05.07.2014 Author: Petr Lvov

The global implications of the Iraq crisis

3534532These days, when Europe and the Middle East are remembering the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, a few historians and political scientists are giving due attention to the study of the effects of the Sykes – Picot agreement, which set the boundaries of the modern Arab world and Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Apparently, little attention will be paid to this subject as will be the case next year to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which led to the collapse of the colonial system in the Arab world and the establishment of the current political boundaries and political systems of the Middle East. But these two factors largely underlie the events which are currently unfolding in the region, primarily an armed intervention in Iraq by ISIS and its proclamation of an “Islamic Caliphate” as a state uniting all Muslims in the world. And it was in fact ISIS who declared the end of the “Sykes-Picot system”, which had existed since the end of the First World War, by leveling everything up to the Syrian-Iraqi border. In addition, the transformation of ISIS to an “Islamic state” in practice implies a declaration of “jihad” on all secular countries of the West and the Middle East. And the end of the Sykes – Picot system presupposes the collapse of the status quo. And this time coincides exactly with the centennial of the First World War. The circle has closed up again in 100 years.

It’s not how they would have wanted it, the “democratizers” of the U.S. and NATO, but Islam and its dominance in the region are the main elements of the political landscape of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Beginning with the implementation of the Arab “Spring” plan, the strategists in Washington and London believed that Islamic opposition to the policy of modernization and Europeanization would disappear. But it happened exactly the other way around, and radical Islam rose sharply. These “smart heads” forgot that the modern Middle East fully originated in the West, and when formed by the West fragments of the XX century were built into the Middle East infrastructure of the Islamic world of the Middle Ages. And this is the traditional approach of the West towards the Middle East, and it has not been altered in any way since the Sykes – Picot agreement, which at the time it was being signed, gained a reputation as a treaty that would turn the Middle East into a center for future wars. Western forces, who, at the conclusion of the First World War drew the boundaries of “nation states” (by the Western sense of the word) by hand and with a ruler, at the beginning of the XXI century again entered the region, only this time with the idea of “democratization” based on western patterns. But in the end, the promise to bring democracy was forgotten by ISIS, Dzhabgat en-Nusra and other radical organizations. And the first thing for which they promptly took hold of was the unfolding struggle against the Sykes – Picot.

The Sunni jihadist group ISIS, whose militants are now in control of large areas of territory in Syria and Iraq, demonstrated its sharp rise on June 29, proclaiming an Islamic state, a new “Caliphate”, to which Muslims from around the world must comply. “Here it is – the banner of the Islamic State, the sublime banner of Tawheed (monotheism), soaring in the wind”, in a statement the group posted on the Internet in multiple languages. “It casts its shadow from Aleppo to Diyala”, an area that stretches from the north east of Syria to Iraq. The militant leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared its Caliph. The revival of the caliphate is the goal of many, if not all, jihadist organizations seeking to destroy the system of nation states that were created in the Middle East after the First World War.

In late June, during its offensive on Iraq, militants demolished an eastern wall on the border of Iraq and Syria. In a statement posted on the internet underneath a photo of the bulldozer, the statement read, ISIS is destroying the “Sykes and Picot” border that separates the two countries and which jihadists believe to be an artificial creation of European colonial powers. “The symbolic action of ISIS militants against this partition, which a hundred years ago was created by European empires, demonstrates how important the myth of pre-colonial innocence is for one of the most radical groups of the modern Middle East”, written in the New York Review of Books by historian, Malise Ruthven.

(Note: speaking of “Sykes – Picot border” ISIS is referring to a secret agreement signed in 1916 by two diplomats, Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman, François Georges-Picot. Britain and France had their own views of what to do with what was left of the Ottoman Empire, its opponent in the First World War. But eventually they agreed with Russia on the division of these territories into spheres of influence and control. This was at odds with the letter of the agreements with Arab leaders, who were promised an independent Arab state with its capital in Damascus in exchange for support against the Ottomans.

After all, that which occurred after World War I justifiably caused a great deal of resentment in the Arab world. The victorious Allies confirmed the national aspirations of the Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks and other peoples of Eastern Europe who had once lived under the Ottoman yoke, but yet to refused to compromise and reach an agreement on Arab aspirations for independence. The French sent troops to Syria to brutally crush a nationalist movement. The British retained control over the oil fields of modern Iraq and turned the port of Basra into a strategic staging post on the way to their Indian colony. Such British “Arabists” like English colonel, the spy Lawrence, who helped organize the Arab revolt against the Ottomans, was deeply disappointed in the duplicity of his own authorities.

The borders of the independent countries that emerged in subsequent decades (after another world war) did not fully correspond to what was agreed to within the Sykes and Picot agreement. Nevertheless, they bore clear signs of European intervention, including the division of Lebanon and Syria along religious lines, the emergence of Jordan, and facilitated by the split Palestine, the emergence of the State of Israel. In recent months, when civil war and political crisis in Syria and Iraq began to wipe away borders, it forced many to think about drawing up a new map of the region and several political scientists began to argue about the “collapsing” consensus of Sykes-Picot. For ISIS this idea is, in all likelihood, very convenient to use as an ideological slogan, because it allows fighters to look as avengers correcting historical injustice and the heirs after the Ottoman Empire.

It is true however, we must recognize that the focus of the Islamists on the Sykes-Picot agreement obscures recent developments which have launched their own processes in redrawing the map of the region; the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab “flowered” revolutions occurring from 2011-2013 are the most probable causes of a new “caliphate” and not the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, the U.S. immediately rushed to disown any of the responsibility for the current armed conflict in Iraq as a consequence of its failure in all respects for the occupation of the country over the course of 8 years. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, did not hide his displeasure of the United States. When a threat arose to Iraq’s national survival, in addition a serious threat to his political leadership, Maliki sees in Washington a weak and unreliable patron. So he sought out support in other places, trying to reduce Iraq’s dependence on U.S. aid. And here arriving on the scene are the countries of Russia, Iran and Syria.

Moscow quickly delivered to Iraq Su-25, even if they were somewhat outdated. And after all, this is happening at a time when U.S. officials whimsically state that the on-going instability may prevent the delivery to Iraq of U.S. F-16 fighter jets (and when Maliki openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the delay in delivery, they stated that Iraq was “misguided”). Besides the delivery of aircraft, Russia sent technicians to begin work on its assembly and preparation for flying missions; refresher courses for Iraqi pilots were held for those who have not flown the Su-25 for a long time. Iran, for its part, us supplying Iraq with military hardware and is providing it with intelligence information gathered through the operation in Iraq of Iranian drones. And even Maliki has suggested that, Baghdad might “call for Iranian strikes” on positions held by ISIS militants in Iraq if the United States itself us unwilling to conduct airstrikes. Syria is, of course, actively engaged in the fight against the militants on its own territory, and recently conducted airstrikes even in Iraq. Maliki highly praised the Syrian bombing raids, saying, “They are carrying out strikes and we are carrying out our own; and in the end our two countries will be victorious.” Despite many differences in their priorities, Russia, Iran and Syria are united against Sunni extremists seeking to overthrow al-Maliki and defend a unified Iraq. They are geographically much closer to Iraq than is the United States, so this crisis and its consequences for them are much more important. The factor of geographical proximity also helps Iran and Syria to act very quickly. To the majority of Americans, this may seem very strange fact that the objectives of Russia, Iran and Syria in its combination generally coincide with those of the United States, although al-Maliki’s reluctance to abandon his narrow sectarian approach to governance in Iraq creates more problems for Washington than it does for one of the countries of the “troika”. It is also noteworthy that America’s NATO partners appear reluctant to get involved in this. British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that instability in Iraq “could hit us at home”, if the problem is ignored, but stopped short in offering military intervention on the part of the United Kingdom. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stepped back from the crisis, obligingly suggesting that the United States bears a “special responsibility” for the situation in Iraq, but sees little or no role for Berlin, which from the outset was skeptical. Demonstrating belligerent rhetoric about Ukraine, the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the same time does not see the need to participate in Iraqi affairs.

It is obvious that the Iraqi crisis has become an exceptional challenge for President Barack Obama and his attempts to formulate a new national security doctrine for the U.S., especially against the background of aggressive American interference in Ukrainian affairs. Speaking recently at a graduation ceremony at West Point, Obama said, “The United States will use military force, and if necessary unilaterally to protect our fundamental interests, and when there is a threat to our people, to our allies and when our well-being is in danger”. “On the other hand, he continued, when the world’s problems do not pose an immediate threat to the United States, when a crisis arises that affects our conscience and pushes the world in a dangerous direction, but does not threaten us directly, then in this case, the threshold to use military force must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not act alone. We need to unite our allies and partners and take collective action”. But the problem is that American allies and partners are much less interested in participating in the Iraq crisis then are Russia, Iran and Syria. At the moment they can, but are not taking “collective action” but rather operating in parallel without being closely linked, but doing more than anyone else to defeat the threat of radical Islam.

It is unclear whether President Obama will succeed in their clumsy actions in response to the victory of Islamic militants in Iraq upon the announcement of the creation of an Islamic state. Being true to himself, the president seems to be seeking middle ground, doing just enough to avoid criticism for being passive on the one hand, and at the same time doing little in order to appease the population and their growing dissatisfaction over the next military campaign abroad. Acting equally contradictory, senior American commanders do not want to demand too much from their war weary troops, but at the same time, they want to prevent further deterioration of the situation in Iraq, as in this case all of the victims and the losses suffered by the U.S. Army would be meaningless.

In this case it is understandable, it’s not how Washington would have wanted it, that by their own actions, the terrorist group of ISIS creates the favorable conditions for the growing influence of Iran. The Islamist “awakening” in the Middle East has contributed to increasing the ideological influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Undeniably, the ideological component of the Islamic Revolution, which occurred in the country in 1979, includes the idea of ​​democracy and the religious struggle against world imperialism. In addition, recent developments in the Middle East have resulted in the West losing position in the region as countries it depended on were subsequently overthrown. The Sunni population of the Middle East is not indifferent to Iran’s revolutionary ideology. This is particularly evident in active Palestinian groups such as Hamas, which, despite some differences with Iran religiously, are in the fight against Israel, as this is a core principle of the Islamic revolution. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, watching the growing influence of the Islamic Republic in the region, moved to the side of the West. And this fact has caused division in the Middle East between the two camps, between the Shiites and the Sunnis. And the “Shia arc” as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Southern Lebanon, Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia may well become the most powerful force in the region.

In addition, the West faced a dilemma with regards to Syria. After all, Syria now appears to be an active player in the fight against terrorism. And in supporting al-Assad, Iran repeatedly warned other countries about the danger posed by terrorist groups. So, as it turns out, it is not the United States or the West, but Iran, Syria and Russia who were able to mobilize in the fight against terrorists. This was made possible due to Washington and NATO together engaged in the Ukrainian crisis for purely selfish reasons, i.e. the struggle for the redistribution of the gas market. And to the entire world it is quite obvious, due to what is happening in Iraq currently and the proclamation of a “jihadist caliphate”.

Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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