Winter 2014

The End of Sykes Picot: Drawing a New Map for the Middle East?

Alan Philps

After the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi took over as United Nations special envoy to Syria in 2012, he went to see Bashar Al Assad with a blunt proposal that none of the president’s inner circle would dare to express. 

You and your father have governed here for 43 years,” he said. It is enough. One day things will have to change and I doubt whether your son will succeed you. So why not start thinking of the future now?” The president listened politely as the diplomat continued with his message: he should abandon his father’s legacy, negotiate with the opposition and become the kingmaker of a new, democratic Syria. 

The president’s reply was blunt. I am a Syrian citizen,” he said. If there is an election and I feel like standing, why shouldn’t I?” 

At that time, only two years ago, it seemed likely that Bashar would be driven from office as other Arab dictators had been. To many in the Middle East, the departure of Assad would mark the end of a stagnant period when the identity of Arab states had been enfolded in one man or family — Assad for Syria, Mubarak for Egypt, Gaddafi for Libya, and Saddam Hussein for Iraq. The last three had gone, and the fall of Bashar would mark a clean break, enabling the start of a new era in the Middle East. 

Outraged at the Assad clan’s murderous crushing of the originally peaceful opposition protests, Barack Obama had called on Bashar to step aside”. Making that happen was sub-contracted to the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who opened his border for opposition fighters, including the most radical of Sunni jihadists. 

Erdogan was no unwilling pawn in this adventure. If the Assad régime was replaced by an Islamist government modelled on his own Justice and Development Party (AKP), he reasoned, it would put Turkey at the centre in the Middle East, especially as the Muslim Brotherhood had come to power in Egypt through the ballot box. 

Two years on, these hopes of a new Middle East seem like a daydream. The army is back in charge in Egypt. Bashar Al Assad got himself re-elected in June. More than three million Syrians have fled abroad. 

Most seriously, Turkey’s misconceived plan’ albeit one carried out with western support – to use its territory as a rear base for the opposition has helped to create a jihadist force which has outgunned the local self-defence battalions and mushroomed to become a threat to surrounding states and a terrorist concern as far as Europe and North America. 

The origins of the jihadist group, Islamic State, are well known. As the US army wound down in Iraq, the local Al Qaeda franchise reconstituted itself, building up numbers with jailbreaks. Despite the brutal image projected in their recruitment videos, they are meticulously organised in their planning, accounting and messaging — jihadists with MBAs”, according to a London-based expert. From Iraq they streamed into Syria, attempting to take over the jihadist wing of the insurgency, and established a lucrative base in the east of the country among Syria’s oil fields. 

Flush with cash and recruits, they motored back into Iraq, conquered the city of Mosul and threatened the capital, Baghdad, exposing the American-trained and supplied Iraqi army as a phantom fiorce existing only to enrich the officer corps. Having looted the Iraqi army’s stores in Mosul, they returned to Syria with armoured vehicles to lay siege to the Kurdish city of Kobane on the Turkish border. 

The rise of Islamic State has left no neighbour untouched. This battle for Kobane, within sight of Turkish territory, has inflamed the Turkish Kurds demanding the Turkish army come to the rescue of their cousins over the border. Rioting has threatened to upset the delicate peace process that Erdogan, now elevated to the presidency, has been conducting with the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK

In Istanbul, foreign residents sense a new tension in the air. Volatile and angry after being oppressed for so long, the Kurds of Turkey may prove beyond their leaders to control. If the peace process collapses, the war in Syria will come to Turkey instantly,” commented a Turkish observer. 

That process is already far gone in Iraq, where the cohesion of the state seems broken beyond repair. In Lebanon, the political system is paralysed, with no president and the parliament extending its term for a second emergency period, this time until June 2017. Fears for the stability of the Hashemite throne in Jordan are rising again. 

One thing holds IS back. It is not a popular force. It rules by fear. But it has found a place in the hearts of many Sunni Muslims of the Arab world who feel emasculated by decades of economic under-achievement and military failure. While they may abhor the group’s head chopping, many Sunnis still feel that only IS has the drive and organisation to match the Shia and their patron, Iran. That is the source of its grudging respect. 

Iran Rising

Modern Iran does not have a history of launching aggressive wars. It does, however, have some effective Shia foreign legions to spread its influence. These include the Hezbollah party-cum-militia that has a stranglehold on Lebanese politics, and the Badr military organisation, originally made up of Saddam-era Iraqi exiles. Rebuilding ancient Persian empires is not on the Iranian government’s list of talking points. The official line is that Iranian-allied forces are in Iraq to fight terrorism; in Syria to defend the Shia holy places from Sunni takfiri fanatics; and in Lebanon to take the fight to Israel that the Arabs have miserably failed to pursue. 

But a member of the Iranian parliament, Ali Reza Zakani, could not help boasting in September that Iran was now in control of four Arab capitals — Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa, the capital of Yemen where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have marched in after months of civil war. Not surprisingly, such a statement plays into fears that the weak Arab states are ripe to fall under the sway of Iran and its proxies. The Sunni Arabs, favoured ever since the time of the Ottoman Empire, have yet to come to terms with the fact that the Shia should run an Arab government. But that is the legacy of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; power was handed over to the Shia majority, in a misguided attempt to crush Arab nationalism that in any case was on its last legs with Saddam Hussein. Brahimi, the former envoy to Syria, complains that the Americans handed the country over to the most extreme pro-Iranian Shia” and that their chosen prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, was animated by a spirit of revenge” against the minority Sunnis, who had ruled since the British created the modern state of Iraq. 

The near-collapse of the Iraqi state is thus a joint US-Iranian enterprise – unwitting on the part of the Great Satan, and all too planned on the part of the mullahs in Tehran. 

Since 2003 Iran has sought to prevent Iraq becoming strong enough to be a threat. A consistent policy aims to keep Iraq weak and dependent on Iran, and to ensure that its politics is based on uncompromising Shia majoritarianism, the principle that the majority has the right to decide key issues. This was pursued with such zeal that Maliki was forced on one occasion to complain to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, that Iran was not only backing the factions fighting the Americans but also stirring up trouble between two pro-Iranian armed groups. No wonder Iraq has been ungovernable. 

No one in Tehran seems to have thought that this policy of side-lining the Sunnis would lead to a backlash where the Sunnis of western Iraq, feeling that the jihadist cut-throats were a lesser evil than the Shia sectarians, would hitch themselves to the IS bandwagon. 

Both countries are now stepping up their aid. The Iranians had preserved some plausible deniability about their role in Iraq. Now their spy master, Qassem Suleimani, described by General David Petraeus as a truly evil figure” for supplying the explosive technology which killed and maimed so many of his soldiers, has emerged from the shadows to take control of the defence of Baghdad. 

As for Washington, it is sending 3,000 troops back to Iraq, using the Kurdish autonomous region as a jumping off point which no doubt will become a permanent base. The Kurdistan Regional Government is thus receiving, as yet another unwitting consequence of US policy, affirmation of its separate status, even as Washington insists that it stands for a united Iraq. 

The Iranians remember the dictum of the late revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini: America can’t do a damned thing”. It seems to sum up American policy under Obama. He wanted to draw a line under the Iraq war; he has ended up sending troops back there. He wanted to get rid of Bashar Al Assad, but each passing week seems to support the president’s claim to be a bastion against extremism. He hoped to destroy jihadism by capturing and killing Osama Bin Laden, but an even more powerful monster has risen to fill the old terrorist’s sandals. 

Perhaps the most serious contradiction has come to light since the US has begun a bombing campaign against IS and other Islamist factions. In Syria the opposition forces now see themselves bombed by both the Americans and the régime’s air force. Whatever the goal of the Americans, this has given heart to the régime and sowed confusion among the opposition. The so-called moderate opposition that Washington intends to train up as an army of liberation to march on Damascus is in danger of disappearing altogether. 

Regional Questions 

So where is this conflict leading – to a wider regional conflagration, as many experts fear, or an exhausted stalemate between the régime and the Syrian opposition which the United Nations hopes to be able to freeze”?

To start with the big picture, the often-predicted disintegration of the state system established by Britain and France at the end of the First World War is unlikely to happen. All the major actors involved, with the exception of IS and the Kurds of northern Iraq, are committed to the existing borders. And the Kurds would no doubt settle for whatever provided them with the biggest share of Iraq’s resources. So the borders are likely to remain, but they will not contain monolithic states. In the worst case they may look like Lebanon, in the best, they could enjoy a robust federalism. 

In the wider region, the fear of the IS contagion has alarmed the Arab states, but not so much that they are prepared to put aside their rivalries in order to stop the Syrian conflict. After four years, they are beginning to feel resilient. In Jordan, the prospect suffering the fate of Syria has dampened revolutionary spirits. The Kingdom, with its pivotal role on the eastern border of Israel, is assured of all the help from its allies that it needs to maintain stability. 

As for Turkey, the miscalculations of Erdogan over the past four years suggest a serious crisis. A retired general points to the weakness of the state, with the security and intelligence forces hollowed out and stuffed with second-rate Erdogan loyalists. But an analyst resident in Istanbul for a quarter century dismisses forecasts of state collapse and fighting in the streets; Turkey has always faced many such challenges in the past. 

As for Iraq, the idea of inclusive Iraqi citizenship is withering, weakened by sectarianism and grotesque levels of corruption which has led to army officers paying $30,000 dollars for promotion to the rank of general. Shia triumphalism is rampant, encapsulated in such sentiments as The Sunnis governed for 70 years. We are double their number and will govern for 140 years.” The Shia control of the best of Iraq’s oil reserves in the south of the country, an enticement to treat the Sunnis as supplicants. The disaffected Sunnis will need a lot of convincing that the Iraqi state has their interests at heart. 

The many missteps of the western allies over Syria have ended with Obama promising to degrade and destroy” IS. Pentagon spokesmen have made clear that this is a task of many years. If there is a historical comparison, it looks like Iraq in 1991 when Washington did not know what to do with Saddam Hussein, and opted to let the country fester under sanctions for a dozen years, intervening from the air to preserve a balance of power. In the analysis of a well-connected Lebanese, Obama does not know how to deal with Bashar al Assad, as his predecessors did not know what to do about Saddam. Torn between a resurgent Russia, a rising China and the old problems of the Arabs, he will be content to hold the ring in the Middle East. 

Two key dynamics inside Syria are worth watching. IS is being financially squeezed: it can no longer live parasitically off the Iraqi state and the mini oil refineries on its territory are being knocked out by the US air force. As for the régime, it too is short of funds and reliant on credit from Iran, itself under crippling sanctions, while it is ever harder to find recruits for the war. Either of these tendencies could produce a dramatic change in the balance of power. 

Outside the country, there is an equally unpredictable US-Iranian dynamic. Obama’s top foreign policy priority has been to restrain Iran’s nuclear activities that he sees as the cornerstone of a more stable Middle East. To improve the chances of a nuclear deal, he has tried to isolate the nuclear issue from other contentious issues such as Iran’s expansionism. To judge by Obama’s correspondence with Ayatollah Khamenei, this Chinese wall has crumbled under the pressure of events; Obama is now holding out the prospect of a nuclear deal leading to broader cooperation against Islamic State. Is this a precursor to a breakthrough? Some analysts see it as a sign that the nuclear issue cannot be resolved either on its own or as part of a grand bargain, though there is no reason for the dialogue to break down. 

Brahimi’s successor as UN Syrian envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has turned away from peace plans and conferences in favour of a focus on local truces. He believes that stopping the killing in a few places and allowing in humanitarian aid might give us some light”. 

Such truces would allow the régime forces and Syrian opposition groups to focus their fire on Islamic State. 

The problem with such truces is that the régime has never invested them with any political content, but used them as another element in the pursuit of military victory. While the régime forces are stretched to the limit, they still plan to re-conquer opposition-held parts of Aleppo. Having said that, it is clear that the desperate humanitarian situation requires the fighting to stop in places, and with the right input from the régime, this is probably the best chance for reducing the ferocity of the war by increments. It remains to be seen, however, if the Syrian leader is any more open to De Mistura’s suggestions than he was when Brahimi urged him to step aside. 

Alan Philps is Editor of The World Today, the Chatham House magazine.