What would Iraq look like if the US never invaded?

Written 16 August 2016

Although I believe the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake from a US policy perspective, I do not buy the argument that we would not have had problems with Iraq if we had never invaded. Furthermore, I do not buy the argument that some make that if we had never never invaded Iraq, there would be no violence there today. The truth is that Iraq had been experiencing significant violence before the US invaded, and although many of the actors in the country were supported by the United States, the reality is that if the sectarian tensions in the country did not exist, there would be no violence in the first place. The Baathist government of Iraq was largely Sunni, even though Sunni Arabs comprised about 20% of the country; Shia Arabs made up about 60% of the country; Kurds made up about 20% of the country.

Here is a list of two of the major conflicts that I have in mind:

It is therefore clear that Iraq has been going through intermittent civil war from the late-80s till today, starting long before the United States invaded the country. And as far as the specious claim that the US provoked this violence, the evidence suggests that the role played by America was much smaller than the roles played by the powers in the region — most notably Iran which sought to expand its influence into Iraq.

From this point on, I will venture into speculation, but one which is based on the history of Iraq as it existed before 2003. I will be writing under the assumption that the United States chose not to invade Iraq. Therefore, I will outline what I consider to be a plausible history of Iraq until today.

By the end of 2003, it has become clear that the United States has chosen not to intervene. Iranian intelligence services have lost what would have been a huge boon to the spread of Tehran’s influence, and it has therefore become much more difficult to operate in the country. Saddam Hussein is now emboldened and he begins attempts to normalize relations with the rest of the world in order to reduce sanctions on the country. The US continues its sanctions regime, but it is becoming increasingly unpopular among its political opponents in other Western countries, such as in France. With the US being continuously rebuffed by its allies, it finally concedes as John Kerry succeeds George W. Bush who was blamed in the political cycle for the recklessness that led to 9/11.

The new administration reaches out to Saddam Hussein as a potential ally against Islamic terrorism. Hussein is willing to help, as long as the no-fly zone is ended and sanctions are reduced. Terms are made and the two leaders eventually come to an agreement, and Saddam goes after al-Qaeda and other sympathetic groups in Iraq. As this is going on, however, Saddam surreptitiously restarts a program to build a nuclear weapon. There are two countries which are opposed to this: Israel and Iran. Knowing this, Iraq takes special precaution to prevent another surprise Israel attack. The only possible way to conduct this war is through covert means.

Iran and Israel thus begin to have converging interests with regard to Iraq (as they did in the 1980s). Covert operations begin as weapons begin to flow into Kurdish hands and the Shia are recruited. An insurgency begins to grow, but this is quickly stamped by Saddam, although Kurdistan gains effective independence. However, something major happens and a truck bomb near an Iraqi research facility blows up, killing dozens of people and scientists who are believed to have worked on the nuclear program. The person responsible turned out to be a Shia Muslim who was trained by the Syrian government. Simultaneously, Israeli hackers destroy Iraqi nuclear blueprints and individual scientists are assassinated. This goes on as terrorist attacks led by a group under Hezbollah’s banner begin to proliferate. These attacks prove to be very targeted and devastate Iraqi government facilities. This continues for some years until 2011.

In 2011, the Arab Spring is sweeping across the Middle East. The tensions which had been building up for years in Iraq boil over to an uncontrollable degree and as Iran and Israel pour an unprecedented amount of weaponry into the country. Soon enough, Saddam is assassinated by one of his guards in an internal palace coup as the assassin’s family tries to take power. There is mass disorder and Shia in the military defect and begin to fight for Baghdad as the Shia regions fall. As this is done, the Sunnis in the country begin to rally under Saddam’s successor and a civil war is in full swing. The Shia have the momentum and they take many of the major cities. In the meantime, Syria begins to enter its own civil war.

The US is extremely worried, but it is still very reluctant to intervene. It therefore encourages the Saudi kingdom to get involved, and the Saudis send arms to the Sunni insurgents. Salafists begin to flow into Iraq and Syria and begin to recruit fighters. Al-Qaeda, which has been relegated to Yemen and the Sahara, also enters Iraq and Syria and begins to recruit. By 2015, the Islamists have become the main fighting force in these two countries as tens of thousands of Sunni foreign fighters come to fight, and they soon begin to retake major Sunni cities like Mosul and Ramadi. The Turks are also supporting these groups as they seek to expand their influence in the Middle East. Some of these groups begin to carry out attacks in the West as part of a plan to counter Western influence and draw them into a quagmire.

From 2003 to 2016, over 250,000 people have died in violence in Iraq and it seems as if the country is falling apart.

I obviously cannot say for sure if the above scenario would have actually happened, but I have tried to create what I think is a plausible scenario. The root of the issue is that Iraq is a state marred by sectarian differences which have continuously bubbled up for decades. It is highly implausible that these issues would not have bubbled up again if we did not invade. This does not mean that I believe that the invasion was justified, but it does mean that I do not believe US foreign policy is the root cause of what is currently going on in the region.