The late historian Albert Hourani was right. Those who live as neighbors do not always live as friends. This adage has defined much of the Middle East for most of its modern history.
Unfortunately, this has been an enduring reality both within states and across borders. The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, of course, the most glaring example, but there are many others, each carrying with it implications for individual states as well as the Middle East more broadly.
In Lebanon, the discord among the sects has been made worse by the inability of political leaders in Beirut to agree on a revised electoral law. The conflict in neighboring Syria, which shares both demographics and a rich history with Lebanon, has also complicated social and political discourse in both countries, not to mention security realities.
And then there is Iraq, a disheartening case of a foreign policy intervention that was not coupled with a sufficient plan for reconciliation, reconstruction, and sustainable reform.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has only partial control over Iraqi domestic politics, as the country remains a geopolitical playground for competing external forces. That this continues to characterize the state 10 years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein is quite telling. Instead of waning, the level of violence has increased to proportions not seen since the 2008 surge by the U.S. military. Political mistrust, pervasive corruption and a precarious security environment have all combined to stifle efforts at economic development and stability and to hasten the country’s descent into entropy.
On a regional level of power dynamics, attention is often drawn to the power play between Iran and Saudi Arabia and dominance over the Gulf region, or to the interplay of external agents in Iraq. With a view to Iraqi domestic politics, however, there is a danger of depicting politics exclusively along sectarian lines. This often does not correspond to the facts on the ground, which are much more complex. Yet such an approach can contribute to making the sectarian depiction of Iraqi domestic politics a self-fulfilling prophecy.
With the covert backing of Iran, Maliki has done his utmost to alienate his country’s Sunni minority. There have been widespread complaints among the Sunni community that Maliki’s government has used the state security apparatus to target, detain, and otherwise intimidate individuals who pose no real threat to the regime. Tensions continue to rise, and are sure to have a deleterious effect on the ability of Iraqi leaders to effectively cooperate to govern the country.
There is no guarantee that uprisings and the outbreak of confessional violence might not occur in the future, particularly given the ease and consistency with which various insurgent groups and nonstate actors have been able to penetrate the system. The coordinated attacks on Iraqi prisons in late July, leading to the escape of nearly 500 members of Al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, is a troubling case in point. Three weekends ago in Tikrit, two suicide bombers entered a police station and killed six members of the SWAT force. During Friday prayers just outside Samarra, 19 people were killed when twin bombs were detonated inside a local mosque. In the last 30 days, more than 850 Iraqis have been killed as a result of such violence.
An equally pressing concern is the conflict between the central government in Baghdad and potential separatist forces, especially the Kurdish region in the north. The Kurdish Alliance sent a strong message after the national budget for 2013 was passed without the consent of the Kurdish regional government. The Kurdish Alliance boycotted the Iraqi parliament and Maliki’s Cabinet, further highlighting the political rift that exists between Baghdad and the Kurds.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Kurdish parties are not united in their approaches toward Bagdad, it is clear that Maliki is facing the daunting task of reconciling very different political perceptions.
With all eyes currently on Syria and the potential resolution of what to do with the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons, Iraq has temporarily faded from the spotlight of international politics. But it should not be forgotten that the simmering conflict is the one that is structurally the most intricate in the region.
Moritz Pieper and Octavius Pinkard, Brussels-based specialists in foreign policy analysis and Middle East politics, are doctoral researchers at the University of Kent. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.