(IIb/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In complex situations, an opportunity often avails itself in totally unexpected places, directions and forms that are not possible to discover or predict by logical computation (whatever artificial intelligence or big data employed), historic cases and experiences or trend extrapolation; this is where professional intuition of managers grounded in talent and years of experience shall drive the decision-making by using decision-making methods that use clues, heuristics and other tools of cognition. More formalised those methods are, more adept are managers at all levels in applying them higher are chances the organisation will be successful in navigating through surprises of unpredictability and attain its goals even under constraints of limited knowledge and time.


Photo: BBC

In this post I am presenting innovative features of decision making process and methods the Iraqi 3D Strategy’s employs, in order to flexibly navigate the local change agents and other partners toward building lasting peace and sustainable democratic institutions in Iraq.

Part II(b): Decision-making Methods

Strategy Review and Adjustment framework

As discussed in Part II(a), Strategy Review and Adjustment (SRA) is an iterative framework consisting of regularly conducted evaluations. It is a time and effort consuming exercise to be conducted by well-prepared managers. However, as practice has shown in various settings, the benefits of the process outweigh the invested resources. It is also highly recommended to formalise the process and its decision-making instruments from the outset of the Strategy implementation, with written guidance and resource materials provided.

The principal role of the review participants (decision-makers) is to make judgments and choices to bridge the gap between the ideas expressed in Theory of Change (TOC) and planning documents (PD) and reality, and to eventually choose the course of strategic action with highest potential for producing impacts. From assessment of recent developments to action point, each review comprises three blocks with their own management questions and decision making points, to allow arriving at optimal solution. Evaluations occurring at any point greatly influence what will happen in the next stage. A flowchart of generic SRA for the Strategy is represented in Figure 2; below I will describe each block’s decision making and illustrate it through a set of charts.

First block: Initial recommendation

Discussions of first block shall result in an initial recommendation. It is done through five steps: (a) Taking stock (What?); (b) Assessment (Why?); (c) Choice (What is next?); (d) Recommendation to implement (How?); (e) Monitoring arrangement (How we will know?). This is also a critical decision-making point. Figure 5 shows basic elements and flowchart of this block.


There are five option categories with regards to any level, dimension or component of the Strategy being reviewed: (a) Continue as it is; (b) Adjust and go; (c) Hold on; (d) Drop altogether/Terminate; (e) Replace.  The latter option requires a new (or being held in reserve) course of action, with justification.

Second block: Testing

From this point there follows the next block of testing or, if deemed unnecessary, then the recommendation goes to the last block of seeking approval prior to implementation (justification for skipping the testing shall be provided then, along with the recommendation). Testing is an important and highly recommended for those choices which propose a considerable change in TOC, a totally new direction or set of activities (or of local change agents involved). There are essentially three groups of available methods which reviewers will use to test the recommended action, conditionally named as: (a) formal experimental methods (randomised experiments and quasi-experimental designs); (b) formal discursive methods (surveys, interviews, panels, and focus group discussions); and (c) informal methods (such as desk tests, simulations, role plays and thought experiments). Second block’s flowchart is represented in Figure 6 below.


The outcome of testing is one of three conclusions: (a) Affirmative (confirmed, may go); (b) Negative (hypothesis didn’t prove, no go); (c) Undecided (no clear result). Respectively, first conclusion brings the review process into last step of approval and related communication with ultimate decision-makers. Second and third conclusions return the process back to either considering second-best from the options short-listed or redesign it to be better fit for purpose. The new (renewed) recommended option then goes into testing, and so on until the review participants come up with recommendable solution. This is second critical decision-making point in the review process.

Third block: Approval

At this stage, the job of review panel members is to (a) document and communicate their decision through formal channels; (b) make presentations and address questions and concerns raised, in order to convince the Strategy’s stakeholders in (primarily) political advantages and validity of expected impacts, as well as financial, administrative/logistical, and knowledge-specific technical feasibility of the recommended TOC/PD adjustments and the course of action; and (c) get eventual approval, funding (additional, if needed), and commence the implementation.

This seemingly simple process most probably itself will be iterative and even chaotic, and its outcome may depend on a number of external factors not necessarily directly related to the quality and desirability of the recommended adjustments and measures. The outcome here comes along three choices: (a) Affirmative (proceed to implementation immediately upon the agreed plan, which might be slightly or significantly different from the one proposed but consensus between stakeholders and Strategy top managers has been reached); (b) Affirmative but delayed (do not proceed immediately, until further notice or prior agreed date); (c) Negative (adjustments rejected, reasons communicated and accepted by all parties).

The former two outcomes are rather straightforward and resembling the features of somewhat linear decision-making business process. Exception is situations when the delayed choice (for whatever reason) may become outdated and irrelevant over time—which is the case in many situations, especially in international strategies and programmes with high political sensitivity. In turn, in case of a negative outcome the review either goes back to square one or continues the implementation as before (without dramatic changes) until next review. Thus, the third and final critical decision of the Strategy review is made at this point and effectively concludes it.

SRA decision-making toolkit

The Strategy’s operational environment requires management at all levels to be aware of different decision techniques that have been proved successful in complex settings. Some of these methods are better suited to tactical level or to emergency situations under constraints; others work well in solving ‘large world’ problems. What is important: to ensure that guidance on these methods is readily available (including training), that all managers can effectively use them, and that the methods are sufficiently formalised to be employed Strategy-wise.

In the framework of the Iraqi 3D Strategy’s TOC/PD review process, each step employs a number of task-specific (sometimes the same) analytical tools and decision models—some of them are well-known (such as SWOT, PESTLE, Diagnostic trees, Force Field analysis, simplified SCBA, etc.) and broadly practiced and some are rather novel to international development programming (although widely practiced in business and, especially those dealing with urgent decision-making, in security sector).

In this section, I will briefly discuss some of that set of decision-making tools which I think are highly relevant to the Iraqi 3D Strategy (and any other international strategy/programme working in post-conflict, volatile environments) and shall be formally introduced into management’s decision-making, along with traditional methods. I will illustrate them within the TOC review framework, as relevant to the subject of this series of posts.

Multi-criteria decision models

Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) method

Multiple Criteria Decision Models (MCDM) are widely used in business and in public sector, for they can be flexibly adapted to decision makers’ objectives and preferences and help to keep the judgment objectives clear.  I will illustrate this model on the example of Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP), one of techniques to tackle complex problems of choice and prioritisation. What makes this method well suited to the Strategy’s approach are the following: (a) evaluation doesn’t require exhaustive historical statistical data but makes comparative judgments for multiple choices; (b) allows managers to examine ‘what-if’ scenarios and alter their own initial decision by reassigning the weight given to criteria (or factors, depending on the case considered); and (c) gives the team enough flexibility to choose and modify evaluation criteria, depending on situation (i.e. decision-makers may opt to replace one or more criteria of their metrics based on experience gained, and so arrive at better decision).

Decision scenario: The goal of the Strategy’s review team is to select the most reliable civil society partner to lead/coordinate a citizen platform partnering with provincial governorate of Wasit in participatory budgeting initiative sponsored by the Strategy.

As agreed by the team, the factors to be considered are: experience (in similar activities plus reputation); capacity (membership in terms of numbers and skills); inclusiveness (of members–gender, youth, minority); and outreach (localities and their representative populations covered). Figure 7 gives a graphic representation of decision model’s core elements.


Upon completing a series of steps when judgements are scored and weighed, review participants will arrive at decision which is based on scores earned by each candidate against all the (weighed) criteria. What is interesting is that the team will weigh the criteria as they think relevant to local circumstances and thus the same candidates would score differently in another province (say, in Babil) with different context and thus requirements. Matrix in Figure 8 represents the final decision based on a composite weight of all choices against all criteria for this illustrative case.


Decision trees

Probabilistic decision tree

This kind of decision tree illustrates the probabilities of alternative choices and is a proven method for choosing the most feasible course of action, when there is enough data (for computation) to support the decision-making process. I will demonstrate it on the following illustrative case.

Decision scenario: The Strategy’s managers/review team in Diyala province considers working on local economic development initiative, to assist the provincial authorities and their public-private partnership (PPP) platform supporting youth entrepreneurship and small business. The Strategy’s decision-makers have to decide whether to help setting technology business incubator (TBI) or craftsmanship workshop-incubator (PBI).

The decision is taken in the face of uncertainty about (a) whether competition will be undermining the start-ups (the rival products of foreign producers will be imported and imitation will be rapid thus reducing the profitability of pioneers); and (b) whether the local and regional customer markets will be booming or in recession for the initial period of five years.

However, having enough data it is possible to calculate economic and social returns under all of possible outcomes: ROC (return on the investment made by the PPP which is a social enterprise with matched public-private funding); Social effects (wellbeing of the community); Economic effect (jobs, public revenue).

The decision tree for this illustrative case is represented in Figure 9.


Analogy-based models

Advance knowledge as reference

Analogy-based models evaluate the decision object (whether initiatives, projects or strategic directions) by comparing them to known (well-documented) historical precedents of the same class. In development practice, typically managers are using case studies of ‘good practice’ projects in order to learn from them and try make a projection of some successful past experiences elsewhere (with certain, at times significant, conditionality attached due to diverging local circumstances and contexts) to their initiative under consideration.

As discussed in part one of this series, although informative this method alone is not sufficient (mostly due to limits of replicability), especially in such politically complex environments as Iraq today, where developments may take any turn and any point in time thus forcing the managers keep exploring, learning from local developments and adapting to them constantly.

Recognition-primed method

There is another method of this class, which may prove very useful, especially when managers lack information about the context. This is known as recognition-primed method which works under constraint of limited information and thus relies on the decision-makers’ professional experience and intuition. Research findings over decades of observing real-life situations where this method is used (mostly in critical situations, emergency—by military and generally security, fire brigades; but also increasingly by civil agencies and businesses working in environments of high uncertainty and facing decision choices that do not fit into business-as-usual toolbox) prove that this method shall be among formal decision making tools of Strategy management. Conceptual flowchart of this method is represented in Figure 10.


Heuristic decision models

Heuristics are decision-making methods (simply put, rules of thumb) used to solve problems that traditional methods of logic and probability fail to handle. In management practice they have proven to work very well in uncertain settings and are relying on a minimum of time, knowledge, and computation to make choices adaptive to operational environment. In addition to these advantages, these methods are applicable at both strategic and operational levels of decision making. All this qualities make heuristics methods an excellent addition to the Strategy’s decision-making toolkit.

There are various methods (and various designs for some of them) in the class of heuristics driven decision models. Two of them are highly recommended for the Strategy. One is known as categorisation-by-elimination (CBE).

How CBE works? First, a manager/decision-maker or a management’s TOC/PD review team defines a full set of possible choices to be considered. Next, they establish cues (criteria, features, factors) most relevant to the choice decision on a given problem and rank them in terms of their importance. Third, they start evaluating the choices against cues, one at a time, starting with the most prominent cue. There is only one exit per cue, meaning only two choices: yes or no (either choice meets the requirement or it does not). If there is only one candidate choice meeting the criterion at this stage, then the search is stopped and the decision is to go with it as a recommended option. If there are more than one choices meeting the cue requirements, then the set is evaluated against the next cue, and so forth until there is one at a certain stage which is recommended. If all cues are exhausted or no choice meets the cue requirements (meaning that no single choice evolved as winner) then either choice is selected randomly from the remaining sub-set or new cues are added into the search. This means that last cue has two exits, to ensure that a decision will be made in the end.

Another decision tool which is used at individual and group level (especially in emergency situations but increasingly within broader set of settings) and is very effective in complex situations is fast-and-frugal tree (FFT). Its difference from CBE is that this method assesses one object against a set of cues organised by importance. Again, there is only one exit condition from any cue. Therefore it is more suited to situations where there are no alternatives and decision has to be made about that particular object.

FFT Decision scenario: The Strategy’s program in Anbar province supports the Government’s ex-fighter (militia) reintegration programme. At the first stage of the programme, assistance is provided to address the most immediate needs of ex-combatants. Cash payments were opted for at the initiation of programme by the implementing partners, as most effective albeit temporary instrument. However, the Strategy’s Early Warning and Response System (using survey findings) and field monitoring reports indicate that this approach is not as effective as planned and in fact even counterproductive. Therefore the decision shall be taken by Anbar team’s review panel, whether to terminate the assistance in this form or to continue. This illustrative case of decision making using FFT is presented in Figure 11.


What is distinct about this method, when compared to traditional decision trees, is that: (a) it gives a firm decision (that is why called deterministic method) and not a comparative probability between choices; and (2) it allows for reiteration, creativity and alteration (for example, considering the same set of cues arranged in different order according to their significance—thus offering two decision perspectives to compare).


To be continued. Next post II(c): Management Modalities and Operational Environment.

Previous parts of Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Emergency Strategy for Iraq posted on PolicyLabs:

Part I: The Strategy’s Foundations

Part II(a): Decision-making Model and Process

About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.




(IIa/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In part II of this series I will be presenting the principles and innovative features of the Iraqi 3D Emergency Assistance Strategy’s decision-making model. Given the scope, this part is divided into three posts. First post discusses the Strategy’s decision-making model and process and related monitoring system that feeds into it. In the next post I will present a set of initially recommended decision-making methods and decision rules applicable to both well-ordered, regular situations and those where decisions must be taken urgently and under constraints. In the final post I will discuss the Strategy’s (decentralised) management modalities, related operational environment typology, and some implementation design features, such as modularity.

VIDEO: Top Iraqi Cleric’s Followers Continue Protest inside Green Zone

VIDEO: Top Iraqi Cleric’s Followers Continue Protest inside Green Zone

Part II(a): Decision-making Model and Process

Implementation principle

The problem of Iraq is inherently political and it cannot be resolved by any of diplomatic, advisory, military, financial or capacity building assistance alone. All these are necessary delivery channels but at the heart of it is political activity—guided by proper and ongoing political and political economy (including conflict political economy) analyses, delivered right on the site by senior and middle level team leaders, politically knowledgeable and skilful managers, who have practical experience of dealing with such situations on the ground. They will lead the teams of subject-matter experts brought together (on temporary and permanent basis) to deliver technical (military, civil) assistance relevant to specific locality or level of interaction within the Iraqi context. The Strategy therefore attempts at putting emphasis right—political change (as per Strategy’s Theory of Change) supported by all the means listed above (made available through bringing ‘three Ds’ coherently under one umbrella). This would make the implementation relevant and demand-driven, limit the waste of time and resources, avoid further confusion, and open opportunities for lasting solutions.

Knowledge-intensive work environment

Usually, the international assistance strategies and programmes are developed to fit into the existing data—that is, initially data is collected and processed, analyses conducted, country support strategies devised (whether by international, multilateral or bilateral, national agencies) and very detailed designs produced, including the (set-in-a-stone) monitoring and evaluation indicators, etc. With fast-changing volatile world, this approach does not hold anymore (even in peaceful and well-ordered environments, as we can witness with the failure of many policy programmes in liberal democracies, let alone in conflict and post-conflict situations), as the programmes so frequently fail to address the realities on the ground due to the outdated information and the rigid structures which do not allow revisiting strategies and programme documents. Instead, this Strategy’s approach is to generate data through own activities, compare and match it with secondary source reliable (to extent possible) information, to analyse it and use for anticipating, predicting the developments and adjusting to them in a timely manner.

Therefore, experimentation and continuous learning and sharing the knowledge—will be central feature of the Strategy’s work culture, at all levels. This includes sharing and, even more importantly, discussing information and new knowledge and making use of them within the Strategy’s implementation framework (vertically, horizontally) but also with the Strategy’s international and domestic partners. This will be achieved through flexible decision-making methods incentivising and encouraging this approach and through distribution of tasks across various levels and localities.

Recursive model of decision-making

Model process

To be successful, strategies and programmes in complex environments shall repeatedly test and adapt their assumptions in immediate response to new information and learning, thus managing by discovery and continuous refinement in pursuit of most effective path towards sustainable results. This requires that the Strategy adopts a flexible model of decision-making process—one that employs various decision-making methods (both computation- and intuition-based), iterative discussions and consensus-driven solutions.

Fig 2_Recursive_Process_DM

The Strategy’s decision making process model is presented in Figure 2. It is based on a premise that the Strategy and its components/programs shall change over time in response to developments and new knowledge about what is working and what is not. It is directed to problem-solving in real time and employs a recursive method comprising four elements: situation awareness, decision, action, and the feedback loop.  Whenever possible, testing the decision taken prior to implementation is also recommended. This may include simple (or simplified but still effectively useful versions of sophisticated) methods some of which I will briefly discuss in the next post. Theory of change (TOC), pillar and component objectives, operational plans, targets and delivery methods—all are subject to constant review and adjustment during the Strategy’s lifetime.

Review procedure at each round

Typically, the Strategy review process is organised on a regular (e.g. quarterly) basis. However, the implementation teams may decide to review TOC or any other planning document at any time and as frequently as deem necessary. Another feature of the review process is that it is decentralised and much authority is given to task forces and field teams, while the role of the Strategy’s senior management is to guide (rather ‘nudge’) and coordinate the process and eventually approve the justified and agreed upon changes suggested by teams, and ensure that it is done in consistent manner across the implementation localities, levels of interaction, and fields of intervention (broadly and conditionally as military/ political-military/ diplomatic/ political/ technical and more narrowly by policy domains/ societal sectors/ platforms etc).


Each Strategy review round consists of four steps, as presented in Figure 3. After each round of review the task/field teams submit the completed documentation to the designated unit or member of senior management in charge. This includes the revised planning documents and justification for the change/adjustment proposed. Submissions are assessed and feedback provided, with eventual decision taken upon mutual agreement. Reviews of the Strategy’s overarching TOC and planning documents (PD) are conducted on a regular basis with involvement of all field/task leaders.

Monitoring and assessment

Monitoring system

It is acknowledged by practitioners that traditional monitoring approaches and tools alone are not enough to track changes in volatile, politically sensitive environments. Moreover, in highly sensitive and locality-specific political situation of Iraq (which is characteristic to many conflict and post-conflict countries) it is difficult to predict the outcome from the outset and therefore to establish quantifiable indicators. Rigidly set monitoring and assessment methods tend to produce predefined uncompromising indicators which may turn misleading and counterproductive in terms of informing the decision-making, as the developments keep unfolding (frequent-times, in unpredictable way).

Also, it is very important to set the target of monitoring correctly—for strategies and programmes with political change at the centre of TOC, the right monitoring target is local agents of change and, more generally, political and social actors. Working with them directly or through various avenues offered or supported by the Strategy (such as platforms, coalitions, alliances etc.) the implementers will keep their finger on the country’s and its each locality’s political pulse, and gauge the change respectively. This is the kind of monitoring that feeds directly into decision making and enables timely adjustments. There are various methods available to do so, which are ‘soft’ but more useful for that purpose (one of my favourites is Outcome Mapping technique).

The monitoring approach suggested for the Iraqi Strategy is suited to complex and politically-charged context and also instrumental to recursive, adaptive decision-making process it employs. It aims at monitoring and gauging changes in external social and political environment—both influenced by the Strategy interventions and those developing independently (the combination of and correct disaggregation between the two is imperative for analysis and action). This requires a combination of traditional (mostly inward-oriented) monitoring of deliverables (number of meetings, events, people trained) and their immediate outputs (initiatives introduced/direct results obtained) with outward monitoring of the Strategy’s multiple structured contexts and actors (resulting from quantitative and qualitative/discursive methods of data collection, and comprising a combination of figures, indicators, indexes and, above all, narratives).

Early warning tool

To support the regular revisions and adjustments within decision-making process the Strategy will employ a simplified early warning system. The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) set by the Strategy management is a tool whose primary objective is to timely inform decision-making on political developments, trends, and potential threats. It uses the systematic collection, processing and analysis of information (quantitative or qualitative) about political developments (not limited to conflict situations) and offers recommendations on available response options and related resources. The organisational and conceptual principle underlining the Strategy (the one bringing together diplomacy, development, defence) offers an unrivalled opportunity to compare, integrate, synthesise and make use of various sources of intelligence. The EWRS will work on continuous basis, issuing regular reports and warnings (when appropriate), with one cycle feeding into the next, and so forth. Figure 3 illustrates the stages within a single cycle. It will be managed from the Strategy’s headquarters, by political unit or situation centre.


Real-time information collection and dissemination

Another important feature of the Strategy’s monitoring system and early warning tool is that it makes information readily available in real time to all the implementation teams, from central unit to localities, so that managers could be aware of (often-time unexpected and especially at early stages of the implementation, violent risk related) events and developments across Iraq and take appropriate immediate decisions and measures. This information could be from local (field) teams, central political unit, or reliable secondary sources and may take various forms and delivery channels (emails, text messages, Intranet).

Initially published on LinkedIn. To be continued. Next post II(b): Decision-making Methods.

The first part of Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Emergency Strategy for Iraq posted on PolicyLabs: The Strategy’s Foundations

About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.


(I/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In this series of posts I present a conceptual outline of a Strategy for emergency peacebuilding assistance to Iraq. I will only briefly describe the approach suggested for the proposed Strategy’s design and management modalities and illustrate these through charts and examples.

The aim is at introducing a model and generating an interest among development professionals and a discussion on the concept and design approaches, and on how to bring this initiative forward so that it informs and contributes to the implementation of international interventions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s other conflict-torn countries. Ideally, a think tank or an international development consultancy would take lead in championing the idea and setting a network of practitioners who would then work together to share knowledge (through a dedicated website or even through social media platforms; LinkedIn is one option).

The Strategy outline will be presented in three posts. The first post sets forth the Strategy’s foundations (problem statement, initial theory of change, and anticipated challenges). In the next post I will briefly describe the Strategy’s key features, such as implementation design principles and modalities, analysis and decision making methods (focusing on innovative elements that make difference, are in line with the Strategy’s general approach and well suited to the task in hand). In the last part I will present the Strategy’s initial design—its pillars and components, with brief description of initial objectives under each element and suggested activities.


Part I: The Strategy’s Foundations

Problem statement

The Iraqi state is facing two existential threats. One is posed by militant Islamists (in first hand ISIL, but not limited to it)—this is the front where conventional war for territorial integrity, to regain the occupied territories, is currently fought. This threat is intense (qualifying as strategic surprise) and has devastating physical effects but is rather short-lived (meaning that eventually it will be eliminated militarily in a visible perspective).

Another threat is posed by internal political processes, where the polity is divided along ethno-sectarian lines, on the one hand, and between rent-seeking elites and ordinary citizens, on the other (which fuels mistrust and makes political agreements difficult and feeds into violence, not the least because of creating power vacuum exploited by extremists). As a result, the government struggles to reform and remains ineffective, falls short of addressing the mounting needs of citizens thus increasingly lacking legitimacy and credibility needed to unify the country’s diverse populations. This is a long-lasting problem deeply rooted in political tradition and also recent history.

The two threats are closely related, although have different but overlapping contexts and influencing factors and stakeholders. Central to both—and that is what makes them intertwined—is power struggle. [For detailed analysis see Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change Part I: Political institutions, Politics, Governance; Part II: Economic institutions, Financial stability; Part III: State security, Human security; Part IV: Choices, Alternatives, Scenarios.]

Theory of Change

At the heart of the Strategy’s Theory of Change is political power. Power shapes the institutions (rules of the game) and the political agents’ behaviours, but is itself continuously influenced and framed by their strategic and tactical actions and on-going settlements.

The initial working hypothesis (development scenario) is that the change in power balance in Iraq in favour of setting peace, stability and conditions for sustainable growth will occur through a number of structures of power (patterned social arrangements) rather than as a result of direct power struggle  (zero-sum political game) between individual agents or groups of agents (political players). Those include political, social, economic, geographical, and ideological structures. Institutional changes shall happen both at central (national) level but even more so at the local level—they must be localised, tailored to circumstances of each area/locality.

Iraq_3D_Strategy_Fig 1_Theory_of_Change

It is a highly unpredictable, complex process whereby change may occur as a result of concerted efforts in one or many structures, simultaneously or subsequently (may be reversed at some point or may occur in some structures but not in others)—which will largely depend on where the efforts are directed and how the process of change unfolds. And the dynamics of change may be different depending on the locality. One of success factors will be inclusive character, discourse and consensus based change agreed upon and implemented between and by Iraq’s diverse collective agents (as contrasted to coercive power change).

At the heart of the Strategy’s Theory of Change is political power. Power shapes the institutions and the political agents’ behaviours, but is itself continuously influenced and framed by their strategic and tactical actions and on-going settlements.


The present and future situations pose a number of challenges (risks) to the Strategy implementers (local individual and collective agents, partnerships, platforms, coalitions as well as international donors/agencies). They derive from complex nature of political crisis in Iraq. The multifaceted problem to be addressed by the Strategy belongs to the class of ‘wicked’ problems—those which are ill-formulated, poorly informed, have many stakeholders and decision makers with divergent and conflicting values and interests, and where the outcomes are thoroughly confusing.

One challenge to the Strategy is uncertainty—it concerns both the outcome sought and the path to be taken and methods to be employed for its attainment. In spite of across-the-globe experiences in peace and state-building in post-conflict environments over decades, we still don’t have enough advance knowledge on how to achieve the desired outcomes in any given context. One explanation is that every locality is somewhat distinct, has its own contexts and circumstances: in the framework of the Strategy this means also provincial level politics in Iraq. Existing ‘best/good practices’ can only inform of the lessons learned but hardly can guide the actual Strategy implementation.

Another challenge is that there is no agreement among the Iraqi political elites—on the nature of problems faced or about future vision and the strategy to achieve it. This comes from multiplicity of individual and collective agents (both local and foreign—actors, supporters and influencers) involved in power struggle at all levels and in every locality and reinforced by old and new grievances, mistrust and conspiracy. On the other hand, there is an alien but already localised group of players under the militant Islam banner (including al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and most prominently ISIL—which are influential in ideological structures and possess military capacity to conduct terrorist attacks on massive scale and intensity but also engage in conventional warfare, occupying and controlling territories) which has become already a part of political game.

And finally, there is a lack of institutional (legislation, rules, practices, formal and informal norms), organisational (processes and procedures in government bodies, political parties, NGOs, formal and informal groups, movements) and individual (skills, abilities, experience) capacity to undertake the task in hand effectively and efficiently. This particularly concerns the community level political actors (both individual and collective, such as provincial authorities) and civil society (both organisationally and in terms of member capabilities). Capacities necessary for the changes sought to happen are also unequally distributed—between the centres (Baghdad and Erbil) and peripheries (provincial centres, towns, communities), on the one hand, and between the peripheries, on the other hand. The Iraqi political agents do not have enough experience in democratic processes—something that is not possible to build quickly or through formal training alone, but requires painstakingly practising and learning by doing (albeit with external technical assistance, political brokerage and advice, information resources and knowledge transfer).

Responses to contextual challenges

Key innovative features of the Strategy devised to address the complexity of the problem addressed in Iraq can be summed as follows. The Strategy:

  • Focuses on political power and related political settlements and institutional changes. In so doing, it relies on and nurtures local change agents (reform champions, drivers of change) by empowering, helping create enabling environment for them to pursue reforms and generate local solutions, resources and broad-based public support, and building their capacity.
  • Is sensitive to local context (understood not only country-wise, national, but also as grassroots level, regional, provincial, community) and political dynamics. This implies partnership and on-going consultations with local actors at all levels, rather than supply-driven assistance.
  • Comprises three dimensions of intervention, to attain its goal—diplomatic, developmental, and military (thus utilising 3D—Diplomacy, Development, Defence approach). This makes sense from a number of positions, such as: to reflect and adequately respond to multifaceted nature of the problem dealt with; to ensure maximum effectiveness by bringing various dimensions of security under one umbrella; and to engage with stakeholders in concerted manner.
  • Has a flexible structure (built to extent possible on modularity of components and subject to continuous review and readjustments at all levels) and delivery methods (through the iterative process of experimentation and learning)—to enable timely adaptation and thus relevance to the rapidly evolving local contexts.
  • Employs a decentralised decision-making style (more authority and responsibility to task teams and middle level management) and flexible mix of methods (combining traditional quantitative and qualitative analysis with formalised heuristic, intuitive methods) to better respond to unpredictable and fast changing situations under constraints of time and knowledge.

More in detail these features will be discussed in Part II (forthcoming).

About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international organisation; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.

This is Iraq’s Call: The Road to Take

I asked a child, walking with a candle

“From where comes that light?”

Instantly he blew it out. “Tell me where it is gone—

then I will tell you where it came from.”

Hasan al-Basri (642-728)


In a manner predating the signature Sufi tradition, al-Basri’s verse quoted above provokes thought and is open to numerous meanings and interpretations. One is that, where you go (or choose to go) in practical terms is more important than identifying your point of reference, where you came from (or where your problems originated from). It is particularly important to those who are at the crossroads—don’t look back (because where you already are matters more), look ahead and decide which way better suits your plans, aspirations, and resources—and then take it. It well may be that, by succeeding in your selected route you may end up better understanding yourself and your past.

Things are fast developing in Iraq, and as always in this life it is a mixture of threat and opportunity, death and birth, joy and sorrow, damage and revival. Strategically and symbolically important Fallujah is retaken from ISIL, which is losing its territories; a quarter of its Iraq and Syria territory have been liberated in the last eighteen months. A massively devastating terrorist attack in Baghdad’s Karrada district claimed close to 300 lives sending a shock wave across the world. Oil production has increased by 13 percent. The Council of Representatives is divided, with various blocs further fracturing, and appears impotent to enact much needed legislation in the face of political stalemate and obstructions by various political actors. The economy has contracted by 2.4 percent (with non-oil economy contracting 19 percent). More than 656 thousand Iraqis have returned to the areas freed from ISIL. The Federal Court decisions to nullify Council of Representatives’ sessions undermine Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s authority to undertake reforms in public administration. The International Monetary Fund announced a $5.34 billion, three-year loan program for Iraq, to help strengthen the country’s finances. And so it goes–

Iraq today is at crossroads, and it is entirely up to the Iraqis—their political leaders and prominent influencers, tribal heads, communities and ordinary citizens—to decide which way to take. How to advance along the route elected is a different question, but first they must decide. Despite conspiracy theories held by some observers, everyone else expects exactly this—for the Iraqis to decide their own fate, and anyone else with good (and even selfish) intentions would be ready to join forces. This reminds me of the dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat at the road fork, in Wonderland: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”…“ That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”…“I don’t much care where –“…“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”


Protests in Baghdad, February 2016                        Reuters

Three options: disintegration, federalism, institution building

The problems of Iraq are multiple, but most of them seem to originate from few deep rooted and long suppressed causes that, once released in 2003, started their uncontrollable tornado-like movement. However, in spite of their scary manifestations, neither the problems nor their effects are inherently deadly—they do not pose an existential threat to the present Iraqi state. There is a real danger though, that if not properly addressed they would keep unfolding and paralysing the state and the society and, as a result, bringing more dysfunctionality, misery and suffering: as the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bottom; only endless milestones along the downfall into abyss.

The only way out of this impasse is for the country’s polity, backed by regional and global powers, to negotiate and enforce a set of political arrangements that reflect both the historic tradition and political culture, and the aspirations of contemporary Iraq’s diverse populations. Theoretically, there are two alternatives to consider.

One is to disintegrate—partition into independent states with dominant Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd population (and with Turkmen being where Kirkuk and surrounding area belong to; unless of course the Iraqi Turkmen claim their own right for self-determination—which, considering their recent political activism may quite turn into reality).  A few publications have mentioned this partitioning option recently as a possible solution (and some even extended it to Syria). Even though presented cautiously, these projections indicate that (1) there is an attempt of assessing the consequences of such an outcome and (2) they are merely testing the ground, to gauge the public and expert reaction to its possibility.

Another alternative is to preserve the Iraqi state in terms of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, through undergoing political reforms. The difficulty of this task lies in the fact that any solution that intends at keeping the present state intact has to address two fundamental features of the Middle Eastern politics outlined in previous parts of this article—political tribalism and tendency for strongly centralized power—which set in motion respectively centrifugal and centripetal forces that compete, conflict and collide simultaneously.

Under this alternative one can distinguish two scenarios. One is to reorganize the political and administrative system in a fundamental way – that is, creating a fully federal state with much power devolved to three autonomous constituent entities. This will demand the adoption of constitutional changes, if not a brand new constitution. Second scenario aims at strengthening resilience of the present state through a series of reform interventions and consistent institution building efforts and gradual (but meaningfully progressive) decentralisation—to avoid a breakdown and to evolve in line with and adapt to realities on the ground. These two scenarios are not negating each other and certain technical elements of one can be integrated into another in a complementary manner, if the need be.

Below I present an outline of possibilities, opportunities and risks associated with these three options. It should be noted that neither of them is easy, straightforward or free from limitations and controversies. Any and all of them will demand a commitment to concerted and sustained effort, through consensus building between all major sides concerned.


Although it may look to some as a quick-fix solution, the partitioning of Iraq does not appear a feasible solution when brought to close light, for a number of reasons.

First, it does not solve the issue of minorities, ethnic and sectarian divides, since the population elsewhere across the country is heterogeneous—one cannot find a large enough area populated exclusively by Arabs (whether Sunni or Shi’a), Kurds, Turkmen, let alone Assyrians, Christians, Yazidis, to this matter. It became even more complicated as, according to some reports (namely, about Christians in Kurdistan), the land left behind by villagers fleeing the ISIL occupation has been retaken by their neighbours of different ethnicity or confession. Therefore, the sense of insecurity will remain as it cannot be solved automatically in such a set-up, and inter-group tensions will be inherited by now newly established states. Exchange of population to create homogeneous populations, in turn, runs risks of abuse, forceful deportation bordering with ethnic cleansing.

Second, as noted earlier, divisions within each ethnic or sectarian group won’t disappear with the creation of new states. To the contrary, the chances are high that once left on their own the local factions (whether tribes, movements, or political parties) will fight each other for controlling the power even more fiercely. The history of Talabani vs. Barzani in Kurdistan or al-Sadr vs. al-Maliki in the South stand-offs can serve as examples. This rivalry tends to be quite violent and destructive, considering that each group has own militia at disposal.

Further, there is a risk that divisions and violent confrontation will inevitably weaken these new states and put their survival as sovereign entities into question. On the one hand, this will create a space for various extremist groups to take advantage and fill the power vacuum. Sunni populated state, in particular, may turn into easy prey for religion-inspired extremist militant organisations. On the other hand, establishing small states with predominantly mono-ethnic or mono-sectarian population and weak political institutions make it possible for influential neighbours turning them into their satellites, through installing puppet governments and taking control over their resources openly (unlike present situation when cross-border influences are exhibited covertly and somewhat counter-balance each other).

But that is not all. There is also an international dimension to partitioning. From the international law and practice point of view, there is a conundrum not resolved since the end of the Second World War. The United Nations and most of human rights declarations recognise both the right (of group, people, or nation) to self-determination and the right of sovereign states to territorial integrity (regardless of when and how those borders were set up)—without providing any proper mechanism of resolving potential tensions between these fundamental concepts when they conflict. And they have conflicted on numerous occasions all over the world, leading in the very soft outcome to confusion and diplomatic impasse, but more frequently turned into civil wars, long lasting terrorism, repressions, mass deportation and massacres.

In the situation of Iraq, the creation of new states based on ethnic and sectarian principle will be formally framed as a “special case”, not to inspire many others to follow suit. That is not going to convince anyone with similar aspirations for independence, or those who are afraid of those aspirations as potentially threatening the integrity of their states. Think of sectarian minorities across the region (and all this at the time of heightened tensions due to jihadists targeting Shi’a along with traditional “infidels”, on the one hand, and ever escalating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran over hearts and minds of Muslims in the Middle East, on the other). The partitioning of Iraq into Sunni and Shi’a states will awaken and may set in motion a chain of movements across the Middle East and North Africa region (country like Kuwait, with its reputation for tolerance and cross-sectarian coalitions in the parliament, is rather an exception).

Think also of reactions of the governments in Ankara, Damascus (irrespectively of whether it is Bashar al-Assad led or not), and Tehran to creating an independent Kurdistan state. Turkey is home to almost half of the world’s Kurds (estimated globally between 35 and 40 million), while Iranian Kurds are estimated at about 3.8 million – these are not “tiny” minorities at all. Whether the Kurds, as the Middle East’s stateless nation, deserve having an independent state of their own is not much of a question for the international community. The problem is with different, conflicting perceptions of key stakeholders to the issue. Even though the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Turkey take softer approach to independence that the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), it is difficult to predict what sentiments and practical moves the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan—if turn reality in the immediate term—would trigger among the Kurds and the governments from neighbouring countries. Turkey is the case in point: the confrontation between the government forces and the Kurdish fighters has escalated into an open war since the summer of last year. In turn, after decades of calm, the Iranian Kurds have taken up arms; and it is difficult to predict what would be the mood in Syria’s Rojava once the land is liberated from ISIL and the West-backed and well-equipped and capable militarily Kurdish forces will take a close look at domestic issues.

Therefore, before the Iraqi Kurdistan becomes an independent state (if its people ever decide to) there must be a prior process of diplomatic negotiations with involvement of all interested parties from the countries concerned—to avoid or, at least, anticipate and minimize to extent possible, future surprises. One thing is clear that today no one is ready to deal with this issue, under constraint of other pressing problems and the uncertainty of outcome—neither in the countries with Kurdish population, nor in the region, in Europe, United States and Russia.

And finally, from economic perspective this option does not look attractive either. On the one hand, the Sunni populated state will be at disadvantage as its soil is scarce in mineral resources. Today, these provinces are receiving their share from the central government’s purse. Who is going to compensate for this loss? In turn, the economies of Kurdistan and Shi’a populated areas, too, are vulnerable due to their heavy reliance on oil exports. Industrial production and agriculture are at rudimentary levels, while for building a “smart”, technology-driven production and services they lack basic components such as communications infrastructure and skilled labour. Diversification, even if undertaken thoroughly, will take years to deliver. This is not impossible but demands continuous investments all the way long—something that these new states with weak economies will struggle to generate. The fact is that today the Iraqi economy is immature and thus cutting it in smaller pieces and distorting even those tiny existing value chains will further expose weaknesses and limit the capabilities for economic regeneration and growth in those states. Most probably, this will lead to even more inequality in wealth distribution, higher poverty and disenfranchisement of ordinary people. To sum up, the partitioning risks creating three failed states in place of the one struggling to avoid failing.



By the constitution of 2005, Iraq is a federal state whereby Kurdistan region is an autonomous federal unit with its own government. The relations between Baghdad and Erbil haven’t been always smooth and have been marked by numerous tag-of-war-like situations when important decisions and pieces of legislation were blocked in the Parliament or in the Council of Ministers. One point of continuous tension has been the revenue sharing formula from the oil exports (what else?). This rather tactical manoeuvring notwithstanding, it is right to say that federalism in Iraq has survived its test thus far.

Under this scenario Iraq would comprise three federal units—Kurdistan and other two with Sunni and Shi’a majority population, respectively. This set-up is not impossible but requires a new constitutional arrangement with new devolved powers clearly stipulated. If properly designed and, most importantly, respected and implemented afterwards this constitution and the system it introduces may well work. It will to certain degree equalise the rights of Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a Arabs, in exercising the power and control of resources while (again, to certain degree) guaranteeing the rights of minorities in each federal unit. What it will not solve in and by itself is patrimonialism, corruption, divides between the country’s multiple political players, and the inefficiency of its public administration.

There are two features of federalism that must be accepted by Iraq’s political elites (especially its Shi’a establishment) before they all decide to endeavour in this direction. One is that, although federalism offers a solution through decreased ethno-sectarian tensions (especially in a short term), it also encourages and fosters demands for secession over time. To borrow from the English constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey, “there is no midway between federalism and independence.”  This is already an issue in Kurdistan, where the leadership has announced their intention to take course on the independence referendum—a move that makes Baghdad’s political establishment feeling uneasy. How would they react if two entities decide to secede one day? These are not easy things to digest. Therefore, accepting a legitimate right of each federal entity to break away through a popular vote at some point is one precondition to this scenario.

Another feature is about the degree of decentralisation. How much power does the federal government retain? In which policy and decision making domains, areas? And how deep down the hierarchy the power would devolve (entity, region, province, municipality, community)? What about tax collection? Which provisions would allow federal government taking full control and command and how do they define those exceptional and extraordinary circumstances (like wars and natural disasters)? These questions sound rather technical, but as ever the devil is in this sort of details. Finding the right balance between the empowering of federal units and the limiting of central government’s powers is a delicate business, but also vital one for the functionality of the future federal state. More clarity is there from the start, more of these are agreed upon and stipulated formally higher chances are that it will work smoothly.

Ideally, the creation of a new federal state of Iraq would go through an inclusive process of constitution building rather than closed-door elite talks. It has been demonstrated on many examples in the recent decades that extensive community engagement and participation in the design of a constitution (especially in post-conflict country) has a number of benefits—it helps create a sense of belonging to one polity, underlines common values and shared vision, as well as helps enhancing post-conflict reconciliation and community cohesion. Therefore, the quality of constitutional process may be equally important as the textual fineness of the document it is ought to produce. It is believed that, developed in such a participatory fashion the constitution stands better chances to be respected by its citizens and political leadership.

As any process of deliberation that is built on broad participation, the constitution making in Iraq is not expected to be a straightforward endeavour. First concern is (obviously) security: how to conduct numerous town hall meetings and discussions across the country without making those public gatherings a target for extremists? I am far from idealistically believing that, once the war with ISIL is finished the peace, law and order will be immediately established across the land and terrorist attacks would belong to history. It may happen eventually, but not in one day and not right after the war; the constitution building though cannot wait—if this route is taken, then the country has to move towards its arrangement of choice.

Second complication derives from the very fact of broad participation, when diverse groups bring too many issues of concern to their communities onto agenda. Not all of them are equally important or relevant to constitutional design, but individuals and groups feel strong about those issues and insist on discussing them, otherwise being disappointed by “selective categorisation”. Therefore, it may take much more time and effort to focus on major issues than envisaged at the outset.

Another challenge to broad political discourse comes from the tendency to group polarisation, as observed on numerous deliberative political processes. The essence of this social psychology phenomenon is that, resulting from an open discussion groups tend to move towards even more extreme and oppositional positions than they initially held. This considerably complicates the job of consensus building and finding solutions to common problems.

These challenges notwithstanding, it is still believed that broad based, inclusive constitutional process in post-conflict countries is one of the best ways to empower people and to enable them to listen to and better understand each other. The local political actors along with commitment and political will to act will need an expertise to facilitate the process in constructive and effective manner. This is where the international organisations, specialised agencies and donors can step in to offer both diplomatic and technical assistance.


PM al-Abadi’s attempt at reforming Cabinet. In CoR, 31 March 2016                  (c) Reuters

Institution building

As noted throughout this series of posts, the real problem of Iraq lies in its institutions, which struggle to adapt to the changed regime type, on the one hand, and to the fast evolving external circumstances, on the other hand. Ability of an institution to assess the environment and modify itself in line with changes in external world (known as adaptability) has been the main factor behind successful development of numerous states throughout history. To the contrary, inability to adapt and adjust flexibly their internal procedures and underlining behaviours to demands of the day caused by stiffness, rigidity of institutions and the lack of resilient capability (especially when pushed to the boundaries) has frequently been the reason behind their demise and failure. This phenomenon is known under different names, depending on the nature of system observed: in social sciences it is called political decay, and all regime types, from tyrannies to liberal democracies, are vulnerable to it (in this or another way).

But this is only one part of the story. There is no society or state that lives through only decay without simultaneously experiencing regeneration. And there have been small and large initiatives by the Iraqi government (with strong backing and technical assistance from international actors) to reform various sectors of economy and society and to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of public administration. Those reform attempts (sometimes successful and sometimes not) are the very manifestations of regeneration.

Take, for example, the recent political deadlock triggered by the attempts of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reform the decision making process and to improve the effectiveness of government. The aim was getting rid of poorly functioning and highly extortionate system of muassasa (a power sharing arrangement where Cabinet posts, and respectively public bodies reporting to them, are divided between political blocs based on sect and ethnicity) and creating instead a technocratic Council of Ministers. At the heart of this impasse is a situation (which is not unique to Iraq but exists in various forms in all government systems) when certain elite groups benefit from existing institutional arrangements and therefore defend the status quo by blocking any attempt at change. Interestingly, in this move the elites otherwise divided by ethno-sectarian principle exhibited an exemplary cohesion and unanimity.

Iraq is undergoing an evolutionary process, albeit under extreme circumstances, where it has to transition into a stable and modern democratic state. The fact that the collision between political decay and regeneration has taken an extreme, at times violent, forms does not change or deny the nature of this process—which is and remains inherently dialectical.

This scenario therefore aims at strengthening the regenerational, reformist forces within the Iraqi political system. It will do so by institution building and strengthening the resilience of current government apparatus without attempting to change the country’s constitutional set-up. In fact, it has been recognised by practitioners and in academic literature that the Iraqi constitution has all provisions in it to ensure democratisation and devolved governance, to guarantee the rights of minorities.  The problem, as frequently the case, is not with the constitution itself but with its implementation.

There are four factors necessary for the success of any reform. First is about the constellation of power—that is, how strong are the pro-reform forces, how well organised and cohesive is their coalition, and how inclusive it is in covering the geographic and administrative areas as well as various segments of society.

Second is about the independence of bureaucracy (understood in Weberrian, technocratic terms) from undue political influence—that is, the ability of civil servants and public employees to do their job without being significantly constrained by political parties and blocs.

Third factor is about technical capacity of government to perform. It concerns both the capacity of individuals and the quality of administrative processes. Besides senior office holders (like minsters and their deputies) and managers (like directors general who are in fact responsible for the daily business of public administration), the middle level officials at all levels (from central executive office to provincial governorates) are part of the equation. Technical capacity at regional and provincial levels of authority is one important precondition for a meaningful administrative decentralisation to take place. With regards to processes, this factor concerns the quality of coordination and decision making across main horizontal systems of public administration (such as public finance and procurement, human resource, IT and communications) both vertically and at each given level.

Fourth factor is about domestic ownership. It is driven by commitment to reform of politicians, public and private employees, entrepreneurs, citizenry at large and their organised groups who see the change necessary, not merely desirable. This factor, especially in social domain, has been frequently underrated, although the practice has shown that without strong and capable civil society, independent think tanks, and the free media behind the change the state is not kept accountable, thus leaving the reform champions without broad public platform to rely upon.

I won’t speculate on the parameters under each factor, for such an assessment requires a research with institutional appraisal and extensive stakeholder interviews, to be conducted. That said, analysis of available information and personal observations allow to say that all four factors are present in Iraq today, although not to the same extent and even so, neither is strong enough to make it through without sustained, long-term, and quite intensive and targeted effort. This explains the difficulties faced by the teams of Messrs al-Maliki and al-Abadi in advancing the much needed reform agenda over a decade now.

The present situation in Iraq does not invite further criticism (too much of it has been aired from all angles, frequently without any constructive offer attached) or lamentation, but calls for action. It needs political communication and outreach (in order to build the public support for reforms and to organise the individual and small-group desires and drives) and more negotiation and bargaining between political leaders (perhaps with the brokerage and certain incentives offered by powerful external actors). It also will require a dedicated technical assistance to strengthen the capacity of government and civil society in key areas needed for the reform to happen and take root, and most importantly, to deliver benefits.

The latter point is particularly important, because the success of this scenario is strongly conditioned on performance and tangible outcomes. The government will need to achieve and convincingly demonstrate results continuously, in order to prove its effectiveness and maintain its legitimacy and credibility. To do so, the government, along with resources, will have to adopt flexible approaches that would enable it to manage by discovery, timely adapt to the changing circumstances and to build the overall resilience of the system. For example, the appointment of technocratic Cabinet has proven problematic thus far. Perhaps, it makes sense then to employ a different, alternative plan which may prove as effective. One option would be to strengthen the government’s technical capacity through reinforcing its central executive office—that is, the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, COMSEC.

Well functioning COMSEC will ensure both vertical and horizontal coordination within public administration, the continuity (especially at times of political blockages, but also in-between elections), and also consistency and coherence of policy making in long term and across various domains. There are three things which would bolster the chances of this plan to deliver the expected outcomes.

First (as ever) is commitment of political elites to maintain the COMSEC’s technical role and keep political interference to minimum, while enabling them to exercise the discipline and simultaneously conducting the democratic oversight. Second is separation of political and technical functions within the broader Government Office, between the COMSEC and Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). And third is to design a system where COMSEC serves as a central nod in the network of technocrats active across ministries, regional and provincial authorities—without undermining the decision making and service delivery capacity of vertical systems (represented by individual ministries sector-wise and by regional and provincial authorities, geographically).

*                  *                  *

I do not conclude this piece with traditional summary of findings and recommendations; the aim was to outline the options with certain degree of detail on their advantages and limitations—this all is a work-in-progress, after all. However, it is clear from the above that I favour the institution building scenario. Because it points clearly to the way forward without grand theories behind (which are good only for well-ordered situations, but hardly anyone would agree that Iraq today represents the one). Because it rests on a series of relatively small, tactical interventions (many of which would be implemented simultaneously but being decoupled to extent possible, to insulate the risks of failures). And finally, because it is the only option which is practically implementable in the immediate term—and time matters.


Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change earlier posts on PolicyLabs:

Part I: Political institutions, Politics, Governance

Part II: Economic institutions, Financial stability

Part III: State security, Human security


About the author: Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state building and political processes in post-conflict countries. In 2011-2014, he worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government’s central executive offices and key ministries on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms.


Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change [3]

Part 3: State security, Human security

State security

As I was finalising this paper, the news came out that the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi had announced the military campaign to retake Fallujah, on 23 May. In spite of the town being under siege by the government forces for months, the news came as a surprise: it was known that the U.S. and other allied military advisers were recommending focusing all the efforts on retaking Mosul, and it looked like the plan for some time. However, the decision by Prime Minister was not dictated by military strategy but by political necessity. The deadlock in the Parliament, which does not allow the Government to pursue the reforms, and the pressure of popular protests led by Muqtada al-Sadr—all indicate of the Government rapidly losing its credibility. There is an urgent need for a victorious campaign, to boost the image of the Prime Minister and his aides. Mosul may take long months to liberate; hence, the decision to go first after Fallujah.

Politics and security are intertwined in the Middle East; numerous coups, military backed regimes, and infamous mukharabat are evidence to that. Iraq is no exception. This mutually reinforcing relationship has created many problems in the past, and today the politicisation of security sector remains the Iraqi state’s ‘the enemy from within’.

iraq ramadi 2015_AP_Rwa Faisal

ISF retaking Ramadi, December 2015                                                                  Photo: AP/ Rwa Faisal

Present situation

For more than two years already, large parts of Iraq are controlled by the ISIL militants in a territory of self-proclaimed caliphate which, combined with the land seized from Syria, has about 10 million of population. The ISIL’s emergence as al-Qaeda outfit initially, and then quick expansion and seizure of territories back in 2014 became possible in many ways due to mistrust and political tensions in Iraq, between the Sunni tribes and the Shi’a dominated government in Baghdad. As a result, both the central Government and the Shi’a dominated Iraq Security Forces (ISF) had little credibility in Sunni populated provinces. In turn, former Ba’athist high ranked army officers (expelled from ISF) joined the Islamist militant organisation, thus strengthening its operational capacity to successfully combat the government and allied forces.

Today, due to continued, sustained campaign by the ISF, backed by tribal fighters and Coalition airstrikes, ISIL has lost approximately 40 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), over the past two months alone the allied forces have made significant gains in the Euphrates River Valley, recapturing almost the entirety of the southern bank (including the area between Hit district and Baghdadi Sub-district). Neither do the militants have a unanimous support they once enjoyed in the controlled lands, because of harsh rules imposed and atrocities committed against domicile Sunni population—it is right to say that they hold the ground by force now. According to nationwide survey held earlier this year, about 95 percent of Iraqi Sunnis oppose ISIL.

Security forces

Since the coalition forces have stepped-up in full, through the increased presence of their military personnel (instructors, advisers), supply of arms and intensified airstrikes at the militant-held targets, the situation on the ground started to change gradually. However, despite losing much of the support and both financial and human resources ISIL continues to hold territories (among them the highly valued by all sides to political contestation, the city of Mosul) and fiercely battles off the offense by the Government’s security forces along with various Kurdish, Shi’a, and Sunni integrated and not-so-much-integrated paramilitary groups. The truth is that, in part, the military success of ISIL from the outset in 2014 offense and up to this day owes to the inherent weaknesses of the Iraqi security sector.

One of the problems comes from the legacy of building Iraq’s security forces after fully dismantling the previous regime in 2003. Experienced security cadre were gone, and instead a large-scale recruitment took place to staff the army, police and intelligence agencies. It was a massive (and by its parameters, an insurmountable) undertaking to build the national security forces under the pressing circumstances of time, spiralling insurgency, terrorist attacks, and sectarian in-fighting all across the country. As a result, it was done hastily, without proper procedures and consideration given to professional qualifications and fitness for service, let alone screening the recruits’ social and political background. By the end of 2010, the Iraqi army and police personnel were estimated between 660 thousand and 800 thousand members. The formation shortcomings notwithstanding, the ISF led operations since 2008 were assessed as mostly successful.


The major problem however is not technical; it is political, since Iraq’s security sector mirrors and is under constant influence of the country’s political set-up, its ethno-sectarian divides and related rivalry. Politicisation has immediate effects on security sector performance—this hold true for any country. This is how the unexpected and quite dramatic collapse of the Iraqi army under the ISIL offense in 2014 was described at the time by the security firm, Soufan Group: ‘Four out the ISF’s 13 divisions melted as the Islamic State seized Mosul and other Sunni-inhabited cities along the Tigris River, leaving U.S.-supplied weapons to fall into the Islamic State’s hands. The ISF was not only poorly led—a product of an appointment process that favored allies of the Shi’a Muslim-dominated government—but also was viewed as a Shi’a “occupier” of Sunni areas. Lacking local support and the political will to risk their lives to maintain control of Sunni areas, the mostly Shi’a ISF commanders simply fled, and their units collapsed.’ [1] This account offers quite a telling story of how politicisation of the country’s security forces weakens its capabilities and allows for strategic surprises.

This problem has two dimensions. One is internal to security forces (ISF which comprises army and police, but the problem is the same with the National Intelligence Service, INIS), which have been filled with people from various backgrounds—from former paramilitaries and insurgents, to sectarians and the remnants of previous regime (whether army officers or former members of Saddam’s secret service, Jihaz alMukharabat al-Amma). They mistrust each other and are believed to keep their loyalties to those political forces which promoted them rather than to a single national chain of command. This immediately results in fragmentation and lack of accountability of the system as a whole, while transferring the political divides into the army, police and intelligence. The task of fully integrating both Sunni and Shi’a Arabs in security forces sill remains a major task, in spite of efforts (like the integration of several thousand Sons of Iraq) undertaken after the 2014 failures.

Second dimension originates from the multiplicity of actors involved—there are multiple (and quite numerous) militia formations of all sorts fighting alongside government forces. This creates a lot of coordination problems and eventual failures and at times results in open confrontation and the use of force, among these parallel forces, who while joining efforts at tactical level live to their own (and their backers’) agendas. Recent clashes in Tuz Khormato in the north of Iraq, between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Government-sponsored (mostly Shi’a) Popular Mobilization Units serves as yet another evidence to that: the town populated by about 60 thousand Kurds, and Shi’a and Sunni Arabs and Turkmen is a disputed zone claimed by both the Kurdish Regional Government and the Government in Baghdad.


As an outcome, the Iraq’s security forces remain less capable than could have been expected of them, after years of intensive training and tens of billions spent on their maintenance and modern military equipment. Moreover, leaving the security system in its present shape, under the excuse of being preoccupied with the host of other urgent tasks, will turn into much bigger trouble in hands of the Government, over time. The war with Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria will take years, but one day the land will be liberated from their occupation. At this point, if not well prepared in advance, the Iraqi state will face even bigger challenge—the demobilization will release into society tens of thousands of young men with no other qualifications and limited opportunities for employment or entrepreneurial activity; many of whom also happen to belong to various competing tribes, fractions, sectarian groups.

It is a dangerous myth to believe that with too much weapons and ammunition in hands of too many battle-hardened and too diverse groups, Iraq will automatically become safe and secure place once the ISIL, al-Qaeda and other militants are defeated. A profound security sector reform, creating an apolitical, professional, and democratically accountable army, police and intelligence matched with a well-though-out strategy and resources for reintegration of demobilised soldiers into economy and society—must be high on the Government agenda already today.

Economic dimension

There is another dimension to the damage caused by the years of insurgency and fighting—that is the damage to the country’s image as an attractive place for foreign investment. As such, it represents the threat to the country’s future economic security.

The war with ISIL takes tens of billions of public resources, disrupts the regular government and commercial operations, and brings large-scale destruction to the country’s physical infrastructure. Significant number of assets has been destroyed and as of recent, ISIL started targeting oil and gas facilities. The war also puts the investors on high alert due to the escalated political risks (which anyways were among the highest in the world since 2003), and thus minimizes the much needed foreign direct investment flows. Violent conflicts coupled with high unpredictability of government (and thus high possibility of unilateral, predatory move against foreign investors’ assets) are among key factors considered when assessing a country’s political risks. It is enough to say that mostly due to the war in Syria and Iraq, some risk consultancy firms have not included the Middle East in their investor confidence indexes for this and the following year.

Iraq will need those investors, once the war with ISIL is finished, whenever it happens. The future-oriented damage to the country’s image by the terrorists is undisputed, but the government will have to do much more than it has done to date, to offer guarantees and business-friendly environment for the foreign companies to come—not only on words and through the lavishly organised conferences abroad (which are all important and necessary investment promotion activities—like the conference and exhibition on Iraq’s financial and banking sector held recently in Lebanon, March 2016)—but, and above all, by real action.

Human security

It is right to say that the Iraqis haven’t lived in quiet, stable, and well-ordered situations for over three-and-half decades already. Since 1980, when Saddam Hussein launched his war campaign against the neighbouring Iran, the country has transitioned from one conflict to another, then lived through the misery and restrictions of sanctions, only to be replaced by disorder, insurgency, civil war, and now fighting with terrorists and all sort of militants on its own soil. It is a depressing fact that a generation of already mid-aged Iraqis have not lived a normal decent life in their otherwise resource rich, perfectly located, beautiful country.

Terrorism casualties

Along with conventional combat, terrorist attacks by various militant groups are being conducted at broad scale, almost uninterrupted since 2003—tearing apart communities, taking thousands of lives, and striving to achieve their primary goal of intimidating the population and the government, coercing and taking off their will to resist. Since 2003, the Iraqis have been subjected to more than 16 thousand terrorist attacks. According to UN, only in the course of the last three-and-half years (from November 2012 through April 2016) over 95 thousand casualties have been reported (31,729 killed and 63,608 injured). Although the intensity of attacks and the number of civilian casualties have drastically decreased compared to 2014, still they remain shockingly high.

To appreciate the scale of the terrorist damage on Iraq, let’s compare the attacks and human loss with the European countries. In 15 years, from September 2001 through March 2016, there have been 71 terrorist attacks (from all kind of perpetrators) conducted at the territory of 14 west European countries (of them 45 were attacks which caused one death, like the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby in London in 2013). Altogether, those attacks have claimed the lives of 606 individuals (most casualties were in Spain—212; followed by France 162; and Britain 74). Each of those attacks, whatever small or large in scale and whatever the number of casualties, has triggered an emotionally-charged wave of rightful public anger that followed by a long lasting anxiety bordering with panic.

Now, looking at Iraq, only in the last month of April alone, as the result of terrorist attacks there were 410 civilians killed and 973 injured, while the casualties among the security forces amounted to 331 and 401 individuals, respectively. The attacks were conducted all across the country eventually leaving no safe place around, with most of targets being in Baghdad but also in the troubled Ninewa, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Anbar provinces. Combined, this means hundreds of killed and hundreds or thousands injured every single month in a span of thirteen years, with average casualties about 90 individuals per day—an enormous human loss, but also unbelievable psychological pressure of continuous brutal intimidation, on the Iraqi people.


Iraqi refugees in a Syrian camp, Ras al-Ayn.                                                                   Photo: Reuters

Refugees and internally displaced persons

The effects on human security since 2003 have been unprecedented by the Iraqi prior experience, and have been acknowledged as immense by the regional and global standards. In a decade after 2003, an estimated one million Iraqis have fled violence turning in people without permanent residence within their own country (a category known as internally displaced people, or IDPs). In 2014 alone, since the ISIL offense, another estimated 2.6 million IDPs were reported, bringing the situation to the level declared a humanitarian crisis. Today their numbers are approaching four million individuals, comprising as much as 12 percent of the country’s population—with their established life disrupted, and all of them living in shelter, deprived of jobs and property. In addition to its own IDPs, Iraq also hosts over 246 thousand refugees from Syria (by data as of end-March 2016).  The Government is struggling to settle and serve all these people with shelter and minimum living conditions, even though international organisations and specialised refugee agencies have stepped in to offer their expertise and assistance on the ground.

All this only adds to their misery, and many Iraqis have taken their chances to seek refuge in other countries. Already by the end of 2014, there were 369 thousand Iraqi refugees registered in neighbouring countries (mostly Iran, Syria, and Jordan) and Europe (predominantly in Germany). Further, in 2015-2016, approximately another 168 thousand Iraqi refugees have arrived in Europe’s Mediterranean ports, by sea. Today, Iraq is among the world’s top ten refugee origin countries contributing to a million-strong stream of desperate people fleeing their homes for a safe place in Europe.

Human capital

The most devastating result of the years of insurgency, terrorism, combat and lack (if not absence at times) of law and order in vast parts of the country is the depletion of Iraq’s human capital. On the one hand, poverty has reached its record highs: in 2014 the poor comprised over 22 percent of population nationwide. In the ISIL directly controlled and surrounding governorates the impact of economic and social disruptions resulted in poverty rates going above 41 percent. According to the World Bank, about half of million people leaving below the poverty line were IDPs.

On the other hand, the population’s health condition has further deteriorated, prompting key health indicators for Iraq at the bottom of rankings for the entire region. In 2015, life expectancy here was the lowest (next to Yemen) at 69.2—compared to 72.7 years average for west Asia. Meanwhile, another critical indicator, infant mortality rate, has reached 32 per 1,000 live births in 2010-2015—again, next highest to Yemen and Azerbaijan in west Asia (with the region’s otherwise unacceptably high rate of 24 on average). To compare, the World Health Organisation’s European Region estimate for 2015 is 10 per 1,000 live births.

Of particular concern is the situation with the young people. The youth aged between 15 and 24 comprise about 20 percent of Iraq’s population (about 6.8 million). Part of them live in the ISIL controlled areas of militancy and medieval backwardness. Another part, estimated at over one million persons live in shelter, as IDPs. Additionally, there are over one million children of school age from the internally displaced families. One more disadvantaged and highly vulnerable group are orphans. According to UNICEF survey of 2011, there were estimated 800,000 to 1 million children without one or both parents, in Iraq. Today, the Iraqi Orphan Foundation claims that their number has risen to over 3 million (children aged under 18), and is ‘growing exponentially every week’. Majority of them are homeless, and various criminals take advantage of them, including the ISIL and other militant and terrorist groups. Earlier this year, there were reports on child soldiers being used by ISIL in Iraq and Syria (most of them recruited locally): the authors estimated their numbers about one and half thousand.

In another critical development area, the education system (both primary and higher) has consistently and miserably failed over these years (despite of huge amounts spent from the budget and international technical assistance offered and provided) to reform, modernise and offer their young generation the knowledge and skills they need. Unfortunately, formal indicators based on the catchment area and similar statistics do not give a real picture in this sector. Although Iraq fairs well, compared to other countries, in terms of literacy rates, the coverage by primary schools per population numbers, or teacher/student ratio—all this does not reflect the quality of education being provided. For example, the inflated teacher/student ratio is merely a result of the government’s employment policy (as all across the public sector) and therefore may be misleading. The truth is that even the leading Baghdad universities do not have a qualified staff to teach modern science; their libraries are not computerised and are thus not linked to global academic exchange system. Many haven’t received new books published in America or Europe for over two decades, while students are taught on and referred to textbooks and literature written only in Arabic and published sometime in the 1970s.

In strategic perspective, all these years since 2003 (and perhaps even since the Gulf war) have created a ‘lost generation’ of Iraqis. Part of them have left with their families abroad (and some keep leaving the country for good), another part were killed, and of those who stay in the country many are demoralised, radicalised and exploited in various ways. These young people living in Iraq have very limited opportunities for licit and decent employment or entrepreneurial activity, and altogether they lack modern knowledge and skills to drive their homeland from trouble, civil war and poverty towards prosperity, rule of law and the respect for fundamental human rights. Without meaningful investment in health and education of its young population for a prolonged period of time, Iraq has put its future under a big question mark.

The awakening call

Many Middle East commentators agree that the Iraqi state as it stands today (and for quite a time for over a decade now) is falling apart as it cannot fulfil its main function—to keep the law and order within its borders, to protect its fellow citizens, and offer them an acceptable quality of life. In turn, the Iraqi society (the other part of political equation) is divided, frustrated, and incapable of keeping the state accountable while desperately seeking ways of escaping the downfall into total chaos.

Increasingly, Iraq resembles the features of a failed nation: ‘Nations fail today because their extractive institutions do not create incentives needed for people to save, invest, and innovate. Extractive political institutions support these economic institutions by cementing the power of those who benefit from the extraction. … The result is economic stagnation and civil wars, mass displacements, famines, and epidemics, making many of these countries poorer today than they were in the 1960s.’ [2]

The commentators, as well as many development practitioners who have worked in Iraq also agree that Iraq has made tangible progress in terms of revitalising its oil industry, expanding the electrification and other critical infrastructure, communication and service delivery networks in an effort to rebuild the country from the ashes of the 1990s sanctions, 2003 invasion and its immediate insurgent aftermath. But that is not enough; there is an urgent need for fundamental changes in political institutions, to achieve improvements and sustainable growth in many other vital economic and social areas. The Iraqi state cannot hold on in the same fashion anymore, under the mounting pressure of domestic political tensions and centrifugal forces, foreign interference (of powerful neighbours who have turned the country into a battleground for their proxy wars), public administration plagued with systemic corruption, and disenfranchisement and deep suffering of its people.

On a positive note, we have witnessed a desire for change, among the ordinary Iraqis. And there is energy to translate it into practice, as recent protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone have demonstrated. What is missing is a democratic process of dialogue, as between politicians and their backers and influencers, so between political establishment and the people they claim to represent—all in all to channel this energy into constructive direction.

[1] The Soufan Group,  Iraqi Forces Central to Fight Against Islamic State,
TSG IntelBrief: November 13, 2014

[2] Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why the Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (London: Profile Books, 2012), p. 372-373

Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change earlier posts on PolicyLabs:


About the author: Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state building and political processes in post-conflict countries. In 2011-2014, he worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government’s central executive offices and key ministries on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms.

Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change [Part 2]

Part 2: Economic institutions, Financial stability


Economy and Economic Institutions

Oil dependency

The Iraqi economy is struggling. It fully depends on oil & gas industry and, thus, is exposed to market volatility and highly vulnerable. This, combined with the old-fashioned central planning, strict market regulation, and outdated methods of management only makes the problem insurmountable. In charge is the Ministry of Planning, which also happens to be very influential due to holding the economic and social sphere information in their hands (and keeping it close to chest), a replica of (Soviet) socialist-style central planning committee.

As across the Middle East, diversification of economy is a fancy word in Iraq, but: first, as shown elsewhere in the region, it is easy said than done, especially in a short time span (considering the external factors of harsh competition, but also internal human factor and the quality of physical and social infrastructures); and second, it requires not only well written strategies but concerted efforts and leadership by political elites (something that the UAE have demonstrated in turning their economy from oil-driven to service-based, but Iraq struggles to do).

Non-hydrocarbon industrial production (or what is deemed as such) is concentrated in the Iraqi public sector. While comprising a tiny one-and-half percent of the country’s industrial units, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are producing over 90 percent of the sector’s output. But even these SOEs are non-profitable: in 2012, almost 80 percent of them were functioning on the government subsidies. They use obsolete equipment, do not follow international technological standards, and are managed in outdated ways. Except for cement, fertilizers and transformers, the Iraqi industrial products from state-owned, private and mixed-ownership enterprises are not competitive at either domestic, regional or international markets.

Business enabling environment

In spite of these striking deficiencies, there have not been any serious attempts undertaken towards market economy and deregulation, let alone privatisation. Economic reform plans have been developed by the Government (mostly with the assistance of international actors) but never transformed into action. The examples are numerous, from Integrated Energy Strategy, Industrial Strategy, to the Roadmap for Restructuring the SOEs and the Strategy for Supporting the Private Sector. Here, again, it was more about rivalry, vested interests of political blocs and lack of trust between them rather than inability or unwillingness of Government technocrats that did not allow making even initial steps towards deregulation or introducing mixed forms of ownership in key sectors.

Business enabling environment in Iraq has been long neglected and as a result, remains largely underdeveloped and market-unfriendly (the Government’s ambition for and on-going negotiation on the acceptance to WTO notwithstanding). Private sector is weak and not supported by the effective policy, legislative and regulatory framework; to the contrary, there are thousands of laws, regulations and improvised circulars which only confuse and slow down the entrepreneurial activity, while creating conditions conducive for Iraq’s systemic corruption to thrive. It does not come as surprise then that Iraq is consistently at the bottom of the global ranking for Doing Business report: in 2015-2016, it ranked at 160 and 161 among 189 surveyed countries, respectively. Importantly, even within one year, it fell dramatically in a central category of ‘Starting a Business’ by 10 points. Otherwise, successful businesses are closely linked to political elites, thus feeding further the systemic corruption (such as those enterprises providing off-the-grid electricity to residential areas across the country, from their privately owned generators).

The result is that extractive economic institutions feed on the country’s rich resource base, but do not reinvest into its growth (typical rentier economy, some would say). Moreover, instead of incentivising and enabling, they constrain the free choice of people to undertake entrepreneurial activities and to invest into their country’s economy—thus, constraining the Iraqi talent and money of strengthening the country’s economy and creating a strong middle class as the society’s backbone. Friedrich Hayek, one of the most influential economists of the last century, has well described the contradiction of this kind economic thinking: ‘It is often said that political freedom is meaningless without economic freedom. This is true enough, but in a sense almost opposite from that in which the phrase is used by our planners. The economic freedom which is the prerequisite of any other freedom cannot be the freedom from economic care which the socialists promise us and which can be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time of the necessity of the power of choice; it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right of choice, inevitably also carries the risk and the responsibility of that right.’ [1]

Financial Situation and Sovereignty Crisis


About 95 percent of Iraq’s Government budget comes from oil revenue. Even at better times, any unfavorable fluctuation of oil prices had immediate and very painful implications on the country’s financial standing. As in many other areas, the Government and its Oil Ministry (another bastion of power and vested interest by elites) had been unprepared to the market shocks, because it had continuously failed to introduce modern planning and decision making system and in particular, oil resource management system equipped with industry data software (it was envisaged though, by the Integrated National Energy Strategy adopted in 2013 but by that time it was too late—ISIL was knocking at the door).  In the last couple of years, the Government’s revenues have dried out due to record-low oil prices at the global market and the excessive spending from public budget, on the administration’s running costs, the war with ISIL and its humanitarian consequences.

The budget has been approved for FY2016 at $100 billion, with predicted deficit of about $25 billion. But even this grim outlook is unrealistic: the budget calculations were based on oil price of $45 per barrel, while so far Brent prices have been hovering around $30 to $40 (they are expected to average $42 per barrel in the second and third quarters of 2016, before rising to $44 in the fourth quarter). This means billions more added to the deficit. Five years ago, in 2011 the deficit was projected by the Budget document approved by Parliament at 16.2 percent ($13.4 billion to $82.6 billion budget, respectively), and it was at the time of oil prices keeping high at $76.50 per barrel.

Sovereign debts

In a rather frantic move, the Government has recently resorted to using its foreign reserves (under a pretext of short-term measure) to cover its daily expenditures—and thus has taken a dangerous route which may head towards eventual insolvency. This will make the reserves fall from $59 billion in last October to about $43 billion this year. But that is not all. In the meantime, the Government is seeking yet another loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in an attempt to regulate its financial situation. This is at the top of receiving $1.24 billion emergency loan last year (through the Poverty Reduction and Growth Fund). With another international lender, the World Bank Group (WB), the Government signed an agreement at the end of 2015, for a $1.2 billion loan. This also comes atop of other liabilities to the WB: by the end-March 2016, there were four active loans, through the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and five credits through the International Development Assistance (IDA) – altogether about $3.1 billion already disbursed. Governments have stepped in, too: the United States has offered a $2.7 billion loan for military spending, and Germany has lent Iraq over $550 million for reconstruction.

Looks like a lot money, but it is not. Altogether, these loans would barely cover the Government’s one-month administrative expenditure under the current circumstances, but instead will make Iraq more indebted, under mounting liabilities while with no repayment prospects on the horizon. The Iraqi Government simply cannot afford intensively borrowing. The borrowing from international lenders is always conditional, and it is proven helpful only in a short term as cash injection to maintain the equilibrium; while in the situation when government fails consistently to perform structural reforms, the financial discipline and austerity measures (let along being under the pressure of war and destruction of infrastructure and assets) the additional liability may turn disastrous and lead to the bankruptcy and the loss of sovereignty. What these attempts tell is more about the Government being desperate and confused rather than about well thought-out financial policy.

The cost of reconstruction

Another problem is that in order to get back on track and restore the normal economic activities, along with liberating the territories captured by ISIL, the Government will need hundreds of billions to be invested in the reconstruction of physical infrastructure (to revitalize what has been destroyed in the course of the last two years, by now). The cost of reconstruction has not been calculated yet. According to Iraqi economists, the country will need about $60 billion to recover. I think it is a very modest estimate: just recall how the U.S. Government initial estimate of $50 to $60 billion on the Iraqi war and reconstruction turned into $2.2 trillion by 2013.

The international organisations and bilateral donors would step in, and so will do various public and private foundations and donor conferences, but the host government has to take its share of responsibility and match those reconstruction funds, which would be yet another challenge to the cash-stripped authorities. The question is, if the things (in this instance, the Government’s economic policies and practices) don’t change, can they stand to the task when the time comes?

[1] F.A.Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge, 1997 [1944]), p. 75


About the author: Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state building and political processes in post-conflict countries. In 2011-2014, he worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government’s central executive offices and key ministries on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms.

Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change [Part 1]

By Elbay Alibayov

“For the King, yes, of course. But which King? … Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they will foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Do you understand?” Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Iraq is in turmoil. The terrorist attacks and ongoing war with Islamist militants, which catch the headlines, is only one of the crisis’ many manifestations. It is not just a toughest challenge, but a survival test the Iraqi state is facing today. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed and a political solution that satisfies all the major actors (including the diverse groups of population along with political elites) is found and agreed upon, Iraq will struggle to establish peace and order in its territory, let alone offer its fellow citizens a prosperous and dignified life they long deserve. To borrow from di Lampedusa’s masterpiece, if Iraq is to remain a sovereign functioning state in its present borders, certain things in its fundamental rules have to change.


The Multiple Facets of the Iraqi Political Crisis

A Background

Today, the Arab and the entire Muslim world are going through a very dynamic, and at times highly volatile, process of transition. The mixture of cultural (including political) heritage with the processes and products of globalization offer a unique set of contexts that differ from each other locally, in dynamics and forms, but altogether give rise to diverse global trends and movements.  It is a complex, unpredictable, and quite painful process, were emergence of extremism and religious militancy coexists and effectively competes with secular forces and post-Islamist movements which, unlike their predecessors, recognize the compatibility of promoting Islamic values with respecting democratic procedures. It is also an innovative process, meaning that it allows testing diverse range of approaches, sometimes failing and reverting back to square one, and sometimes producing some novel political outcomes never experienced before—the evidence from countries as different in terms of political system as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia clearly proves that.

Those political experiments are not innocent though—this is the struggle for power, after all. And their proponents keep looking for vulnerabilities, capitalize on the weaknesses of existing political regimes, and continuously adapt. Even seemingly stable Arab states (namely, the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain) are struggling under the pressure of internal problems, where diminishing revenues, growing population, voluntary and real unemployment, inequality and poverty are taken against the ruling regimes by their opponents, who capitalize on the growing dissatisfaction and frustration of their citizen with economic and social problems, censorship and violation of human rights. Some commentators went as far as to suggest that these regimes, at least in their present form, will cease to exist within few years.

However, first affected by the popular uprising across the Middle East and North Africa, dubbed the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, were so called presidential monarchies. Dictators who made themselves their respective countries’ presidents for life, indeed, had ruled in increasingly authoritarian fashion, for four decades: Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya since the 1969 coup; the al-Assad family in Syria since the 1970 coup; Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen since the 1978 coup (in North Yemen); Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia since taking power in 1987 coup; and Hosni Mubarak since becoming a president of Egypt in 1981. To date, all but one are gone. Whatever happens with Bashar al-Assad at the eventual end of the civil war, it is clear that there is no way back to presidential monarchy in Syria. And in this context, it is safe to suggest that, if not toppled by the US-British invasion in 2003, Saddam Hussein would have faced the challenge of Arab Spring in Iraq, and the fate of the other rulers of similar kind.

The Iraqi Political Landscape

Political dynamics in Iraq in many ways reflect the mosaic of political landscape characteristic to the Middle East and broader Muslim world. It combines a centuries-long tradition of tribal politics with tendency for strong central power, inheritance of the failures of pan-Arabism nationalists and pan-Islamists in modern times, with sectarianism, cross-border influence of powerful neighbours, and a genuine search for a new, post-Saddam, political identity.

At the country level the politics is divided along ethnic (Arabs vs. Kurds) and sectarian (Sunni vs. Shi’a) lines. At the local level further divisions and rivalry exist within each of those polity segments—among Sunni tribes and political parties (e.g. Iraqi Islamic Party, Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI), and Council of Iraqi Scholars); Shi’a parties (e.g. Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), Islamic Dawa Party, Badr Organization, Sadrist Movement); Kurdish parties (Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but also new players such as Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and Gorran); and Turkmen fractions (e.g. Iraqi National Turkmen Party (INTP), Turkmen Democratic Movement, and Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkoman which represents Shi’a Turkmen).

As a result of all these divisions, there is neither much issue-based politics nor is there genuinely inclusive secular political movement or party in Iraq. Perhaps, the fate of the Al-Iraqiya Alliance (a cross-confessional and mostly secular coalition of parties led by the former Interim Prime Minister A’yad Allawi) offers a telling story in this respect. Almost as prescribed in the seminal works of Mancur Olson,  the cooperation between various Iraqi political groups at the central or local levels happens, as a rule, only in the face of an eminent common threat, or under coercion. No one trusts anyone else.

Such a political set-up predetermines the character of transitional processes underway in Iraq, but at the same time it itself is profoundly influenced by the rapidly changing social, economic, and security contexts of the region and the country itself. This reciprocity has been famously noted by Michel Foucault, back in 1977: ‘The political is not what ultimately determines (or over-determines) elementary relations. … All relations of force imply a power relation … and each power relation can be referred to the political sphere of which it is a part, both as its effect and as its condition of possibility.’ [1] Therefore, understanding this interplay is crucial for making sense of what is going on in Iraq, and eventually helping the local political actors to find a solution—without attempting to picking winners, taking sides, or engineering the outcome.

Governance and Political Institutions

It is right to say that the Parliament, Council of Representatives of Iraq, has been largely dysfunctional in every mandate since 2005. Many crucial pieces of legislation have been blocked because of inability to come to consensus and to overcome narrow political stands by political opponents. It mirrors the major divides between Iraq’s political elites, and its members find it increasingly difficult to give concessions and make mutually acceptable agreements; the game played by the Iraqi politicians is strictly zero-sum, with desirable outcome of ‘winner takes all.’

The Government is oversized and costly: today, it keeps about 7 million people on public payroll, which costs it US$4 billion in salaries and pensions every month. Partly because of that, the Government is also ineffective as it employs an army of individuals most of whom don’t have a work to do, are unqualified and disinterested, in addition to the environment which does not offer any incentive for learning, innovating and improving.

In 2008/2011 survey by the World Bank, on the quality of public administration and its professionalism, Iraq was placed right at the median position of the global ranks. This was a time when the last generation of well-educated and experienced Iraqi civil servants was still around. In the recent five years, most of them have retired (even those who, in line with the effective regulations, were allowed to be employed as senior advisers to the Prime Minister and the key ministries). With their departure, the technical quality of the bureaucracy has fallen sharply.

In turn, the local (provincial) authorities lacked capacity from the onset and even though prescribed by the law, do not have in reality enough authority and resources to serve their constituents effectively. There is also big deal of competition and confusion between them and the representatives of central ministries in the field, in terms of who is in charge.

Unsurprisingly in such a set-up, the relations between the legislative and the executive continue to be troublesome. The ministers being political appointees hold their allegiance to their political parties, not to the Cabinet: on numerous occasions in the recent years, some would leave the office for indefinite time, in sign of solidarity with their political party’s/ bloc’s disagreement with Prime Minister or their failure to reach an agreement with the ruling bloc in the Parliament. Ironically, in a survey conducted in 2012 by World Justice Project/ Rule of Law, Iraq has scored much higher than the region’s average in terms of government powers being ‘effectively limited by the legislative’ category. They are effectively limited indeed, but not always in the ways one would expect from a functioning democracy.

Overall, the authorities, both elected and appointed, lack credibility—citizens see the officials as corrupt, self-serving and unwilling (if capable) to undertake the fundamental reforms for the people’s benefit. Transparency International consistently rates Iraq as ‘highly corrupt’, ranking it 175 (out of 178 countries) in 2010, 170 (out of 174 countries) in 2014 and 161 (out of 168 countries) in 2015. The countries which fare worse are Libya, Angola, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somali.

Understanding the cultural features

At the same time, certain behaviours of public office holders (both elected and appointed) are tolerated by the society. Nepotism and patronage are considered normal practice in Iraq (to quite a degree), as they are across the Middle East and broader, Eurasian socio-political realm. It has its roots in a culture and tradition built around strong kinship and nomadic or rural community bonds, and therefore is well accepted by local people. For example, such practices as ‘trade in influence’ and undue interference in appointments to public institutions are considered corrupt by the Council of Europe and international anti-corruption bodies, but not necessarily in Iraq and countries with similar political tradition.

There are plenty of examples from the international development field which point to the importance of respecting the local political culture and tradition. This is an insight from Samuel Huntington: ‘While studying the topic [political order], he was asked by the Johnson administration to assess the progress of the Vietnam War. After a tour of that country, he argued, in 1967 and 1968, that America’s strategy in South Vietnam was fatally flawed. The United States was trying to buy the support of the population through aid and development. But money wasn’t the key, in Huntington’s view. The South Vietnamese who resisted the Viet Cong’s efforts did so because they were secure within effective communities structured around religious or ethnic ties. The United States, though, wanted to create a modern Vietnamese nation, and it refused to reinforce these “backward” sources of authority.’ The author of the article, Farid Zakaria, went on to conclude that, ‘[s]adly, this 40-year-old analysis describes our dilemma in Afghanistan today.’ [2]

This is one of many examples pointing to necessity of taking more nuanced approach when assessing the prospects of democratic reforms in the countries which have political tradition different from the Western tradition, as well as when designing and delivering technical assistance programmes aimed at helping those countries along the path towards market reforms and governance systems that respect political, social and economic rights of their citizens.

[1] Michel Foucault, Foucault Live: Collected Interviews 1961-1984, S. Lotringer, ed. (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), p. 211

[2] Washington Post, 4 January 2009

About the author: Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state building and political processes in conflict and post-conflict countries. In 2011-2014, he worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government’s central executive offices and key ministries on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms.

Peace Programme for Iraq and Syria: The Design Sketch

As I was putting together the design components for the follow-up post to the Programme’s introduction (Peace Programme for Iraq and Syria: An Outline), the news about terror attacks in Brussels shocked the world—once again reminding of the peace initiative’s urgency and importance. In this week’s edition, The Economist concluded its respective article in the following way: ‘The best protection would be peace in the Middle East — a distant dream, alas. The coalition has made progress against IS in its caliphate, which is shrinking and loosing people. But eradicating it needs Iraqi troops (as yet unprepared) and ground forces in Syria (as yet non-existent).’ Fully agree. What I don’t accept, however, is submission: to me, all this is not a source of frustration but the call for action. It will obviously take years—so be it; then let’s don’t waste time and get started. So here we go–


Two threats v. Two objectives

Today (and for quite some time already), the sovereign states of Iraq and Syria each finds itself confronted with two existential threats. These threats endanger their territorial integrity and political independence (in intelligence, each would qualify as strategic surprise, the one where wars belong). They are closely related but vary independently; together they represent an unprecedented challenge—to these states, their people, as well to the neighbours and the broader region. Moreover, this tandem increasingly poses a global security threat which does not limit itself to terrorist attacks alone, but puts enormous social, economic, and psychological burden on everyone, from individuals to the nations.

The goal of this Programme therefore is two establish a long-lasting sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria by means of eliminating both threats—that is, defeating the militant Islamists and ending the civil wars on the territory of these two states. Thus, the Programme rests on two pillars: military and political.

Below I present the Programme’s functional architecture, which top to bottom consists of pillars, blocks, components, and sub-components. I made an effort to ensure that the Programme’s design content is as concise and focused on the task at hand as possible (meaning that, driven by ‘less is more’ virtue I tried, to the best of my skills, to create a winning combination with a minimum of ingredients). Still, designing innovative programmes in complex organisational settings is always a challenge, and peer reviews and constructive discussions will be needed (and here I expect your contribution) before the Programme (or any of its elements) faces the ultimate test of and the adjustments from the real life implementation itself. As the management researchers Ethiraj and Levinthal have put it: ‘Designers engage in acts of creation, but unlike a divine creator, they lack omniscience. Choices of modules are guesses about appropriate decompositions—decompositions that even in reality are only partial.’ [1]

Military pillar

The objective of military pillar is to defeat the ISIL and other Islamist militants on the territory of Iraq and Syria by means of military engagement (e.g. to free them from the invasion) and to build the security capacity sufficient to maintaining the peace afterwards. With that said, it does not set an objective of defeating ISIL or al-Qaeda altogether, but aims at contributing to this ultimate goal of international community. Putting the management of this pillar under the regional command (as presented in the previous post) also serves the purpose of better coordinating the military operations across the MENA region (especially due to the relocation to other territories of the militants’ headquarters and major operational units; take for example, the recent US airstrikes at al-Qaeda in Arabic Peninsula training camps in Yemen, or possible future similar engagements in Libya and Tunisia).

This pillar’s results will be delivered through two building blocks (one per each objective): military operations and security capacity building. The first block brings together direct military engagement measures of two components: Land operations and Air operations. The second block consists of three components: Security Sector Reform (SSR); Intelligence systems; and Resource supply. Figure 5 illustrates this hierarchy.

PeaceProgram_Figure 5_PolicyLabs

Some sub-components are indicative at this stage. The following is proposed–

Military operations

1.1 Military operations: Land operations

— It is functionally grouped around four permanent sub-components:

* manoeuvre tasks (by air and mechanised infantry);

* special operations (by SOF);

* combat support and logistics (artillery, close air support, supply, reconnaissance, transportation, maintenance, medical support); and

* reconstruction tasks (by engineer units).

1.2 Military operations: Air operations

— Its function is performed through four permanent sub-components (through Main Operating Bases):

* air strikes (by fighter jets and attack helicopters);

* targeted attacks (by drones);

* transportation (by transport aircrafts and helicopters); and

* support (air traffic control, maintenance, repair, logistics).

Security capacity building

2.1 Security capacity building: Security Sector Reform

— It is delivered through five permanent sub-components (delivered, depending on the task, either in-country or at the nearest NATO base, e.g. in Turkey):

* institutional framework for providing security;

* strengthening the governance of security institutions;

* building capable and professional security forces;

* civic-military cooperation;

* democratic oversight of security institutions.

2.2 Security capacity building: Intelligence co-operation

— Is functionally limited to two permanent sub-components (delivered, depending on the task, either in-country or in the region, e.g. in Jordan):

* inter-agency co-operation (intelligence sharing with the allies and the host governments;

* technical capacity (setting information gathering/ surveillance systems and respective training on using the systems and the analytical skills).

2.3 Security capacity building: Supply of military equipment and arms

— This is included here merely for the sake of having this function along with others to complete the picture (given that this task is being conducted normally on bilateral basis). However, in the face of all other financial difficulties of the recipient countries, it is advisable to do so through flexible schemes, to make the deals affordable (this is where international lenders could step in to provide loans).

Political pillar

The objective of political pillar is to address the root causes of political instability and, consequently, Islamist militancy in Iraq and Syria through both soft and technical means of international assistance.

This pillar’s objective will be accomplished as a result of concerted efforts of politicians, diplomats, and intelligence and development specialists. Assistance here can be delivered directly, on bilateral basis by national (and supra-national) governments, or through multilateral coalitions and implementation consortiums, as well as international organisations (such as UN agencies).

The political pillar’s results will be delivered through three building blocks: Mediation (delivered through diplomatic efforts and political leveraging), Governance and Human security (both delivered through project-based technical assistance of bilateral and specialised international development agencies and their implementing partners). Figure 6 illustrates this pillar’s hierarchy.

PeaceProgram_Figure 6_PolicyLabs


The first block, Mediation, consists of two components: Political dialogue and Strategic communications. The co-ordination offices for this Programme block will be co-located with the office of the UN Special Envoy in Syria and an equivalent office in Iraq. There is no need for an extensive permanent presence of technical implementers, as its activities can be conducted through diplomatic representations, ongoing collaboration through the established channels, along with temporary working groups and task forces established on ad hoc basis.

3.1 Mediation: Political dialogue

The function of the former component is to facilitate the talks between the warring political actors, make them make reasonable concessions and agree on mutually acceptable solutions, and broker formal and informal agreements to stop the civil war and to overcome the immediate bottlenecks in the political processes of state-building.

— Consists of three permanent sub-components:

* coalition building (with the participation of key regional and global actors, with an aim of  confronting and effectively discouraging the states and individual institutional actors from supporting, organisationally or financially, the spill-over of the extremist ideologies);

* consensus building (including (a) championing and facilitating an inclusive and constructive negotiation process—before and after the respective peace deals; and (b) brokering framework agreements—for global coalitions and local political processes alike);

* legal service (providing legal assistance and advice for the constitution-building and legislative processes).

3.2 Mediation: Strategic communications

The functional role of Strategic communications component is outward oriented—it primarily aims at effectively countering the terrorist propaganda, in communicating with primary audiences in the region via broad range of mediums—all in all to limit the militant Islamists’ influence, diminish the appeal of their key messages as fraudulent, and prevent spreading further the extremist views onto the young generation.

The rationale behind setting this component as distinct part of the Programme rests on the notion that terrorist attacks inspired and prepared from the Islamist militants’ centres in the MENA region serve primarily as propaganda activity. It is not enough to counter them by means of law enforcement; they must be prevented and confronted professionally, through a set of activities among which the strategic communications play the central role. [* I have addressed this in one of the previous posts: The Perils of Security Policy-Making in 21st Century. Planning to elaborate on the topic in one of the forthcoming posts.]

— Its tasks are delivered through four permanent sub-components:

* counter-intelligence (including but not limited to surveillance, cyber security, and content related measures);

* advocacy (promotion of tolerance, shared values and common future; especially among the primary audiences of teenagers and young adults);

* vigilance (raising public awareness and managing reputational effects);

* public image (building of the host governments’ communication capacity—internally and with external audiences, particularly citizens and their interest groups).


Governance function is imperative to long-lasting solution, for without effective and legitimate governments there won’t be any meaningful and sustainable peace established, thus feeding further into mistrust and violent contestation and leaving the door wide open for various extremist groups to enter the game. This concerns not only the central governments in Iraq and Syria (and other countries in the region, to this matter), but very much those at the local level of authority.

The Governance block consists of three components: Public administration; Local authorities; and Justice.

4.1 Governance: Public administration

The role of Public administration component in the Programme is to ensure that the government is capable of exercising its authority effectively in terms of making rational decisions and enabling the financial stability. This will be achieved through a limited number of targeted interventions at the centre of government.

— Its functional tasks are grouped into three sub-components:

* public policy (strengthening the government central executive office’s decision making and policy co-ordination capacity—vertically and horizontally, as well as between the executive and legislative);

* public finance (maintaining fiscal discipline and transparent public procurement procedures, to ensure the realistically planned and stable revenue collection, transparent expenditure, and justified redistribution measures);

* economic security (enhancing the planning and execution capacity of revenue generating ministries—to ease the burden and bring in investment; for example, introducing regulations for energy efficiency; allowing private ownership in the electricity system; privatising the state-owned enterprises; or using advanced methods of oil reservoir assessment/exploitation).

4.2 Governance: Local authorities

Decentralised governance* is a very important, albeit nuanced, aspect of power in the Middle East, considering the historically fragmented nature of the region’s political landscape (divided along ethnic, religious, sectarian, tribal lines). I believe that finding the right balance in the distribution of power (and the control over resources) between the centre and lower levels of authority is essential to establishing peace in the region. [*I mean administrative decentralisation but use it in general terms here—whichever type is applied and at whatever administrative level (federal entity, region, or province) it is exercised]

— Its functional tasks are grouped into three sub-components:

* policy instrument (decentralisation legislative instruments, strategies, and implementation mechanisms; including funding facilities, external technical assistance etc.);

* capacity-building (in strategic planning and essentially in core horizontal systems, such as human resource, public finance, communications);

* development (instruments to enable participatory development planning and transparent expenditure aimed at economic growth and social infrastructure—such as local economic development [LED], natural resource management [especially with regards to conflict-sensitive land allocation or resource distribution]).

4.3 Governance: Justice

This component is closely related to the security sector reform, but the practice has shown that is better placed separately. Its functional role in the Programme is to ensure that citizen’s personal safety and security are guaranteed, that they have equal access to justice, and that societal conflicts are resolved peacefully. It falls under the broader theme of the rule of law; however, considering the narrow focus of this Programme, the component will aim at limited number of outcomes, such as ensuring independence of courts, building capacity of judges, high professionalism of the police, effectiveness of community policing and their adequate resources, and setting the mechanisms for peaceful resolution of conflicts.

— Its functional tasks are delivered through two sub-components:

* judiciary (institutional and regulatory framework, capacity; at a later stage may also include prison reform elements, especially with a focus on juvenile delinquency and detention centres);

* policing (with particular focus on the accountability, professional norms and integrity).

Human security

The Human security component aims at addressing the humanitarian crisis in both countries that resulted from the war, destruction and atrocities. Its quick and effective implementation has a bearing not only on the countries in question, but also on their neighbours and the European countries.

This component has two immediate tasks, or sub-components:

5.1 Human security: crisis management

* in-country camp management (dealing with refugees and internally displaced persons within the country);

* co-ordination (information sharing and other necessary measures related to ensuring the concerted effort between the country authorities, international organisations, and the authorities in the recipient countries).

The preconditions for moving beyond these tasks are based on the maintenance of ceasefire, liberation of territories occupied by ISIL, and the establishment of peace and order. And even then, it will take quite a long time to rehabilitate the areas affected by war, rebuild the physical infrastructure, transport and communication and supply networks—to ensure that, once returned, people have a minimum standards of living provided. Perhaps, this would be better addressed by other initiatives/programmes (when the time comes).

However, for those who would be negotiating the peace and devising the strategies and mechanisms for the peace implementation in both Syria and Iraq, it makes sense to consider the following issues, along with the reconstruction works:

* mechanisms for return and reintegration of refugees and displaced people;

* reconciliation process;

* repossession of property;

* social security, especially of vulnerable groups of population such as women, youth and children, and the disabled; and the last but the least

* the rights of minorities (whether ethnic, religious, or sectarian).

All and each of the above have direct impact on the future peace prospects in these countries. Moreover, the success with their implementation would (in tandem with the guaranteed peace and security) serve to encourage the sustainable return of refugees from Europe and the neighbouring countries.

Post scriptum, for now

Certain things were left aside when producing the outline of the proposed Peace Programme. One of them is decision-making. The operational method of this Programme, which is concentrated at tactical level and delivered through accomplishing a dynamic series of ‘limited tasks’ requires new forms of organisational setting (such as flexible organisational structure; decentralised management; small, mobile, and specialised projects; more collaboration through such vehicles as hybrid organisations, temporary working groups and task forces). The dynamic nature of such an operational environment makes the old methods of centralised decision-making that is reliant upon massive databases and sophisticated computational techniques less effective, if not irrelevant at times. Simple decision-making tress shall be designed and standardised, to enable the middle level managers taking effective decisions under the constraints of limited time and knowledge. Combined, those tools (such as probabilistic methods of choice) would equip the Programme management with heuristics for qualitative estimation and categorisation—not very precise quantitatively, but still effective enough to make decisions in the real-life situations.

Another subject missing herein is monitoring and evaluation. It, too, deserves a special treatment and shall be designed in such a way that does not turn the M&E system into an expensive, time and effort consuming (and as frequently the case, self-serving) industry, but instead makes it a supplier of simple, useful, and readily available data and information, to feed into decision making methods described above. Therefore the decision-making method should specify which type of data the Programme management requires, and not the other way around. One approach is to explore into direction which offer such methods as outcome mapping (OM). Another is to look at the interfaces between the outputs to find out how the context reacts to the Programme interventions and the interplay between its project tasks; and to do so not only in quantitative terms but (and for the analysis and evaluation, increasingly in categorical terms) with an emphasis on values and interests of beneficiaries and stakeholders. This should help keeping the M&E system relevant and up to the task at hand.

That is it, for the time being. Your comments, ideas, recommendations are welcome as ever!


[1] S. K. Ethiraj and D .A. Levinthal, ‘Modularity and innovation in complex systems’, Management Sciences, 50/2 (2004), pp. 159-173 at p.172

Peace Programme for Iraq and Syria: An Outline

As promised in the post on the Syrian war (The Syrian War: How to Move from Chaos to Peace), here is a conceptual design of a Programme for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s conflict-torn countries. As such, it only briefly outlines the approach suggested to the proposed Programme’s design and management modalities and illustrates its architecture through a series of basic charts. This is not a business case but I believe that it constitutes the first step in that direction.

This publication aims at introducing a model and generating an interest among the development professionals, and a discussion on the concept and on how to bring this initiative forward. Ideally, a think tank or an international development consultancy would take lead in championing the idea and setting a network of practitioners who would then work together to share knowledge. In the meantime, I will keep assembling more detailed narrative on the Programme’s approach and content, for future presentations and discussions.


The Programme outline will be presented in two posts. The first briefly describes the Programme’s key features (focusing on those which in my view make difference). In the next post I will present the Programme architecture.

Key innovative features

1.General approach: In complex programme/project environments a failure (whatever small) in one component may unintentionally trigger a chain of uncontrollable failures of large magnitude all around the project and thus lead to disastrous outcomes (not only to the project in question, but to the entire country support strategy of the donor or the implementing agency). This is especially characteristic of the contexts with interactive, tightly correlated dimensions and sensitive issues or problems to deal with. Assistance programmes in conflict and post-conflict countries operate in this kind of environments.

The Public Policy 2.0 (Introducing Public Policy version 2.0) approach to designing and managing policies and programmes opens broad opportunities for matching a traditional, structured management by objectives method with more flexible management by discovery method, which is built on learning by doing and is believed to be better suited for volatile operational environments. Moreover, it allows increasing the adaptability to the rapidly changing circumstances, while localising the trouble of failures and decreasing the cost of co-ordination.

2. Programme: Under the Programme in this presentation I mean both ‘an endeavour (or an agenda) of the international community’ and ‘a specific set of related projects brought together to achieve a pre-defined goal and a set of objectives’, in partnership with and for the benefit of the recipient countries. In its current pre-design format the Programme’s hierarchy builds on several levels, from pillars at the top, through blocks, to components and sub-components. As a generalised term, I refer to all of them as components (at this stage it makes no sense going into detail of distributing these elements as programmes and projects—this is the job of those agencies which would sponsor the implementation).

3. Objectives and beneficiaries: The goal of this Programme is two establish a sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria. This will be achieved through a two-fold objective of (a) defeating the militant Islamists (namely, Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] and al-Qaeda, and their affiliates); and (b) ending the violent confrontation of domestic political forces on the territory of these two countries. This Programme is a large-scale multi-year endeavour; however it has its narrow focus and does not intent at replacing other programmes, strategies and projects planned or under implementation by various international aid and development actors in these countries.

4. Primary focus: It is understood that, even though the war against militants and the violent internal conflicts at this point demand an active involvement of the international forces, for achieving the goal of a long-lasting peace the primary guarantor must be the states of Iraq and Syria. Therefore, building the capacity of host governments to manage internal political processes without resorting to violent confrontation, and to protect their borders, and to effectively maintain the law and order in their territories to ensure safety and security of their citizens—is essential. Considering the duality of the Programme’s purpose (both in terms of having two objectives and being implemented in two sovereign states), certain centralisation is imperative, in my view. This especially concerns the military pillar, where the campaign must be centrally coordinated while locally delivered. Also, the lifetimes of the Programme’s military and political pillars are different; therefore it makes sense to decouple them from the beginning, so that when the military pillar accomplishes its mission successfully, it can be closed without major changes to the Programme’s management. Figure 1 below illustrates the idea.

PeaceProgram_Figure 1_PolicyLabs

5. Knowledge-intensive work environment: Usually, the international assistance projects are developed to fit into the existing data—that is, initially data is collected and processed, analyses conducted, and very detailed designs produced, including the [set-in-a-stone] monitoring and evaluation indicators, etc. With fast changing volatile world, this approach does not hold anymore (even in peaceful conditions, let alone in a conflict-torn place), as the projects so frequently fail to address the realities on the ground due to the outdated information and the rigid structures which do not allow revisiting the project documents. Instead, this Programme’s approach is to generate data through its own activities, to analyse it and use for predicting the developments and adjusting to them in a timely manner. Therefore, the experimentation and continuous learning and sharing the knowledge—will be key features of the Programme’s work culture.

6. Delivery of benefits: The Programme is focusing its main interventions at tactical level of intervention—this is where the real change happens and where it is possible to timely detect problems and for the mid-managers to take corrective actions. This implies that the driving vehicle behind the Programme’s (and its components’) delivery are direct results (i.e. outputs). They will be in the focus of design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation (and their revision, if the need be).

7. Degree of modularity as a design rule: Advantages and limitations of using integrated programme/project design in international development assistance are well known. Its multi-sector approach helps setting the reinforcing relations between various intervention areas, with (as it is believed) a potential of producing sustainable benefits from establishing long-term relations between various public and private institutions. However, its close component interdependence is not well-suited for experimental, trial and error approach.

One remedy to the threat of domino-effect-like massive failures could be a modular architecture of the assistance programmes. Modularity is a form of product and process design which creates a high degree of independence between components: it will serve to decompose the Programme’s components at various levels and to allow experimenting, making changes in one component (module) without generally requiring or triggering a change to other modules. Additionally, by controlling only the required output of components the Programme can achieve more effective and less costly coordination.

Given that neither total modularity nor overall integration are possible (and necessary in the case of such a multifaceted endeavour), it makes sense to establish a degree of modularity as a design rule. Under modularity in this Programme I mean interdependence between components/sub-components (and once it goes into implementation, between projects) in performing certain tasks and delivering the specified outputs. Four types of inter- and intra-component relationship can be established based on the function/structure dichotomy: from highly integrated (multiple outputs across multiple units); through moderately integrated (one output dispersed across multiple units, and multiple outputs assigned to one unit); to purely modular (single output to one unit). This classification will be of use for the managers, since it would allow them identifying interdependencies in the delivery of outputs (and thus allocation of resources) early on.

PeaceProgram_Figure 2_PolicyLabs

8. Typology of operational environment: Components of the Programme will operate in different operational environments. From the management point of view, it is crucial to establish their typology, so that to enable better distribution of tasks and co-ordination mechanisms, operating procedures, standardised interfaces (communication protocols), and progress indicators—to help minimising conflicts, waste and reinvention. A combination of two characteristics will be used to define the typology of the operational environments: physical complexity and the degree of interactivity. The former varies along such parameters as lifetime, (co)location, and the number of implementing organisations (programmes, projects, their units). The latter concerns the way how tasks are managed across certain components or within a particular component/sub-component. The following four types are suggested:

atomic [parameters: simple ecology/ low interactivity; e.g., working with different ministries on unrelated capacity building tasks];

combined [parameters: simple ecology/ high interactivity; e.g., reengineering the policy co-ordination processes in the government’s central executive office and simultaneously strengthening the capacity of the policy units in central ministries];

merged [parameters: complex ecology/ low interactivity; e.g., special operation force (SOF) units act on ad hoc tasks while being co-located across the territory with instructors who build the capacity of the local military];

highly integrated [parameters: complex ecology/ high interactivity; e.g., assistance to security sector reform, where various components/sub-components work with different government agencies, at various places across the country and abroad, but in a highly reciprocal, synchronised fashion].

PeaceProgram_Figure 3_PolicyLabs

9. Entry points: This is the approach suggested for this Programme that, in most cases (whenever feasible), the interdependencies between components (especially large components) shall be minimised. Along with reasons outlined above, this is also a condition to allow multiple international actors (with their own methodologies, resources, funding and partnership mechanisms etc.) to join the implementation of this large-scale endeavour with minimal conflict and cost-effective co-ordination. With that said, the interactions between smaller components (consider these as single-output projects) and sub-components within them shall be maximised (it has been proven in business processes that this brings about overall production effectiveness and reduces lifecycle costs).

In terms of management, the Programme considers using a design feature known [in product architecture] as ‘nucleus’—that is, normally one of the component’s constituent parts (sub-component) acts as its functional centre and other sub-components are grouped around it. In project management we usually use the phrase entry point for what such central sub-components offer. They are (a) better placed within the component, in terms of having many relationships with other sub-components; (b) have the most effective access to an array of needs addressed by the component; and (c) produce the results which directly and indirectly benefit all other sub-components.

Figure 4 illustrates how sub-components can be organised around the central unit, on the example of assisting the host country implementing a security sector reform (SSR).

PeaceProgram_Figure 4_PolicyLabs

The Syrian War: How to Move from Chaos to Peace

It is five years as Syria is locked in a deadly conflict, which has cost to date hundreds of thousands killed and injured, millions of displaced persons and refugees, has ruined towns and physical infrastructure, and paralysed the delivery of even basic public services. It has been called the ‘biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II.’ [1] In spite of sustained efforts of a broad range of actors, the conflict has spiralled out of control over the years, with implications far beyond its physical borders. Something must be wrong here, and I think that it comes from the misconception of the Syrian war.

The Syrian kind of chaos

The Oxford Dictionary defines chaos as ‘complete disorder and confusion.’ A messy, anarchic situation is frequently referred to as chaos by politicians and journalists, in this meaning. The dictionary also gives the definition as applied to natural sciences: ‘The property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.’  This definition deserves a closer look. To start with, let’s take a snapshot of the current developments.

A ceasefire between the government and the opposition brokered by the American and Russian diplomats (which came into force on 27 February) scaled down an overall violence by 90 percent within first week; it also has given a whiff of fresh air allowing the humanitarian organisations to deliver so urgently needed aid to the millions of Syrian people. Airstrikes by foreign actors targeting ISIL continue though, with an outcry by opposition that their positions had been bombarded too, thus making ceasefire even more fragile. On the other hand, the preparations are on-going to resume the UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva, although the opposition keep failing to agree on the representation at the talks. This notwithstanding, protests in the opposition-held parts of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Daraa were held in force (but peacefully) demanding the resignation of al-Assad.[2] Hundreds of thousands of Syrians meanwhile make their way out of the country, to escape misery and suffering and to find shelter in Europe.

All this looks somewhat familiar: we have seen this many times in the recent years: back-and-force, in a vicious cycle that gets ever complicated. And every time there is a warning that this is the chance not to miss, otherwise the country and perhaps the region will slip into chaos. The UN Under-Secretary-General’s recent statement being typical: ‘This war has to end. … The international community and the parties to the conflict must seize the momentum created around the nationwide cessation of hostilities to bring a political solution to the crisis. I cannot stress enough that we must not let this opportunity pass.’ [3] But Syria is in the chaos already, right in the epicentre.

Have you heard about chaos theory? It appears that chaos, like the one that we witness in Syria, is not as a messy thing as we used to think of it. Explaining the behaviour of chaotic systems, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has noted that an iterative process that keeps repeating on its own output does not replicate itself but ‘becomes endlessly complicated, at each stage giving an entirely different picture. A chaotic system, far from being disorganised or non-organised, starts with one particular point and cranks in through a repeating process; the outcome is unpredictable if you don’t know the process – and it depends heavily on the starting point.’ [4]

This implies that exploring the origins of the conflict and the character of interaction between its actors is key to understanding the Syrian war. Political science offers the relevant analytical tools for such an inquiry.

To name the game

From the political analysis point of view, it is important first to establish what is the game about, and only then to identify the players, their interests, strengths and weaknesses, the arenas where they play, and what resources they rely upon and what are their alliances.

To start with, we must distinguish between the dimensions of the Syrian war (something that is frequently ignored by the decision makers and observers alike). The conflict underway in Syria has two distinct dimensions: one is the civil war that resulted from the armed confrontation between the opposition (whatever disorganised and disunited) and the government in power; while the other is an invasion by the militant Islamists (namely, ISIL) of the territories in Syria (and neighbouring Iraq) whereby they confront and fight both the opposition and the government forces (and at times, even the al-Qaeda offspring Jabhat al-Nusra). With these dimensions the Syrian war represents a problem that does not have a single, simple or quick solution. In order to find an answer to this puzzle we have to look at the issues underlying each dimension, identify the workable solutions, and only afterwards try to bridge them with an overarching approach.

We can trace the starting point of the Syrian war to the ‘Arab spring’, when events in Tunisia had triggered a chain of popular uprising across the region aimed at overthrowing the authoritarian (or dictatorial) regimes. Some of them were successful, while others failed; but that does not come as a surprise, after all. What is important is that all of them had one thing in common—this was a contestation over power; not the protests to demand wealth redistribution concessions, social reforms, fresh elections or the like, but to take the power and ultimately change the regime. This point is crucial for understanding the war in Syria, because of the centrality of the notion of power: following the Weberian definition, it is broadly accepted in social sciences that power is the essence of state, allowing it to exercise its ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force [violence] within a given territory.’ [5]

Therefore, by the very nature of the confrontation between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the broad range of opposition groups it was clear from the outset that for all the parties involved it was a zero-sum game—governed by coercive power that uses the methods of war with intention to dominate or suppress the opponent(s). This has been the kind of conflict that is ought to establish clear winners and losers in the end (which applies to both local actors and their foreign sponsors). It might have worked though for the uprising if only they were not so divided, disorganised, politically immature and supported by diverse range of external actors very different in their interests and methods. As a result, they managed to shaken the regime significantly, but failed to overthrow it. And this is where the process became chaotic—‘iterative, repeating on its own output’—because neither side has had enough strength to crash the other, and the confrontation goes by rounds simply repeating itself and the overall situation getting worse and worse.

This also was the point when conditions became conducive for the third group of actors—the militant Islamists—to enter the game forcefully. In comparison with the civil war, this dimension of the Syrian war has multiple losers and only one winner. Losers are Syrians—individually and collectively, as a nation. Neighbours are suffering from the war’s burden (especially considering their limited financial abilities these days, due to the record-low oil prices) and are themselves under the increasing threat from the extremists. Americans, Europeans, and Russians are under the strain of keeping up high cost of military operations. European countries are increasingly being pressured by the burden of attempts at handling the refugee crisis (and all of this amid their own numerous economic and social problems).

In turn, the Islamist extremists are benefitting on all fronts—they control substantial territories and their vast resources. Most importantly, they gain ideologically from running the self-proclaimed caliphate and from getting additional boost to their propaganda from being subject to airstrikes by ‘infidels’. The evidence of their growing popularity is found in the growing number of foreign fighters and supporters: according to the United Nations ‘ISIL succeeded in attracting a global pool of around 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 states.’ [6] On the other hand, the number of boys (teenagers but some as young as five-six years of age) joining as fighters and of women and girls travelling to Syria as ‘jihadi brides’ is rising. [7]

These young people, if survived, return back home to poison our societies—to preach, instruct, and organise terrorist attacks. In this way, considering the multiplying effect, it becomes a cancerous decease of global impact. The geography and varied methods of attacks perpetrated just in the last half-a-year indicates that this process is gaining momentum, while everyone is occupied with refugees and other burning problems caused by the Syrian war and other conflicts.

There is only one way to escape the endless downfall into abyss of disorder and destruction by following this chaotic process—and that is by changing the rules of the game. For that, we first have to explore why the current approach is ineffective.

Axioms don’t work in politics

In her recent article in British press, the Newsweek’s Middle East editor, Janine di Giovanni, who had spent considerable time in the field (including with the UN special envoy’s team) put forward the current approach to negotiations as follows: ‘Assad is all we have at the moment. To remove him would have a dangerous power vacuum which could, in all probability, be filled by IS. … If guarantees are given that he will remain in transitional government until the time is right for him to step down – in his own way, with dignity – then he has to contain the mass killing of civilians.’ [8] Sounds reasonable, does it not? The question is who is going to give those assurances—in such an authoritative manner that al-Assad (and anyone else) takes them seriously and relies on them and respects them in the future.

The record of negotiated transition is mixed—there have been many successful and failed attempts in the recent decades. Theoretical background has been set as an ‘axiom’ by the prominent political scientist Robert Dahl, in his Polyarchy: ’The lower the costs of toleration, the greater the security of the government. The greater the costs of suppression, the greater the security of the opposition. Hence conditions that provide a high degree of mutual security for the government and oppositions would tend to generate and to preserve wider opportunities for oppositions to contest the conduct of the government.’ [9] This sounded so logical and convincing that some social scientists (especially those who based their projections on mathematical models of rational choice) predicted this to be the main method of transition from the communist regimes to democracy in Eastern Europe. In some cases (the Polish round table negotiations of 1989 being an example) it worked like in the book; in others it utterly failed. The problem is that there is no such thing as an axiom in politics: everything depends on political culture and tradition, and a combination of a large number of external and internal factors which tend to behave wildly—at any given point in time—so that it makes the correlation between variables complicated and unpredictable, and the information for analysis fragmented, unknown or even unknowable.

My point here is that al-Assad is not going to accept an invitation to a provisional government, because, first, the opposition (and it is broadly acknowledged that those at the negotiation table do not represent the forces on the ground) is not in position to legitimately offer it, and second, the offer by definition being short term and temporary he is concerned with what happens with him and his aides once he steps down.

The latter is particularly tricky. It is known in the literature as a ‘torturer problem’ (as coined by Samuel Huntington):’How should the democratic government respond to charges of gross violations of human rights—murder, kidnapping, torture, rape, imprisonment without trial—committed by the officials of the authoritarian regimes? Was the appropriate course to prosecute and punish or to forget and forgive?’ [10] Once there are free and fair elections and a popular government is sworn in, the question will be immediately raised to keep al-Assad to account, for all what he and his regime have done both before and especially after the spring of 2011. The general advice so wisely communicated in the literature has been mostly ‘to forgive but not forget’. As you can imagine, it is easy said than done. A huge reconciliation work shall be conducted and sustained for quite a time, in order to forgive those even at the middle ranks of the former regime.[11] But al-Assad remaining safely in Syria after leaving the politics in a year or two, once the transitional government accomplishes its mandate? No one would believe that; and neither does he. That is why the government representative dismissed in categorical terms the proposal aired by Staffan di Mistura to hold presidential elections in the eighteen-month period.

Redefining the power game

As we can see, the current approach to the Syrian power game does not offer any answer sufficient enough to fundamentally change the course of events. This brings us back to definitions. In political science theory, among various kinds of power formulated by scholars there is one which I particularly favour, because it places the elements of the equation (peace, conflict, democracy, government) in their right place. Political scientist Mark Haugaard defines it as concerted power, one which ‘springs up whenever people get together and act in concert’. This is how he puts it: ‘Peace is an end in itself, and democratic government through concerted power is one of the means to that end. Furthermore … peace is not absence of conflict, but is rather its reinscription in the rules of concerted power. The coercive power of war, where there are only winners and losers, becomes transformed into the concerted power of politics, where conflict is no longer zero-sum, all or nothing, and thus no longer domination.’ [12] This is a totally different philosophy, and it has practical implications for both dimensions of the Syrian war.

Civil war

In practical terms, this would mean signing a peace agreement between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition, to be accompanied with amendments to the constitution to introduce quotas (or similar mechanism) that would ensure a proportional representation of key polity groups in the legislative, executive branches and the independent judiciary—at all levels. And in order to ensure the implementation, along with new rules of procedure for the government, to give a special mandate to the UN envoy with extraordinary executive powers. This is not my invention—I simply borrowed the idea from the Dayton Peace Accords (formally, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina) of 1995 and the peace implementation process ever since. I believe that it offers precisely the model to work on, provided that all the lessons learnt over the years are taken into account. The oversized bureaucratic apparatus, frequently stalled decision making, inefficient spending, slow economic growth—all this has long been criticized by the country’s citizens and the foreign practitioners and observers. However, there is something no one can deny—that is, for twenty years Bosnia and Herzegovina is a peaceful country where, even not without systemic problems, its state and society perform their functions tolerably well by the standards of young democracy.

It may sound as truism, but the conclusion from what has been witnessed even in the historically short span of a few decades (approximately from the end of WWII) is obvious: Peace is more important than government, and weak government is still better than no government at all. In practical terms, it calls for concessions from all sides to the Syrian civil war, to enable the benefits of power sharing and toleration to overweight the costs of confrontation and coercion. And I believe that once peace is guaranteed (through an agreement, special envoy for civilian issues, and an international military/stabilization force on the ground), democracy will start slowly but surely developing. It will take time, but this is what such transitional processes are about; it is an evolutionary development which does not happen overnight, and there will be numerous small and big problems along the way, which would require a continued commitment, political will, resources, and ongoing technical assistance and political support—of all parties, domestic, regional, and global.

“Peace is more important than government, and weak government is better than no government. This calls for concessions from all sides to the Syrian war, in order for the benefits of power sharing to overweight the costs of confrontation.”

To stress the point about the importance of establishing a balance of power for peace and prosperity in Syria, I will paraphrase the vision of Barak Obama for the Middle East expressed in an interview of 2014, that it would be profoundly in the interest of the Syrian citizens if they start unwinding some of the distrust among the political groups and thus create a new equilibrium. I am not picturing an idyllic view of such a settlement—there will and shall be, certain volatility and conflict in political system, but these shall be governed under the rule of law and channelled through the democratic processes. In the same interview, the US President went on to conclude that, ‘each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained.’ [13]

Military invasion

The second dimension of the Syrian war—the invasion of the territories by ISIL—is full of misconceptions and inconsistencies of its own. The approach to fighting ISIL in the occupied territories of Syria and Iraq has been confusing from the outset. If Russians offered their military support to the governments in both Damascus and Baghdad, the Americans and their coalition partners did not. Take for example the statement of the US Secretary of State John Kerry after the recent deal on the cessation of hostilities: ‘Make no mistake. The answer to the Syrian civil war will not be found in any military alliance with Assad.’ [14]

There are two confusing messages here. First is that, fighting ISIL is not a civil war—they are alien element that took advantage of the civil war and the lack (or absence) of power and order on the ground. Therefore, if the military alliance is not a solution for resolving the civil war, it is the only solution to fighting the Islamist militants’ invasion, in both Syria and Iraq.* And here is the second confusion—while fully cooperating with Iraqi government, he denies any cooperation with Damascus. This inconsistency has its operational consequences—the most obvious being that airstrikes do not decide the outcome of the war, it is regular armies that take and hold positions on the ground. The former is only in supporting role to the latter. With ‘foot-on-the-ground’ not being an option for foreign allies (at least at the present set-up)**, there is only one choice left—that is to jointly fight with the Syrian and Iraqi armies—full-scale, including intelligence sharing, arms supply, training the armed forces, and helping strengthen security sector and putting it under democratic control.

“Under the international mandate, the military alliance with the Syrian government is possible. Moreover, it is imperative for defeating the Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.”

This is where the way out of the current impasse offers itself. The change of the game suggested for the civil war dimension (that is, an international mandate and coalition government) makes the government in Damascus no more the government of Bashar al-Assad (who becomes only an equal partner in the coalition government, under the new arrangements). In this way the military alliance is possible. Moreover, it is imperative. It also shall be made clear to everyone that even there is a broad military and diplomatic alliance, and there is a controlled transition to peace, the military campaign to defeat ISIL in Syria and Iraq will take many years (let along much more ambiguous and longer term target of defeating ISIL/extremist Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa). Therefore it demands a vision, patience, and long term commitment of all the parties involved. Disengagement at any point along the path will mean an immediate return to square one, thus the incarnation of chaos (just take Libya or South Sudan as examples). And I would take the freedom to generalize here by suggesting that this is as true for Syria as for any other conflict-torn country in the Middle East and North Africa region.

[*This is how the things stand today, due to numerous mistakes made in Syria and in the broader region before and after the 2011 uprising]

[**I will not consider the Iranian and Hezbollah militias in this picture, for the sake of merely keeping the argument focused]

From theory to practice

The solution to the Syrian war offered herein is rather foundational; it is an application of Public Policy 2.0 approach—the one that allows the departure from the established methods when they prove ineffective, embraces the notion that there is ‘no stability without volatility’  (to borrow from Nassim Taleb) [15], and encourages experimentation in adapting to the evolving environment, and making uncertainty work for its cause and not against it—what the art and craft of policy-making in the twenty-first century is about.

“Establishing a lasting peace will take decades and will demand a shared vision, patience, and long-term political commitment and resources. Disengagement at any point will mean an immediate return to square one, thus the reincarnation of chaos. This is equally true for Syria and any other conflict-torn country in the region.”

In the next post I will outline, in very broad terms, an international technical assistance programme for Syria and Iraq, aimed at translating this vision into practice. It is built on a premise that the assistance to Syria and Iraq in the middle-term shall be devised as combining both directions—military and civilian.


*The picture is of a mathematical object known as the Mandelbrot set (frequently used to illustrate the chaotic systems)—endlessly reapplies itself and generates pictures of ever increasing complexity.

[1] Oxfam International President Raymond Offenheiser, as quoted in Mariama Diallo, ‘Humanitarian Groups Call for Sustained Cease-fire in Syria,’ GlobalSecurity.org, 03 March 2016, at http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/syria/2016/syria-160303-voa03.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e1656%2ejt0ao08790%2e1iry

[2] Laura Pitel, ‘Peace shaken by anti-Assad protests,’ Independent, 5 March 2016

[3] UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination, Stephen O’Brien, providing the Security Council with an update on 24 February 2016: ‘Everyone is losing’ in the Syrian conflict, UN relief chief tells Security Council, at http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=53308#.VttdeH2LRdg

[4] Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson, The (mis)Behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin, and Reward (New York: Basic Books, 2004), p. 294

[5] Max Weber, ‘Politics as Vocation,’ A speech at Munich University (1918) in H.H. Gerth and M.C. Wright (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 78

[6] United Nations, ‘Special meeting of the Counter-Terrorism Committee with Member States and relevant international and regional organizations on “Preventing Terrorists from Exploiting the Internet and Social Media to Recruit Terrorists and Incite Terrorist Acts, while Respecting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”’, Concept note, New York, 17 December 2015  

[7] Richard Ford, ‘Number of British girls travelling to Syria jumps,’ The Times, 12 January 2016

[8] Janine di Giovanni, ‘Assad: a monster and dictator but he’s the best option for peace,’ Evening Standard, 29 February 2016

[9] Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971), pp.15-16

[10] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Oklahoma: Oklahoma University Press, 1993), p.211

[11] There is plenty of works written by practitioners and scholars. One of my favorites is the Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman’s insightful personal account: ‘Whose memory? Whose justice? A meditation on how and when and if to reconcile,’ The Eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture address by Ariel Dorfman, 31 July 2010, at https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/eighth-nelson-mandela-annual-lecture-address

[12] Mark Haugaard, ‘Concerted Power Over,’ Constellations, 22/1 (2015), p. 147-158 at 148

[13] David Remnick, ‘Going the Distance: On and off the road with Barack Obama’, New Yorker, 27 January 2014

[14] Patrick Wintour,”’Provisional’ Syria ceasefire plan called into question as bombs kill 120,” The Guardian, 21 February 2016

[15] Nassim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile: How to Live in the World We Don’t Understand (London: Allen Lane, 2012), p. 107