Why France's Macron is wrong on Iraq

Why France's Macron is wrong on Iraq

Comment: Macron's policy objectives in Iraq are not grounded in reality, writes Pieter-Jan Dockx.
5 min read
04 Jan, 2018
Dialogue should be a domestic venture, writes Dockx [Getty]
In the run-up to the French elections, there were already reservations about soon-to-be French President Emmanuel Macron's foreign policy awareness. 

Although these fears have waned to a large extent, the president's recently expressed policy objectives for Iraq bring this scepticism back to the fore. Statements issued after meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and Kurdish leader Nechirvan Barzani, reveal an unrealistic idealism that will do more harm than good to the country.

The first objective  expressed by Macron is the dismantling of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). While the Shia militias' human rights abuses against the Sunni population makes it difficult to disagree with the French President, his aims are not grounded in reality.

Although the current status of PMF dissolution is rather vague, what is clear is that the Shia militia is the most important security actor in the country, and disbanding the group without a viable alternative would create a dangerous security vacuum. As the so-called Islamic State (IS) has established base deep in the Anbar desert, a retreat by the PMF would allow the terrorist group to return to Sunni towns and cities uncontested.

Breaking up the militias, even gradually, would send thousands of aggrieved men home without any alternative source of income. If the 2003 debacle of the US' debaathification and dissolution of the Iraqi army has taught us anything, it is that these men often end up joining insurgency and terrorist factions.

Even if some PMF factions could be dissolved, key members of the umbrella organisation existed long before the birth of the PMF and are unlikely to abandon their armed wings. A militia like the Badr organisation that is deeply rooted within the state's official security apparatus cannot be persuaded to do so.

The French president is seeking a greater role for French diplomacy in the Middle East, but his Iraq policy does not paint a bright picture

A more realistic solution, instead, is the approach advocated by Prime Minister Abadi, of further subjecting the organisation to government control. Simultaneously, Sunni tribal fighters, who often fought IS with little compensation, have to be incorporated into federal security structure, after which they can gradually replace the Shia militia in Sunni districts.

Secondly, the French president called for the implementation of article 140 of the Iraqi constitution which states that a referendum should be held in the areas contested between Arabs and Kurds.

A referendum in accordance with article 140 would allow the people of contested areas to decide whether they want to be part of the KRG, while still being a part of a federal Iraq.

Although a new plebiscite in line with the constitution is the most democratic solution to the territorial dispute, it is neither feasible nor advisable.

Read more: The Iraq Report: Hopes of unity dashed as reconstruction efforts smothered

While Macron's position on the unconstitutional Kurdish independence referendum was at best ambiguous, the legality of the plebiscite called for in article 140 allows the French president to be more vocal about his stance.

However, in the 12 years since the constitution's inauguration the respective article was never implemented, and with tension running high in Kirkuk, chances of holding a new referendum are slim to none.

The disputed territories have also been subject to ethnic bullying by both sides. During the recent battle of Kirkuk, tens of thousands of Kurds fled the city for fear of retaliations.

It is hard to believe that the establishment in Baghdad is eager for French involvement

This fear was justified as the PMF deliberately targeted Kurdish property to prevent them from returning home. Similar abuse has reportedly been carried out by the Kurdish Peshmerga against Arabs during their fight against IS. With the demographics of the disputed areas in constant flux, a representative plebiscite would be impossible. 

The use of referenda is disputed in established democracies in western Europe, and would likely be just as contentious in Iraq's highly diverse, polarised and militarised society. As indicated by the central government and Kirkuk's Turkmen's reaction to the recent Kurdish independence referendum, it is doubtful that those on the losing side of the poll will simply accept the results. A plebiscite would just exacerbate the existing conflict.

Finally, Macron offered to mediate between Arabs and Kurds. While political dialogue is indeed the only reasonable option to end the current conflict and the broader territorial dispute, it is hard to believe that the establishment in Baghdad is eager for French involvement. 

Macron's position on the PMF and the referendum indicates a bias towards the Kurdish position, and lacks the perception of neutrality needed to be welcomed by the centre. Furthermore, France's vague position on September's Kurdish independence referendum may well have raised a few eyebrows in Baghdad.

While a dialogue should foremost be a domestic venture, if outside support is needed the most likely candidates would probably be closer to home. Both Turkey and Iran have good relations with the KRG and while Iran has tremendous influence in Baghdad, the Kurdish referendum has also brought the two closer together. Since both countries have a large Kurdish minority, they have a vested interest in preventing the Iraqi conflict from escalating.

The French president is seeking a greater role for French diplomacy in the Middle East, but his Iraq policy does not paint a bright picture. His ideas are not grounded in reality and suffer from an implicit idealism. 

Pieter-Jan Dockx is an independent researcher and intern at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He holds an MSc degree in Conflict Studies from LSE and his main research areas include Middle East and South Asian politics.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.