Syria naturally dominates the news because of its violent war. But the real story in the Middle East with a greater impact on the future of the region is the unraveling and disintegration of Iraq.
Iraq, on the other hand, is a different story. The sectarian demographic balance of the country is precarious, with a 60 percent Shiite majority and a 40 percent Sunni minority. The proximity of Iran and Saudi Arabia bring an additional and particularly disruptive “proxy” war dimension to this existential struggle, with Tehran supporting its Shiite partners while Riyadh backs all sorts of Sunni formations.
It’s not surprising that the Western media began to pay more attention to what has been happening in Iraq only after al-Qaeda fighters captured Fallujah. Never mind that thousands were killed in Iraq last year as the country’s never-ending sectarianism took a sharp turn for the worse.
In the United States, news about al-Qaeda victories still resonate much more than mass casualties in sectarian civil wars. The real question about the future of Iraq is whether Iraq is a state to begin with. Pessimists argue that Iraq is an artificial post-colonial creation and that the identity of the state doesn’t match a corresponding ethnic group or nation. Others argue that states are often modern creations and that nation-building becomes possible when state institutions begin working. The problem with this argument is that Iraq doesn’t have working institutions. In their absence, the creation of an Iraqi nation with loyalty to a civic identity rather than tribes or sects remains fiction. This is why Saddam Hussein had to establish a police state to keep the country together by suppressing the Shiites and Kurds under the hegemony of the minority of the Sunnis.
Now this resentment has reached the level of a full-blown insurgency aimed at restoring Sunni dominance on a national level. Some radical elements within the Iraqi Sunni camp have also decided to go next door to Syria to wage jihad against another pro-Iranian regime. These are the same al-Qaeda fighters from Iraq moving across porous borders who last year proclaimed themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). And it is often reported that this new jihadist magnet has drawn about 10,000 foreign fighters, many of whom hold European passports.
All these dynamics in Iraq and Syria do not bode well for the notion of Iraq and Syria as unified states. Indeed, the Kurdish populations in both countries have already escaped central control and have become de facto independent entities. In the absence of legitimate institutions, the division of the two countries will continue along sectarian lines, with Shiites and Sunnis reverting to their respective strongholds and proxy outsiders encouraging them to maintain maximalist territorial ambitions. In a few decades, Syria and Iraq may indeed become historic entities remembered as relics of a post-colonial Middle East that could not adapt to post-Cold War dynamics.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading publication of Turkey.