Don’t let Mosul be a distraction from the real question on Iraq

Mosul fighting
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Four years after he “ended the war in Iraq”, President Obama is once again being criticized for supporting a military offensive in the country without a clearly defined end state in mind for Iraq, or a plan for getting there. Once the Islamic State (ISIS) is expelled from Mosul, someone will have to hold and govern the territory. Who that is, and what that looks like, are important decisions facing Iraq, the international community, and the next U.S. President. Mosul is a tactical battle and it is time to discuss the grand strategy America wishes to pursue vis-a-vis Iraq, which in many ways looks to be a return to Iraq’s troubled past.

Since its formation, Iraq has been a fragmented country. One century has passed since Britain and France signed the secret Sykes-Picot accord in 1916, a political act that created the state of Iraq. Sykes-Picot cobbled together traditionally rival Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites and other minorities into a fabricated country that by design was dysfunctional for its inhabitants. The European aim was that Iraq would be so consumed by internal discord it could not pose a credible threat or be an effective ally of European opponents in the aftermath of the First World War.

{mosads}Today, Sykes-Picot still matters a lot when trying to identify America’s strategy for Iraq. A joint offensive is underway to expel the ISIS from the Sunni-majority city of Mosul, led by the Iraqi Army, along with government-supported militias, regional Kurdish and Sunni forces, anti-ISIS elements, and with the support of international forces, including U.S. Airpower and Special Operations forces.

Once ‘liberated’, Mosul will depend upon the same Iraqi ground forces to hold terrain and keep the city under Iraqi government influence. However, both the government and army are Shiite-dominated, and Shiite militias in the fight are backed by the Iraqi government with Iranian support. As Shiite-majority forces “liberate” and then “occupy” Sunni-majority Mosul, more tension and strife are guaranteed. This looks a lot like a return to Sykes-Picot

So why would the U.S., or other regional and global powers, select a course of action that advances the 100-year-old Sykes-Picot Strategy? Because, in lieu of a more viable option, a fragmented Iraq continues to serve the interests of regional and global powers. Current actions indicate that President Obama’s strategy is to return to the Sykes-Picot dynamic. A fractionalized Iraq, even with a Shiite dominated government, has Kurdish, Sunni and other minority elements in the government. These elements may be in the minority but they are a significant minority and they all play a strategic role in counter-balancing Iranian influence over Iraq’s politics.

The right of a people to determine their own destiny seems to be consistent with the noble ideals that the U.S. might stand for; but, for now in Iraq, these ideals seem to yield to strategic pragmatism. The dissolution today of Sykes-Picot, or even Iraq, would mean national autonomy for the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish peoples within its territory. It would leave homogenous entities with the autonomy to govern themselves. But, above all, a post-Sykes-Picot Iraq would mean a homogeneous Shi’a government in control of the majority of present day Iraqi territory and resources and the potential for an Iraq-Iran coalition. And so Sykes-Picot perseveres.

Going forward the U.S. has two paths its can follow. It can follow a strategy that ejects ISIS from Mosul and reinstalls Sykes-Picot, whether by design or consequence. Or, the U.S. can follow a strategy that would lead to greater autonomy for the various religious and ethnic entities in Iraq– at the significant risk of leaving a sizable and homogeneous Shiite territory more likely to align with Iran.

Ultimately, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The history of Iraq is one of violence and dysfunction. Even though an in-tact democratic Iraq means a dysfunctional Iraq for many of its inhabitants, that dysfunction continues to serve the strategic interests of the U.S and others. While the tactical battle in Mosul is dominating Iraq news in the media, what U.S. observers, and the next American President, really need to be thinking about is the strategic course of action that happens next – essentially “to Sykes-Picot, or not to Sykes-Picot, that is the question”.

Jeffrey K. Beatty is Lecturer of National Security at the University of New Haven, and has served in three U.S. elite counter-terrorism organizations: DELTA FORCE, the FBI, and the CIA.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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