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America’s withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq has prompted speculation on Iraq’s future and the possibility of a return to civil war. While the discussion has been robust, most speculation has focused on the key leaders and recent history, rather than providing a systemic assessment of the prospects for renewed violence. This paper addresses that gap by examining Iraq’s internal politics through the prism of neorealism, showing that the likelihood of war hinges on the uniformity of threat perceptions among the Sunni Arabs and the primacy of security concerns in factional decisionmaking. If security concerns create a unified Sunni bloc, Iraq is likely to descend into civil war.
Neorealism is a systemic theory of the origin of conflict among security-seeking actors, which compete in an anarchic system. While realism is generally used to explain interactions among states in the international arena, conditions in Iraq mimic several of the key assumptions under which structural neorealism applies. From the invasion through 2006 Iraq lacked a functioning government, creating a system defined by anarchy, the hallmark of neorealist theory. The uniformity of threat perceptions within Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups and their actions to provide for their own security approximate the behavior of the unitary actors assumed in theory. Additionally, the balancing and bandwagoning behavior of those actors are strikingly similar to the actions expected in a neorealist system.
Shortly after the invasion, Iraq resembled an experiment in Hobbesian anarchy. American forces were initially unable to quell the insurgency, fighting in Fallujah against Sunni jihadists and in Najaf and Baghdad against Shia militiamen, and a long-running campaign against IEDs planted by Sunni insurgents across central and western Iraq. The transitional government under Iyad Allawi and the elected governments under Ibrahim Jaffari and Nouri al-Maliki were unable to address the political, economic, and security challenges facing Iraq. Meanwhile, the Sunni and Shia insurgencies spiraled into conflict with Shia death squads and Sunni bombers targeting the other faction.
From a neorealist perspective, the 2007 surge of American combat forces ended the dominance of anarchy by establishing impartial security, eliminating sectarian factions’ need to seek their own security and enabling the Iraqi government to assert its authority. With the American departure, Baghdad’s capacity to provide impartial security is in doubt, and perceptions of threat endure. Kurds remain suspicious of Sunni and Shia Arabs, the sectarian Shia remember Sunni repression in the Ba’ath era, and Shia efforts to prevent a Sunni return to power have reinforced Sunni perceptions that the Shia parties seek to dominate and repress the Sunni.
The Shia-led government in Baghdad has taken several measures to prevent the Sunni from influencing the security forces. They have slow-rolled the integration of Sunni militias into the army and police, keeping most of the nationalist militiamen out of the security apparatus.[i] Meanwhile, violence against Sunni leaders appears to stem from government policy, and remains outside the oversight capacity of the government agencies where Sunni leaders have influence.[ii] Finally, the central government has failed to regularize flow of funds from Baghdad to Sunni-majority provinces, creating the perception that Baghdad is starving the Sunni-led provincial governments of funding.[iii] While Iraq’s historic domination by Sunni military officers make these steps rational from the Shia perspective, they fulfill Sunni fears and may lead to a return to security-seeking behavior, a reduction in the government’s perceived legitimacy, and renewed violence.
The inability of Iraq’s governing class to bridge the sectarian divide creates the possibility that in a post-American Iraq, anarchy may reassert itself and neorealist logic become dominant within the system of Iraqi politics. Mounting evidence that the Shia-led government intends to marginalize and dominate the Sunni will lead to unified perceptions of threat on the part of currently fragmented Sunni leaders. Once security issues dominate internal Sunni politics, Iraq’s Sunni will unify in opposition to Baghdad. Security-seeking logic will drive Sunni leaders to provide for their own defense, provoking Baghdad into violent retaliation that will spiral into civil war.
This paper describes the neorealist perspective of post-American Iraq in four sections. First, it reviews the explanatory power of neorealism in post-invasion Iraq. Second, it assesses the degree to which Iraq’s major factions can be considered unitary actors. Third, it explores the path to renewed civil war as a combination of security seeking and threat perceptions known as the security dilemma. Finally, it addresses critiques of the neorealist perspective on Iraq.
Iraq as a Neorealist System
The aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq was a period without legitimate government, resembling the anarchy that neorealism assumes as the dominant feature of the international system. American ground forces were unable to establish security, and no Iraqi leaders emerged to assume control after the fall of the Ba’ath dictatorship. Sectarian leaders filled this vacuum and two insurgencies emerged: a Sunni insurgency in the western and central part of Iraq and a Shia insurgency in Baghdad and the southern provinces. The 2004 battles against the Americans in Fallujah, Najaf, and Baghdad transitioned into campaigns of suicide bombing by Sunni against Shia, and kidnapping and murder by Shia against Sunni. Spiraling violence and the bombing of Samarra’s Golden Mosque signaled that sectarian violence in Iraq evolved into civil war.
Three linked factors halted the violence in 2007: American military reinforcements, the Sunni Awakening, and the end of ethnic cleansing. The relative importance of each factor is difficult to determine, but the combination of the three factors ended the era of relative anarchy in Baghdad and central Iraq, detached the Sunni tribal leaders from the anti-American insurgency, and dramatically reduced the ethnic violence in Iraq. These factors impact the role of anarchy and the perceptions of threat that are central to the neorealist model.
The surge of American ground forces in Iraq replicated the effects of a third-party intervention in an ethnic conflict.[iv] American forces sought to establish security and stem the tide of violence by challenging the warring factions for supremacy and compartmentalizing the urban terrain.[v] The surge focused on Baghdad and its environs to give the Iraqi government time and space in which to address Iraq’s political problems. The surge thus replaced anarchy with order, allowing the national government to assert authority in Basra and elsewhere for the first time since the invasion.
While the surge demonstrated America’s commitment and capacity to provide impartial security, the Sunni tribal leaders had been re-calculating their perceptions of threat for some time. In late 2004, when the jihadists turned against them, Sunni sheikhs came under sustained attack by Al Qaeda-linked religious extremists. Jihadists targeted tribal leaders viewed as an impediment to a new Islamist order, and driving the sheikhs to seek assistance from American forces. By 2007, Sunni tribal leaders obtained American arms and recognition for their militias, supported the national government against the now-marginalized jihadist insurgency, and called themselves the Sunni Awakening. This type of bandwagoning with a dominant military power when one’s own power declines relative to an emerging threat is a classic example of neorealist logic in action.[vi]
The end of sectarian violence can also be explained in the context of security calculations. During the peak of ethnic violence from 2005 through 2006, mixed neighborhoods and isolated ethnic enclaves disappeared as population transfers homogenized central Iraq.[vii] Sectarian communities sought safety in numbers, reducing the number of contested areas and the opportunity for attacking isolated enclaves. This pattern has been observed in other ethnic conflicts, and is one reason why population transfers have often taken place as part of the end of hostilities.[viii] The return of internally-displaced persons may indicate perceptions that ethnic violence has subsided for good, but a better indicator would be the degree of ethnic homogeneity in Baghdad and its environs. The degree of ethnic mixing would identify the degree to which Iraqis believe sectarian strife has ended.[ix]
While the surge, the Sunni Awakening, and the end of ethnic cleansing ended sectarian violence, the outbreak of peace did not yield the anticipated political dividends. Iraq’s leaders have failed to bridge the sectarian divide, integrate the Sunni militia, vote on the status of Kirkuk, and share oil revenues among Iraq’s provinces.[x] Political cooperation remains elusive because for the major actors the benefits to defection still are still stronger than the benefits of cooperation. This is one of the hallmarks of a neorealist system, where fears of comparative advantage dominate prospects of collective benefit.
Unitary Nature of Iraqi Factions
Neorealism assumes unitary actors, meaning that decisions are based on perceptions of power and threat, making internal divisions comparatively unimportant. Iraq’s major factions are unitary actors to the extent that security considerations dominate their decisionmaking in national politics. In 2004, the security-seeking behavior and shared threat perceptions within Shia and Sunni Arab groups fueled sectarian violence. Diverging threat perceptions among the Sunni, the American surge, and the homogenization of central Iraq dovetailed with a divergence between moderate and radical Shia leaders. The United States and its Iraqi allies were able to impose order and stability on Iraq in part because the sectarian actors were no longer unitary and no longer considered security their primary problem. The withdrawal of American forces threatens to return Iraq’s factions to security-seeking, unitary status, and to civil war.
The Kurds are the clearest unitary actor in Iraqi politics. The Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan jointly administer Kurdistan as the Kurdish Alliance, and have established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as a viable proto-state. The Kurdish opposition, an anti-corruption party called Gorran, opposes the older Kurdish parties’ two-party monopoly, but is equally nationalistic in promoting Kurdish interests at the national level. Crucially, all three Kurdish parties agree on the difference between Kurdish and Arab interests in Iraq, the primacy of Kurdish concerns over national concerns, and vote as a bloc in Baghdad.
Iraq’s Shia are less unitary than the Kurds, but the sectarian Shia represent a functionally unitary actor on their own. A relatively small and isolated secularist party, led by former prime minister Allawi, allied with Sunni factions in the last election but was unable to form an alliance with any of the sectarian Shia parties. The three largest sectarian parties of Da’wa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Sadr Movement share a belief that Shia interpretations of Islamic law should inform governance, but differ on the inclusion of clerics in governing and their relations toward the United States. The more technocratic Da’wa led by Prime Minister al-Maliki and the more clerical ISCI have been more receptive to working with the United States than the resolutely anti-American Sadr, who derives considerable support from Iran.[xi] In addition to their general vision of domestic law guided by tenets of Shia Islam, the sectarian parties are united by their fear of a Sunni-backed military coup. Relative to the secular Allawi, they present a united front against Sunni aspirations and resemble a unitary actor in domestic politics despite their internal disagreements.
The Sunni Arabs are the most divided of the three groups, with a deep split between nationalists and religious extremists. The nationalists are a broadly status-quo element, regarding the Sunni Arabs as Iraq’s natural leaders, and are suspicious of both the Shia and radical Islamists who would change that traditional order. The religious extremists are a more revolutionary element, intent on replacing the existing social structure’s kinship networks and tribal leaders with Salafist religious leadership. The Sunni united against the Americans after the invasion, but with external support the religious extremists sought to replace the traditional tribal leaders by violence and intimidation.[xii] The Sunni Awakening left the Sunni divided but helped bring peace to central and western Iraq, though jihadist violence has persisted.
The results of the last election confirm the degree to which the factions act in a unitary manner. The Kurdish bloc lacked the votes to anoint a government, but indicated their desire to participate in any governing coalition. Allawi’s coalition of secular Shia and nationalist Sunni won a narrow plurality, but was unable to find an ally among the sectarian Shia to form a government. Months of politicking among the Shia ensued, resulting in a deal that excluded Allawi from the cabinet while offering his electoral allies portfolios outside the security briefs. The resulting national unity government leaves the sectarian Shia in power, sustained by conditional support from the radical Sadr bloc while a Kurd occupies the presidency and the Sunni and secular Shia hold minor posts.[xiii]
The lesson of the 2010 election is that questions of sectarian advantage dominate Iraqi politics, and the major groups approximate unitary actors. The united Kurds will join with any governing coalition to preserve their cherished autonomy. Though the sectarian Shia are internally divided, they present a united front when faced with a Sunni assumption of power. The secular-nationalist “middle” is too weak to govern, with the nationalist Sunni leaders open to co-option in exchange for minor cabinet posts (outside of Defense, Interior, and Oil). The future of Iraqi politics hinges on the action of the Sunni elites: so long as they are open to co-option, the Sunni will remain divided. As the Sunni perceive a growing threat from the Shia, the degree to which they unite to seek security will determine the degree to which Iraq is vulnerable to a return to violence.
Political Dysfunction as Prelude to Anarchy
Iraq’s politicians seem unable to heal the wounds left by the American invasion and subsequent civil war. The national unity government has proven incapable of following through on the promises made when forming the ruling coalition and has failed to meet popular expectations for providing services. Meanwhile the sectarian Shia leaders have violated the spirit of the written constitution to consolidate their power. This combination of failures reinforces perceptions that Iraq’s government is weak and of dubious legitimacy, which if not addressed will lead unitary, security-seeking actors back toward civil war.
Sharing the security portfolios at the Defense and Interior Ministries was the first major failure of the unity government. The December 2010 power-sharing agreement indicated that in exchange for Maliki remaining Prime Minister, his rival Allawi would appoint the two ministers with Maliki to approve the selections. Instead, Maliki has appointed himself to both, consolidating the security apparatus under the Prime Minister’s office and denying the secular/Sunni coalition influence over the military or police forces.[xiv] The inability of either Sunni or Kurdish leaders to check Maliki’s control of the security forces opens the prospect of using the military and law enforcement organs to purely Shia advantage.
As the Arab Spring protests spread to Iraq, crowds bemoaned the inadequacy of Iraq’s government services, making Iraq possibly the only Arab state where protesters wanted more and better from the current leaders, rather than a change in government. Instead of addressing the root of the protesters’ discontent, the Iraqi government mobilized the special police forces for attacks on the protesters and raids on opposition political groups. This reinforces the belief that the political leadership is unresponsive to popular needs and incapable of addressing Iraq’s economic, political, and security challenges.[xv]
Iraq’s persistent violence has created a perception that the government is weak and the state fragile.[xvi] The Prime Minister’s gradual assumption of extra-constitutional powers further undermines the ability of Iraqis to trust their elected leaders.[xvii] The failure to abide by the December 2010 agreement and the unwillingness to address popular discontent confirms beliefs that the political leadership is incapable of governing. Persistent political dysfunction has produced distrust of the national institutions that could hold Iraq together, while creating the perception that individual factions will need to provide for their own security because the state will not.
Path to War
The present situation in Iraq is ripe for a security dilemma to plunge the factions back into war. The sectarian Shia parties control the security apparatus and have demonstrated their capacity to use it to their advantage. Recent assertions that the police were infiltrated by sectarian militias and targeted political leaders for assassination confirm these fears.[xviii] The recent targeting of Sunni Arab leaders reinforces perceptions that the Shia are pursuing a strategy of violent domination and confirms beliefs that the government fails to adequately integrate Sunni militiamen. With the departure of American forces, the Sunni have no allies left in power and fear that the sectarian Shia-led government in Baghdad is targeting them.
This fear leads to more support for Sunni militias, particularly the largest Sunni nationalist militia, JRTN.[xix] The Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), though marginalized in recent years, remains a source of violence in Iraq and a potential ally against the Shia. As nationalist and religious extremist Sunni increasingly share the perception that sectarian Shia are a threat, the Sunni move closer to becoming a unitary actor. The result would be a sectarian version of the ethnic security dilemma.[xx] Shia efforts to prevent a Sunni-led coup have created perceptions of threat among the Sunni from the government. Sunni actions to protect themselves from the government confirm Shia suspicions, leading the government to increasingly repressive measures that deepen the rift, incite greater violence, and open the door to foreign intervention.
Foreign intervention is most likely from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all of which have compelling national security interests tied to one of Iraq’s major factions. Iran seeks a friendly state on its western border, and has a history of support to Iraq’s sectarian Shia. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principal adversary in the Gulf region, has an equally strong interest in preventing Iraq from becoming an Iranian ally. Turkey, with its large Kurdish minority, has a compelling interest in preventing Kurdish aspirations for independence from turning into an irredentist movement intent on claiming southeastern Anatolia.
Iran’s ability to achieve a reliable ally in Iraq is limited by the historic antipathy between Arabs and Persians. Iraq’s Shia have reluctant proxies and the Iranian doctrine of clerical rule lacks broad support in Iraq. Iran is unlikely to achieve positive objectives but may support a specific ally, such as Sadr, with weapons, training, safe havens, and advisors. Saudi Arabia’s role is likely to be more circumspect: it opposes Iran as part of its struggle for primacy in the Gulf and in its self-appointed role as leader of the Sunni states, but the Saudi military is designed for internal stability, not expeditionary war. The Saudi monarchy would more plausibly serve as a conduit for arms and money to support a chosen Sunni militia.
Turkey’s desire to prevent an independent Kurdistan is rooted in its long-running conflict with Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. A NATO ally, the Turkish military has pursued Kurdish rebels into northern Iraq in the past and a sustained intervention would be problematic for the United States. America has been an ally of Iraq’s Kurds since establishing safe havens in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, and since a Turkish intervention would follow Kurdish independence, the United States has sought to defer Kurdish aspirations for self-determination.
For its part, America has ended its military adventure in Iraq, and while it maintains a forward presence in the Gulf region there is no public support in America for another military intervention. On the western border, Jordan and Syria are focused on their domestic political problems, with the Syrian regime fighting for survival and the Jordanian monarchy balancing calls for reform with longstanding vested interests. Under Iranian guidance, Syria provided safe havens for anti-American insurgents, and Jordan might provide the same for Sunni rebel groups, but neither is in a position to commit resources to a ground war.
There are several objections to applying the neorealist model to Iraq. Arab politics tend to be normatively constrained, influenced by activity and opinion in the Arab street, and socially constructed to prefer stability at the expense of individual or factional freedom and security. One might also argue that Iraqi factions are so far from unitary actors that structural neorealism cannot capture the diversity of competing interests, making it a poor model for Iraqi domestic politics. And there is no law of international relations dictating that an incompetent or dysfunctional government must descend into the chaos of civil war.
The argument that neorealism is inappropriate in the normatively constrained world of Arab politics is correct regarding inter-state relations in the Arab world, but less so within states. Government repression of sectarian or tribal groups is an established norm in the Arab world, and the weakening or fall of authoritarian governments in Libya, Syria, and Yemen has raised fears of internecine strife in each. In Iraq, where all three major groups have experienced violence in living memory, declining trust in the central government’s impartiality and rising perceptions of threat have produced bandwagoning and balancing strategies more reminiscent of international relations than domestic politics.
A frequent critique of neorealism is that state actors are internally divided and not unitary at all, but Iraq’s domestic politics shows that this criticism is misplaced. Kurdish parties have overcome internal divisions to unite seek their common interests, and the sectarian Shia have papered over their differences over Iranian and American roles in Iraq to confront the specter of Sunni resurgence that threatens them equally. The question for Iraq is whether the Sunni nationalists and Sunni jihadists can overcome their differences and unite to protect Sunni security interests. If so, all the relevant factions can be regarded as unitary actors.
It is also true that political dysfunction need not lead to war. But Iraq’s history of violent, winner-take-all politics discourages compromise: military coups, repression, imprisonment, and juridical killings create strong incentives to stand fast. Mutual perceptions of threat between Shia and Sunni, and Kurdish perceptions of threat from the Arab majority, lie beneath the politicking of the present unity government. The ongoing failure of Iraq’s political leaders to bridge the sectarian divide has the potential to validate threat perceptions and drive the factions toward open war.
Neorealism offers a compelling explanation for political behavior in Iraq in the aftermath of the American invasion. The early anarchy, the emergence of ethno-sectarian factions as unitary actors, the primacy of security considerations, and the observed balancing and bandwagoning behavior are all characteristic of a neorealist system. The absence of effective checks on the prime minister’s power casts doubt on the national government’s capacity to provide impartial security in the aftermath of the American withdrawal. Persistent sectarian violence, some deriving from the security forces, fuels threat perceptions and has the potential to drive factions to behave as security-seeking unitary actors. In a political atmosphere where compromise is rare, this combination makes a return to civil war more likely.
But a second civil war is not inevitable. The neorealist logic may yet be reversed if Iraq’s political leaders overcome their mutual antipathy to address the security concerns of the major factions. It remains possible that an outside actor might be able to persuade the factions to abide by the increasingly dormant Iraqi constitution by providing an impartial security guarantee. Even if sectarian violence begins to increase, internal divisions between nationalist and religious extremists among the Sunni Arabs may prove insurmountable, and the nascent civil war could turn into Shia domination of the Sunni minority.
For now, the Sunni nationalist leaders have been co-opted with government positions, depriving the Sunni of the legitimate leadership necessary to resist the sectarian government. As Sunni threat perceptions mount, Sunni leaders will either make common cause with the jihadists and join the insurgency, or they will be de-legitimized and made irrelevant as the Sunni population moves to provide for its own security. Unless the Shia-led government addresses Sunni and Kurdish security concerns, the weakness of the central government will approximate the conditions of anarchy, while shared threat perceptions will create unitary, security-seeking factions whose actions will lead toward civil war.
[i] “Sons of Iraq Program: Results are Uncertain and Financial Controls Were Weak”, Special Inspector General for Iraq Report 11-010, January 28, 2011.
[ii] Human Rights Watch, “At a Crossroads: Human Rights in Iraq Eight Years after the US Invasion“ New York, February 2011, pp. 50-61.
[iii] Michael O’Hanlon and Ian Livingston, Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-Saddam Iraq, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, September 30, 2011, p.6.
[iv] For a detailed description of third-party intervention, see Daniel Byman, Keeping the Peace: Lasting Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2002, pp. 177-213. See also Chaim Kauffman, Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars”, International Security, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Spring, 1996).
[v] Frederick W. Kagan, Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq, American Enterprise Institute, January 2007.
[vi] Randall L. Schweller, “Bandwagoning For Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back In”, International Security, vol. 19, no. 1, (Summer, 1994), pp. 72-107.
[viii] See Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, (London: Cambridge University Press, 2006). The transfer of ethnic Greeks and Turks after the Treaty of Lausanne is one of the best-known postwar population transfers intended to defuse future hostilities by consolidating ethnic groups into nation-states.
[ix] For a discussion of the interplay between ethnic unmixing, American security measures, and declining violence see David H. Ucko, “Counterinsurgency after Afghanistan: A Concept in Crisis”, PRISM, Vol. 3, No. 1, December 2011.
[x] O’Hanlon and Livingston, p. 6.
[xi] Rodger Shanahan, “The Islamic Da’wa Party: Past Development and Future Prospects”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 2, June 2004. Also, Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution, Basic Books, New York, 1990.
[xii] Dan Zak, “In Western Iraq, a Bloody American Legacy”, Washington Post, October 10, 2011.
[xiii] Kenneth Pollack, “Something Is Rotten in the State of Iraq”, National Interest, August 24, 2011.
[xiv] Michael Schmidt and Tim Arango, “Bitter Feud Between Top Iraqi Leaders Stalls Government”, New York Times, June 25, 2011.
[xv] International Crisis Group, “Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government,” Middle East Report No. 113, ICG, Brussels, 26 September 2011.
[xvi] Monty Marshall and Benjamin Cole, Global Report 2009: Conflict, Governance, and State Fragility, Center for Global Policy, George Mason University, 2009.
[xvii] Michael S. Schmidt and Jack Healy, “Maliki’s Broadened Powers Seen as a Threat in Iraq” New York Times, March 5, 2011, page A4.
[xviii] McClatchy Newspapers, “Death Squads Have Infiltrated Iraqi Government, al-Maliki Says”, Denver Post, June 16, 2011.
[xix] Michael Knights, “The JRTN Movement and Iraq’s Next Insurgency”, CTC Sentinel, Vol. 4, Iss. 7, July, 2011, pp. 1-6.
[xx] The security dilemma originally applied to a dynamic between two states, in which one state’s actions to provide for its own security created a perception of threat on the part of another. For application of the security dilemma within the state, see Batty Posen, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict.” Survival, Vol. 35, No. 1, (Spring 1993).