As Sunni insurgents pummel away at the crumbling Assad regime in Syria, they have temporarily drawn the epicenter of radical, violent Islamism away from neighboring Iraq. But the ephemeral (and incomplete) absence of the most extreme elements of Sunni society have done little to tame fears on the part of Iraqi politicians that sectarian strife will tear the young democracy apart in a matter of months.
Though analysts expect Assad to put up a fight and stick around for a while — perhaps even into 2014 — it looks increasingly likely that the regime will eventually fall. When it does, militant Islamic groups that are nearly as skeptical of Iraqi P.M. Nuri al-Maliki as they are of Assad will return home. With constitutional provisions in place for regional autonomy should the voters of a given area demand it, there’s a growing belief that the mostly-Sunni Anbar province may be led by radicals to a federalist separation. Which, if the autonomous Kurdish region is any indication, is far from a cure-all for sectarian strife. What’s more, Sunni autonomy would pave the way for a hotbed of extremism, creating a likely safe-haven for armed militant groups (along with post-Assad Syria, if current trends are an indicator). That Al Qaida in Iraq on Thursday urged protesting Sunnis to take up arms against the government speaks to that potential.
The defiant protests that continue to rock Maliki’s government speak to deep-seated distrust and a broken political culture that lacks venerable public institutions like the army in Egypt or the ayatollahs of Iran to lean on.
The Shiite premier has had a few scares already, surviving multiple attempts to oust him via a vote of no confidence. That he recently felt compelled to release Sunni prisoners en masse speaks to the desperate straits of Iraqi political life. It is a world of ethnocentrism and dealmaking, defined by sectarian differences and powered by mutual distrust. John Kerry certainly has his work made out for him here as he begins his tenure atop the U.S. State Department. The Obama administration has largely ignored Iraq since claiming a moral victory and withdrawing the last remaining U.S. troops in 2011, but that may no longer be possible, especially if Anbar goes autonomous. Kerry’s challenge will be to work with moderate Islamist parties and open-minded tribesmen to maintain some semblance of democratic infrastructure, creating as big a tent as possible for Iraqis open to the idea of a national government.
The only problem, it seems, is how few want anything “national” at all.