Turbulence in the Middle East
Opinion: US military reintervention would deepen existing divisions
‘In Turkey, prime minister Erdogan has increasingly antagonised opponents by his growing authoritarianism and intolerance, where his Islamist party once seemed able to court such alliances.’ Above, a protest against the visit of Erdogan in Vienna this week. Georg Hochmuth/EPA
“That’s the end of Iraq,” my Turkish journalist friend told me this week in Tunis. “It can’t survive after this and will be divided at least three ways between Sunni, Shia and Kurd areas”. The implications for the whole Middle East region are profound if he is right.
Neighbouring powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia would be drawn into any such a war of succession, while the United States agonises over its role. It would unravel the states and borders imposed on the region by Britain and France after the first World War following the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The famous Sykes-Picot lines are being redrawn. Future stability will come from a new political reordering which must involve the US and Iran.
We were discussing the sudden collapse of government authority in the northwest part of Iraq after spectacular military victories by the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) there over the last two weeks. Equally significant has been the Iraqi Kurdish seizure of strategic cities and oilfields, raising questions about similar actions by Syrian Kurds and the likely outcome of talks about autonomy for Kurds in Turkey.
A key factor in the Iraqi collapse is the complete failure of its Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to include Sunni and Kurd elements in power over the last eight years. Instead he has persecuted the Sunnis in an openly sectarian way, especially those who supported the previous Saddam Hussein regime overthrown by the Anglo-US invasion of 2003. Not surprisingly many of its former military leaders now support the insurgents. Appeals by Barack Obama for a more inclusive Iraqi government come too late to resurrect it from entrenched sectarianism. US military reintervention would deepen existing divisions. Inclusivity is a factor throughout north Africa and west Asia (a better term than the Eurocentric Middle East popularised during the imperial era) following the Arab uprisings since 2011.
Many have foundered on their failure to resolve this problem, whether governments have been dominated by Islamist, secular or military forces. The resulting zero sum politics in which winners take all have produced complete impasses in Egypt and Syria and increasingly in Turkey too. Tunisia stands out as the exception. Analysts point to its strong civil society as an explanation, with thousands of organisations independent of government, a relatively well-educated population and a vibrant women’s movement to sustain the mass mobilisations and constitution-making which have given it a technocratic government preparing for general and presidential elections later this year.
The European Union wants to encourage similar movements elsewhere, but realises this is a medium- to long-term project, since it is a highly diverse and unevenly developed region.
The former Tunisian prime minister Rachid al-Ghannouchi (who stood down after these huge mobilisations following jihadist assassinations of left-wing leaders), said this week that in the debates about tactics and strategy during the revolutions Islamic jihadist warnings to their more moderate Muslim Brotherhood colleagues that the military should not be trusted proved all too true in Egypt. That country is going through a brutal and widespread repression after President Morsi was overthrown in last year’s coup and the regime has now turned on the liberals as well, including the jailing and prosecution of many journalists.
The former Tunisian prime minister Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who stood down after these huge mobilisations following jihadist assassinations of left-wing leaders, said this week that in the debates about tactics and strategy during the revolutions. Islamic jihadist warnings to their more moderate Muslim Brotherhood colleagues that the military should not be trusted proved all too true in Egypt. That country is going through a brutal and widespread repression after President Morsi was overthrown in last year’s coup and the regime has now turned on the liberals as well, including the jailing and prosecution of many journalists.
The liberals’ willingness to trust the military there was equally ill-judged, an Egyptian journalist told me. The Morsi government was incapable of surviving in such a non-inclusivist way and should have been left to disintegrate. Instead the military are enforcing their rule after Gen Sisi’s overwhelming victory in the presidential elections, backed by supporters of the former Mubarak regime. They are instilling raw fear in a counter-revolutionary setting, recalling Louis Napoleon’s victory in France after the 1848 revolt. His regime lasted 20 years and Sisi’s hopes to do likewise. Ghannouchi believes the Islamic movements must respond to these defeats not by fighting but by developing compromise, tolerance and alliances with opponents – inclusivity in short. His party is likely to be the strongest and others are fragmented so it is still an experiment. How influential this model can be elsewhere in the region is an open question.
In Turkey, prime minister Erdogan has increasingly antagonised opponents by his growing authoritarianism and intolerance, where his Islamist party once seemed able to court such alliances. His split with the puritanical but reformist Gulen Islamic movement could hold out the possibility of future ones bypassing him. But that will take time, just as civil society did in Europe – and only coming after the 30-year religious wars of the 17th century.