What if they gave a coup and nobody from 24-hour cable news came? We were finding out a couple of hours ago. There's been hardly any coverage of this developing crisis on the news channels. (I haven't seen any, but Jazz Shaw at Hot Air has a short clip from CNN. Link below.) Information is up at the websites, but news-channel updates via social media are sparse.
Here's what we know right now. The new president of Iraq, Fouad Masoum, a Kurd, who was chosen on 24 July, refused on Sunday, 10 August, to name Nouri al-Maliki to a third term as prime minister. For what it's worth, neither man has the absolute letter of the law behind his position. Maliki got more seats than anyone else in the most recent election, as he has in the last two. But technically, he doesn't have the plurality needed, or the majority coalition, to have the right to form a government. What President Masoum has done is decline to continue affirming Maliki, as had been done previously, in spite of his not meeting the full criteria for forming a government.
Regional observers seem confident that it's a standoff with force involved.
#Maliki is blocking pols from leaving Baghdad this is definitely a coup now.
— الصليبي الكافر (@tyrnykillr) August 11, 2014
The U.S., a vocal critic of Maliki in recent weeks, has come out in support of Masoum and his position.
Fully support President of #Iraq Fuad Masum as guarantor of the Constitution and a PM nominee who can build a national consensus. — Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) August 10, 2014
On Sunday evening, Maliki went on national TV and informed Iraqis that he would not step aside. In the hours surrounding this announcement, he apparently ordered loyalist forces to converge on Masoum's residence, and to close down the bridges and roadways into the Green Zone. He's hunkered down in the Green Zone now, apparently preparing to fight being dislodged. (See here, here, and here.)
That said, it's not clear that anyone (other than ISIS, of course) actually has a plan to forcibly remove him. There doesn't seem to be any evidence of it. Maliki's fate actually depends more on whether he still has the support of Iran, and probably Russia. The current developments are grave and significant, but proclamations that Maliki's days are numbered are premature. Who, exactly, is going to make that a reality? To whom is it worth the disruption -- and who can contain it?
It's quite possibly Iraq whose days are numbered. What tonight's work may well do -- worst case, and by no means unthinkable -- is fracture Iraq's fragile cohesion entirely: harden the Sunni-Shia divide, with Sunnis giving up on a Maliki-led central government, and a critical mass of Shias clinging to it. Where that could matter most is, first, in the Iraqi armed forces, which still -- outside of Kurdish-held territory -- loosely obey a nominal, non-sectarian loyalty to the central government. (Or at least are not in open rebellion against it.) It would also likely cause the Iraqi armed forces' already fading defense of Anbar Province (a Sunni preserve) to simply implode. (That, in turn, could increase the fighting in Anbar rather than settle the question there in ISIS's favor, as at least some formerly loyal Sunnis tried to mount an alternative resistance to ISIS.)
In crude geographic terms, a Sunni-Shia splintering would probably see non-ISIS Sunnis grouped in the Sunni triangle north of Baghdad, and Shias in the south, their traditional stronghold. A development of this kind could make it harder to fight or foil ISIS, but not necessarily. It's early days to predict how this will all unfold, given the number of yet-to-be-determined variables.
But it is wrong to imagine, as most Tweeps and news writers seem to, that the mere moral support of the United States for President Masoum's position confers strength or momentum on it. Suppose Britain and France join the U.S. in backing Masoum. What will that really mean? Who's got the troops in Baghdad, and a plan to unify and rally them? Not Masoum. Who has the potential for armed backing from a foreign patron? There's no evidence it's Masoum.
If a unified Iraqi government survives, it will be because someone is able to talk Maliki down -- not because anyone is in a position to force him down. The next day or so will tell the tale. But it seems unlikely that Maliki took this gamble without knowing Iran and Russia would back his play, in the sense of fending the Atlantic nations off diplomatically. Moscow and Tehran will naturally call for calm and cooperation, but that doesn't mean they are willing to passively accept an outcome unfavorable for their interests. The decisive ejection of Maliki, without their concurrence, would be such an outcome.
The Russians and Iranians can't hold a center together for a national government, but no one else can either. Without active intervention by a United States that effectively no longer exists, there is no one who can save Iraq as a unified, centrally governed entity, if Maliki and Masoum themselves don't decide to reconcile. Maliki's patrons, with their limited capabilities and goals, will be ruthless and realistic, not sentimental about "Iraq" (or about Maliki, for that matter).
There's at least an even chance that by Tuesday, what Maliki is still in charge of won't actually be "Iraq," even though everyone will continue to call it that for months. Any victory he wins will be Pyrrhic, but Masoum can't win a less costly one. This fracture quite probably had to be too much, in the absence of strong counter-pressure from a greater, superpower-type force. There is no such pressure.
At this point, the U.S. is too far out of position to intervene effectively, even if a different president walked into the Oval Office on Monday morning. This is not an ending -- not in its most important sense. It's probably a beginning, and if so, it will unleash demons and jackals. Count Iran and Turkey -- the modern-day remnants of empires that once owned, and dueled over, Iraq -- among the latter. The calender could be rolled back 500 years as we watch over the next fortnight. Nothing is holding the situation in stasis now.
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