl. And Sunnis and Shiites would have to trust each other. But with more bloodletting, and bloodletting usually is required in cases like these to bring humans to their senses, this arrangement might be a more realistic long-run situation for the peace and happiness of the inhabitants of a large swath of the Middle East. It also might be more efficient and more humane than constantly battling to keep all these artificial “Humpty Dumpties” together over and over and over again.
For more insights and some great visual representations, consult the following sources: