THE BLOG
06/12/2014 09:59 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2014

Iraq Is Unravelling - Maybe Joe Biden Was Right

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mosul is a metropolis of nearly two million people, situated in Northern Iraq and traditionally the home of Sunni Arab Muslims -- but also many minorities, Syriac-speaking Christians, Yazidis and Sunni; but not Arab Kurds. What makes it so significant is also its location in the midst of one of Iraq's oil-production areas.

In the past, Mosul was the subject of a Turkish claim, which was put to rest only after a ruling by the League of Nations in 1926. Oil was so important already then ... Nowadays, Mosul is the largest Sunni-Arab population center in Iraq, a fact to be always remembered as Iraq, at large, is under Shi'ite control.

In the last few days, a coalition of jihadists, supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an organization loosely connected with Al-Qaeda and Sunni tribesmen, which in the past (for example, during the Surge in 2006/7) were anti-Al-Qaeda, have taken over the city and adjunct oil installations.

Thus bringing to the fore in a dramatic way, the vexed question of Iraq Quo Vadis.

On the face of it, it is not a real question. Is it not that Iraq is almost a model democracy? Is it not that Iraq has fulfilled the wet dream of the Neocons who orchestrated the invasion of 2003, and worked hard since then to convince us that Iraq with its elections and Parliament is the new, post-Saddam free country?

Well, not so quickly. Yes, Iraq is different than what it was under the tyrant; yes the tyrant was horrible, and he HAD to be brought down ... but then what?

For years Iraq has experienced a horrific civil war, another version [in that case, the original one] of the Sushi war (Sunnis-Shi'ites), in which hardly a day passed without a car bomb or more -- a daily toll of tens. Not much compared to the Syrian killing fields, but FAR too much for a country enjoying the "fruits of democracy."

There are those who call it sectarianism, others tribalism, and they do it at their peril, because in the world of political correctness, particularly in the academic world, these are dirty words, but truth cannot be washed away by any police. Sectarianism and tribalism is the plague of the Arab Middle East. It is the curse of Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, possibly (though hopefully not) that of Jordan and Saudi-Arabia.

In a situation like that, the outward signs of democracy, such as elections, mean much less than what they do in a Western society. Bashar Assad in Syria, General Al-Sisi in Egypt and others can hold elections and even be elected by less than the ritualistic 99% and change, but such elections do NOT bring legitimacy (Egypt though may be a somewhat different case, due to its much more demographic profile and its political tradition), something that has to have deeper roots than just having the ritual of elections.

In the case of Iraq (clearly also Syria), an extremely despotic regime tried to achieve stability by the unmitigated use of brute force, and it seemed to be working for nearly three decades, and was brought to an end by foreign intervention. Interesting but not really useful to speculate what could have been if Saddam did not invade Kuwait in 1990 and start the chain of events which led to his downfall. However, neighboring Syria can provide a possible answer, as there, too, the people experienced a nightmare dictatorship and then revolted, without the regime being involved in external adventures.

Be that as it may, the fact is that a blood-thirsty dictatorship can provide stability, but not indefinitely. In the process, it demolishes any social and political association that can provide the oppressed people a framework for organizing themselves in a way conducive to the creation of civic society. What happens, therefore, is that the primordial forms of social loyalty, religion and ethnicity (particularly the first) are the ones which seem natural and legitimate to the people. So, the attack on Assad in Syria is exactly that, sectarian-motivated, and clearly it is what is happening in Iraq, where Arab Sunnis will NEVER accept the legitimacy of a Shi'ite regime, no matter how many elections are taking place.

Here is where the discussions of solutions becomes so relevant. Any such discussion falls within the realm of "easier said than done," but maybe trying to do what until now has NOT been experienced, can be a key for the future.

If sectarianism/tribalism is the king, why not adopt it rather than fight it? And that brings us back to VP Joe Biden and his much derided idea, that Iraq should be divided along its sectarian/ethnic lines, into Kurdish, Arab Sunni and Arab Shi'ite states, either fully independent or as part of a federal/confederated union. It is no longer like it was decades ago when Baghdad was almost completely Sunni, and there are minorities in the North who will demand their autonomy/self-rule, such as the Syriac-speaking Christians, the Turkomens and Yazidis, and surely there are obvious regional complications -- but the idea deserves a renewed discussion and scrutiny.

Clearly, it will be desirable to achieve that before Iraq sinks into a Syrian type full-fledged bloodbath. The chances? Not too high to say the least, but if hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives can somehow be spared, as well as the plight of millions of refugees, it is definitely worth a try.