The news that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had taken control of Mosul on its way toward Baghdad caught Americans by surprise.
It shouldn’t have. More than a third of all ethnic civil wars restart within five years. And about a third of all post-conflict power-sharing agreements fail within the same time frame. For example, in Angola, concessions to increase representation through multiparty elections led to a new bout of war in 1991. In Afghanistan, the losing side remobilized in 1992, 1996, and 2001. And in Sri Lanka, a 2002 ceasefire collapsed in 2006.
In other words, today’s reignition of the 2006–07 Iraqi civil war fits a well-established pattern. And that pattern has several implications for U.S. strategy in the region.
PEACE IN PIECES
Peace after an ethnic civil war is so tenuous because violence reifies ethnic identities and post–civil war politics is inevitably cast along ethnic lines. This creates a dilemma. To cultivate peace, citizens must learn to identify with their nation more than their ethnic group. But leaders often stand in their way. Since officials do not trust that nationalism will fully replace parochialism, they are reluctant to give up the sectarian basis of their political power in favor of the unknown. And so they play to ethnic tensions to shore up their bases.
Iraq illustrates the dilemma. U.S. observers and officials increasingly demonize Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who they say is to blame for sectarian conflict. But he is a symptom more than a cause.
At first, Maliki enjoyed the support of some Sunni leaders who appreciated his decisive moves against Shia militias in early 2008. But their trust in him was never complete; they wanted to wait and see how he would treat the Sunnis who had fought al Qaeda in Iraq and had participated in local and national elections in 2009 and 2010. Needless to say, Sunnis were soon disappointed as Maliki personalized his rule, politicized the security services, and resorted to the old sectarian politics.
At the same time, though, to attribute all the blame to Maliki is to assume that sectarian conflict is due to a few bad leaders. Before Maliki, Sunnis had held power in Iraq since the British mandate. These authoritarian regimes had put down all forms of civil society, but as groups, the Shia and Kurdish populations suffered under the Sunni dominated hierarchy. From Maliki’s perspective, every Sunni leader thus constituted a threat to his rule; there was no reason to believe in their commitment to national institutions. The apparent Sunni acquiescence to ISIS’ latest push only confirmed Maliki’s fears. Although other Shia leaders would be glad to take his place, they would face the same political logic.
All this means that the plan U.S. President Barack Obama laid out last Thursday -- the United States will share intelligence with Iraq and help the country coordinate a plan to turn back ISIS in return for Maliki promising to share power with Sunni leaders -- won’t work. The sectarian dilemma will persist even if ISIS is defeated, and any feints at sharing power are likely to be short-lived.
It is up to Iraqi politicians to overcome the sectarian dilemma. But leaders’ loyalties can only gradually change from their sect to their nation. Politicians must follow the constitution and limit their power to create public expectations about the rule of law. Citizens might then vote on performance rather than sect, but that process can take decades and is hard to get started.
Third-party interventions can help move things along by providing monitoring for both sides and helping keep spoilers at bay. Yet interventions’ very success often brings mounting pressure to restore full sovereignty to the nation. Third parties are asked to leave before new patterns of behavior are entrenched, which creates a power vacuum. That is certainly what happened in Iraq. The United States fought hard for five years to open a window for impartial state building. But the window started closing in 2008 when the United States committed to withdrawal by 2011.
In general, only impartial interventions -- the ones that provide assistance at a scale large enough to be effective and small enough to be tolerated by the national authorities -- can last long enough to succeed. And that also holds true in Iraq. At this point, another round of intense American involvement would be hard for Iraqis (and Americans) to stomach. But, at the same time, the current level of U.S. commitment to Iraq is perceived to be too low to keep Maliki -- and any successor -- from falling back on sectarianism.
LESS IS MORE
So what can the United States do? The country might still want to help Iraq defeat ISIS, since it deems that doing so is in its interests. But it should intervene in a way that improves the chances for longer-term stability. Rather than treat Iraq’s request for support as an opportunity to solicit non-credible political promises, for example, the United States would have to reengage. It would have to commit to doing much less than last time, precisely so that it can commit to doing it for much longer.
Doing less would mean promising not to return conventional U.S. troops to Iraqi territory. This is the primary red line for both the American and Iraqi publics. On the other hand, committing to staying involved for longer would allow for military and diplomatic strategies that offer Iraqi leaders incentives to establish bases of power that are not purely dependent on sect. Since the U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer administered the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003–04, five governments have been formed around the hope that sectarian leaders could share power. They all failed. The United States needs to commit for as long as it takes for Iraqi leaders to make successful appeals to constituents outside their sect -- at least several more elections.
What might such a commitment entail?
Militarily, Obama’s offer of intelligence assistance, advisors, and possible airstrikes would have to be considered the start of a real partnership in training, civil-military administration, and ongoing operations. A stronger military-to-military relationship would make it harder for a Shia prime minister to politicize the armed forces and, on the flip side, make the military a less threatening platform for a possible Sunni coup.
The fight with ISIS is a regional conflict that requires a regional solution. It took a Central America–wide peace effort to end El Salvador’s civil war and a similar collective approach to end Cambodia’s genocidal war. Ultimately, the same is needed in Iraq (and Syria), but “friends” who could shepherd a peace process are in short supply. Iran and some Arab states have waged a proxy war in Syria. To gain at least tacit consent for U.S. reengagement in Iraq, it will be necessary to appeal to their shared interest (along with Russia and Turkey) in denying ISIS a state. More optimistically, the ISIS crisis might provide a diplomatic opening to limit the flow of arms and funds across Syrian and Iraqi borders.