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Regionalizing Iraq

Regionalizing Iraq

Monday, November 27, 2006
The Boston Globe - By John Tirman
WILL THERE be a new emphasis on regional cooperation to end the Iraq war? Involving the neighbors to help stabilize Iraq is attractive and could shape a plausible exit strategy for the United States. But the closer one looks, the less promising it seems.

The Bush administration's war thinking has long had a regional focus, but it is now -- like Iraq itself -- in shambles. That strategy was to transform the region, with regime change in Tehran and Damascus openly discussed in Washington. So regional cooperation would be a 180-degree reversal -- itself a barrier to such a strategy.

But the Iraq Study Group headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton will recommend regional engagement, including direct dialogue and tradeoffs with Iran and Syria and the other neighbors. The main alternatives on the president's desk -- the Pentagon's options reported last week -- discuss troop size, withdrawal schedules, and training of Iraqis, not regional strategy.

As many have noted, no credible exit strategy can exclude Iran's cooperation. Iran's links to the majority Shi'ites, the government, and other powerful actors, including militias, make it the most significant regional player by far.

What would Iran want for cooperation, and what would cooperation mean? The first is easier to answer: Iran wants the same security guarantees -- i.e., no regime change -- that it also seeks in the standoff over its nuclear program. Beyond that, some movement toward normalization, including the ending of punitive trade restrictions, would be welcome. In return, stout restraint on all their Iraqi allies would be expected.

The deal would be similar for Syria. Here, the equation would perhaps include movement on discussions with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights. Washington blocked such discussions this autumn. Along with Jordan, Syria has borne the brunt of the growing numbers of refugees from Iraq -- now more than 2 million region wide -- and some financial assistance on this is important.

Possibly more difficult to parse would be the role of Turkey. Their military has insisted that if, as a result of a referendum next year, the city of Kirkuk becomes part of the Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, Turkey would move in to protect ethnic Turks in the area and to block Kurds from declaring independence. The Turks now have 250,000 troops deployed along the border with Kurdish Iraq. One of the two oil pipelines from Kirkuk (which has perhaps 25 percent of Iraqi oil reserves) goes through Turkey. Small bands of Kurdish rebels are pestering Turkey from Iraq. The entanglements are extensive, and messy.

For Turkey, as for Syria and Jordan, money would have to be part of the equation -- there need to be investments that are not mere bribery. Jordan's war-related woes stem from the pro-American stance of King Abdullah and his dwindling political capital domestically; financial capital for economic development could be a balancing offset.

Saudi Arabia, like all of Iraq's neighbors, is keen to keep Iraq united in a single state -- fearing the bleed-out of political violence and refugees from a failed Sunni heartland, or trouble with its own Shi'ite minority. The Saudis also hold Iraqi debt and demur from funding reconstruction of an oil-rich country.

A grand bargain would be a complex, inter-state affair. Syria plays a cozy game with its porous border, for example, and fears growing Iranian influence in Lebanon as well as Kurdish independence, and has its own anxieties about regime stability. Iran promotes Shi'ite supremacy in Iraq, its longtime rival, which sets Tehran against Amman and Riyadh.

Can these tricky currents be navigated? There are many assets in the region -- Turkey's able construction companies and security forces, Syrian and Jordanian links to Sunnis, Iranian political clout, and Saudi and Kuwaiti money. Each stands to benefit from a stable Iraq, but each is cautious about giving up too much, too quickly, to be the good neighbors America needs for Iraq.

Few if any peace processes can succeed without the neighbors' active consent. That this was ignored by President Bush at the outset underscores the larger, deadly blunders of the whole enterprise. But we must forge accommodations with the neighbors to ensure a safe and imminent departure for US forces. That means giving up the dreams of transformation, moribund anyway, and bringing to the table a large purse. Those two preconditions for Washington will not guarantee success. But without such flexibility, the neighbors will be difficult to entice and the prospects for building a durable peace in Iraq will remain a faint hope.

John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies.

The Boston Globe

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