Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Beyond the brink
While politicians and large sections of the media are still reluctant to admit it, Iraq appears to be in the throes of civil war already.
November 28, 2006 12:48 PM
Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, has become the latest public figure to warn that Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war: "In fact," he said, "we are almost there."
Less than 24 hours earlier, the king of Jordan said in a TV interview: "We could possibly imagine going into 2007 and having three civil wars on our hands," the three being Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
There is an understandable reluctance on the part of politicians and large sections of the media to admit that civil war has broken out in Iraq. Instead they continue talking about "fears" of civil war and how it might be averted, but as far as most political scientists are concerned it's a civil war already.
Take this more-or-less standard definition from Wikipedia:
A civil war is a war in which parties within the same culture, society or nationality fight for political power or control of an area. Political scientists use two criteria: the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political centre, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second criteria is that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.
By that measure, Iraq is not only in the throes of any civil war but one of the bloodiest in recent history.
"It's stunning; it should have been called a civil war a long time ago, but now I don't see how people can avoid calling it a civil war," Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale university told the New York Times the other day. "The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945."
Some people might argue that this is just a matter of semantics: violence is violence, whether you call it a civil war or not. The point, though, is that being honest about the nature of the conflict helps us to see its true nature more clearly - and possibly to have a better idea of what might be done about it.
Last September, James Fearon, a professor at Stamford university and one of the world's leading experts on civil wars, gave testimony to a committee on national security in the US House of Representatives. His remarks were largely ignored by the US media, though they were noted by a couple of bloggers (Abu Aardvark and Hootsbuddy).
After saying that "by any reasonable definition" Iraq is in the midst of a civil war, Prof Fearon pointed out that civil wars typically last a long time (more than a decade on average) and usually end with decisive military victories (in at least 75% of cases). "Successful power-sharing agreements to end civil wars are rare, occurring in one in six cases, at best."
The current US strategy in Iraq aims to help put in a place a national government that shares power and oil revenues among parties closely linked to the combatants in the civil war. The hope is that our presence will allow the power-sharing agreement to solidify and us to exit, leaving a stable, democratic government and a peaceful country.
The historical record on civil war suggests that this strategy is highly unlikely to succeed, whether the US stays in Iraq for six more months or six more years (or more) ... Thus, ramping up or "staying the course" amount to delay tactics, not plausible recipes for success.
Prof Fearon went on to draw a number of parallels with Lebanon's 15-year civil war, noting that it came to an end when the US and Israel agreed to let Syria take control (a matter they have subsequently changed their minds about).
"Staying the course" in Iraq may put off political disintegration and major escalation of the civil war, Prof Fearon continued, but it is unlikely to produce a democratic government that can stand on its own after US troops are gone.
"The most likely scenario following reduction of US troop presence is the escalation of a Lebanon-like civil war," he said - adding that it is unlikely to make much difference whether American troops stay for one more year of five.
He then outlined a civil war scenario that strikes me as highly plausible:
As in Lebanon, effective political authority will devolve to city, region, and often neighbourhood levels, and after a period of fighting to draw lines, an equilibrium with low-level, intermittent violence will set in, punctuated by larger campaigns financed and aided by foreign powers.
As in Lebanon, we can expect a good deal of intervention by neighbouring states, and especially Iran, but this intervention will not necessarily bring them great strategic gains. To the contrary it may bring them a great deal of grief, just as it has the US.
The Lebanese civil war required international intervention and involvement to bring to conclusion. If an Iraqi civil war post-US withdrawal does not cause the formal break-up of the country into three new states, which it could, then ending it will almost surely require considerable involvement by regional states to make whatever power-sharing arrangements they ultimately agree on credible.
If Iraq is a bleeding sore in the heart of the Middle East for years (recall that civil wars typically last a long time), then its Sunni and Shia-led neighbours may have to come to a region-wide political agreement to be able to enjoy political and economic stability again.
Brian Whitaker joined the Guardian in 1987 and has been Middle East editor since May 2000. While working for the paper he took a part-time degree in Arabic at Westminster University. He also has his own website devoted to Arab culture and politics: al-bab.com.
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