The Near East’s Costly Wrong Bets

As uncertainty engulfs a bleeding Near East, besieged by regional and global powers each pursuing its own agenda, dormant ambitions and sensitivities are waking up and finding the current situation suitable to express themselves.

To begin, such dormant ambitions and suppressed sensitivities would have never emerged had it not been for the huge regional disorder and radical change of international balance of power.

It is true that domestic consensus towards ‘national’ identities and boundaries is not guaranteed these days, even in western democracies that values human rights – as the Scots and Catalan nationalists seek to secede from the UK and Spain, respectively, through the ballot box – yet internal instability remains a sure prerequisite to animosities and partition as we witness in Iraq and Syria.

Without dwelling too much on history, be it true or not quite true, it is obvious that there is a close relationship between loyalties on one side and interests on the other. Under multi-ethnic empires such as the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Arab Near East for four centuries, many oriental constituent ethnicities accepted interaction, coexistence and intermarriage, and thus many Arabs became ‘Turkified’ while many Kurds, Syriacs and Chaldeans were ‘Arabised’.

Those days, pragmatic interests necessitated interaction and coexistence, even assimilation. Moreover, internal migrations, as well as population exchange sometimes, became almost common phenomena within that great political, social and economic space. So when some constituent ethnicities or sects appear as if they are “correcting” the mistakes of the past or “avenging’ old injustices, they are not really doing that because they are necessarily braver or more decisive than their predecessors, but because times have changed, and they may allow them now to get away with what was impossible to in the past.

Some proponents of ‘political Shi’ism’ who are now openly calling to avenge the murders of the ‘Talebis’ (the descendants of the fourth caliph Ali Ibn Abi Taleb) and “reclaim the legitimacy” of government in the Muslim world in favour of the ‘Mullahs’ of Iran against the (Sunni) descendants from the House of Omayya. This would have not been possible had it not been for the active support of Tehran and the west’s turning a blind eye to its plans for regional hegemony and acquiring nuclear capabilities.

Others among religious minorities – namely, Christian – were hard pushed to openly welcome foreign protection had it not been for the emergence of ISIS, an extremist sanguinary and dubious phenomenon. ISIS’ atrocities have actually managed to divert the attention away from plans for hegemony and “revenge” carried out by Iran and its subordinate henchmen; and thus we see these minorities not only convinced of the need for foreign protection but also for building an “alliance of minorities” too!

Then, there are large ethnic and linguistic minorities, like the Kurds, who discovered that they are enjoying a unique opportunity to establish their unfulfilled dream of a ‘nation-state’ over the ever-expanding territories they now control, and claim as their own. The Kurds may have genuine grievances that would tempt some of their extremists to risk open animosities with the Turks and Iranians – whom the Kurds have long accused of discriminating against them -, as well as the Arabs, led in recent decades by regimes that combined chauvinist discourse with tribal structure.

However, the Kurds, themselves, are not totally blame-free from discriminating against others. Indeed, it could be argued that what they perpetrated against the Assyrians and Chaldeans early in the 20th century in northern Iraq and Hakkari Mountains may be regarded as “ethnic cleansing”. Furthermore, the arrogant attitude currently adopted by some Kurdish leaders in several ‘mixed areas’ in northern Iraq, like Kirkuk, Tal Afar and the villages and towns of Nineveh plain, as well as large areas in northern Syria, specifically, in the provinces of al-Hassakah, Al-Raqqah and Aleppo, does not augur well for a future free of hatred and bad blood.

Here lies the real challenge. Here it is very important to realize the dangers of adventures, opportunism, burning boats and over-reliance on foreign promises of support. This is risky not only for religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities in the Arab Near East, but also for the religious and sectarian majority too.

The mere presence of a phenomenon like ISIS is a symptom of a dangerous crisis in both the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Past experiences and lessons of history have taught us that moderation and openness were always signs of periods of renaissance and ascendancy, while extremism and intolerance were signs of weakness, decay and internal division. Terrorism and indiscriminate murder also reflect a failure to understand the world, and to take into account the repercussions of such heinous actions. Obviously, the outcome for all to see throughout the Arab and Muslim Worlds today is the retreat of intelligent dialogue and broad agreements in the face of violent and exclusionist mob rhetoric.

Given the above, the greatest fear is that the worst may still to come, and the heavy price paid already may not be enough. In fact, this background provided the excuse for former US president Barack Obama to sign the nuclear treaty (JCPOA) with Iran’s rulers after describing them as “not suicidal”, and the veil Western powers hid behind as they conspired against the uprising of the Syrian people.

Still, there is no guarantee the current situation is permanent. Sooner or later Iran’s exploitation of and investing in ISIS will end, more so in the light of accelerating international military involvement in Iraq and Syria. Then, there are too many contradictions between competing regional plans which hope to sell the bear’s fur before hunting it!

In northern Iraq there are danger signs of potential confrontation between the pro-Iran ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces’ (MDF) and pro-independence Kurds. This is natural as it is quite unlikely that Iran, which has its own secessionist Kurds, would be happy to see an independent Kurdish state on its western borders north of an Iraq that Iran had subdued and destroyed.

The picture is not much different in Syria where Washington has encouraged secessionist Kurds – under the pretext of fighting ISIS – to establish their own mini-state along the Syrian-Turkish borders. This has been done with Washington’s full awareness that Turkey is the country in which lives almost half of the total the Kurdish population of the Middle East.

Thus, much of what becomes of the Kurds depends on Washington’s and Moscow’s overall visions for the Near East in the foreseeable future. As for what the Shi’a would achieve, along with their erstwhile Alawi extension in Syria, much depends on Moscow’s regional strategy and Washington’s reaction to it.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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