What is Iraq?

Or, perhaps more precisely, what was Iraq? The map above is of the Ottoman Empire in Asia around 1792. Click on the map for a larger image. In the territory that is now Iraq you’ll see three cities: Bassorah (Basra), Baghdad, and Mosul. As I understand it these were the capitals of three Ottoman vilayets and Iraq is, generally speaking, composed of these three provinces. The map of Iraq, pretty much as we know it today, was drawn by Britain and France without much reference to ethnic divisions or natural boundaries in a secret agreement known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The agreement divided Ottoman provinces in what are now Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Israel into British and French spheres of influence (in direct contradiction to what T. E. Lawrence had, presumably, promised Ali Hussein in return for Arab support for the British in World War I against the Ottoman).

The empires whose imperial politics arrived at this division—British, French, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian—are all gone but we’re living with their calculations of their own benefit today.

One of the functions that a unifed Iraq served was as a buffer to Iran. Had Lawrence’s promises been honored the buffer would in all likelihood have been that much stronger, we’d be coping with an entirely different set of problems and benefits, and the world would be completely different than it is now.

With the chaos in Iraq the country is no longer serving that buffer function and Iran is flexing its muscles.

In his contribution today to the “civil war” discussion currently going on James Joyner writes:

This is largely a semantic argument; whether we call it “civil war” or “chaos” it remains a bloody mess and perhaps an intractable one.

It is important, though, because it focuses attention on a rather critical fact: In a civil war, the winner governs. That was the case in the English, American, Russian and Spanish Civil Wars. In Iraq, however, there is no shadow government waiting to take over the reigns of power. The violence seems likely to continue until it is either suppressed by an effective government that gains the confidence and cooperation of its citizenry or until Iraq fractures into innumerable micro-states incapable of governance.

In my view the present political dynamics in the U. S. means that, chaos or civil war, the U. S. will withdraw its forces from Iraq without stabilizing the country which, again in my view, is likely to be followed by a more general retrenchment by the U. S. in the region.

I’m straying beyond my area of expertise here but I think the withdrawal and retrenchment in turn are likely to have a number of consequences. There will be hundreds of thousands or even millions of Iraqi refugees fleeing the violence into the neighboring countries: Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, the KSA. That’s already going on and I can’t see how it won’t increase. It will be very difficult to prevent Iraq’s neighbors from intervening in the situation there, possibly annexing portions of the country. Iran’s influence is likely to grow; U. S. influence is likely to diminish, indeed the credibility of U. S. foreign policy will be in doubt everywhere. I also suspect that it’s more likely that regimes in the region will try to come to some kind of modus vivendi with their own radical Islamists than that they will continue or increase the pace of liberalization.

These factors will operate synergistically to increase the danger here, in Europe, and in the Middle East from radical Islamist terrorism.

I’ll ask the question I’ve been asking here and elsewhere for some time: what can be salvaged from the situation and how can it be done? I honestly see no way and, further, I think this particular die has largely been cast since the first day of the invasion.


We have a little evidence that the neighbors are likely to intervene in the event of a U. S. withdrawal:

There is reason to believe that the Bush administration, despite domestic pressure, will heed Saudi Arabia’s advice. Vice President Cheney’s visit to Riyadh last week to discuss the situation (there were no other stops on his marathon journey) underlines the preeminence of Saudi Arabia in the region and its importance to U.S. strategy in Iraq. But if a phased troop withdrawal does begin, the violence will escalate dramatically.

In this case, remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia’s credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran’s militarist actions in the region.

To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks — it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.

1 comment… add one
  • Cool map!

    I think, unfortunately, we will see partition in Iraq, which will make Iran happy and more dangerous (when southern Iraq allies with them) and unhappy and more dangerous (when they move against the Kurds in the north who would then give their own Kurds ideas).

    I think we may then see Saudi engagement, Iranian engagement, and possibly even Turkish engagement.

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