The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) officially declared the birth of a new state in a territory straddling the Syrian-Iraq border. The series of events that led to the creation of an ISIS state has led to a flurry of pundits and policymakers spewing three common myths about Iraq. Attributing the current crisis to any of these misconceptions not only ignores the history of the region but has resulted in flawed policy proposals, particularly from Washington.
1. MYTH: The WWI drawing of Iraq's borders is responsible for the current crisis.
As ISIS moved into the Iraqi city of Mosul, it demolished a post on the Syria-Iraq border, symbolically striking at the Sykes-Picot Treaty which eventually led to the drawing of that boundary. The Sykes-Picot Treaty was a World War I agreement that divided the domains of the Ottoman Empire into states such as Iraq and Syria. The Sykes-Picot narrative often describes the UK creating Iraq by cobbling together the three former Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. However this narrative ignores the historical continuity of the geographical region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, enjoying cultural and trade ties well before the British created the Iraq Mandate.
The British occupation that followed to protect London's interests in the Iraq mandate actually fostered an Iraqi identity that cut across sectarian lines. My grandfather, a Shia from Najaf, picked up a rifle and joined the 1920 Iraqi Revolt launched by a growing number of Iraqis disenchanted with British control. It was his opposition to the occupiers that united him, a Shia, with those Kurds and Arab Sunnis with whom he had little interaction with in the past. Opposition to British rule demonstrated that Arab Sunnis and Shias could cooperate despite sectarian divisions.
After the Iraqi Revolt of 1920, British authorities installed King Faisal as its first monarch. Faisal, while an Arab Sunni, did not originate from any of Iraq's provinces, but from an area called the Hijaz in today's Saudi Arabia. While the Iraqis had a local candidate who could have ruled their new nation, the British decided Faisal would be more pliant to their wishes, setting into motion a trajectory where an Arab Sunni would rule over Iraq's Arab Shia and Kurdish Sunni population.
2. MYTH: Iraq has historically suffered from sectarian divisions.
While policymakers and pundits explained away the Bosnian civil war as the eruption of "ancient ethnic hatreds" and the Rwandan genocide as "ancient tribal hatreds," Iraq's conflict has been attributed to the "ancient sectarian hatred" trope. Such ingrained notions among policymakers often lead to fatalism and inaction in pursuing pro-active diplomatic solutions.
This "sectarian myopia" is based on the assumption that sects, such as Sunni or Shia, are coherent, primordial identities that have remained unchanged since the seventh century. The idea that that sectarian difference, in other words, differing religious practices, constitutes the primary motivation for the current conflict ignores the reality that Shia and Sunni throughout the Middle East have co-existed for more than a millennia without relatively major incidents of communal violence.
Iraq's history has been marred by political violence, but not over sectarian differences. Iraq's Arab Sunni nationalist officers had no qualms about overthrowing Iraq's Arab Sunni monarchy in 1958. Arab Sunnis, opposed to the West, were simply overthrowing a pro-British dynasty, regardless of the fact that the King was Sunni.
From the fifties to the seventies, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims alike joined the ranks of the Communist Party, and it was Shia Muslims who were the founding members of the Ba'ath Party that Saddam Hussein, an Arab Sunni from the rural periphery, would later join. Sectarian affiliation did not necessarily dictate one's identity, ideology or political allegiance in Iraq.
The 2003 Iraq war brought an end to a trend started by the British, where Iraq's leader happened to be an Arab Sunni. The chaos that ensued afterwards appeared to unleash tensions between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shias, but the U.S. invasion simply created a power vacuum which witnessed intense, sometimes violent, conflict within sects. Arab Sunnis competed against Arab Sunnis, and Arab Shias competed with other Arab Shias for control over the new state and patronage networks. When power suited their agenda, Arab Shias formed alliances with Arab Sunni parties to challenge rival coalitions that cut across sectarian lines.
In the civil war that ensued following 2006, Sunnis and Shias killed each other simply for having the wrong name at a checkpoint, yet Sunni and Shia families also protected one another in mixed neighbourhoods. While Iraqi Arab Sunni tribes might be fighting alongside ISIS at the moment, other Iraqi Arab Sunni tribal members have also died resisting this alliance. ISIS is anti-Shia and will kill Shias in both Syria and Iraq for the sake of being Shia, but this does not mean that Syrian and Iraqi Sunni population would be sympathetic to these massacres. ISIS has proven more than willing to kill fellow Arab Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq who got in their way of creating their caliphate. Iraq's violence in multi-faceted, but does not follow along neat sectarian lines.
3. MYTH: Maliki's resignation will solve Iraq's problems.
Maliki became prime minister in 2006 because the U.S. believed he would be a compromise candidate that could reconcile Iraq's factions. Calls, particularly in the U.S., for Maliki to step down would not resolve the current crisis, as there are no guarantees that his successor will resolve political differences between Iraqis.
Ironically, America's stance has made it harder for Maliki to step down. The Iraqi elections do not elect the prime minister but rather the party that choses the prime minister. Had the U.S. and Congress not given military aid to Iraq implicitly conditional on Maliki stepping down, it could have been easier to find another candidate from his Dawa Party. For Maliki to resign now would appear to his own domestic constituents as bowing down to American pressure and granting a victory to the Iraqi Arab Sunnis who allowed ISIS into Iraq in the first place.
Granted, Iraqi Shia parties have also called for a new prime minister. However, the U.S. entering the Iraqi domestic political fray has pushed Maliki into a corner. Maliki is much more likely now to pursue a military option first, with the aid of Russian airpower, and reconciliation only once he is in a position of strength.