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Regional Spillover Effects of the Iraq War

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | December 2008

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The author examines some of the most significant ongoing transnational or "spillover" problems associated with the continuing conflict in Iraq, with particular attention being paid to those problems that could disrupt or even undermine the stability of regional states beyond Iraq. Spillover issues addressed include: (1) refugees and displaced persons fleeing Iraq in large numbers for neighboring countries, (2) cross-border terrorism, (3) intensification of separatism and sectarian discord among Iraq's neighbors fueled by conflict in Iraq, and (4) transnational crime. This work assumes that spillover influencing neighboring states will continue to occur even in best case scenarios where the Iraqi government rapidly assumes full sovereignty over the entire country in ways that allow it to provide security and stability to most of the population. In the perhaps more likely event that Iraq continues to wrestle with serious internal conflict, cross-border spillover problems could be significantly more intense. This monograph is designed to serve as an overview of the present dangers for Iraq's neighbors and may intensify as a result of the ongoing conflict within Iraq. It assumes that no amount of U.S. effort and resources can compensate for Iraqis who are not willing or able to address the serious problems that still exist in organizing their society in ways that promote stability and minimize internal division. It is important that any future setbacks in the strategic situation in Iraq do not lead to intensified problems in the wider Middle East because U.S. strategists and policymakers focus so directly on short-term Iraqi issues that they fail to address how Iraqi problems influence the wider region. The time to begin dealing with the potential dangers of serious spillover problems is immediately, and not after the United States begins to withdraw from Iraq. The alternative approach, which is to assume that the United States will "fix" Iraq and therefore not have to deal with spillover issues, presupposes an almost perfect longterm outcome to the present situation, and is therefore a considerable gamble. At the present time, the danger of spillover problems involving Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian and Arab-Kurdish ethnic strife that moves beyond Iraq is probably more threatening to U.S. interests than any other spillover effect, including the Iraqi refugee crisis, terrorism, and Iraqi-based transnational crime. All of these issues are nevertheless important, and they must therefore be addressed by a comprehensive strategy.

Conclusions and Policy Recommendations

It is inevitable that civil unrest and other problems in Iraq would have spillover effects for other regional countries. These problems will continue even if the situation in Iraq steadily improves and will become especially problematic if the situation in Iraq deteriorates. Virtually every responsible person dealing with Iraq acknowledges that gains in that country are fragile and reversible and that ultimately the Iraqis and not the Americans will decide the Iraqi future. It is, therefore, vital that the United States prepares for spillover problems beyond Iraq's borders, and that this is done in the knowledge that the road to a unified and stable Iraq remains long and uncertain. Even temporary and reversible disasters in Iraq can have catastrophic results for U.S. interests in the Middle East if efforts to address Iraqi spillover are not adequate. The following policy recommendations are therefore offered with this situation in mind.

1. U.S. civilian and military planners need to remain sensitive to the possibility that the most dangerous spillover threat from Iraq is ethnic and sectarian conflict, and if such spillover occurs in any dramatic way, it may be catastrophic for U.S. interests. Sectarian hatreds can lead to civil unrest and undermine the stability of countries beyond Iraqi borders. Moreover, the United States must accept the possibility of a long-term struggle between Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites which intensifies dramatically once U.S. forces leave Iraq, regardless of how many years they remain and attempt to "fix" the political system. The potential for such problems spreading is directly related to the discontent Middle East Shi'ites may feel in their home countries because of unfair political and economic treatment. U.S. leadership correspondingly needs to recognize that while this may be the wrong time to push for full democracy in the larger Middle East, it is the right time to push for reform including the acceptable treatment of Shi'ite citizens by Arab countries. Reducing or eliminating discrimination against Shi'ites in Sunni Arab countries is an important component of any strategy to contain sectarian spillover.

2. The United States needs to consider carefully the dangers that sectarian disorder may bring to Iraq's neighbors, even in the case of those countries which are U.S. adversaries. If Syria collapses into chaos, this development will not serve U.S. interests. A decrepit Ba'ath regime, however unpleasant and troublesome, is a better option for the present than a Syrian civil war or the extreme and energized Islamist regime that could emerge from such chaos. Ba'athism in Syria, in general, may not have much of a future. At this time, it is probably most useful to take advantage of Syrian isolation and weakness to seek continuing gains in Syrian behavior towards Iraq.

3. The United States needs to let its Iraqi friends and allies know that they will be welcomed into the United States should they face disaster in Iraq rather than consigned to be refugees in some other part of the world. Such policies do not mean that we are facing and preparing for defeat in Iraq. Rather, they would be meant to reassure our Iraqi supporters that we will stand by them regardless of the problems that they might face. Like all forms of insurance, this approach is meant to be comforting and empowering to our Iraqi

supporters. The United States should also continue and expand programs to allow actively pro-American Iraqis and their families into the United States and then allow the heads of household to return to Iraq to work with U.S. forces if they are willing and can make a useful contribution to building the new Iraq. The U.S. willingness to protect the families of such supporters in this way builds good will and enhances U.S. ability to recruit especially valuable supporters. While many such families would have permanent resident status, they would probably be interested in returning to Iraq once they felt safe in doing so.

4. The U.S. leadership needs to understand that foreign terrorists and funds may return to Iraq after being driven out unless Sunni tribal groups in Western Iraq can maintain good relations with each other and good relations with the Baghdad government. The Awakening groups therefore cannot be precipitously abolished thereby repeating the same type of mistake as disbanding the Iraqi Army in 2003. Zero-sum thinking on the part of key Iraqi leaders could lead to intersectarian and intrasectarian problems that plunge Western Iraq into renewed chaos. If Iraqi leaders are determined to seek political advantages by plunging the country into a downward cycle, U.S. forces will be able to do very little about it. Terrorist infiltration from abroad would again become a larger problem, and the danger presented to the region by Iraq trained terrorists would be increased.

5. The United States needs to take whatever steps are necessary to minimize the ability of al-Qaeda members to infiltrate Iraq at any future point, but especially at the beginning of that stage where the Iraqi government is seeking to survive and expand its authority following the eventual departure of U.S.

troops. This program to help Iraq may involve limited cooperation with Syria and under some circumstances, Iran. Such cooperation should be limited but could also be used to set the stage for a discussion of other problems including nuclear weapons in Iran and problems with support for terrorist groups by both countries.

6. The United States must do all it can to maintain intelligence data bases that reflect the movements of foreign fighters who have left Iraq after gaining valuable experience there and must keep this need in mind when developing policies toward all Arab countries including Syria. In this regard, it is again doubtful that either U.S. or Israeli interests would be well served by regime change in Damascus that led to an almost totally anarchic situation such as that found in Iraq as late as 2006. Intelligence cooperation with the Syrians should be considered if the Syrian regime is willing to provide useful intelligence on an ongoing basis, and if the price that the Syrians want for such cooperation is not unacceptably high.

7. The United States needs to be aware that alQaeda has very little to offer the Arab world except what they seek to present as a heroic image, which they seek to enhance through fighting Western and especially U.S. troops. Moreover, when al-Qaeda's violent tendencies cause it to kill innocent Arab civilians, as it did in Jordan in November 2005, it pays a massive price in public sympathy, and tends to be met with strong state resistance. It is therefore almost always better to have responsible Arab forces fighting al-Qaeda whenever this is possible, even if they are often not as effective as U.S. forces. Efforts by Arab countries such as Jordan to provide counterterrorism support to fellow Arab states should be encouraged and supported financially by the United States on a continuing basis throughout the struggle against terrorism.

8. U.S. leaders will have to consider and prepare for the possibility that organized crime based in Iraq could grow and become more transnational over time. While narcotics smuggling may become a more serious problem at a later point, one of the most immediate issues may become weapons trafficking. This problem will be difficult to control, although there are numerous measures for weapons accountability that would seem possible should Iraq be able to move itself to ever increasing levels of stability. Everything must also be done to prevent the drug trade from becoming an entrenched part of the Iraqi political system. Various regional, tribal, and militia leaders will always be interested in money-making enterprises that can help them finance an independent power base. Corrupt officials involved in such practices will need to be prosecuted by the Iraqi government to the fullest extent. The United States will also need to support efforts to prosecute corrupt Iraqis for international crimes that reach beyond Iraqi borders.

9. The United States needs to keep seeking ways to support Iraqi unity. A calm Iraq subdued by the U.S. military and its allies should not be mistaken for a united Iraq. An Iraq where all of the regions benefit by cooperation with the central government is especially important. In this regard, the return of international oil companies to Iraq will only have a useful influence on that country if this is handled in a well-planned way that does not encourage or support Kurdish separatism or Sunni-Shi'ite strife. Likewise, no future U.S.-Iraqi security arrangements, including basing, should be done in such a way as to appear to encourage Kurdish separatism.

10. The United States needs to continue and expand its coordination with Iraq's Arab neighbors on addressing Iraq-related issues. There have been only limited results with such coordination in the past, but there are important signs this situation might improve. Many of Iraq's neighbors, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, now maintain or have agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Iraq. As neighboring states become increasingly aware of the U.S. intention to reduce its troop presence in Iraq, the national interests of all neighboring states may press them towards a set of policies that accept the new Iraqi government even if they remain unhappy that it is Shi'ite dominated and that it was enabled by a U.S.-led invasion. A key problem here will be to avoid a scenario whereby Sunni Arab states are supporting Sunni maximalists in Iraq while the Iranians are supporting radical Shi'ite maximalists there. At some point, it may be necessary for Iraq's neighbors to work together to back away from such dangers provided that the political will for these efforts exists in all of the countries involved. This will be difficult with Iran under the present leadership, but it may not be hopeless provided the Iranians are willing to scale back at least some of their activities in Iraq provided Saudi Arabia does the same.