Iraq is Fragile, Not Hopeless: How Iraq’s Fragility Undermines Regional Stability

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (Download the full report here)

The stabilization of the Iraqi state remains strategically important to the United States and worthy of a concerted US policy effort. Iraq’s endemic domestic fragility creates space for foreign actors to play out their proxy battles, exacerbating Iraqi and regional instability in a mutually reinforcing cycle. Depriving them of that arena through the establishment of a strong, stable, and sovereign Iraqi state is therefore a prerequisite for stability in the Middle East and the preservation of US interests in the region. Stabilizing Iraq, and with it, the region, will allow the United States to pivot to other foreign policy priorities without incurring excess risk in the Middle East.

Iraq remains vital to a range of US national security efforts, including:

  • Achieving regional stability: Continued Iraqi instability provides a convenient proxy battleground in which regional and global conflicts intensify and escalate. The establishment of a representative, stable, and sovereign Iraq is a prerequisite for peace in the Middle East.
  • Maintaining counterterrorism victories: A continued US military presence in Iraq to support Iraqi Security Forces and maintain supply lines and reinforcements into Syria is essential to preventing the re-emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Maintaining the enduring defeat of ISIS and preventing the rise of new Salafi-jihadi extremists is worth the comparatively small investment of a continued US force presence in Iraq and stabilization aid to the Iraqi state.
  • Competing with emerging great power rivals: Both Russia and China are beginning to threaten US interests in the Iraqi theater. Maintaining and improving the US-Iraqi strategic partnership will prevent these great power competitors from establishing another destabilizing foothold in the Middle East.
  • Constraining Iran: The establishment of a weak, Shi’a-led Iraqi client state is a core aim of the Iranian regime’s regional project. US support to strengthen the Iraqi state denies not only this fundamental regime objective but also the Iranian regime’s desires for a captive Iraqi market and an end to US regional influence. 

The Iraqi state of 2020 is fragile, but not hopeless. The influence of its historically powerful political, religious, and security institutions is decaying as the interests of elites become divorced from the interests of the Iraqi people. The decay of those institutions creates space for new participants in and real changes to Iraq’s political process. Iraqi elections scheduled for 2021 could be the last, best chance to re-establish the faith of the Iraqi people in their increasingly unrepresentative and fragmented political system. Increasing voter engagement and an expansion of nonsectarian political movements should be sources of optimism for the 2021 election cycle but require support from neutral international actors and secular civil society institutions.

The Government of Iraq lacks the capacity to strengthen and stabilize the Iraqi state, even when its leaders have the will. A renewed, whole-of-government US policy focus on capacity building is necessary to bolster the ability of those individuals and institutions who already have the will, but not the ability, to stabilize Iraq.

Iraq’s neighbors and other regional actors further destabilize the Iraqi state and exacerbate its weaknesses.

  • Iran is actively working toward a weak, Shi’a-led Iraqi client state; a fragmented Iraq could never again threaten Iran as it did under Saddam. Its endemic interference in Iraq’s economy and security sector are destabilizing to the state as a whole.
  • Turkey disregards Iraqi stability. Turkey treats Iraqi Kurdistan as a natural extension of its domestic counterterrorism area of operations with no regard for Iraqi sovereignty, regularly interferes in Iraqi politics, and is building increasing leverage over Iraq’s precious water resources.
  • Saudi Arabia has neglected Iraq for thirty years and is only now beginning to re-establish a productive bilateral relationship. Increasing Saudi involvement in Iraq risks increasing violent Iranian backlash in Iraq and the broader region but could also help Iraq to counterbalance against Iranian and Turkish domination.
  • China is working to integrate Iraq into its predatory Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), economic investments that will not stabilize Iraq. Anti-US actors in Iraq increasingly and falsely frame Chinese Belt and Road investments as a potential alternative to US economic support. 
  • Russia views Iraq as another theater in which it can work to end the US-led world order and re-establish itself as a great power, but in doing so damages Iraqi stability. The Kremlin exploits and exacerbates tensions in the US-Iraqi partnership to accelerate a potential US departure from the region. Russia’s increasing ties with Iran’s proxy militia network in Iraq could threaten not only Iraqi stability but also US forces and interests in Iraq and Syria.

Consistent and appropriate US investments in the establishment of a stable Iraqi state must be a core component of a well-calibrated US approach to the Middle East. US troop reductions throughout 2020, US withdrawals from over a dozen joint US-Iraqi bases, and US threats to close the Baghdad embassy each signal to anti-US actors in the Middle East that the United States is on its way out of the region. Neither Iraq’s fragmented security forces nor its nascent civil society are able to take on the stabilization efforts that the country needs. The United States must consequently adopt a consistent and whole-of-government approach to Iraqi stability, stepping up its diplomatic support, stabilization assistance, and development aid to Iraq. US commitments to this approach and a small but sustainable US advisory force presence in Iraq can open doors to lasting domestic partnerships and allied support. Consistency is key; the United States must prove to its Iraqi allies that it can be a reliable partner in helping Iraqis to claim a better future. The United States must also pressure regional allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to respect Iraqi sovereignty and to avoid playing out their proxy conflicts in the Iraqi arena.

The United States can still achieve an outcome worthy of 17 years of American and Iraqi sacrifice and investment. US policymakers must understand Iraqi realities—meeting Iraq where it is, rather than where they wish it to be—to achieve that desired outcome. This paper describes those Iraqi realities; it is intended as a primer for US decisionmakers as they frame their policy approach.


Offsite Authors: 
Katherine Lawlor
Ketti Davison