Recent Developments in Iraq
The ISIS has captured large quantities of sophisticated weaponry from the Iraqi Army and security forces which had fled abandoning their weapons in the face of the ISIS onslaught during the past month
AONCE PROSPEROUS, SECULAR, well administered Iraq is today in absolute shambles. The current situation in Iraq is essentially the consequence of US policies towards Iraq since 1990-91 but particularly of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent military occupation, marked by thoroughly inept governance, till 2011 when US troops finally withdrew, leaving behind a broken country wracked by sectarian strife and internal insurgencies.
The immediate trigger is the unfortunate reality that during the eight years of the US installed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasingly blatantly partisan rule, the Sunnis were steadily and continuously sidelined and have been completely alienated; the relationship between the Shia and Sunni communities has never been as poisonous as it is today. A Sunni backlash was inevitable. This is what we are witnessing in Iraq manifested in particular by the lightening takeover of the Sunni dominated provinces of Iraq and the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate on June 30 by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the ISIS, an extremist militant group even more radical and brutal than Al Qaeda.
Considerable portions of Western Syria and most of the area of Iraq’s Sunni provinces are part of the territorial domain of the newly established Islamist Caliphate – an area larger than Jordan. Syrian oilfields are under its control; it is running a complete administration in the Syrian part of its domain and planning to do the same in Iraq; the border between Syria and Iraq has been effectively erased while the Iraqi Government is no longer in full and effective control of Iraq’s borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia; the ISIS has captured large quantities of sophisticated weaponry from the Iraqi Army and security forces which had fled abandoning their weapons in the face of the ISIS onslaught during the past month. It has almost $2 billion worth of assets. Though its total manpower strength is only about 10,000-12,000, mostly Iraqi, with about 3,000 or so foreigners of various nationalities, it is very highly motivated and well organised.
In short, within the territory that it controls it is a formidable force with little or no coherent Iraqi or Syrian Government opposition. Unless the ISIS strongly alienates the local population, as it had done in 2005-09 in Anbar province, in its original incarnation as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) or the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), it will not be easy for Iraqi forces by themselves to dismantle the socalled ‘Islamic State’, though government forces have launched operations against the ISIS in and around Tikrit in particular. On the other hand, it is not going to be easy for the ISIS to expand its territorial domain because it would have to now contend with much stronger Iraqi forces and also not have the support of local populations. One or the other side will make marginal gains from time to time. I do not see the ISIS foraying into neighbouring countries—Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It is likely that a broad stalemate situation will exist for the immediate future in Iraq but bloodshed and violence are likely to continue increasing.
For all practical purposes, Iraq, at least for the time being, has fragmented with three different authorities exercising con- trol of the three distinct regions of the country – the Kurdish Regional Government in the Kurdish areas, the Islamic State in the Sunni areas and the Central Government only in and around Baghdad and controlling the Shia areas. The longer this situation continues the greater is the danger of Iraq being de facto partitioned, which, even without becoming a de jure breakup of the country, would have cascading dangerous and unpredictable consequences throughout the Gulf region and West Asia. Given that much of the world depends for its oil needs on the Gulf region, the global consequences could be catastrophic.
The establishment of the Islamic Caliphate is clearly a challenge but it also presents a huge strategic opportunity. For the first time since the turbulence in the Arab world started in the winter of 2010-11 and really only time in decades, all countries of the region and all major powers are united in sharing a common concern and threat posed by the rise of the ISIS in Iraq/Syria. Most encouragingly, both Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani and Iraqi radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, the founder-leader of a very powerful Shia militia, have publicly called for a national unity government and recognition of the legitimate rights of Sunnis; also that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called upon Sunnis to join a national unity government. It has the deployed
The immediate trigger is the unfortunate reality that during the eight years of the US installed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasingly blatantly partisan rule, the Sunnis were steadily and continuously sidelined and have been completely alienated
3,10,000 troops along the border and is in touch with Sunni tribal chiefs encouraging a revolt against the ISIS; US military advisers have arrived in Iraq and US drones are patrolling over the country, particularly Baghdad. However, President Obama has indicated that the US will not send troops – a right decision because it will be politically counterproductive domestically in Iraq and prevent vitally essential Iranian cooperation. Russia has provided Sukhoi fighters. Huge, multi-dimensional and unconditional help has been and will be available from Iran. An international coalition is theoretically in place. However, ultimately, it is only the Iraqis that can bring about a longterm and permanent settlement of domestically contentious issues.
The first unavoidable and absolutely essential step is to have a government of national unity in Iraq encompassing all the three ethnic and sectarian denominations. Each direct neighbour, all regional countries and all major powers have specifically called for this and many have very considerable influence on the ground in Iraq with different factions and elements. This is the litmus test – if this relatively easier to handle matter cannot be managed through regional and international cooperation, then the much more difficult issue of dismantling the Islamic Caliphate and preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq would be almost impossible to achieve. If, on the other hand, such cooperation succeeds in bringing about a national unity government, this will build mutual confidence and promote possibilities of cooperation amongst these countries not only to confront the Islamic Caliphate and but more importantly to help resolve larger issues in Iraq and in drawing down the civil war in Syria.
The Secretary General of the United Nations needs to urgently convene a meeting with a single-point agenda to begin with – formation of a national unity government – of countries that can influence outcomes on the ground in Iraq—EU, China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US to provide international support to a new government and encourage and incentivise it to undertake badly needed political and economic reforms. The reality is that India is not a player on the ground in Iraq, but India must ask to participate in any such conference and will surely be accommodated.
Implications for India
The immediate impact of the ISIS sweep across northern Iraq was on the safety and welfare of Indians working in the regions under the control of the ISIS. The 46 Indian nurses have been safely brought home as also more than 2,500 other Indians from different parts of Iraq; however 39 construction workers remain and it is every Indian’s hope that the extraordinary efforts that the government made in successfully bringing the nurses back will succeed for these workers too. The government has also put in place mechanisms to bring back any other Indian who desires to return. Nobody knows how many Indians there are in Iraq, but could be 10,000 or even more, mostly in Shiite populated Southern Iraq, where they are quite safe, and evacuating all may not be necessary or even desirable to prevent loss of confidence in the employability of Indians in the Gulf region.
Currently Iraq holds the second rank of countries supplying oil to India. This is unlikely to be adversely affected because the oilfields and the port from where the oil is exported are in the government controlled Shia majority southern provinces.
The ISIS’s ultimate objective is to have all Muslims under the Islamic Caliphate and the map thereof which has been released includes India. In their manifesto Kashmir has been mentioned specifically. However, there is no reason for India to be particularly worried. The ISIS is going to be extremely busy in Iraq and Syria for the foreseeable future. However, the Caliphate could be an ideological beacon for misguided or unemployed Indian Muslim youth; but the causes and remedies for that lie with the Indian Government and civil society, not abroad.
However, since seven million Indians live and work in the Gulf region; India is dependent for over 70 per cent of its oil and gas supplies on the Gulf region; the Gulf region is also India’s largest trade partner by far—$181 billion in 2012-13; Islamic extremism has been surging in the region; a major deterioration of the situation in Iraq can have spillover effects leading to regional instability which could affect all Indian interests mentioned above. Therefore, maintenance of stability in the Gulf region must be considered as one of the top foreign policy priorities for India.
Despite their station being bombed, Iraqi police continue working in the unharmed areas of the station and
work the streets