This post is part of a “Blog Symposium” being led by Dave Schuler, of The Glittering Eye blog. Also taking part are Michael Cook, the Cleveland Dodge professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University; James Hamilton, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego; Rasheed Abou Al-Samh, a Saudi-American journalist based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who also blogs at Rasheed’s World; and Shivaji Sondhi, a professor of physics at Princeton University. We’re offering our own views on the situation in Iraq and inviting comment, criticism, correction.
This post is the first of several that seek to identify the ‘players’ involved in Iraq and finding a solutionâ€”or perhaps only avoiding a disasterâ€”for Iraq’s problems.
You Can’t Tell the Players without a Score Card
Actually, you can’t tell the game…
The conflict in Iraq is multi-faceted. It clearly has more players than the US and the myriad Iraqi factions. It’s also multi-dimensional, taking in not only religious differences among the players, but also their economic, political, and social aspirations.
This means that there are no simple solutions, no ‘magic bullet’ to solve the problems because the problems themselves are dynamic and constantly shifting.
In order to give an idea of the multi-dimensionality of the problems in Iraq, I’d like to give a breakdown of the interested parties or, as modern diplomatic cant has it, the ‘stakeholders’. I don’t intend to give deep analysis to each of the players, noting their playing records, their batting averages, their values in a future trade. Rather, this is meant to be a simple roster. Some of the players are more important than others; some are able to bat above their averages in certain circumstances; some are major threats to any opposing team.
When seeking to simplify the picture of Iraq and its populations, like Gaul it is conveniently divided into three parts: Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’is. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it really doesn’t go very far.
Kurds, for instance, come in both Sunni and Shi’a varieties. While the Kurdish Shi’a are a minority within the Kurdish population, they can be seen as part of the Sunni/Shi’a balancing act. Their familial relationships cross national borders, from Syria and Iran to Turkey and Armenia. Each brings a different perspective to the mix, flavored not only by their individual histories, but the histories of Kurds in those countries and in their expatriate communities in Europe and the US.
The Arab Shi’a are themselves divided, ranging from the quietist Shi’ism of Al-Sistaniâ€”who prefers no role for religious leadership in politics, based on his Akhbari interpretation of Islam, to the Khomeinist politicization endorsed by Al-Sadr from his ‘Usuli background. Ethnically, Iraqi Shi’i are both Arab and Persian, with a huge portion being a mixture of both. These perceived identities are important as they help define which way individuals and their assorted groupings will move when faced with different pressures.
The Sunni Arabs are more homogeneous in both their ethnicity and religion, but not monolithically so. Many of the families and tribes are transnational. Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, for instance, Vice President of Iraq during the transitional Iraqi Interim Government (2004-2005) is a member of the Beni Shamar, the tribe of the Al-Rashid, rulers of the Najd before the Al-Saud conquered them. Members of the Aneizi /’Unayza tribal confederation range from northern Syria to Yemen, with strong presence in Jordan and Iraq. This explains, in part, why Arabs from different countries take personally what happens in Iraq.
Iraq has other ethnicities and religious identities, though they are very much minorities. They are not able to exert their political preferences through violence, having to rely more on diplomacy and alliances with more powerful groups who may protect their interests. Among these are the Turcoman and Circassian groups, a small and dwindling Jewish population, and assorted Christian groupings found rarely outside the region.
The Saudis have many irons in this fire. There are, of course, the Salafists who see everything through religion-tinted glasses and see an existential battle looming between the Sunni and Shi’i.
Then there are the Saudi Shi’i, themselves coming in different sectarian and political flavors. The Ismailis in the far southwest of the country don’t share much with the Akhbari and ‘Usuli Shi’i of the Eastern Province, other than having been on the short end of the development stick. The Shi’i are intermarried up and down the Gulf coasts. They do not share a single opinion about what is the correct path, or even what is best for them in their own circumstances.
There are Saudi Sunnis who are less apocalyptic in their view of Iraq, of course. Many of them see the issue as one of politics cloaked in religious guise and are able to focus on the political. Here too, though, there are differences, including within the Al-Saud family. Some see the issue purely in terms of geopolitics. They see an aggressive and expansionist Iran (which has historical claims to the entirety of Bahrain and various islands and gas fields claimed by the other Gulf States) threatening to coerce control of the Gulf and its oil production in ways unfavorable to the Arabs. (Also not to be discounted is the historical enmity between Arabs and Persians, or between Arabs and Turks, for that matter.)
Saudi Arabia is threatened by Iran in many ways, from Iranian calls for the overthrow of the Al-Saud as heretical to a fear of direct military or terrorist attacks on oil production facilities. Militarily, the Saudis are unable to go to war against the far larger Iranian army, though they do have sufficient skills and forces to afford certain protections. The government also fears the development of a ‘fifth column’ within Eastern Province Shi’i, as they experienced back in 1979.
[Next up: The Gulf States, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey]