01 July 2014

The Ukrainification of Iraq?

It was most likely only coincidence that I read today that Russia was sending fighter planes and pilots to Iraq to help the government fight the ISIS army, and that the Iranian foreign minister had accused the United States of wanting to turn Iraq into another Ukraine. I don't think the Iranian's reasoning had any influence on the Russian deployment. The Russians are helping Iraq, I presume, because ISIS is also the enemy of their more established ally, Syria. The Russians may also fear that their country will be a more immediate target for terrorism should ISIS consolidate power and begin to export jihad. Their help will most likely come with no strings attached, at least on the political level. By comparison, Iraqi negotiations with the U.S. are fraught with conditions which the al-Maliki and his Shiite party seem reluctant to meet and the Iranians equate with the Ukrainification of Iraq. I'm going to guess that what the Iranians mean by their Ukrainian analogy is not that a superpower is stirring up cultural tensions, in which case Russian help should be the last thing they want, but that in Iraq, as in Ukraine, a political minority is trying to destabilize a legitimate elected government. In Iranian eyes, this destabilizing force isn't ISIS, though they're obviously a conventional if not existential military threat, but Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds. Where American influence is most controversial, if not subversive, in Iranian eyes is in the Obama administration's insistence, at a moment of national peril, that al-Maliki's party give the Kurds and Sunnis a greater role in the national government. From Obama's perspective, al-Maliki's failure to govern according to pluralistic principles helped bring about the current crisis, giving ISIS a Sunni constituency it might not have had otherwise. From the Iranian perspective, Obama's interest is to reduce Shiite (and hence Iranian) influence in Iraq, despite whatever electoral mandate al-Maliki's party can claim. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government continues to unravel, its parliament failing to elect a Speaker today thanks to Sunni and Kurdish walkouts while the Shiites continue to resist power-sharing with the other sects or nationalities.  So what's going on in Iraq? Either Iran is emboldening the Shiites to stand on a winner-take-all ground despite legitimate objections, or else the Kurds and (especially) the Sunnis are simply malcontents emboldened by the U.S. and the ISIS uprising into undermining Iraq-Iran relations. No one actually wants ISIS to win -- except for the Saudis, according to some suspicions -- but Iraqis continue to squabble amongst themselves while ISIS continues to attack, while some observers believe a sort of Ukrainification is inevitable if not desirable, with Kurdistan as a Crimea that actually does become independent while Sunnis and Shiites split the rest of the country.

Back in Russia, President Putin gave a talk to his diplomatic corps headlined by a loyal news site with his declaration that "Everyone has right to be different." That's not my attempt at a Russian accent, but the actual headline. It's clear enough that by "everyone" Putin means nations, not individuals. In the article proper, he insists that all countries be allowed to "live at their own discretion." In other words, the U.S. and its allies shouldn't try to impose a single standard of good government for the entire world. Putin's rhetoric, in translation, sounds all right until you question the "their own discretion" part. Many in the west, at least, will question whether the Syrian people have really lived at "their own discretion" under the Assad dynasty, Russia's ally. But if you question the legitimacy of the Assads and their presumably fake elections, you can also question the democratic legitimacy of the Ukrainian Maidan revolt, and you can even question the Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis' sense of entitlement to some demographic share in political power when their parties didn't win the election. In Iraq, from what I suppose is Putin's perspective, al-Maliki's party has the power -- they won the election -- and no other country should question how they distribute power. If that gets al-Maliki beheaded by Sunni jihadists, too bad -- Putin will probably move on and deal with the new regime, whether the U.S. or Iran likes it or not, unless ISIS is as crazy as many believe and does launch a global jihad. For most people, I think, the real question that makes Iraq scary right now is precisely, "What might ISIS do?" In practical terms the question is: should ISIS be allowed to conquer Iraq? How Iraq should be governed is a separate question unless you can prove that al-Maliki's policies vis-a-vis the Sunnis are the immediate cause of the ISIS uprising. Whether the world has a say in either question remains a subject for debate.

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