By Rajeev Agarwal
The world woke up to the news of Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams (ISIS) taking over the second largest city of Mosul in Iraq on June 9. Yes, Iraq has been under turbulence, there have been regular terrorist attacks across the country and the political situation as well as the governance has been shaky to say the least. But a takeover of a large city like Mosul, defeating state forces much larger in numbers and mass surrender by the army divisions was well beyond the anticipated discourse in Iraq. Why is Iraq suddenly imploding? Why now?
As we look ahead to developments in Iraq with caution and scepticism, it is important to take a step back and attempt answering these questions.
Iraq had started showing hope of recovery and stabilisation in the past two years. US troops had left the country once the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) expired at the end of 2011, oil production was up, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed to have some control in the government (despite frictions within the Shia coalition as well as allegations outside), armed forces were building capacity and major defence and economic deals were being finalised with Russia, US, Iran and China.
The only worrying signs were the continued terrorist attacks and the huge sectarian divide in the country. Prime Minister Maliki, ruling a Shia coalition, was seen as marginalising the Sunnis and ignoring the demands of the Kurds in the north. While the Sunnis resorted to armed insurgency, Kurds too, feeling ignored by the Maliki government, started taking things in their own hands and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) became more and more autonomous and powerful. The KRG even started talking independently to countries like Turkey for oil export.
The Arab revolutions, “Arab Spring’ had missed the boundaries of Iraq. However, the spillover effects from neighbouring Syria were seen clearly in Iraq with the Sunni opposition taking cue from the Syrian Sunni rebels in taking on the Iraq state. With Jabhat-ul-Nusra (JN) leading the charge against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the mercurial commander of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, in April 2013, proposed to merge AQI and JN to form ISIS with an aim to launch coordinated attacks across Syria and Iraq in order to bring down the Shiite governments in both these countries.
Although JN did not formally agree to the offer, the seeds were sown, which helped the fighters across both sides of the Syrian-Iraq border in greater synergy as well as in trafficking of arms and weapons. As the Syrian civil war continued, ISIS or AQI intensified its attacks in Iraq too. As per the UN, in 2013 over 8,860 people died in Iraq due to violence, and, in May this year alone, over 800 people were killed, including 603 civilians.
In the midst of all this, some key developments took place in Iraq and the region. Iraq itself underwent parliamentary elections on April 30 in which Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law bloc got 92 seats in the 328-seat parliament, while his main Shiite rivals, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, got 29 seats. However, together the Shia parties cornered 181 seats, thus ensuring a clear majority in the parliament.
Despite the clear majority, Maliki could not form the government due to lack of support from all the Shia parties owing mainly to his dictatorial style and inability to take the parties in coalition together. The indecision over formation of the new government as well as the likelihood of Maliki returning for a third term was a critical development, as seen by the Sunnis in Iraq.
Meanwhile, in Syria too, President Assad won the presidential elections in June, thus confirming that he was not ready to give up power and that the Syrian civil war was going to get prolonged.
However, the most interesting developments were taking place in the east of Iraq, in Iran. The Iran nuclear talks were proceeding well and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report of May 2014 too indicated that Iran was complying with the obligations of the interim nuclear deal of November 2013. Iran has been in talks with Turkey over Syria as well as for increase in trade, and it seems to have overcome its reservation over developments in Egypt (especially the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood) when it welcomed the election of former army chief, General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as the president and looked forward to commencing a new relationship between the two countries.
Even with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, despite the traditional hostile relationship between Iran and the GCC, Tehran has been attempting to forge cordial and fruitful bilateral relations with individual GCC countries. Close relations between Oman and Iran is no secret, as also the fact that the Sultan of Oman played a crucial role in resumption of Iran and P5+1 (six world powers of US, Russia, China, UK, and France, plus Germany) nuclear talks. The Emir of Kuwait visited Iran in January this year, the first visit to Iran since his inauguration as ruler in 2006.
Iran and UAE too made attempts to move forward in their bilateral ties despite differences over the ‘Three Island’ issue. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Tehran in November 2013 and the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Abu Dhabi on April 15 this year to take part in the second Iranian-UAE joint high commission. Both countries pledged to enhance bilateral relations as well as trade with the UAE foreign minister even calling Iran a “strategic partner”.
With Qatar too, Iran is finding common ground despite Qatar’s insistence on supporting the opposition in Syria. It stems predominantly from the Saudi Arabia-Qatar spat over banning of the Muslim Brotherhood and branding it as a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia. With Saudi Arabia along with UAE and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar could look at a strategic shift outside GCC, and Iran could be one option.
Iran is thus resurgent in the region and looking to consolidate its influence. With improvement in relations with individual countries of GCC, Iran is looking to challenge the leadership of Saudi Arabia in GCC. All this, coupled with the US-Iran rapprochement, has led to Saudi Arabia feeling isolated. It is in this context too that the ISIS surge could be seen.
If Iraq implodes and fractures and Syria too follows suit later, it will not only adversely affect Iranian influence in the region but also test the US and international resolve in solving the regional crisis. On the other hand, slow and steady consolidation of Iran’s influence in the region is bad news for the Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia.
The present Iraq crisis thus may not merely be the case of a belligerent terrorist organisation seizing opportunity to drive out government forces from towns and cities. It could well be the manifestation of a much larger game being played out in the region.
(Rajeev Agarwal is a Research Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected])