Confirmation last week that Turkey plans to buy into the oil and gas wealth of the self-governing Kurdish region of northern Iraq has led to warnings – most stridently from the US – that Ankara is gambling with the break-up of Iraq. Indeed. But there is more at stake than that. Drop a rock in any pool in this febrile region – now hyperconnected in all the wrong ways – and the ripples will reach every shore.
In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the national authorities in Baghdad are nowhere near a pact for sharing the country’s potentially huge oil revenues, much less a working model of federal power-sharing – with the Baghdad government of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Islamist aligned with Iran, invariably favouring sect and faction above state and nation.
But the future of Iraq is now just part of a discussion about the possible break-up of bits of the Middle East, given new urgency by the disintegration of Syria under the pulverising effect of two years of civil war.
That conflict has prised loose the Kurdish region of northeast Syria, galvanising Turkey into making peace with its own Kurds and drawing Iraqi and Syrian Kurds into an economically dynamic Turkosphere.
That this debate is only just starting suggests just how problematic it is – and how immense its possible consequences. What is in play is the state system that succeeded the Ottoman Empire almost a century ago in Syria and Mesopotamia.
One of the problems with this debate is where you start the clock. Must one begin with the machinations of Britain and France, who carved up the Ottoman Empire’s Arab possessions and reassembled them according to their own imperial designs and ambitions, most infamously in the Sykes-Picot stitch-up of 1916? Or with the 2003 Anglo-American war of choice in Iraq that shattered a fragile country as a society and state?
The Franco-British, post-Ottoman order bears a historic share of responsibility. Where the most acute stress lines are now, the UK and France bolted together Kurds and Shia under a Sunni minority in Iraq; backed a rotation of minorities in Syria; and broke off Lebanon under Maronite Christian rule from Sunni majority Syria (the management of Palestine merits separate discussion).
The invasion and occupation of Iraq, by empowering a rare Shia majority in an Arab heartland country, upended a regional balance of power between Sunni and Shia Muslims that had held for nearly a millennium. The Sunni-Shia contest, which has now collided violently in Syria with the upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring, is the most powerful driver of what is now happening.
In Syria, fragmentation is accelerated by weakness on both sides. Fractious, majority Sunni rebels have different patrons – notably Sunni powers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia with different agendas – while limited support from the west has meant radical Islamists have become disproportionately powerful. The crumbling Assad regime, built around the heterodox Shia Alawite minority, relies more and more on militias – an intrinsically cantonal and sectarian form of warfare.
So, in addition to the enlarged Kurdistan Turkey is trying to embrace, there are at least two other de facto entities starting to emerge. One is the Jazeera region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, linking up the disaffected Sunni of western Iraq with their often tribally related coreligionists in eastern Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s sponsoring of a jihadi pipeline into occupied Iraq 10 years ago has blown back on him – now that the same networks have found the way back into Syria.
A second is the Alawite coastal and mountain heartland in northwest Syria. If Hizbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shia paramilitary movement, succeeds in clearing a path for the Assads between Homs and the Lebanese border, this enclave could end up connected to Shia strongholds in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. And so on. Pull a string here, and it will unravel there.
It is hard to know what the right response to this is, but it is probably not to lecture the Turks, whose foreign policy at bottom follows the money rather than the flag, and has an underlying (and European-influenced) belief in “soft borders” across former Ottoman lands. A lot to discuss then, and the worst imaginable time to discuss it.
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