George Friedman on Iraq (Agenda)
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
Colin Chapman: Iraq's Shia-dominated government is under pressure. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been pretty adept at managing Sunni dissent through a mixture of force and appeasement. But Sunni forces have become more determined, more violent, and this week Mr. Maliki signed a $4.2 billion weapons deal with Russia. So, what the prospects for Iraq?
Welcome to Agenda, I'm Colin Chapman and joining me this week is Stratfor founder George Friedman. George, what's the root cause of this increase in violence?
George Friedman: Well, you really have to look at Syria to understand the cause of this. In Syria, there has been a rise of Sunnis and some of those Sunnis are fairly radical, and they been sending aid into Iraq during the war there and Iraq has been sending aid back into them, and there is an interplay between the two.
But there is a broader geostrategic and geopolitical issue. The Iranians were the critical players inside of Syria supporting the al Assad regime. They were in the position of creating this sphere of influence from Iran all the way to the Mediterranean through Hezbollah. Well, they've suffered a massive reversal in Syria, and they've suffered it at the hands of supporters of the Sunnis and many of those — the Saudis and some of the Gulf states — are not particularly happy to see the domination of Iraq by the Iranians and by the Shiites. So the logic here is that having suffered a reverse in Syria, the forces that are opposed to the Iranians want to maintain momentum and one of the ways they've maintained momentum is by encouraging the Sunnis to resist not the Iranians so much as the Shiites who are supported by Iran and of course the Shiites are divided so there are various factions. So you've wound up in a situation, this time with the Iranians supporting the Iraq government, the Sunnis being supported by others like the Saudis bringing tremendous pressure to bear through demonstrations, more importantly through various acts of violence — some random, some directed.
Colin: Now, is this a coordinated action by the Sunnis or the work of disparate groups?
George: Well, as with the war against the United States in 2003, the general outline of the struggle is known and coordinated, but each of the units is operating by themselves. In other words, there is a general direction in which everyone is heading, that's well known, and the initiative is on the part of smaller units coordinating with each other, sometimes coordinating with higher cells. But you don't really need at this level of violence to have a highly coordinated mechanism. In fact, it hurts you, because the more coordinated the mechanism, the more vulnerable it is to intelligence services finding out.
Colin: To what extent does the uprising in Syria and this action by the Sunnis reduce the risk of Iranian hegemony in the region?
George: Well, the reversal in Syria has certainly ended the hope of the Iranians for regional hegemony. The question now for the Iranians is how much they're going to be able to hold on to. In other words, they are on the defensive, other forces in the region are resisting them at the very least, pressing them backward. The Iranians haven't quite caught their balance yet although the position in Iran, of course, is powerful, but outside Iran they haven't caught their balance so I would say that the possibility of an Iranian hegemony in the region has evaporated. We're now looking at the question can they even hold on to control in Iraq.
And let me emphasize how important Iraq is to the Iranians. They fought a war in the 1980s against Iraq, there were a million casualties on the Iranian side in that war. It was an extraordinarily bloody war that affected every family in the country in one way or the other. They are terrified of facing a hostile Iraq again. They want to have a pro-Iranian or at the very least a neutral government in Baghdad. And therefore to find themselves on the defensive in Iraq really strikes at fundamental national interests and fundamental national fears. So this matters a great deal to the Iranians I think far more than people outside the region think. In the region, you know that a rising in Iraq matters to the Iranians. Outside it would appear that it's just more of the same. It's not. It's important and Iranians are very concerned.
Colin: Back to Iraq. Now under pressure, how secure is the al-Maliki government?
George: His security seems to be fairly good and he is going to continue as prime minister. The question has never been who controls Baghdad, the question has been to what extent does Baghdad control the country. So I would say that although he has many enemies and his government could be stronger, the real issue is to what extent he is able to exercise his will in the rest of Iraq. That has never been very firmly established and at this point it is becoming even more dubious.
Colin: Why has he turned to the Russians for arms?
George: Well, he understands that he needs the weapons if he's going to control Iraq. Now the question is he must have an army, an army that's capable and that's loyal to the central government. The Shiites, many of them will remain loyal to the government. The Sunnis appear to be opposed. The Kurds are opposed. The Shiites are oddly enough the ones who usually take the subservient position in Iraq, at least that was the case under Saddam Hussein. So therefore the question is with all these weapons is that going to be enough to preserve Baghdad and Shiite control over Iraq and that just isn't apparent but it gives you a sense of how concerned the government is.
Colin: To what extent has Saudi Arabia played a role in all this?
George: Saudi Arabia is, I won't call it the quiet puppet master, but it's certainly an extremely influential power, it has the money, it has the moral authority particularly among the Sunnis, and it has a vested interest in making sure that Iran doesn't dominate. You have to remember that there is a duel going on in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And to the extent that there is a blood feud, this is it. The Iranians were the ascendant power. The Saudis are terrified. The Saudis supported anti-al Assad factions inside of Syria. Al Assad is now on the defensive, the Iraqis have been badly hurt and therefore the Saudis have improved their position. Now I think they are very quietly following on in Iraq to make sure that their position is even further improved.
Colin: And of course, with the support of the smaller countries in the Persian Gulf, like the emirates.
George: Well, there are many countries in the Persian Gulf that are concerned about rising Iranian power and are happy to see declining Iranian power. And they are prepared to support, as many of them have, the Sunni rebels in Syria. And I will assert that they are also happy to do that inside of Iraq. It costs them relatively little. It gains them a great deal. It risks very little.
Colin: George, thanks very much. George Friedman there ending Agenda for this week. Until the next time, goodbye.