Iraq’s political transition and national reconciliation have reached a dangerous stalemate, and Iraqi factions are increasingly turning to violence to settle disputes over power sharing. These intra-Iraqi struggles are directly impacting neighboring countries in two key ways: triggering the Middle East’s largest refugee crisis since 1948 and escalating regional sectarian and ethnic tensions.
Because Iraq’s internal conflicts are closely linked to regional dynamics, we need intense international and regional diplomacy both to break Iraq’s internal logjam and increase regional stability. A sustainable solution to Iraq’s conflicts requires more than simply a change in military tactics by a handful of countries or one-off diplomatic forays. It requires the full engagement of the world’s powers in support of a comprehensive, multi-year, and multi-tiered diplomatic effort.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki announced a new alliance last week between his Dawa party, the two main Kurdish parties, and the largest Shi’a faction, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. But this coalition offers little hope that Iraq’s political stasis will end. The new alliance lacks majority support; it leaves the Maliki government vulnerable to a no-confidence vote and likely powerless to build consensus on the key issues that divide the country and animate Iraq’s key conflicts.
In many ways, Iraq’s political transition stands largely where it was in the summer of 2005. Iraq’s leaders are divided over the issues that they were debating then: how to share power between the national, provincial, and local governments and how to divide the country’s considerable oil revenues. National reconciliation efforts are deadlockedwith no real progress or clear plan for reintegrating Sunnis into the national government.
Given the lack of tangible results from the national political transition, key Iraqi factions are withdrawing from formal politics at the national level because their leaders calculate that they stand to gain little from continued involvement, further contributing to political fragmentation. Months before the major Sunni faction withdrew its ministers from the government this summer, two key Shi’a factions—the Fadhila Party and the Sadrist bloc—had already left. Increasingly, power disputes among factions spill into the streets. Two provincial governors have been assassinated this month already.
Rising sectarian and ethnic tensions inside of Iraq spill outside Iraq’s borders. The vicious struggles for power among internal Iraqi groups have resulted in more than two million Iraqi refugees fleeing to surrounding countries, with Syria hosting nearly 1.5 million Iraqis and Jordan more than 750,000.
Iraqi factions battling inside also gain support from outside. Some forces in Iran, for example, offer support to Shi’a militias closely aligned with parties in Iraq’s ruling coalition. Certain elements in Syria and Saudi Arabia are reportedly providing financial and logistical support to some Sunni groups. In significant ways, Iraq’s multiple internal conflicts have become mini-regional proxy wars, with elements in neighboring countries squaring off.
This “squaring off” occurs in part because Iraq’s internal political divisions resonate throughout the region. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other Sunni-majority countries watch closely how Iraq’s Sunni majority is treated by Iraqi Shi’a and Kurdish leaders. The Arab League has hinted at more direct involvement in pushing for changes to Iraq’s constitution that would give Iraqi Sunnis more power. Beyond Shi’a-Sunni issues, there are also growing tensions across ethnic lines. Turkey, for example, has repeatedly expressed deep reservations about steps by Iraqi Kurds to increase their autonomy from Iraqi Arabs.
The complicated environment too easily induces paralysis and inaction. Instead, U.S., international, and regional interests will be best served by a responsible strategy that actively puts together key players, key interests, and critical resources, inside Iraq and throughout the region. A comprehensive effort is necessary to manage the Iraq conflict and start to reach solutions.
The new United Nations Security Council resolution passed earlier this month is a step in the right direction. Calling for the expansion of U.N. efforts to mediate between Iraqi factions, the resolution places greater focus on the much-needed political solution. For the United Nations to succeed, however, it needs all the players at the table. That means the world’s leading powers and regional players must be fully engaged in a diplomatic initiative aimed at not only jump-starting Iraq’s moribund political process but also addressing the regional spillover effects of Iraq’s conflicts.
During the past six months, the Middle East has seen a flurry of conferences related to Iraq, including three regional security meetings, a set of discussions on the refugee crisis, and numerous bilateral sessions between countries in the region, sometimes involving outside powers. The United States has even sat across the table from Iran at meetings focused on security.
These individual steps are important but not sufficient. We are missing an overall strategy; one that includes a comprehensive diplomatic effort that views challenges generated by Iraq through a prism that also addresses other regional security challenges as the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group proposed. We also are missing some key tactical ingredients. We must help Iraq’s leaders break their internal deadlock on power-sharing and address the core issues that animate many of Iraq’s conflicts and escalate regional tensions. Greater diplomatic strength to address these problems will come from a leveraged effort.
The United States should fully support a new international envoy appointed by the United Nations to help mediate Iraq’s internal political deadlock and also deal with the spillover effects of Iraq’s internal conflicts. This special envoy for Iraq should coordinate efforts closely with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is serving as the Quartet’s Middle East peace envoy. In addition, the United States needs to support aggressively increased efforts by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to address the security and humanitarian impact of the growing Iraq refugee crisis.
As the United States debates when and how to remove troops from Iraq, it needs to dedicate equivalent energy to focusing on what it can do to work with countries in the region, other global powers, and Iraq’s leaders to help achieve greater stability in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
In the long run, the U.S. military cannot reshape these complex political dynamics. The leaders of the region must shape their own future. The United States and other global powers can play an important role in mediating these conflicts and tensions. Resolution won’t be simple and won’t come quickly, but it will require a determined and consistent effort that must begin now.
This piece was originally published in the Middle East Bulletin.
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