August 13, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: A Time for Leadership in the Middle East

• Iraq and Syria are political concepts drawn up by foreigners in a different age; they may now have reached their expiry date

• The consequences of the dissolution of Iraq or Syria for the better established states of the region could be serious

• Much depends on the leaders of neighboring states, most of whom claim a new popular mandate, showing that they can work together – and doing so.

As Haider al-Abadi replaces Nuri al-Maliki as Prime Minister, some of Iraq’s problems may ease, but even if the transition leads to more US political and military support, as suggested by Secretary Kerry on August 12, its problems will certainly not disappear. Iraq is broken, not just because of the disastrous mistakes in governance since 2003, but because for many years beforehand it was only held together by despotic rule. Maliki was not strong enough to enforce the unity achieved by Saddam Hussein; al-Abadi may not even try to do so, unless the support from outside is much more substantial than appears likely or advisable.

The borders of Iraq were drawn in 1920, and leaving aside the growing autonomy of the Kurdish region, they have remained unchanged since then. This is true too for Syria, where the borders were set by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between the United Kingdom and France, and have changed only insofar as Israel has occupied the Golan Heights. The world is no longer susceptible to the back room deals of the Great Powers, and there is a new element in the mix—local public opinion.

The borders drawn by the colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries were designed to separate rather than delineate. By dividing tribes and other established social and political units, the colonial authorities were able to weaken potential challenges to their centralized administration while ensuring that their client states incorporated areas rich in resources. The threat of force—through the use of weapons that were unobtainable by the local population—was enough to keep the peace.

Those days have gone. The proliferation of weapons to non-state actors has never been greater, even to the extent that they can shoot down airplanes and bombard cities from many miles away. And the way that irregular armies conduct war has made many traditional tactics obsolete. If we care to learn one thing from the threats that confront the international community today, particularly in Africa and Asia, it is that fighting—at best—can only provide a temporary respite.

Stasis is far easier for the international community to deal with than change, but events demand change. The situation in Iraq and Syria has no obvious outcome, but these two countries will certainly not return to where they were before. And unless neighboring states are prepared to work together, the new geopolitical arrangement of the map may have far wider consequences than just for what used to be Iraq and Syria.

It would seem sensible therefore for all states to agree on what they don’t like, and work together to deal with that, rather than continue to snipe at one another and focus only on their differences. Apart from the freshly-minted Iraqi Prime Minister, most of the other leaders of the region are newly elected. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just been voted Turkey’s new President; Syria’s Bashar al-Assad claimed reelection as President of Syria just two months ago; Abdul Fatah al-Sisi became President of Egypt just one month ago, and President Rouhani of Iran is barely one year into his term. All these leaders felt obliged to campaign for election, even if their success was never in doubt. All of them claim the legitimacy of a popular mandate, and say they will represent the interests of all their people; and none of them faces any immediate threat of eviction. They have sought power and they have achieved it. Now they need to act.

This is no less true for the unelected leaders of the region. If they wish to maintain public support for themselves and their chosen successors, they need to show that they can take action in the public interest. Allowing the so-called Islamic State and other extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra to gain ground and disrupt social cohesion by pitting sect against sect, faith against faith, ethnicity against ethnicity, and neighbor against neighbor, is not in the interest of anyone, and is not a historical legacy to be proud of. Preserving the nation-state is less important than promoting the overall progress of civilization. Right now, the barbarians are at the gate, and they will not spare anyone if they are allowed to enter. The only way to keep them out is for everyone to act together.


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