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Monday, January 29, 2007

Who will win?

No, not the Super Bowl. I mean Iraq's civil war. I caught this story from the AP last week and meant to post it earlier:
That winning side is likely to be the Sunnis, according to Said, who believes that minority's background of military and political leadership in Iraq better equips them for a fight. They can "easily triumph," he said, "unless there's extensive Iranian intervention," that is, on behalf of Iran's fellow Shiites in Iraq.
The person quoted is Mohamed el-Sayed Said, of Cairo's al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Said seems to draw an odd conclusion, given that the Shia outnumber the Sunni in Iraq, potentially have the backing of Iran, and already have control of much of the government.

Would the Sunni really win?

One method could be with external help. The AP story quotes Andrew Terrill of the Army War College, who is rightly worried about the implications should the Iraqi Shia government start waging overt war against the Sunni. He thinks this would invite Saudi intervention, "they would at least provide money, arms and other support."

There are many other scenarios, I suppose, for Saudi Arabia to start assisting the Sunni factions.

Stanford's James Fearon testified to Congress last September that civil wars usually end with a clear victor -- precisely because one side receives decisive external help:
When they finally do end, civil wars since 1945 have typically concluded with a decisive military victory for one side or the other. In contests for control of the central state, either the government crushes the rebels (at least 40% of 54 cases), or the rebels win control of the center (at least 35% of 54 cases). Thus, fully three quarters of civil wars fought for control of the state end with a decisive military victory.

Quite often, in perhaps 50% of these cases, what makes decisive victory possible is the provision or withdrawal of support from a foreign power to the government or rebel side.
Iranian support of a Shia government might also tilt the balance, I suppose.

The gorilla in the room, of course, is currently the presence of the US military. That force is fighting the Sunni insurgents, but is also concerned about the rise of violence by the Shia militias. The US, then, hasn't overtly tilted to either side.

Interestingly, Fearon does not think that US presence effects the outcome much in the short term. And he's definitely not optimistic about Iraq's foreseeable future:
In broad terms, the US has three options in Iraq: (1) ramp up, increasing our military presence and activity; (2) “stay the course” (aka “adapt to win”); and (3) gradual redeployment and repositioning our forces in the region, so as to limit our costs while remaining able to influence the conflict as it evolves.

The analysis above suggests that none of these options is likely to produce a peaceful, democratic Iraq that can stand on its own after US troops leave.
He doesn't conclude that the US should withdraw (he worried about escalating ethnic violence in the civil war), but he does talk a lot about phased withdrawals linked to political deals.

That's a different metric than the administration has in mind, but it might make for a nice compromise with the pro-withdrawal factions in the US.

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