Battleground or Bridge-Builder? Iraq and the New Regional Order in the Middle East

Abdel Mahdi

The Middle East has been in turmoil since 2011 as a result of uprisings that rocked existing political structures in the Arab world, with the declaration of ISIL’s caliphate as its dramatic result. The void resulting from the implosion of the existing regional order, guaranteed by the United States, has been filled by competing coalitions organized around Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Turkey. The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (more generally known as the “Iran nuclear deal”) — which together constituted the Obama administration’s strategic vision to rebuild a security architecture in the region — have been replaced by an effort to empower the new Saudi leadership to galvanize an anti-Iran front consisting of the Arab Sunni countries and Israel.

The Middle East Strategic Alliance, also known as the “Arab NATO,” was supposed to be the foundation of the new, U.S.-inspired regional security architecture. But instead of confronting Iranian influence, the alliance has become the stage of intra-regional disputes and competing ambitions. The recent upheaval in Sudan, Algeria, and Libya, the tensions between Oman and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and the endless war in Yemen are not just sideshows to the main confrontation between the pro-Iran and anti-Iran camps. If a war with Iran breaks out, it will not be a neatly defined fight, but the confluence of multiple faultlines that could easily converge in a scenario reminiscent of World War I. The attacks on tankers off Fujairah and the East-West Saudi pipeline from Damman to Yambu, the allegations of Qassem Suleimani instructing Iraqi paramilitary groups to prepare for war or Saudi Arabia’s call for retaliatory airstrikes against Iran are a reminder of this.

In contrast with the increasingly belligerent narrative being pushed by various regional actors, Iraq is more assertively promoting a new regional order based on cooperation and mutually beneficial interests. By refusing to take sides in its neighbors’ conflicts, the new leadership in Baghdad is presenting an alternative to inevitable conflict and increasing its outreach as a bridge-builder accepted by all sides. The trilateral summit in Cairo last month, gathering Jordanian King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, was a significant achievement indicating that there are alternatives to a general confrontation in the Middle East. The marathon diplomatic efforts of President Barham Salih, Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi and Mahdi have put Baghdad at the center of regional politics, since all players recognize that Iraq may be far from the regional hegemon of the past, but could nonetheless tip the balance in any regional conflict. If Iraq does not succeed in being the bridge-builder, it may end up being the battleground where the fight will be decided. It remains to be seen whether Baghdad can maintain this delicate balancing act in the face of U.S. pressures and Iranian interest in preserving its influence in the country.

The divergence between the United States and the European Union over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is an important part of the fundamental realignment taking place in the Middle East and the demise of the existing rules. In Washington, the foreign policy decision-making process is increasingly influenced by ideologically motivated groups that declare the fulfilment of certain biblical prophecies the inspiration for their decisions and favor an unrestrained unilateralism that aims at the unchallenged imposition of U.S. supremacy. Meanwhile, the European Union has taken on the role of defender of the multilateral system as the only effective way of international crisis management and conflict resolution. It’s debatable how far the European Union can go in this effort without the support of other major powers. With Europe caught in the middle of the conflicting ambitions of Russia, the United States, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others, Iraq may hold the answer to this riddle. As Iraq has pursued a role as a neutral bridge-builder in a tumultuous Middle East, the European Union has emerged as a natural ally, using a combination of humanitarian and diplomatic support to help Iraq promote an alternative vision for the emerging regional order.

Failed Policies, Broken Rules

The “Arab Spring” was not so much a new political utopia as a traumatic realization of a collective failure and the funeral march of the dreams of pan-Arab socialism. The series of events that followed has been not just a change of political elites or replacement of authoritarian rulers, but rather, a systemic crisis that has shaken the foundations of the regional order and the legitimacy of state institutions. The symbolic removal of the Iraq-Syrian border coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement was much more than a theatrical gig by ISIL, and is a clear warning that the old postcolonial order is not untouchable. The Kurdish referendum for independence in 2017 was also a signal that borders could be redrawn and that existing states may not be able to accommodate political demands.

Two powerful currents in particular are changing the rules of the game and may provoke a meltdown of the foundations of the postwar order. The first is the demise of the social contract between the citizens and the state as a result of complex socio-economic changes. Sixty percent of the population of the Middle East will become economically vulnerable in the near future, not only as a result of conflict but because the economic prospects of the new generations are worse than those of their parents. The failure of the economic systems in most Arab countries to offer jobs and services to bulging populations with uncontrollable demographic growth fuels discontent that is changing political dynamics.

The other factor to watch carefully is the sclerosis of political systems based on authoritarian models that are struggling to adapt to the demands of growing young populations increasingly connected by social media. The diminishing legitimacy of those regimes is being challenged, while state institutions are eroding. Nonstate actors are claiming the space left vacant in the political, security, and social arenas, creating parallel structures and organizations that can claim more effectiveness that the state. The growing power of tribal, sectarian, and ideologically inspired groups is changing the inner workings of the existing political systems, even if those groups still don’t openly advocate for their removal. The increasing influence of tribal warlords and ideologically motivated militias from Libya to Yemen will shape regional dynamics for a long time to come.

The emergence of ISIL should be viewed in this light, because it claims to create its own alternative rules as a transnational “state” based on a messianic interpretation of religious prophecies, combining a revolutionary strategy with an intolerant and regressive interpretation of Islamic principles. The group’s cruel and inhuman rule should not make us miss the point of its effective governance system and successful military organization. It poses the most coherent challenge to the regional order since the failed efforts of pan-Arabism in the 1950s. The caliphate may have been defeated, but the ideology that inspired it is still alive and keeps much of its deadly attraction for a generation of frustrated, angry, and desperate young people. A majority of the Sunni population in Iraq did join the government in the fight against ISIL and clearly rejected its political project, but if the liberated areas fail to receive the attention they need, the situation could change. Signs that ISIL is regrouping and planning to step up its operations in Iraq should be taken seriously.



Iraq and the New Regional Order: Battleground or Bridge-Builder?

The past year has seen a pivotal change in Iraq’s role in the region, as the country’s focus moved from the war against ISIL, with military and humanitarian assistance as the main priority, to reconstruction and economic reforms. Iraq has gone through not just a peaceful transfer of power, but also the beginning of a new political cycle, quite rare in the Middle East. The election of Abdel Mahdi as prime minister, Saleh as president, and Halbousi as speaker was not the result of the usual back-room negotiations among ethnic or sectarian blocs that have been the norm since 2003, but rather a product of deals among the different political forces that emerged in last year’s election. The Dawa Party, which has dominated governance since the United States empowered exiled Iraqi politicians after 2003, is losing its control of the Iraqi “deep state.” The new players are homegrown political leaders who claim nationalist credentials, either as part of the Sadrist Movement, the Hashed groups that fought against ISIL, or the new generation of Sunni or Kurdish leaders. Cross-ethnic or cross-sectarian alliances have coalesced around two main coalitions, Bina’a and Islah. Despite many challenges, including the Kurdish independence referendum, the dysfunctional economic system, and the lingering threat of ISIL insurgency, the Iraqi state has endured and is trying to rebuild its institutions.

For the past decade, Iraq’s neighbors have taken advantage of the former regional hegemon’s weakness to expand their influence and compete for leadership, with Iran emerging as the most successful bidder. The Trump administration has exacerbated that struggle, reversing President Barack Obama’s efforts to balance between various regional powers by instead actively promoting an anti-Iran coalition. The new government in Baghdad, much like the previous one, has been trying to maintain a balance and avoid taking sides in the regional conflicts. This is not only a matter of foreign policy but a necessary condition to preserve internal stability, since most political actors are linked to foreign patrons in one way or another. The conference for Iraq reconstruction, held in Kuwait in February 2018, marked the high point of international cooperation in the campaign against ISIL and the return of Iraq to the center stage of regional politics. Welcomed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries as an important part of the Arab system, Iraq took the opportunity to increase its diplomatic outreach, just as Iran and the United States were undermining the cooperation built around the fight against ISIL and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Both Iran and the United States retain incentives to support Iraq’s stability and prevent intra-Shia conflicts, but if pressures from both sides continue to increase, those calculations could change. Recent warnings from Washington, carried personally by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, about what would transpire in case of any attack on U.S. forces or interests in Iraq made clear to Baghdad the fragility of the existing status quo. In case of conflict, Iraq could quickly become the main theater, considering its strategic position and its long borders with Iran and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, that is also a powerful argument to make Iraq the bridge-builder, an idea some regional players would welcome and the prime minister has openly suggested. Recently, the chairman of the National Security Committee of the Iranian Parliament proposed using Iraq or Qatar to open a hotline, as in the Cold War, to avoid unintended incidents that could trigger a military confrontation.

The change of government and the new political blocs that emerged last year did not affect Iraq’s consensus on foreign policy. In fact, the new leaders adopted a more proactive outreach in presenting Iraq as an advocate for regional cooperation across political divides. Abdel Mahdi, Saleh, and Halbousi, together with Foreign Minister Mohamed al Hakim, engaged in intense diplomatic outreach, reciprocated by the constant stream of world leaders coming to Baghdad to meet the new Iraqi leadership.

The European Union, Iraq and a New Regional Security Architecture

The European Union and Iraq have common interests and challenges that require enhanced cooperation, from management of migration flows and counter-terrorism cooperation to building a regional cooperation framework that guarantees stability and economic development.

Baghdad is looking toward Brussels as a partner to promote regional cooperation and security arrangements that could limit the risks of escalation and, eventually, military confrontation. The European Union adopted its new Iraq Strategy in January 2018, playing a leading role as co-chair of the Kuwait Conference, and ratified the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement later in August. These were received in Baghdad as a clear signal that the European Union could be the international partner that shared Iraq’s objectives to build a new regional order based on cooperation instead of confrontation, supporting security and stability without imposing its own agenda. The continuous E.U. support in humanitarian assistance during the fight against ISIL, and the union’s important contribution to the stabilization effort, convinced Iraqi authorities that it was in their best interests to anchor their policy in a long-term partnership with the European Union. The co-chairmanship of the Kuwait Conference for Iraq Reconstruction in particular has underlined the European Union’s clear commitment to the success of Iraq’s process of political and economic reforms.

Since 2003, the European Union has invested over 1 billion euros in assistance to Iraq, becoming one of the main international contributors to the country, together with individual member states. After 2014, the devastation wrought by ISIL prompted a renewed E.U. contribution to the country. E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini pledged 400 million euro in new grants to support Iraq’s reconstruction and economic reforms. If the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Agency was one of the unsung heroes of the humanitarian and stabilization effort, the Development Aid and Cooperation Directorate has taken over as the leading cooperation program in Iraq for state-building and economic reforms, job creation, and private-sector development. By the end of this year all those commitments, and additional funds for humanitarian assistance, Security Sector Reform and the Instruments Contributing to Peace and Stability will be fully disbursed. Going forward, the high-level political dialogue and the implementation of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement will need clear political will from both sides to reach the expected results, something that will be on the table of the new European Commission that will come out of the next European elections.

The European Union has an obvious interest in the success of Iraq’s political and economic reforms because of European concerns about illegal migration flows and the threats posed by ISIL and its affiliates in Europe. Beyond that, though, Iraq could be the rare success story in the Middle East that the European Union can contribute to: a democratic system with peaceful transfers of power and a vibrant, pluralistic political life. Nevertheless, there are numerous challenges and risks ahead for Iraq, such as the fragmented political landscape, the inefficient bureaucracy and bloated public sector, the proliferation of armed militias not fully controlled by the state, and widespread corruption. The European Union can support Iraq’s balancing act to preserve the fragile internal equilibrium that underlies regional stability, as well as improving government policies and public finance management. There is no certainty of success, but there is no doubt about the cost of failing to try. The region could spin into turmoil, with waves of refugees heading to Europe and ISIL finding the space for a comeback in the resulting vacuum. As this article has shown, the Middle East’s interconnected conflicts and faultlines could trigger a chain reaction that would provide an ideal environment for destructive forces to thrive.



Ramon Blecua is E.U. Ambassador to Iraq and a Spanish career diplomat. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own opinion and do not represent the official positions of the European Union.


Image: Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq