A Way to Solve the Iraqi Civil War?

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Washington Post writer, Shankar Vedantum, reports the findings of an interesting and disheartening study about why civil wars tend to be more deadly and harder to resolve than wars between nation-states. It's not just ethnic or cultural hatred that drives such wars. According to University of California at San Diego professor Barbara Walter, civil wars rage on because of the fear that one side will gain control of the post-war government and then use it to attack the other, now disarmed, side. To wit: 

The reason civil wars end up being protracted, Walter found, is that unlike wars between nations, opponents in a civil war usually have to lay down arms before peace is reached. Once they do so, they both have to trust that the newly formed government will protect them. Since that government is likely to be under the control of the stronger side, however, the weaker side is left with no recourse if its erstwhile enemy breaks the peace agreement and decides to annihilate it.

Two nations at war, by contrast, can each pull their troops behind a border after a peace accord. Nations can break peace agreements, too, but that usually only means the conflict will resume where it left off. Being fooled in wars between nations, in other words, is unpleasant, but getting suckered in a civil war can be fatal.

"The payoffs are structured in such a way that there will be great gains for the stronger side to exploit your opponent and huge costs for the weaker side for being the sucker," Walter says about civil war antagonists.

With regard to the Iraq war, Vedantum further reports:

Civil wars that end peacefully, Walter found, invariably involve a third party that can enforce the terms of a settlement—if one antagonist breaks his word, the other now has someone to turn to. Walter is not saying the United States has to be this broker. In fact, it may be ill suited to the role not only because it is a party to the current conflict, but because successful civil war brokers are usually aligned with the weaker side, which has the most to lose by laying down weapons. The U.S. invasion toppled the minority Sunnis from power, and handed over the reins of government to the majority Shiites.

"We're supporting the stronger side, which creates disincentives for that side to make any concessions," says Walter. "We are empowering the Shiites to reach for a complete, decisive victory."

This suggests that partition, after the manner of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, should be revisited as a policy option. 

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  1. Aside from the times that I’ve advocated the restoration of the Ottoman and Persian empires–oh, and that one time I thought Byzantium should be restored–I’ve long been firmly in the partition camp. To simplify matters, the U.S. can retain control of the oil fields, so there won’t be any contention over that. Simple!

  2. I think partition absolutely makes the most sense. Why force extremely tribalistic people to get along with each other when they don’t want to. Let the kurds, the sunnis, and the shiites have their own states.

  3. It would be great to end the “civil war”, but there will still be a huge Al Quada force in Iraq terrorizing both sides in hopes of igniting a civil war. How much of the violence going on right now is legitmate sectarian strife and how much is foreign Al Quada? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, but clearly some of the violence and a lot of the high profile suicide attacks are Al Quada. I don’t see how you can realisticlly talk about an end to the sectarian violence war without answering that question because you don’t know how widespread the sectarian violence actually is. Foriegn born Al Quada fighters is not sectarian violence. It is just terrorism. No one ever talks about that factor. They just blindly chaulk up all violence to the “civil war” never considering Al Quada. No settlement between the Sunnis and the Shia will end the Al Qauda violence except insofar as it allows the populace to unite and eliminate it.

  4. PL

    Why not go all the way and restore the Roman Empire? Your handle isn’t in Turkish, Farsi or Greek, after all.

  5. Rome’s control never extended far enough, unfortunately. Actually, that’s a reason to leave off Byzantium, too. All in all, my vote is for the Turks, even though that means no togas 🙁 But there would be lots of corruption!

  6. John’s asking the right questions.

    The nexus between the two issues – the civil war and the jihadist violence – is that the civil war encourages Sunnis to support, or at least tolerate, foreign Al Qaeda jihadists in their midst. Encouraging this is one of the reasons the jihadists carried out the strategy of goading the Shiites into the civil war through their campaign of atrocities against Shiite civilians. Once the Shiites started their revenge killings and the civil war broke out, having some hardened, well armed fighters in your camp becomes quite attractive.

    If the civil war was ended in a manner that most of the Sunni public accepted, the jihadists would survice for a bout a week. Iraqi Sunnis are very nationalist, not believers in a global caliphate at all. When three Iraqi lawmakers were introduced to Congress as “a Sunni, a Shiite, and a Kurd,” the Sunni objected, and insisted that he be called an “Iraqi nationalist.” Not to mention, a Sunni populace that has welcomed the end of a civil war is certainly not going to put up with troublemakers seeking to reignite it.

  7. The author missed two big exceptions to his ” invariable” rule about the need for a third party:

    The U.S. Civil War and the English Civil War.

  8. John –
    While important to distinguish between the types and sources of violence, I would say that if you were to give a territory to the Sunnis and one to the Shiia, then you may end up with them not tolerating Al Qaeda based attacks. In this regard I think some of Joe’s observations are spot-on. If you remove the incentive for Sunnis to continue to tolerate Al Qaeda attacks because they are benefiting them and give them a Sunni nation, it’s then a matter of finding Al Qaeda operatives and eliminating them from your borders. In the current situation, you can’t really do that as both sides occasionally benefit from Al Qaeda’s strikes.

  9. Martin, I agree, and believe the reason [shout-out] the US is an exception to the “ivariable rule” is because Sam Grant offered Bobby Lee very generous peace terms, including that the soldiers could bring their weapons home. (I hope I’m not romanticizing this too much) The Southerners, having been given such terms, in turn stopped fighting. War over, amen.

  10. We are empowering the Shiites to reach for a complete, decisive victory.

    Doesn’t “a complete, decisive victory” by definition end the war?

    The author missed two big exceptions to his ” invariable” rule about the need for a third party:

    Walter is not saying the United States has to be this broker. In fact, it may be ill suited to the role not only because it is a party to the current conflict, but because successful civil war brokers are usually aligned with the weaker side, which has the most to lose by laying down weapons.

    So who would the broker be? Who is both (a) aligned with Sunnis and (b) has the force projection capability to realistically threaten the Shiites if they breach the peace?

    Lets not forget the Russian civil war between the Whites and the Reds.

    And isn’t the Chinese civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists pretty much over? Sure, technically there’s still two warring parties, etc., but I’d be happy as a clam if the Sunnis and the Shiites went 50 years without shooting at each other.

    I don’t think there was third party broker in either of those.

  11. So who would the broker be?

    Where are the Sauds in all this? Are they the potential broker or are they the real problem?

  12. RC,

    Reaching for “a complete, decisive victory” doesn’t end the war. As a matter of fact, reaching for “a complete, decisive victory” “when you can’t actually pull it off tends not to end well. Just ask Chiang.

    So who would the broker be? Who is both (a) aligned with Sunnis and (b) has the force projection capability to realistically threaten the Shiites if they breach the peace?”

    The Arab League, with a boost from the EU?

    Pakistan and Bangladesh, with a boost from the UN?

  13. There are many varieties of what is commonly called “civil war”. The US civil war was not a war to control the central government / nation. It was a separatist war. I am sure there are many subtle and substantial differences between the other civil wars RC and others reference. I am not at all convinced that there are universal lessons to be applied to Iraq. Other civil wars have had external powers involved, but not necessarily as the strongest single entity (like the US in Iraq), for example. But the overall point that civil wars are tougher to end than wars between states is a good one. Especially in this case, where we have broken a state that will prove very difficult to put back together again.

  14. To simplify matters, the U.S. can retain control of the oil fields, so there won’t be any contention over that.

    Sometimes it is hard to know if you are joking, PL.

  15. That’s part of my charm, Dave. I’m either brilliantly ironic or the source of American imperialism.

  16. PL’s suggestion for the new Oil Law proves that he’s a uniter, not a divider.

    That law would have Kurd, Sunni, and Shiite standing shoulder to shoulder.

    The Kurd would put the round into the bazooka, the Sunni would yell “Clear!” and the Shiite would fire it at the Humvee.

    Ebony, and I-vor-y…

  17. In the case of the Chinese and Russian civil wars, they were ended when the opposition was essentially defeated. No need to worry about compromise when your enemy is dead.

  18. joe,

    That’s a brilliant idea. I mean, let’s think about it. The U.S. is certainly powerful enough to take on a united Iraq–we’ve beat that power twice, after all. Why not just declare war on the new government, watch all the disparate powers in Iraq unify to oust the evil Americans, let them beat us, then sign a peace treaty with the now robust Iraqi union?

    Brilliant!

  19. So who would the broker be? Who is both (a) aligned with Sunnis and (b) has the force projection capability to realistically threaten the Shiites if they breach the peace?”

    The Arab League, with a boost from the EU?

    Pakistan and Bangladesh, with a boost from the UN?

    Seriously, joe, you think any of these has the ability to go into Iraq and put down the Shiites? Neither the EU nor the UN has any real force projection capabilities at all. Sending unarmed proto-hostages wearing blue helmets doesn’t count.

    And the Arab League? Bangladesh? Pakistan, which can’t even control its own territory? It is to laugh.

  20. RC Dean,

    Here’s the question that you asked: “So who would the broker be? Who is both (a) aligned with Sunnis and (b) has the force projection capability to realistically threaten the Shiites if they breach the peace?”

    The question asked was about a “broker” who could work towards a peace agreement, not “putting down” anybody. No, I do not think that Parkistan and Bangladesh, even with extenstive support from the West, could defeat a military insurgency by the united Shittes in their own country, but that wasn’t the question.

    You should also spend a few moments googling “Pakistan peacekeepers” or somesuch.

  21. I have a cunning plan for brokering an acceptable Iraqi peace:

    Love brokers!

  22. The question asked was about a “broker” who could work towards a peace agreement, not “putting down” anybody.

    But the article specifically posits that the broker be “a third party that can enforce the terms of a settlement.” I would say that “enforcing a settlement” means putting enough boots on the ground to end a re-ignited civil war.

    Given our experience to date in Iraq, where over 100,000 of the best troops on the planet are apparently not enough to put an end to a civil war, I question who has the force projection capability to enforce a settlement by ending a new civil war via military means.

  23. You should also spend a few moments googling “Pakistan peacekeepers” or somesuch.

    I’m sure they’ve got some tough hombres, but do they have enough to beat back the Shiites in a new civil war? When they can’t even control their own outback?

  24. RC,

    In a situation in which a peace deal was brokered, we wouldn’t see the Shiites rising up en masse to reignite the civil war, because at least some body of the Shiites would have committed to the deal.

    Peace deals like this are a matter of splitting each side into moderates and holdouts, and establishing conditions where the moderates from each side form a governing coalition, with access to enough force that they can operate as a government. A third party just needs to be strong enough that neither side’s forces can dominate. Enforcing a peace agreement doesn’t generally mean going to war against one side when it walks away from the deal it healped create, but to suppressing one or both of the fringes.

  25. “No settlement between the Sunnis and the Shia will end the Al Qauda violence except insofar as it allows the populace to unite and eliminate it.”

    What a mess Bush and the neoconservatives have created! By overthrowing Saddam Houssein, they have created a vacuum. Are we going to have to be there forever now? One thing for sure, there is no way the Republican party will hold on to the presidency after the mess they’ve made in Iraq and the fact that 9 of the 10 Republican candidates support the war in Iraq.

  26. So how does the partition solution deal with the Kurds? Turkey (out ally) will not accept a Kurdish state. That would embolden the Kurds in Turkey to want to seperate and join part of the newly formed Kurdistan.

  27. A third party just needs to be strong enough that neither side’s forces can dominate. Enforcing a peace agreement doesn’t generally mean going to war against one side when it walks away from the deal it healped create, but to suppressing one or both of the fringes.

    Right now you have lots of Iraqis who have voted for the government, and presumably don’t want a civil war against that government, and who can probably be counted as “moderates” under this formula, who support the “settlement” represented by the current constitution and government.

    Yet over 100,000 of the best troops, etc. aren’t enough to enforce that election on the militant “fringes.”

    I think the question remains: If the US can’t project enough force in Iraq, who can? And if the guarantor isn’t convincingly scary in their ability to smash the fringes if they get out of line, then I think it will come unravelled.

  28. ChicagoTom,

    Ah, but Turkey wants in the E.U. Can’t go mucking about too much with the Kurds and still expect admission. They’ll just have to live with a partition, if it happens.

  29. Ah, but Turkey wants in the E.U. Can’t go mucking about too much with the Kurds and still expect admission. They’ll just have to live with a partition, if it happens.

    Maybe….but I doubt it. The turks don’t have a history of just living with the Kurds — in fact they have a history of ethnically cleansing them, and having a autonomous Kurdish neighbor that would potentially agitating the Turkish Kurds isn’t something I believe they will just live with.

  30. Well, there’s no doubt that Turkey would strongly oppose anything like Kurdish independence. The real question is whether Turkey’s desperation to join the E.U. outweighs its eagerness to exterminate the Kurds. I think the E.U. urge is the greater one, but you can never tell with the Turks.

  31. R C Dean,

    “Right now you have lots of Iraqis who have voted for the government, and presumably don’t want a civil war against that government, and who can probably be counted as “moderates” under this formula, who support the “settlement” represented by the current constitution and government.”

    The participation of Sunnis – who make up almost all of the anti-government insurgency – in the electoral process has been about 20%. I tried to tell you this was a problem two years ago, when you were proclaiming yourself vindicated on Purple Finger Day, but did you listen? Nooooooooooooo…

    The Sunnis as a whole have most certainly not accepted the “settlement.” Those who do not accept the government are not a “fring,” they are the landslide-majority of the Sunni population. And they never will, as long as we’re there.

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