By Marcus Hunt
Iraq is a state composed of at least three separate nations: Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds. Unlike in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War I, the Sykes-Picot agreement drew borders that ignored national and religious affiliations. It was a grave mistake to do so, its consequence has been a society riven by sectarianism and held together only by the grip of dictatorship. It is at last unravelling, and that is to be welcomed.
The United States and Iraq’s Arab neighbours wish Iraq to continue to exist as a unitary state, but they do so for disreputable, self-interested and mistaken reasons. Centrally, the United States and Saudi Arabia do not wish southern Iraq to become a Shia ally of Iran. This is paranoid thinking. An independent Shia Iraqi state would have a populous of some 20 million, it would have an economy that was in no way dependent upon Iran and it would have national interests of its own distinct from those of Iran. It would no more be a client state of Iran than the Emirates and Qatar are client states of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, an independent Shia Iraq would be oil rich, and could – now free of the sectarian miasma – begin to emulate the economies of that region and join the Gulf Cooperation Council.
However, those of us who have no particular iron in this fire, and who are just well-wishers of humanity in general, may be dismayed that the agent of Iraq’s dissolution is ISIS. We may be concerned about what a Sunni Iraq, or a Sunni Iraq-Syria, will be like. I think that this concern is hyperbolic. ISIS is not an indigenous mass movement on the part of Sunni Arabs, it is an international rag-tag band of medievalists. Most Sunni Iraqis, as socially conservative as they no doubt are, do not support crucifixions, the mass murder of Shia, or the imposition of Jizya on Christians. They are tolerating ISIS, and some welcoming it for now, solely because it frees them from the sectarian Shia government of Nouri Al-Maliki.
But once the dust has settled, either one of two things is sure to happen. Either more moderate Sunnis will oust ISIS entirely, a task which should not prove difficult given the small number of ISIS fighters and their total dependency on the continuing good will of Sunni Iraqis. Or ISIS will remain in power but will itself be forced to change; extreme ideology and nihilistic violence go hand in hand, but the former cannot persist when faced with the tasks of real-life government.
Power plants will need to be kept online, money will need to be printed, bins will need to be collected. The fabled caliphate will turn out to be remarkably banal. A Sunni Iraq will never be a liberal paradise – it never was – but the worst case scenario is a replica of Saudi Arabia. In the best case scenario, the absence of a sectarian government emanating from Baghdad will allow economic development instead of head-butting religious apocalypticism to be the primary political goal of Sunni Iraqis. Secure in their own homeland, and not needing to fret about religious divides, Sunni Iraqis may then begin to liberalise, and enjoy the prosperity of the Kurds, who have gained from de facto national self-government for many years.