The Sunni extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which originated as al Qaeda in Iraq in a response to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, now occupies much of northern Iraq and has been said to threaten Baghdad and the Shi’i government of Nouri al-Maliki.
This group of Sunni jihadists feeds off al-Maliki’s autocratic oppression of Sunnis. For example, he has attempted to shut the Sunnis out of the Iraqi government and military and has trumped up charges on and arrested Sunni leaders. However, Obama’s demand that in exchange for U.S. military help in battling the group, Maliki and the majority Shi’a adopt a more “inclusive” government, containing more minority Sunnis and Kurds, will probably not work (even if Maliki is pushed out for a new Shi’i leader).
Iraq probably does not have the income levels and culture of compromise required for a multi-ethnosectarian power sharing arrangement. The mutual suspicion of the various Iraqi groups is too high. Therefore, the United States should try to help the three groups achieve a negotiated (“soft”) partition: that is a confederation of autonomous areas with a weak central government. Then the groups would have little fear that the Iraqi government would be used by one group to oppress the others, as it has been throughout Iraq’s history.
Iraq is an artificial state set up by the allies after World War I to get its oil. Syria is also an artificial state. Syria has effectively been partitioned by civil war.
Iraq is about ready to be so partitioned with similar bloodshed unless a negotiated settlement is reached quickly. President Obama is right that the solution in Iraq is political, not military. So instead of sending U.S. military advisors back to Iraq or conducting air strikes to help an authoritarian leader avoid a “hard” partiton by war, Obama should be pushing the ethnosectarian groups toward negotiating a loose confederation, which would be more likely to lead to long-term peace and stability.