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19 December 2016

Middle East: admitting the obvious

A revision of strategy is long overdue

The Islamic State’s “liberation” of Palmyra from Bashar al-Assad’s army divisions on December 11 has demonstrated once again that Damascus and Moscow’s coalition has no clear advantage in Syria. Apparently, it would be equally correct to state that the Baghdad–Washington coalition in Iraq has no clear advantage either. The position of Turkey, however, which only currently controls regions in its immediate border areas, is extremely unclear. In other words, the all-against-all war in the Middle East continues, and there is no reason to expect any crucial turning points.

Historically, if we look back a few decades, it is hard not to admit two facts:

On the one hand, all the states involved in the current confrontation in some way contributed to the start of the conflict, too. I am not even talking about Turkey, fighting which gave a boost to the development of the modern Arab world’s identity. Present-day Syria was established by the French, who joined its separate territories together into a single protectorate during World War II (to which we will return later). Under the USSR’s influence in the 1960s, the Syrian authorities enthusiastically began to build socialism. The ongoing civil war in the country was triggered by the wave of regime-changes in North African countries, which occurred with support from France and the United States. Islamists – currently considered to be the most dangerous international terrorist movement – banded together during the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in Afghanistan, and moved closer to Syria’s borders following the destruction of Iraqi statehood in 2003–2004 by the United States and the “coalition of the willing” countries. At the same time, instead of admitting collective responsibility for the bloodiest conflict in recent years, the “superpowers” are now attempting to show one another their place in the modern world through their activities in the region.

On the other hand, one should note that the Middle Eastern states – both Syria and Iraq – are completely artificial, unsustainable entities which emerged following WWI. When France and Great Britain refused to support the pan-Arabist movement, formed during the struggle against the Ottoman Empire, they received League of Nations Mandates to govern Syria and Mesopotamia. Under Turkish rule, both territories were divided into separate provinces according to their inhabitants’ ethnic and religious characteristics. Faced with a strong independentist movement, the British were forced to unite Mosul, Baghdad and Basra provinces into the Kingdom of Iraq in 1921, and recognized its independence in 1926. The French, meanwhile, had acquired an even more complicated territory, and divided modern Syria into Aleppo, Damascus, Druze and Alawite states. This structure collapsed after the fall of France in 1940 and the regional dominance of “Free France”, which regarded such colonial differences as insignificant. In the end, Syria with its current borders formally gained its independence in 1941.

From the above, two conclusions can be drawn:

First, in this region there is deep mistrust towards all potential foreign participants in the conflict. One way or another, the most consistent freedom-fighters see – and not without reason – the current rulers of both Iraq and Syria as foreign puppets, installed either in the 1960s under the USSR’s influence, or in the 2000s with support from the United States. The Islamic State – although this is not a very accurate comparison – is a sort of a modern version of the old pan-Arabist movement which liberated those territories from Turkey; only this time the main focus is devotion to traditional Islam, not ethnic background.

Second, preserving the “states” of Iraq and Syria, as invented by Europeans, makes little sense today and is probably impossible – the road to Middle Eastern hell is paved with dreams of “territorial integrity” and “independence”. For decades, these countries were ruled by representatives of religious minorities, a situation which confers a different, particularly “just” meaning to the fight against central governments. The governmental army is not perceived as a “liberating” force in Syria, but an instrument of oppression. What is more, not only American or Russian soldiers are seen as enemies by the inhabitants of the country’s Arab regions, but also Syrian citizens from different ethnic groups (Kurds, for example). This is why we should assume that the population of Rakka – as was the case in Mosul before – would rather support IS than welcome being “liberated” by Kurds or foreign armies. In fact, several civil wars are raging in parallel in the region, and outside interventions do not solve the problem, but only make it worse. If Western countries and the Russian authorities genuinely do want peace for this region, they should quickly consider whether the preservation of well-known countries with their traditional borders is constructive, or even possible.

Such a suggestion provokes strongly negative reactions from all foreign participants in the conflict – which I fail to understand. Just two decades ago (and even later), the United States and European states were actively helping to divide up the former Yugoslavia, in the absolutely justified belief that the Balkan conflict could not be resolved without it (besides, the least successful state turned out to be the one they were unable to divide – Bosnia and Herzegovina). Russia, by the same token, has been actively sponsoring separatism during the entire post-Soviet period, not doubting for a second that Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have a right to exist, and recently tearing Crimea away from Ukraine de jure and significant parts of Donbas de facto. The secession of South Sudan has also been recognized as natural, and so has East Timor. This raises a question: why does anyone care about the territorial integrity of an entity that has in fact already ceased to exist?

In my opinion, only a large-scale international conference on the Middle East situation could help resolve the accumulated problems. It should concentrate on acknowledging the state of affairs that has arisen over the past few years. Primarily, the obvious new-found international status of the Kurds should be recognized, since a de facto independent (or extremely autonomous) Kurdistan exists within Iraq, and Kurds are the most irreconcilable enemy of IS in Syria. A rational outcome to resolve this issue would be a united Kurdistan on Iraqi and Syrian territory, which had signed an agreement with Turkey to repatriate the Turkish Kurds, while guaranteeing not to support any separatist movements in Turkey (all the countries involved in the conflict could act as guarantors of such an agreement). At the same time, new states could be set up inside Syria and Iraq – first of all, Aleppo state, where representatives of the forces seeking to found a modern secular state free from the control of Assad and his clique could form their own government; and an Alawite state with the same borders that existed under the French mandate. This would satisfy both the current Syrian authorities and their Russian patrons, and would guarantee their presence at Mediterranean military bases. Dividing Iraq into Shiite and Sunni zones would also help to overcome many existing disagreements in the country.

Naturally, the main question remains: what is to be done with IS? I guess it will be impossible to defeat it in the current circumstances. A significant part of Syria and Iraq is now controlled by Islamists, and if the West really wishes to make the local people disappointed in this “caliphate”, it should be allowed to form a quasi-state and exist like that for a while. If life in the new environment becomes unbearable, then the population which currently supports the extremists can turn against them on its own. If, on the contrary, some sort of social consensus develops, this would make the Islamists less aggressive, which would be a good outcome in itself. We should discard the traditional point of view, which presumes that the whole world should be divided into separate countries governed according to well-known rules. Like in Pakistan (which effectively has an extra-territorial “tribal zone”), “white” or “black” spots could also appear in the Middle East, their destiny dependent not on the West, but on their own inhabitants. I do not see anything so terrible in this.

Besides, if a war breaks out in some region, we know from history that lasting peace is only possible when a new balance of power emerges. Today, world powers are doing their best to postpone the time when such a balance will be established by supporting puppet regimes and long-outdated state structures. The cost of this senseless opposition is tens of thousands of victims, millions of refugees, and ruined cities. If one assumes that the highest value is human life, this new balance should be allowed to form as painlessly as possible. People in the Middle East should realise that their fate is in their own hands. If the Kurds succeed in stopping the Islamists, they should be given their own state. If the inhabitants of Damascus who are still relaxing in coffee shops fail to do so, then they must face the consequences. In the end, such logic has prevailed in Europe for centuries, and the fact that the Old World has come to different conclusions does not mean that the whole world has become so “enlightened”. We must admit the obvious and acknowledge that the world is not uniform, so universal standards cannot apply to it.

The great powers’ mission in the Middle East is not to inculcate democracy or to struggle for territorial integrity. It is to maintain peace and demarcate borders for the “zone of chaos” which has already taken shape. This is what I would propose as a starting point for policy designed to make the region’s problems truly regional, the way they should be. Terrorism should be fought on one’s own territory, because the 150–200 billion dollars a year that world powers have spent on military operations in recent years are almost double the total which was spent on efforts to fight terrorism in the U.S., the EU, and Russia put together. This money would be far better spent on saving the lives of citizens in those countries, rather than wasting their citizens’ lives abroad…

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