The escalating sectarian civil war in Iraq is dangerously poised. Apart from consequences for Iraq — a possible soft partitioning — there will be repercussions for other countries in the region and elsewhere. This constitutes a threat to international peace and security.
Decades ago, Western cartographers created an artificial country as part of a “division of spoils’. The exploding sectarian faultlines in Iraq are umbilically linked to the crisis in Syria, in which over 1,30,000 people have been killed since 2011. The genesis of these developments can also be traced to the policy-induced crisis in Libya, which resulted in UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and Nato military action.
The unbridled enthusiasm for the Arab Spring in the West blinded governments to the dangers of arming militias against established, even if tyrannical, regimes. The expectation that the Arab Spring would unfold on the lines of a Western liberal democratic template was mistaken, and acknowledged as such before long. A lesson learnt over decades — that there are no good or bad militants — was forgotten.
Colonel Gaddafi, much despised for good reason, proved an easy first rallying point. The desire of the United States, the United Kingdom and France to see him gone was understandable. Even the Chinese and the Russians did not feel strongly enough to cast a negative vote in the UN Security Council in March 2011. The Russian permanent representative, Vitaly Churkin, said Russia abstained because of its principled stand against the use of military force. The passion of interventionists prevailed. The new members, all aspiring for permanent status, Brazil, India and Germany, did not have the political clout to alter the outcome. They tried to negotiate a “balanced” resolution providing for a ceasefire and the possibility of mediation by the African Union. But the ink was barely dry when the P3 chose to invoke “all means necessary”, a euphemism for military action. Nato action followed instantly. The other provisions of the resolution were completely ignored.
Mainstream thinking in the West has a propensity to rationalise policy-induced mistakes made by governments. Evidence in the public domain, documented by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, shows that rebels were being armed by countries in the region acting on their own and as proxies. The arming of militias is invariably accompanied by unintended consequences. Some turn rogue.
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Worse still, others turn on their creators. The attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012 is a case in point.
Advocates of the use of force and the right of intervention will find it difficult to argue that military action in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 produced the desired outcomes. Regime change results in destabilisation, which is even more difficult to handle.
Syria continues to present an even more complex problem. Bashar al-Assad held power with the support of a 12 per cent Alawite Shia minority aided by another 6 per cent, or so, of other minority communities. He succeeded in building a compact that enabled him to preside over a more than 75 per cent Sunni population. The underlying sectarian tensions were evident. Militias armed by countries in the region, predominantly Sunni, came from diverse backgrounds — jihadists of different hues, al-Qaeda elements and mercenaries from the West and elsewhere ready to join battle for a consideration, monetary or otherwise. The fact that the Assad regime itself unleashed brutal repression only exacerbated the conflict. Jihadis and their supporters, having succeeded in bringing about a regime change in Libya, were now in for disappointment. The Security Council, particularly two of its permanent members, Russia and China, were no longer willing to oblige. Efforts to seek Security Council endorsement for even a watered-down resolution, short of action under Chapter VII, resulted in three double vetoes during 2011-12, one during India’s presidency of the council in August 2011. Syria no longer represented a mismanaged domestic situation. The desire of the Saudis, the Gulf states and the West to oust Assad was countered by support from Iran and Russia.
The attempt to resolve the crisis — through a ceasefire and a politically inclusive process involving all Syrians — failed to take off. Assad’s detractors insisted on him stepping down first. After the experience in Iraq and Libya, there was no appetite for unilateral military action. Reluctance to supply arms to rebels, which could have made a decisive difference, soon turned into outright refusal because of apprehensions that those arms could be used against Israel or other US allies.
Meanwhile, the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad, installed by the United States, was busy with its own policy-induced blunders. Running a post-conflict state is difficult enough. More so given the toxic and combustible sectarian divide. The failure to co-opt non-Shia sections in governance proved catastrophic. Sensing the changing mood in Washington towards Iran, Saudi Arabia refused to accept membership of the Security Council in October 2013 after being elected. It said it would find it difficult to serve on the council given the visible inaction against Syria. Attempts to reach an agreement between Iran and the United States on the vexed nuclear issue, for which a deadline of July 21 has been set, have contributed to producing the present strategic landscape. Energy- and shale gas-related issues may have played a part in the altered calculations, but this will continue to remain a subject of speculation. The evolving situation is further complicated by a major and influential player, Israel. It is unlikely that it will sit by and do nothing if, in its assessment, the nuclear deal with Iran does not succeed in capping its nuclear capability. A quick fix and/ or a fudging of issues will also invite criticism from the Republicans.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant poses a threat not only to Baghdad but also to fellow militant groups. A force reportedly consisting of no more than several thousand combatants capturing large territories reaffirms the sectarian divide and the lack of appetite to fight by adversaries. Given the military involvement of Iran, Jordan and possibly the United States, which may be left with no option but to go in for limited military action, Baghdad may not fall. The destabilisation and chaos will, however, intensify.
As the situation worsens, the immediate task of retrieving nationals will be subsumed in larger issues raised by this dangerous sectarian civil war, with all its consequences for the rest of the world. Each stage has been marked by a failure to think the consequences through and a series of policy-induced blunders.
The writer, a retired diplomat and BJP member, was India’s permanent representative to the UN. He chaired the UN Security Council’s Counter Terrorism Committee in 2011-12.
Views are personal