All Writings
December 16, 2009

9/11: Repercussions And Realignment, Part 2

Recently I was asked by some colleagues at the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara, Turkey to write a chapter of book they are publishing on the "Middle East after 9/11."* As many of you know, I am very supportive of Turkey's increasing involvement in the development of the Middle East, and I agreed to give my perspective on the seismic shift and its many repercussions that the events of September 11th had on the greater Middle East. Today, more than eight years have gone by since the economic and political hallmarks of United States were attacked by a rogue terrorist group, and the world is still coming to terms with how to effectively deal with terrorism born out of religious fanaticism and a discord between East and West that has been simmering since the Cold War. As the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved, the brawn or logic of the US and its allies alone will not suffice to create stability in the Middle East. To this effect, a careful cultural and psychological reading of what has moved the Middle East in the past eight years is critical to understanding the crossroads we are at today. With permission from ISRO, I will be releasing sections of the chapter over the next few weeks, continuing with Part 2: Iraq. 

Part 2: Iraq

President Bush's misadventure into Iraq may still be debated for many years to come. What makes this war unusual and certainly unnecessary was that Iraq under Saddam Hussein never posed a direct threat to the security of the United States. The war was both ill-conceived, and in retrospect, it was also ill executed. Both the United States' top military commanders and senior officials under the leadership of President Bush grossly miscalculated the conditions inside Iraq by relying on faulty and/or selective intelligence. Furthermore, there was little insight into the inherit factionalism in Iraq that continues to drive the country's internal politics today, and that will determine the prospects of a politically stable Iraq in the future.

The decision by the Bush administration to wage war against Saddam Hussein was based on the presumption that the Iraqi leader was aggressively pursuing the acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and nuclear materials to this effect. There was also a serious effort within the White House to promote the idea that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al Qaeda to undermine America's national security interests. It was a convenient case to make against a despised dictator, particularly in the wake of 9/11 when so many Americans looked to their government to seek revenge on those who had attacked the US. It was also a personal vengeance for President Bush, who had great animosity toward Saddam Hussein from his attempts to carry out an assassination on his father in 1993. In the end, both reasons leading up to the war proved to be bogus; no WMD were found nor was any direct link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda established. Although the Bush administration early on had a clear inkling that the charges against Saddam Hussein would not stand close scrutiny, President Bush charged ahead with his plans to oust the Iraqi dictator irrespective of the far-reaching regional ramifications which his administration failed to gauge.

The decision to topple Saddam Hussein has been fateful in more ways than one. The Iraq war has forever changed the political make up of the country, as well as the political landscape in the greater Middle East. For the first time in Arab history there is Shiite rule, not just in any Arab country, but in Iraq, which is considered the cradle of Arab civilization. No matter what the leaders of the Sunni Arab states say publicly about the changing political fortunes in Iraq, they have not-and likely will not-reconcile themselves with what they consider a revolutionary transformation. The Sunni-Shiite historical conflict is not likely to settle by the fait-accompli created in Iraq, as the rise of Shi'ism transcends the Iraqi borders forming a Shiite contiguous land-mass and resources that threaten the Sunnis traditional regional domination.

Looking at the Middle East from this perspective, it is undeniable that the Iraq war and its consequences have changed the region's balance of power. Almost overnight, America's dual containment policy against Iran and Iraq-a strategy that was designed to pit both countries' against one another to keep them both off balance-was abolished and a Shiite government was put in place. Iran together with Iraq has created a crescent of nearly eighty million Shiites sitting on almost 50 percent of the known oil reserves in the Middle East. The Iraq war has entirely changed the context of the historical rivalry and enmity between the two nations, and as a result Iran has emerged the ultimate beneficiary of the US occupation. Realizing the momentous geopolitical shift, Tehran lost no time to capitalizing on its newly acquired position by attempting to assert itself as the new regional hegemon. Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons will, of course, have many far-reaching regional implications, the scope of which is difficult to measure. Although Iran and Iraq will not always see eye to eye on matters of regional security and future political alliances, one thing remains clear; the Shiite religious affiliation between the countries carries a considerable weight. The direction to which both countries may chose to go, however, will have to await the American withdrawal of its forces from Iraq and a resolution to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

One of the greatest detriments of the Iraq war is that it severely undermined America's global standing. The turn of events in Iraq following the quick defeat of the Iraqi army demonstrated the grave miscalculations the US made about Iraq's factionalism and the intense rivalry between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The mounting American and Iraqi casualties raised serious questions, not only about the direction the war was taking, but whether America had the moral authority to continue fighting a war in a country that did not directly threaten America's national security. Although Muslim extremists including al Qaeda converged in Iraq to wage what they saw as a "holy" war against the "Infidels," in the final analysis, the United States was battling indigenous Sunni Iraqis fighting for their future. The argument that the United States was conducting a "war on terror" in Iraq was poorly defined, with no end mission in sight. After more than a trillion dollars, over 4,500 American casualties and perhaps upwards of 100,000 Iraqis dead, the Bush administration finally settled on an exit strategy. Meanwhile America's standing in the world hit an all time low as it alienated the international community, and in particular the Arab and Muslim world.

The formidable task President Obama faces as he starts his second year in office is to restore America's moral leadership. Realizing early on how critically important it is to correct America's image abroad, President Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo. In this speech he stated that, "I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and the Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principle-principles of justice and progress; tolerance and dignity for all human beings." President Obama's reconciliatory words are significant in that he spoke to the hearts and minds of his listeners who have doubted America's intentions, and in the case of Iraq, never believed that the United States would leave Iraq to the Iraqi people. Many believe America is after Iraq's oil and gas, and that the US intends on monopolizing it under any circumstances. In this respect, President Obama emphasized in his speech that "we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own… we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron."

Although the Bush administration reached a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government on the withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011 , President Obama needs to assure the Iraqis that he will not only adhere to the dateline but will try to accelerate it, given the continuing progress in maintaining internal security, passing an oil law and finding a mutually acceptable solution to the future of Kirkuk. The question here, however, is not whether American forces will withdraw, but in what condition Iraq will be left, and whether or not Iraq's nascent democracy, internal security and reconstruction can be sustained as President Obama has promised. Ensuring that the corruption within the Iraqi government is dealt with will be paramount to US-Iraqi relations after the troop withdrawal.

In this regard, President Obama faces myriad challenges in Iraq. After the enormous sacrifices the United States and the Iraqis have made thus far, it would be disastrous to allow Iraq to slip back into sectarian violence that could squander the gains achieved thus far. To that end, President Obama stated in his speech at the United Nations in September that the US would continue to follow through, guaranteeing that "We will help Iraqis transition to full responsibility for their future." He now must make good on this promise, and while he can still exert significant influence on the Iraqi government, he must use his efforts to persuade Maliki to settle two critical issues on which Iraq's future political stability and cohesion depend.

An oil law:

The importance of passing an oil law cannot be underestimated when it comes to settling factional and political disputes among Iraqis and their government. An oil law could help settle the Kirkuk dispute; it could provide the Sunnis with assurance that although their three main provinces, Salahuddin, Al-Anbar, and Ninewah, are largely empty of oil, they can still build strong economy and prosper. In addition, an oil law could stifle some of the Sunni's seeking an autonomous region, fashioned after the Kurds, and thereby further splitting Iraq. Although the Iraqi constitution provides, somewhat vaguely, for the equitable distribution of oil, there remain many conflicting issues concerning rights for future explorations, setting terms for foreign investments, distribution of revenue, control, licensing and a host of other issues over which there is no agreement. Moreover, although the Iraqi central government led by Prime Minister Maliki is campaigning for an agreement, there appears to be no consensus by the current Iraqi Parliament to reach an accord, opting instead to postpone deliberation until after the elections. In addition, opposition to an oil law has also come from the Nationalist oil workers in southern Iraq who have threatened to resign if an oil law is passed. The long-running dispute with the Kurds in the North, a lack of resolution to the future of Kirkuk, and the rush of the Kurdistan Regional Government to sign numerous deals with foreign oil companies against the warning of the central government, have stymied any serious consideration of an oil law.

An agreement on the future of Kirkuk:

What is inextricably linked to an oil law is how to settle the future of Kirkuk. Historically, Kirkuk is an ethnically mixed city, populated predominantly by Kurds, Turkomen Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians. Kirkuk is critically important to Kurdish national identity, but at the same time is the center of the Iraqi petroleum industry, with 10 billion barrels of remaining proven oil reserves which makes it strategically and economically important to the central government in Iraq. Kirkuk has become the most hotly contested area in Iraq, and whoever ends up controlling it will have major advantages with serious geopolitical implications. In order to assert permanent control over Kirkuk, Saddam Hussein persecuted the Kurdish community, expelling tens of thousands of Kurds, replacing them with Sunni Arabs. Since the collapse of the Ba'athist regime, however, many of these expelled families have returned.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution entitles the Kurds to a referendum on redrawing the "green line" separating Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. The referendum was supposed to have been held by the end of 2007, but it was regarded as so provocative that it was indefinitely postponed. The lack of a resolution has not changed the Kurds' resoluteness to extend their domain to Kirkuk, as they see it as integral part of the Kurdish self-autonomous rule.

Other than the concerns of the Iraqi government, Turkey is also worried that the oil riches of Kirkuk could dramatically change the economic fortunes of the Kurds. Ankara fears that this development could potentially embolden the Kurdish provincial government to seek independence from Iraq which could then evoke a similar interest on the part of the Turkish Kurds. Not only has the Maliki government grown in power with more than 359,700 trained and equipped forces at the ministries of Interior and Defense, but it has managed to get the support of both the Shiites and the Sunnis behind it. The Kurds on the other hand feel that they have a special relationship with Washington that goes back to the Clinton administration, as they depend on the US for security and political support. Moreover, the Kurds feel that quality of the Peshmerga, their paramilitary forces, will deter the Iraqi army from openly challenging their forces. The problem is that the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga are in such proximity that the potential for violent conflict is increasingly more likely, especially if a mutually accepted solution is not found soon after the elections.

President Obama must attempt to persuade the new Iraqi government to move on these two interlinked issues that have the potential of exploding into a major violent conflict. The president, who has strengthened America's hands and credibility because of his appeal and moral standing, will certainly have greater sway than his predecessor. Moreover, since the Iraqi army will further need modern military equipment to deal with outside threats and interference, President Obama can link future military support to an oil law and a resolution to the future of Kirkuk. He must make it one of his top priorities to move the next Iraqi government, regardless of its political composition, to adopt an oil law and conduct a referendum about the future of Kirkuk before the United States completes its withdrawal of forces. However difficult this may be, a failure to do so and could set Iraq onto a new collision course between the Kurds, Sunni and Shiites, as the stakes cannot possibly be any higher.

*Sedat Laciner – Arzu Celalifer Ekinci (eds.), /11 Eylul Sonrasi Ortadogu/, (Ankara: USAK Yayinlari, 2009)