A very interesting BBC article that has many useful facts about the racketeering that funds the current top four most dangerous Sunni insurgent groups in Africa and the Middle East. However it leaves Lebanon’s Hezbollah and North Africa’s ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ off the list, as well as state entities such as the Syrian Shabbat militias. These criminal networks will not disappear at the end of the conflicts that spawned them.
There seems to be an international trend towards less blatant outside interference in the Middle East recently. Last week it was the governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States (of all people) issuing a joint statement condemning “outside interference” in Libya’s civil war. Prior to that Iran and the US tacitly joined forces behind the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, offering a welcome contrast to their past struggles over that country. Even in neighbouring Syria, the Middle East’s quarrelling powers may have temporarily set aside their differences to work together. Coming after the successful removal of Syria’s chemical weapons in June, cooperation seems to be more popular than confrontation this autumn. For this to be more than a short-term trend however, longstanding Western preconceptions blocking reform in the Middle East will have to be overturned.
The first myth that needs to be thrown out is the notion that the West has a better idea of how to design and direct Middle Eastern countries’ political systems and social organisation than the people who live there. Ever since Napoleon marched into Egypt Westerners have had a bad tendency to swallow their own rhetoric about improving Middle Easterners’ lives as a justification for running their countries. The unintended consequences of each round of intervention are then used as a justification for the next one, proving that “they” need “us”. The Middle Easterner is supposedly the perpetual student of the Western tutor.
The second notion needing smashing is that there is something in Islamic, Arabic or Middle Eastern culture that is inimitable to democratic systems of governance. The collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing the dictator does not change the political calculations or social conditions that led to the original dictatorship. But what escapes the notice of those who use this to paint the Middle East as somehow “different” is how typical the early failure of outwardly imposed electoral systems is. A democracy is ideally an indigenous system of political organisation whose advantages emerge slowly over time as its competitors are tried and fail. Historically the Western world’s political turn to it happened violently and inconsistently. Our democracies emerged only after the alternatives slowly lost their credibility over time. Most of today’s Western European ones are less than a hundred years old; at two hundred and thirty-eight America’s system is their venerable patriarch.
The elites in the region will gradually embrace democracy as they stop being able to mobilise political support any other way. The Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonisation a mere five or six decades ago and the states in it are undergoing a century of nation-building akin to the German or Italian unifications in Europe. This is hardly evidence for stagnant medieval backwardness. Pessimists should ask Qatari pensioners if nothing has changed in their lifetimes. The tragic partial collapse of the Arab state system in the Levant and Mesopotamia should be a warning against the dangerous consequences of outside military action; but we should not distort the rise of hate groups like the Islamic State (IS) movement as being somehow an inevitable consequence of the end of secular dictatorship in the Arab world. That simply plays into the hands of old-school autocrats like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who use violence to repress all opposition to their rule.
What is inevitable is that almost any political group that attains significant popularity in the Arab world and the wider region will be influenced by Islam, in much the same way as Western ones are affected by Christian frameworks and assumptions. Often even secular Middle Eastern political movements will have observant memberships. Just as Western politicians have to be in favour of things like “freedom” and “the right to bear arms”, leaders in Muslim-majority countries have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Often most of the political activism in the Middle East gets tabled under the catch-all term “Islamist”, despite it covering a wide spectrum of conflicting outlooks. This is a bit like taking the range of views represented in a typical Western country’s parliament and labelling them all “democrats”. It is technically true but vague to the point of meaninglessness.
Western paranoia about Islamists is therefore hard to completely understand. Certainly political Islam in power in such places as Sudan, Iran or Afghanistan has been nasty. But has it been any harder to co-exist with than the old Soviet Union or today’s Chinese Communist Party? Has its track record on human rights been any worse than Western allies in Central Asia or the Gulf monarchies? When the overthrow of elected Islamist political movements has been tolerated by the West (most recently in Palestine in 2007 and in Egypt in 2013) we simply look like hypocrites.
What should be clear for Western leaders is that fundamentalist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or even Hamas show clear ideological divergences with anti-Western groups like IS or Al-Qaida franchises such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Repressing them is a bit like banning the Tea Party to fight the Ku Klux Klan. It just causes people to rally behind extremists. Secondly collusion in the suppression of Islamist movements in general is a mistake because it retards progress towards politically stable representative systems. An Islamist movement in power inevitably needs to learn compromise if it is to survive (as happened in Tunisia or Turkey). If the West had weighed in against Tunisia’s Islamist al-Nahda party could the Tunisian elite have negotiated the successful transition to democracy that has eluded its North African neighbours? When such indigenous Islamist parties have to focus on the practical problems of governing such as economic growth they lose much of their crusading zeal about regulating their citizen’s private lives. The Turkish Islamist AKP government has not secured itself in power since 2002 because it focused on controlling Turkish people’s social life. Instead it delivered sustained economic growth to Turkey.
Accountable movements tackling real social problems are desperately needed in the Middle East today. When that comes it will be a grassroots phenomenon built on the increased awareness that new communications technology brings and the spread of higher education today’s regimes have been responsible for. Foreigners removing an Assad or a Maliki will not bring it about. As democracy takes root in the Middle East parties with religious values will eventually come to power. Once there they will either break into left and right-wing factions, or have to make a common cause with secular groups in order to govern. Either way Western governments need to get out of the way and stop assuming that they need to be on hand to stage mange events. Their failures in Libya and Iraq show that they can’t hold Middle Eastern countries together or build them functional political systems. Only Middle Easterners can manage that.
An article of mine has kindly been published on the Informed Comment blog of Professor Juan Cole. Go send him some traffic.
What do the crisis in Ukraine and the rise of the border-straddling of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) militant group have in common? The answer is that both situations represent the crumbling of imperial borders between fragments of what used to be a larger whole. The Second World War dealt a death-blow to the European colonial system, and the break-up of the former Soviet Union completed the decolonisation of global politics. Imperial boundaries in the former Soviet Union (FSU), Africa and Middle East have long become “lines in the sand” in many places, since the powers that created and maintained them have retreated or vanished. However unstable postcolonial states have usually been prone to break up internally, rather than disintegrate with the setting up of new cross-border “states” that we have seen in the Levant and Eastern Europe. Are the boundaries created by European imperialists in the 19th and 20th centuries finally becoming geopolitically irrelevant?
For four hundred years Iraq and Syria were part of the Ottoman Empire, before it was dismembered by predatory European powers after World War I. The resulting postcolonial states of Iraq and Syria have always had odd borders that do not reflect the preferences of many who reside inside them. In Iraq the military successes of ISIS have effectively abolished the border between Damascus and Bagdad, raising the distant possibly of a unified Sunni Arab area emerging from bits of both. The break-up of central authority in Iraq and Syria have also allowed the “Syrian” and “Iraqi” Kurds the freedom to form their own autonomous zones which might move towards political union one day. In neither of these cases does the putative state follow anything like the preexisting colonial borders. Rather they reflect the brutal ethnic or communal balance of power on the ground.
Ukraine and the modern Russian Federation used to be part of the same Soviet Union. That empire was Russian-dominated at its top, but by 1989 was only 50.8% Russian in ethnicity. Its break up along the internal administrative boundaries of its fifteen constituent republics created many curious territorial anomalies. Unlike the Western European nations whose homelands were left untouched by the end of their empires, the lands seceded by then-President Yeltsin dangerously included certain historically Russian spaces. Today the Kremlin has forcibly bolted the Crimean peninsula back onto itself and may break off more chunks of Ukraine to secure a corridor to that strategic peninsula.
European states have reacted negatively to both geopolitical developments. Absent from their discussion over Iraq and Ukraine is whether these conflicts constitute special cases or not. The separatism of ethnic nationalism caused the break-up of the 20th century’s multinational empires into weak political units, from which other communities have split off in their turn (for example Eritrea broke off from Ethiopia in 1993). Few have been the cases of armed conflict where groups have been fighting to join a state or amalgamate together to make a new one. Irredentism has long been unusual; why has it therefore seemingly reemerged recently?
The collapse of European empires tended to lead to most ethnic groups getting a state of their own somewhere they formed a majority. In power and inside a complex economically interdependent international system that also valued sovereignty, most titular nationalities in postcolonial states have adapted more-or-less peacefully to the presence of minorities in “their” state and vice versa. The modern-day Republic of Armenia is extremely unlikely to go to war with Turkey to reclaim “Western Armenia”.
Where post-independence states have already fragmented once, further splits are unlikely. Even when a second split has occurred however, violence has still usually been about further secession rather than cross-border amalgamation. For example since independence from Serbia, Kosovo has not merged with Albania, despite being an ethnically Albanian majority state in its own right and having close linguistic and clan ties with northern Albanians. Modern irredentism mostly seems to flourish where the borders are still unreformed between units of a former empire.
In the 21st century substantial support for it therefore comes from within two groups; firstly it can come from members of the formerly dominant power, if their community is split by a boundary with a newly independent state. Examples such as Serbs in northern Kosovo or ethnic Russians in the FSU come to mind. In Ukraine the absorption of the Crimean peninsula by the Kremlin was popular amongst ordinary Russians and not unpopular among ethnic Russians in Crimea. Popular support for the internationally unrecognized and self-declared ‘Novorossiya Confederacy’ in southeastern Ukraine is weaker, but strong enough to sustain a Kremlin-backed low-level insurgency by ethnic Russians and Russian nationalist volunteers.
Alternatively irredentism can be from members of groups which are stateless and oppressed. The Armenians were a classic case in the 20th century; the Kurds are a modern-day example. Sunnis in Iraq did not attempt to forcibly merge with their co-religionists across the Syrian border when they were in power, despite having tribal ties in common. The idea has only gained popularity since the Sunni-dominated uprising began in Syria and with the failure of Sunnis to gain mainstream representation in the new Iraqi politics under the regime of Shi’a strongman Nuri al-Maliki. The formation of a Sunni Arab confessional state in the Levant has only come to seem attractive as a result of the simultaneous disenfranchisement of Sunnis on both sides of the old Sykes-Picot borders.
I predict that the current Iraq crisis will end with the defeat of Sunni Arab jihadism by a strong international coalition mobilizing against it. However it has given the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds the chance to defacto break away from central authority in both Syria and Iraq. The emergence of a Kurdish state or states may be regarded as inevitable from now on. Likewise Russia will keep the territories from Georgia and Ukraine that it has added on to itself and may try to add other small parts of the FSU onto itself in the future. But Russia remains more vulnerable to separatism and neo-imperialism than either Europe or America. I predict the story of Russia in the 21st century will be a continuing struggle to hold on to what it already has rather than a Russian “re-colonisation” of the FSU. Irredentism remains the exception, not the rule in today’s post-imperial world.
Richard Sale takes a look back at the mistakes in 2003 that led to today’s weak central Iraqi state, and how that has allowed jihadi groups to make a comeback post-surge. Sic Semper Tyrannis is a very interesting Middle Eastern-focused blog that I have been reading for about ten years now. There are a lot of good articles and posts by the author and his friends, many of whom have led interesting lives. Well worth taking a moment to read some of the archives.
One of the arguments I read about regularly is that the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan show that the US/West do not make good imperialists. Putting aside the morality question of imperialism, I am always bemused when I read this statement. My reasoning is that people rarely notice if a system is working well, only if it fails. How many of us have taken no notice of the power grid till the lights don’t work?The US and its allies are ocean-focused trading powers like Venice, Carthage and Britain before them. They are not war-fighting societies motivated by loot and land, like Rome, the Mongols of Genghis Khan or the Nazis. Their mechanisms of control are therefore less deep and coercive, but also more flexible and responsive.
People remember Iraq and Afghanistan because these wars were bloody, expensive and visible failures. Likewise Vietnam and the coup that brought the Shah to power, which in turn recreated the conditions for today’s Islamic Republic, are often cited as cautionary tales. But who now remembers US actions in Haiti in 2004? In Grenada in 1984, Serbia in 1999 and 2000, Panama in 1989, or the first Gulf War in 1990? There, the goals of the administration in question were, in hindsight, roughly achieved. Even where full objectives are not achieved, partial success is still there in the eyes foreign policy makers. Somalia might still be a bloody mess, but the Islamic Courts Union regime that was threatening to come to power has been destroyed. If your policy goal is to deny political Islam a voice in power, as under the Bush administration, that still counts as a negative win. You didn’t get what you wanted, but neither did the other side.
Iraq was a failure for America and its allies because it tried to do direct old-fashioned imperialism and found it wasn’t very good at it. US history has examples like Iraq in the its past, but they are not the norm. If you think US failure in Iraq means the end of American use of military power abroad however, well I think you should read the foreign news a little bit more closely, and see how many names you start to recognise after a while.
As news arrives of an interim deal between the West and Iran over that country’s controversial nuclear program, it raises the possibility of hope for resolving another long-running regional stalemate. Interest in Syria’s civil war has died down somewhat since the Obama administration backed away from threatened military strikes this autumn, yet the fighting drags on with no sign that talks in Geneva this January will end in a ceasefire agreement. Outsiders remain deadlocked over the issue, with each country pursuing its own agenda and no sign that any will prevail over the others soon.
Indeed, part of the problem entrenching the Syrian conflict is how it has drawn in so many outside actors. The most comprehensive solution to the crisis is therefore also the one least likely to be implemented by a bickering international community. That is a general agreement for a cessation of war-making material to both sides by their foreign backers, combined with an economic embargo to stop funds for military purposes getting out and smuggled arms getting in. Properly enforced by neighbouring states, this could slash the resources available to either side to keep their fighters armed, fed and paid, whilst in theory allowing in aid for civilians in need. Undermining Syria’s war economy would hurt the ability of both the rebels and the regime to continue the struggle and help push them towards the negotiating tables at Geneva. After so much bloodshed, transitions out of civil wars are never easy, but the internal strains can be considerably reduced if the international environment is right and outside states push for a peace settlement.
Sadly that is precisely the opposite policy of what outside actors have been doing so far. The tragedy for Syrians is their conflict has come to be perceived as inseparable from other regional power struggles in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. However, as the recent interim breakthroughs over Iran’s nuclear program have shown, treating Syria’s civil war as part of an interlinked regional struggle is not the way to achieve momentum in peace talks. By focusing on Iran’s nuclear program as a single issue separate to Tehran’s behaviour in other spheres international progress towards an agreement has been made. Similarly in the Syrian conflict Russia’s diplomatic credibility has been raised by the successful dismantling of government chemical weapons under international supervision, though this did not depose the regime or end the war.
Unless Syria’s foreign backers can take some shared responsibility and start to come to an international agreement, the two sides in its civil war will have no incentive to come to terms. A good place to start would be for the West to recognise the authority of the Russian and Iranian governments to speak up for the national interests of their countries in Syria. Complaining about Russian or Iranian protection of the Assad regime will not change that fact. Nor will it alter the situation inside Syria, where after two and a half years of fighting, neither side has proved quite strong enough to overcome the other. What is needed in January is a Syrian version of the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war in neighbouring Lebanon. It should cover political reform, the ending of the civil war and the disarmament of all state and non-state militias. Without this Syria’s conflict will continue to destabilise Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and could plausibly escalate into a regional war by drawing in these outside states. The fear of that alone should be prompting policy-makers in Iran, Europe, America and Russia to think hard about their next move.