Thursday, 19 May 2016

Finding sanity in IS insanity

The month of May has two anniversaries worth capturing this year: the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (May 16, 1916) and the killing of Osama bin Laden (May 2, 2011). What may be happening now in Iraq and Syria has everything to do with these events.

A hundred years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the carnage of WWI, word on the foreign policy street is that the status quo decided by the Sykes-Picot Agreement is painfully disintegrating. This is bad for its citizens, surely, but something much more important could happening deep behind all the vehicle bombs and parliamentary squabbles.

Sykes-Picot Agreement
Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, diplomats of Britain and France respectively, conducted closed-door negotiations to lay the groundwork for the modern Middle East. It would be easy to dismiss that – as the general belief at most universities seems to be – the ex-nihilo creation of nation states in a place where the idea was entirely foreign was colonialist and naïve.

But for those diplomats, the only way to govern a new world in which four empires had just collapsed, and the final two were teetering, was to organise the region into self-governing nation states. Their estimation was proven somewhat accurate as the various people-groups forged fresh nationalist narratives to accompany their new territories. Some of their old traditions and identities remained however, and those are pushing to the surface today.

This struggling is best exemplified by the leader of al qaeda, Osama bin Laden. The infamous Saudi millionaire was frustrated with the heretical regimes across the Middle East which he saw as illegitimate Muslim leaders. He called for them to be overthrown and used classic leftist techniques such as terrorism and direct political activism to achieve this. Yet he wasn’t successful.

Five years after Mr bin Laden’s death, the group which picked up his mantle – the Islamic State (IS) – is having a tough 2016. The Russian intervention behind the Syrian regime bolstered the loyalist troops, allowing for fresh counterattacks against IS positions across the country. Airstrikes and ground attacks against IS forces in Iraq are also keeping the group contained.

Yet the group still holds significant territory in both Syria and Iraq, and over sections of Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. And it is consolidating around major cities. Looking at a map it is hard not to notice a pattern: whether by design, accident or pressure, the group is forming a web of city-states.

This is important because one of the major criticisms of the IS campaigns is that its control of land is oversold. All those black-painted marks on control maps is really just desert and highway, few people live there. But that’s the point: IS only cares about consolidating control where the people are, and right now that’s the major cities of Raqqa, Mosul and Sirte.

This is worth pondering as the group’s assumed quest stalls. Its narrative up until now has been one of an unstoppable force, washing away everything in front of it. But its irrepressible march has slowed recently so perhaps it is time to consider not the group’s goals but its actual achievements to date. Those achievements have it acting suspiciously similar to the rest of the Middle East.

City-states of Italy
It is clear Baghdad has neither the inclination nor the capability to administer Iraq as a coherent whole. This is one of the reasons Iraqis are protesting intensely. Basra in the south too is increasingly administering itself, with some assistance of Iran. And in the northern city of Mosul, occupied by IS forces, Baghdad’s influence doesn’t come near at all. The Kurdish eastern region also is centred on the city of Arbil, which has only fragile control over the surrounding countryside.

In Syria, the regime is resigned to a tight stretch between Damascus and Latakia on the coast. A bloody fight is occurring over the northern city of Aleppo, which could fall to regime forces but may not remain their possession for long. In the east, IS controls Raqqa which Syrian Kurds further east have no desire to help liberate because the city doesn’t fall inside historical Kurdish lands.

The international community is hoping the region will at least organise along nation state lines. The exact Sykes-Picot Agreement might be defunct, but in their minds only nation states can bring peace and stability. Mr bin Laden wanted the removal of corrupt rulers yet he stopped short of directly calling for the preservation of nation states. He didn’t know what would come next if the rulers left.

Yet perhaps IS does know what’s coming next, or at least what it wants. City-states were never made obsolete by some advancement in political theory, it was the invention of artillery that pounded their walls in Italy. The idea of a sovereign city-state is still impressively viable and in Dubai, Hong Kong or Singapore actually performs better as a system than nation states can. Perhaps the age of nation states is passing its use-by date.

The democratic nation state governments are being smashed, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be replaced by a global spiderweb of tens, even hundreds, of thousands of sovereign and independent mini-countries, each governed by its own joint-stock government without regard to the residents' opinions. If residents don't like their government, they can and should move. Are we witnessing the emergence of such a formation in the Middle East?

If IS actions in Iraq and Syria do result in a web of increasingly sovereign city-states without reference to national ideals or modern democracy, and within these jurisdictions people either choose to stay or choose to leave, would this not be an adequate answer to instability? Is this at least not worth considering?

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