TCS Daily

Beware Iraqoslavia

By Stephen Schwartz - February 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Will Iraq survive as a single country, or is it destined to be partitioned between its three constituent communities, the Kurds, Sunni Muslim Arabs, and Shia Arabs? This controversy, which has yet to rise to the status of formal debate anywhere, nonetheless lurks in the background as policy experts and pundits offer predictions for Iraq's future.

The question of revised borders offers a parallel between Iraq and the former Yugoslavia -- one of several that should trouble the sleep of global political leaders, if they care to observe it.

Yugoslavia's Example

Like Yugoslavia, Iraq was a "nation" assembled out of parts of a former empire, at the end of World War I. In the former instance, the Slavic possessions of the Habsburgs were merged with Serbia and Montenegro. In the latter, three separate governing districts of the Ottoman empire were cobbled together on little basis other than geographical proximity.

No "Yugoslav" identity commanded the loyalty of the country's majority, and no "Iraqi" nationality can be said, today, to unite the people who live within the Baghdad state's borders. In Yugoslavia, differing languages, religions, and political and legal traditions defined local attitudes. There, the worst conflicts took place between differing Christian sects: the Catholic Croats and the Orthodox Serbs. In Iraq, Sunni and Shia Muslims view one another with similar malicious feelings.

Is Iraq destined to break up into separate nations, as Yugoslavia did? Not necessarily -- if only because the potential consequences of redrawn borders in the Middle East are, at first glance, even more deadly than in the Balkans.

Of the contenders in the Yugoslav wars, only the Kosovar Albanians had ethnic kinsmen outside the "invented" country, and their desire to leave the Yugoslav federation did not suggest that an existing, neighboring power would be immediately undermined. In Iraq, however, independence for Kurdistan would be firmly opposed by Turkey, which fears secession by its own restive community of Kurds. In addition, Saudi Arabia is clearly terrified by the prospect of an "independent" Shia-ruled entity on its northern border.

A Shia state carved out of southern Iraq might have little effect on Shia Iran, which is Persian, rather than Arab, in culture. But its existence might very well inspire significant discontent among the Shia Arab majority in the Saudi Eastern Province, where much of the country's oil is located. Shias are the most oppressed element in Wahhabi-ruled Saudi Arabia. Of this, more will be said below.

In addition to the former Yugoslavia and Iraq sharing a legacy of artificial borders and ethnic dissension, both may end up as laboratories for administrative policy-making by the United Nations.

Discussion of U.S. vs. UN control of Iraq began even before the military intervention there. A considerable number of UN personnel who served in the Balkans were sent to Iraq soon after the fall of Baghdad. Some died in terror incidents, and the rest were quickly withdrawn.

But soon enough, U.S. authorities began discussing alternatives to the political structure established in the immediate aftermath of the war, i.e. the Iraqi Governing Council. Responsibility for a new Iraq, it was said, might be handed to the UN, or to the European Community. It could even fall into the hands of the French, who have the worst record in the Balkans, and internationally, for spinelessness in the face of criminality (see Rwanda, as well as the history of French dealings with Saddam Hussein).

If Iraq is similar to the former Yugoslavia in its history as an abstract construct, it could even more resemble the formerly-Yugoslav successor state of Bosnia-Hercegovina in becoming a country of competing national groupings - Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Serbs - ruled by foreign authorities.

I would therefore offer a set of predictions on the future of Iraq, based on precedents visible in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Iraq's Future

First, regarding the Iraqi Kurds. Thanks to a long period of U.S. protection, they have developed a successful, functioning economy, stable political leadership, and competent media. They also have a tradition of fierce nationalism that is uncomfortable for their neighbors. In this, they resemble the Bosnian Croats, whose long relationship with central Europe has allowed them to leap ahead of their Serb and Muslim neighbors in economic development. Yet the Bosnian Croats are kept at arm's length by "the international community," charged with radical nationalism and extensive economic corruption.

The Croats and Kurds also share peculiar characteristics in that both nations were once considered mercenaries of empire, the Habsburgs in the Croat case and the Ottomans for the Kurds, and both were, in the past, seen as paragons of radical leftism -- in the Croat instance, during the 1920s.

I predict, therefore, that as in the Bosnian Croat case, international bureaucrats, if they gain control in Iraq, will reinforce their current tendency to ignore the Iraqi Kurds, and denigrate their economic and social advances.

The Iraqi Shias, although they constitute the majority in the country, resemble the Bosnian Muslims, who comprised a near-majority, in coming to the table of the new Iraq with a reputation for Islamist sympathies. At the same time, they are characterized by extraordinary gratitude to the U.S.-led coalition for having removed the Shia holy sites, Karbala and Najaf, from the control of Saddam -- as the Bosnian Muslims still thank Clinton for saving them. The social and economic development of both Bosnian Muslims and Iraqi Shias has been quite distinctive and is little understood by the West. The dilemma of the latter community is visible in the reluctance of the U.S. in Iraq to grant their understandable demand for elections. Like the Bosnian Muslims, the Iraqi Shias have allies who excite suspicion, in both cases located in Iran.

I predict that the goodwill and enthusiasm of the Iraqi Shias will be ignored, and opportunities wasted by the international community, which will have no interest in spending the time required to study and comprehend them and their traditions.

The so-called Sunnis of central Iraq have much in common with the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. Like the Serbs, they enjoyed favorable economic, social, and political advantages under the dictatorship. In addition, like the Serbs in Yugoslavia, who enjoyed Russian patronage, the Iraqi Sunnis are now backed in their opposition to the new regime in Iraq by the power of Saudi Arabia.

Nobody was prepared to challenge the Russians over Bosnia. Nobody in the West today is ready to call the Saudis to account for their incitement of jihadist terror in Iraq, recruitment of Saudis to fight and die in Iraq, and similar examples of criminal interference north of their border. To emphasize, the Saudis are no more interested in the success of a Shia-majority democracy in Iraq than the Russians were in the transformation of socialist Yugoslavia into a prosperous free-market society.

In a chilling parallel between the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, Western media flatter Saudi-recruited Wahhabi terrorists by describing them as an Iraqi "resistance" to Western invasion, just as numerous journalists described Serbian aggression against the neighboring republics as revenge against the Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians for events that occurred during World War II.

I predict "the international community," if allowed to take charge in Iraq, will make accommodation with Sunnis their main priority. This will lead to more, rather than less terrorism, just as international "peacekeeping" in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1992-95, and "monitoring" in Kosovo prior to 1999, led to more, rather than fewer Serbian atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent TCS contributor. He last wrote for the site about Iraq's Record and the UN's Track Record.


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