[OVERSEAS VIEW]Preparing for the worst outcome in IraqLast month’s attack on the Shiite Askariya shrine and the surge of sectarian bloodshed that followed have convinced many around the world that Iraq is “on the brink” of civil war.
In fact, a March 6 ABC News/Washington Post poll suggested that 80 percent of Americans believe “it’s likely that the Shiite-Sunni conflict will lead to civil war in Iraq.”
Such fears may be exaggerated in the near-term. But the escalation of violence and the inability of Iraq’s newly elected leaders to make more progress toward forming a viable central government makes a civil war increasingly likely. With that in mind, an important question remains unanswered: What would civil war in Iraq actually look like?
First, an Iraqi civil war would imply the complete collapse of the country’s central government. There is still reason to hope Iraqis can form a government capable of carrying out basic functions, even if it remains unable to enforce laws in some areas of the country.
This government would have the vitally important opportunity to revise the Iraqi constitution to ensure that resource-poor minority Sunnis have adequate political representation in the new Iraq and an equitable share of the country’s natural wealth.
But if these changes are not made ― or if the central government collapses ― we can expect Iraq to break into three autonomous blocs: the Kurdish north, Sunni center and Shiite south of the country, plunging Iraq into widespread sectarian fighting and putting an end to international reconstruction aid.
Most troubling, other states in the region would scramble to fill the power vacuum left by the government’s disintegration.
Iran and Saudi Arabia would finance and support warring Shiite and Sunni militias in the country as proxies for their regional rivalry. If Iraq becomes a regional battleground, the fighting there would deepen the political conflict between Sunnis and Shiites elsewhere in the region and provoke a surge in conventional military spending throughout the Middle East.
It would raise the stakes for further nuclear proliferation, increase tensions between Middle Eastern states and their international allies, and raise concerns for the stability of Iraq’s neighbors.
For example, over time, an Iraqi civil war could destabilize the Jordanian monarchy, as Iraqi refugees surge across the border and overwhelm Jordan’s ability to handle them. Islamists among the fleeing Iraqis might well take root there and bring the insurgency with them. Also vulnerable are Sunni-dominated Gulf states with significant (and potentially restive) Shiite populations. Saudi Arabia would face increased risks from the minority Shiites who dominate the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, which borders Iraq. Bahrain, a majority-Shiite state governed by a Sunni royal family, is likewise vulnerable to sectarian unrest.
Yet, it’s also important to outline the risks that civil war would not pose for Iraq. First, even in a civil war environment, substantial amounts of Iraqi oil would continue to flow. True, there wouldn’t be any meaningful new energy investment, because the central government wouldn’t be able to pass laws and regulations that regularize business operations. Infrastructure reconstruction would come to a virtual standstill. The northern pipeline that transports Iraqi oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan has already faced numerous stoppages and would remain vulnerable to any uptick in violence. But oil from Iraq’s south, nearly two-thirds of the country’s current production, would probably continue to flow within a range of 1 to 1.4 million barrels per day.
Second, a civil war would raise the specter of Turkish military intervention in Iraq’s Kurdish northern provinces, but would not, as some claim, provoke an all-out war. An autonomous Kurdish republic is highly unlikely in the near-term to declare formal statehood, the likeliest trigger for any Turkish incursion. Virtually all the current Kurdish political leaders recognize that they have too much to lose from a move toward formal independence.
In addition, neither Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan nor the Turkish military favor sending troops into the strategically vital, oil-rich Kurdish city of Kirkuk, a move that would put enormous strain on Turkey’s relationship with the United States ― to say nothing of its ongoing efforts to join the European Union.
Turkey would more likely deploy large numbers of troops along the Iraqi border, and seek (and probably receive) U.S. and EU support to move some of them 15 to 20 kilometers (9 to 12.5 miles) into Iraqi territory to establish a buffer zone against Kurdish militants and Islamist insurgents. The move would weigh on Turkish markets, provoke limited capital flight and effectively end the cross-border trade that has boosted both the Turkish and Kurdish economies. The incursion would be closely monitored all over the world, but would stop short of provoking an all-out war.
Third, an Iraqi civil war would increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the region, but is unlikely to produce any sudden, dramatic surge in their number or intensity. Iraqi insurgents have upgraded both their weapons and their technical skills, but the threats they pose other countries in the region would remain modest. Suicide bombings, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Arab-dominated Iranian province of Khuzestan might increase, but they would not pose fundamental threats to the stability of these countries.
Civil war in Iraq is not inevitable. If Iraq’s newly elected leaders can form a government that the majority of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can accept, and if they can revise the Iraqi constitution to better fulfill the needs of all three groups, they can reduce the risk of widespread sectarian conflict. But the risk of civil war is growing. Understanding what an Iraqi civil war does and does not imply is important for preparing for this worst-case scenario, one that only Islamic radicals hope will come to pass.
* Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His forthcoming book, “The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall,” will be published by Simon&Schuster this September. He can be reached via e-mail at
by Ian Bremmer