Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Civil Provocation -- Ian Bremmer

From the forthcoming Summer 2006 issue of TNI:

A Google search that combines “Iraq” and “civil war” provides tens of millions of Internet options. Confine this search to the latest news and you’re still confronted with more than 21,000 choices.

“Civil war” is being invoked as a kind of trump card in the debate about U.S. policy in Iraq, both by those who support the continued presence of U.S. forces as well as those advocating withdrawal. ...

Yet very few of those who use the term “civil war” ever detail precisely what it would or does mean. All sides look at the disorder and confusion and find the image that best serves their political purposes. But to properly evaluate the wisdom of maintaining the U.S. troop presence, a clear definition is essential. Civil war should be taken to mean the outbreak of large-scale, sustained sectarian violence, particularly between Shi’as and Sunnis, amidst the collapse of central governance. By this definition, civil war has not yet begun. ...

But we should avoid the temptation of assuming that a civil war in Iraq would be the equivalent of Armageddon or that a civil war would be the worst of all possible outcomes.

First, even civil war would not shut in all of Iraq’s oil. Yes, new investment in energy would dry up, because there would be no central authority to enforce the laws and regulations that regularize business operations—and no single military authority capable of protecting oil infrastructure. The pipeline that moves oil from the Kurdish provinces into Turkey has already sustained considerable damage and remains vulnerable to any surge in fighting.

But nearly two-thirds of Iraq’s current production, located in the Shi’a-dominated south, would probably continue to flow. Shi’a forces are likely to be better armed and equipped than other groups to fend off insurgent attacks. Aid from Iran would help preserve that advantage. It will be difficult for Sunnis from central Iraq to infiltrate the south of the country, because regional accents are easily detectable and vigilance against Sunni attacks there will remain high. There are still many Sunnis living in the southern provinces, but those who remain there once sectarian violence begins would be unlikely to risk reprisal for attacks on Shi’a property. Over time, the inability to maintain and upgrade oil infrastructure would take a toll. But, even in a worst-case civil war scenario, the southern provinces could probably provide international markets with more than one million barrels of oil per day for the near future.

Second, as many have warned, a civil war would bring the Turkish military across the border and into the northern provinces. Turkey’s primary concern would be to prevent Iraqi Kurds from declaring independence and encouraging further unrest in Turkey’s own Kurdish regions. But neither Prime Minister Recep Erdogan nor the country’s military leadership favor the deployment of troops into the strategically crucial Iraqi city of Kirkuk. They know the move would badly damage relations with the United States—to say nothing of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

We could expect Turkey to move a substantial number of troops a few kilometers inside Iraq to establish a buffer zone against Kurdish militants and Islamist insurgents. This limited move, which U.S. and European leaders would probably quietly accept, would roil Turkish markets and block the cross-border trade that has boosted both the Turkish and Kurdish economies. But Turkey has no interest in involving its troops directly in an Iraqi civil war.

Third, though such a conflict would heighten the risk of terrorist attacks in the region, it is unlikely to provoke any sharp sudden rise in their number or intensity. Iraqi insurgents have upgraded both their weapons and the technical skill with which they wield them. But states like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran have the means to limit the risk of large-scale terrorist attacks within their borders, even if they struggle to quell unrest in areas dominated by ethnic and religious minorities.

So a civil war would be nasty, it would be messy, it would be complicated. But much like Bosnia’s civil wars during the 1990s, an Iraqi civil war could also be contained. The challenge for U.S. policymakers is to assess whether the costs of preventing a civil war in Iraq outweigh those of containment—and the international political fallout that would attend a failure to keep Iraq whole.

Thanks for your excellent comments. Civil war, or whatever you wish to call the unrest in Iraq often has unexpected consequences. For example, if the USD collapses because of the huge deficit incurred by this “war”, that would be an unanticipated consequence. If Iran concluded that its neighbor was invaded and occupied by a nuclear armed bully and subsequently developed its own nuclear weapons, that might be considered an unanticipated consequence. If the radical fundamental Islamists in Saudi overthrew the government, that might be an unanticipated consequence. Considering the track record of the US in waging this—whatever you call it—I fear we may find that there are a plethora of unanticipated consequences, all of them unpleasant.
Illuminating. A question: wouldn't the Kurds try to sit out what would become a Shiia vs. Sunni Arab conflict? It's hard to see what the Kurds wold gain from hastily declaring independence and inviting attack, when partition is the intevitable outcome of a civil war.
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