Future of Iraq and Syria

The real story in the Middle East with a greater impact on the future of the region is unraveling in Iraq and not Syria

Posted on 01/20/14
By Omer Taspinar | Via Today's Zaman
Sectarian violence has left thousands of Iraqis dead over the past few years. (Photo by Al Jazeera English, Creative Commons License)
Sectarian violence has left thousands of Iraqis dead over the past few years. (Photo by Al Jazeera English, Creative Commons License)

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, and not Syria, is the epicenter of the Sunni-Shiite war in the Arab world
Iraq, and not Syria, is the epicenter of the Sunni-Shiite war in the Arab world. The battle for Damascus may just be the prelude to the real prize: Baghdad. Just look at the demographics of the two countries to better understand this point. Syria is a 75 percent Sunni majority country. This is why sooner or later the Alawite minority regime of Bashar al-Assad is bound to collapse under the pressure of domestic military and political dynamics. Syria, in that sense, is destined to be run by Sunnis.

 

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.

 

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
The US invasion upended that political order by elevating Shiites and their Kurdish allies to pre-eminence. The irony is that such an invasion helped Iran, a regional rival of the US, to gain unprecedented leverage over Iraq. The US was probably hoping that democracy and tolerance would create an Iraqi nation. A generous policy by the new ruling Shiite elite would indeed have helped forge some form of national reconciliation by placating the displaced Sunnis. Yet, as we have witnessed in the last four years, the Nouri al-Maliki government has been anything but generous. The regime pursued increasingly repressive policies against Sunni critics and political opponents. Such a conduct fed the resentment in Sunni strongholds such as Anbar and other area.

 

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.

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