With the recent capture of the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit by the militant organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, Iraq faces a greater-than-ever risk of fragmentation along ethnic and religious lines, a fate that has already befallen its neighbor Syria.
In light of the ongoing crisis, we at Wikistrat asked 55 contributing analysts to identify and explore the geopolitical axes that are likely to emerge in Iraq over the next two years from the perspective of the region’s significant geopolitical axes: the radical Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds and the world powers that depend greatly on the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Then we asked them to forecast a range of scenarios for how each axis would shape the region, in a 48-hour crowd-sourced simulation called “The New Mesopotamia” that produced these three takeaways:
The Radical Sunni Axis: A Violent, Ungovernable Frontier
ISIL and its allies are proceeding to carve out a Sunni heartland between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, stretching from Syria to the gates of Baghdad. The organization has demonstrated meticulous governance and administrative capabilities as it consolidates its gains, suggesting longevity and an ability for self-reliance. With each ISIL victory, the organization gains new resources and supporters; these supporters include foreign fighters from Syria, as well as Iraqi Sunnis who were disenfranchised by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. ISIL has also demonstrated their capability in managing Syria’s oil fields, suggesting that it will be able to effectively operate captured Iraqi energy assets.
In all likelihood, the new Sunni heartland in Mesopotamia will remain unconquerable (by the outside) but also ungovernable (by ISIL). The majority of moderate Sunnis do not support the brutal and violent conduct of ISIL and would likely stand against them once other viable political choices are available. A continued unwillingness to share power by Iraq’s Shiite-led government would foreclose the option of reunification, leaving Sunnis no choice but to fight for their own nationalism.
Over the next few years, ISIL will find it a challenge to govern a landlocked “Mesopotamian Caliphate” while facing Shiite enemies on its eastern and western flanks and engaging in a wary peace with Sunni Kurds to the north – this all while maintaining harmony among the diverse Sunni tribes under its control. To paraphrase the old NATO aphorism, ISIL has to keep the Sunnis down and the Shiite out.
Two years from now, Iraq’s Sunni heartland could look just as bloody and complex as Syria’s.
The Shiite Axis: Rise of a Wobbly Iran
Unlike the Sunni Axis, wherein the center of gravity will continue to be amorphous, Iran will dominate the Shiite Axis and the weak Iraqi government and security forces. Iran is not only bringing its own forces to bear in Iraq by deploying Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds forces, but it could bring pressure to bear on the Sunni Axis through proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon.
Iran also may be reaching the limits of its ability to influence the shape of the New Mesopotamia. Its Quds forces are engaged on multiple fronts in Lebanon (through Hezbollah), Syria (in support of the Assad regime) and now in Iraq. It also faces unknown domestic turmoil from dissidents, inflamed by the hardships caused by international sanctions.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take positions on the front line against ISIL militants in Tuz Khormato, 100 kilometers south of the oil rich province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq on Wednesday. (Hussein Malla/AP)
Kurdish Axis: Windows of Opportunity
The retreat of the Iraqi Army in the wake of attacks by ISIL strengthens the position of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, especially in light of its capture of oil-rich Kirkuk from Islamist forces that had just overrun the army.
The consolidation of Iraqi, Syrian, Turkish and Iranian Kurds under one state or even a push for independence by Iraqi Kurds is unlikely in the short term. Political and cultural differences among the various Kurdish groups will forestall unification, and the KRG is likely to pursue a policy of developing its economy (already good, but likely to be turbocharged with Kirkuk oil), solidifying its economic relationship with Turkey and other nations, and ensuring that its sudden autonomy is made irreversible. It will also seek to stay out of the Sunni-Shiite fight, unless its vital interests are challenged. Turkey’s previous willingness to bypass Baghdad in order to develop relations with the KRG bodes well for developing deeper ties now, provided the KRG does not agitate for full independence.
Over a two-year horizon, we anticipate a closer relationship between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey (based on oil), a continued close relationship between Assad and the Syrian Kurds and a modestly deteriorating relationship between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish Kurds.
The U.S., China, and the International Community: Strange Bedfellows
Although the United States has multiple objectives in the region (e.g., preventing Iran from developing nuclear capabilities and containing the spread of radical Sunni jihad), its primary goal is to keep the gas pumps open for the world economy, which means helping the Shiite and Kurdish Axes protect their oil assets from ISIL interference. In this matter, U.S. interests align with China, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Kurds. Lastly, the U.S is also publicly committed to defending the territorial integrity of Iraq – an even more difficult task now given the expansion of ISIL.
As the world’s leading petroleum importer (42 percent of its imports coming from the Middle East), China has the most at stake. Unable to project power into the region, and being dependent on the U.S. Navy keeping sea lanes open, China would be amenable to any deal that kept its oil flowing, and would be especially happy over any diminishment of the hostilities with Iran.
Developing Iraq’s oil production over the next decade is a greater concern, since much of the developing world, especially China, is counting on increased production to fuel development. Kurdish development of oil resources around Kirkuk will help bolster world oil supplies (and help Turkey both meet its domestic needs and become a regional supplier) but significant investment is needed to improve pipeline delivery from Iraq to Turkey. Investment to exploit southern oil resources, which were finally rebounding, will probably go back on hold until security stabilizes.
Bottom Line: Acknowledge Iraq as You Know It Is Gone. Start Dealing With New Players
Unlike Syria, which has broken into a patchwork of fiefdoms, Iraq’s three components appear capable enough to defend their territory but weak enough not to encroach on each other. Efforts made to reunite Iraq will probably be fruitless, although opportunities exist to influence the radical Sunni and Shiite Axes to adopt more moderate, nonsectarian positions.
Priorities should focus on maintaining Iraq’s reliability as an energy producer, which means protecting the Shiite in the south and the Kurds in the north. Efforts also must be made to prevent ISIL from metastasizing to Jordan and the Gulf States.
Jeffrey Itell is a lead analyst for the geostrategic analysis firm Wikistrat.