Monday, 21 March 2016

After 13 years or war, are Iraq and Syria coming back?

A full 13 years have passed since the US and its allies invaded and removed the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Yet Mesopotamia will continue to make headlines for another 13 years at minimum – for all the wrong reasons.

In 2003, the majority of Western military analysts thought the Iraq invasion would be straightforward. And to a large extent they were correct. Fighting to control the country lasted little more than a month as Iraqi regulars and even the elite Republican Guards melted ahead of the advancing mechanised troops.

The CIA had been telling Iraqi soldiers for years to give up their weapons and positions and be treated well after regime change. Their lack of tenacity is therefore no surprise. Yet the resulting government orchestration by US officials was incompetent, leaving many Iraqi soldiers disenchanted and angry. The nasty insurgency and present-day splintering is a direct result of that frustration.

But thousands of angry soldiers aren’t enough to cause such disarray, something else was going on in Iraqi society. The nation itself was a hasty carve-up organised by tired and distracted French and English officials after their victory in WWI. Although the two powers had interacted with the Arab world for decades, they gave little thought to the history of the region’s ethnic population. The glue they used to stitch the region was the structure of the nation state led by authoritarian regimes.

This glue worked for a while, but underneath the patchwork of nation states was a bottle. This bottle was effervescent with mixed ethnic flavours. And for 100 years it was shaken around building up incredible pressure inside. The invasion of 2003 was the metaphorical lid to that bottle being torn off and its contents exploding. We are witnessing what is diplomatically called “transition”, but this sanitary word doesn’t capture the savagery of the region’s struggle for self-determination.

The country known as “Iraq” still has a seat in the UN at Turtle Bay, New York. And the government remains internationally recognised. But it is becoming ridiculous to say that UN seat actually represents a viable sovereign country. Not only is Iraq hosting troops from almost 100 different countries – including New Zealand – those foreign soldiers are the only ones fighting for the integrity of the state. The Iraqis do not see it that way.

Almost every group has long since given up repairing the fractured country and is consolidating what territory they control, while blocking attempts by other groups to expand. Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds are the dominant groupings, each having secured personal patrons from around the world. But there are as many tribes as there are towns in Iraq – each of them wanting some semblance of autonomy or recognition. The politics are messy, to say the least.

In the south, the largest city is Basra where the British focused its attention during last decade’s war. Today it is dominated by Shiites and influenced heavily by Iran. In the centre is Baghdad, where a weak Shiite government tries unsuccessfully to balance every other interest. In the north lies the largest Sunni city of Mosul, where Sunni militants Islamic State (IS) are in control.

100 years ago, the Ottomans divided modern Iraq into three “vilayets”. The empire’s strategy was to allow a measure of self-determination if the people declared loyalty to Constantinople (Istanbul). Where were those vilayets? They were centred on Basra in the south, Baghdad in the centre and Mosul in the north. The region is reverting back to one of its natural formations.

The same dynamics are happening in Syria. Although no country wants to take responsibility for Syria, plenty of countries are involved in its civil war. Russia, the US and others are each acting to both attack IS militants and boost/target Syrian rebel elements against the regime. But none of these tasks have been even remotely successful and the war continues.

Last week Russia decided its military goals for Syria were met, announcing it would remove the “main part” of its force. Russian troops entered Syria in September 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin used the word основный [osnovnyi], which means “main” in a somewhat vague way rather than a more technical or military version of main (главный, glavnyi) or majority (большинство, bol’shinstvo), according to the analyst Robert Kagan. His choice of language was consistent across the statement however, so it was intentional.

While the splintering of Syria into Ottoman-era vilayets isn’t guaranteed, the lines of control look intriguingly similar. The corridor connecting the cities of Latakia and Damascus is under the control of President Bashar al Assad’s ethnic group, the Alawites. An arc between Aleppo and Deir el-Zour is dominated by Sunni rebels and IS militants. And a nascent Kurdish territory tying the cities of Mardin and Arbil (in Iraq) is also forming.

So 13 years after the US invasion of Iraq, the two countries in the cradle of civilisation are wrenching apart into pseudo-states reflecting their individual histories and traditional lands. Yet calls to intervene in Syria and Iraq keep flowing from New Zealand and other Western elites. What exactly can intervention mean, however, if Syria or Iraq have effectively ceased to exist?

Those countries aren’t coming back, and it’s time we started thinking about easing the process of transition by supporting the people on the ground to discuss how they wish to organise their emerging territories in the future.

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