Sunday, May 1, 2016
Bordershifting in the Middle East
It all started when the West – particularly France and England – carved up the Ottoman Empire into colonies or spheres of influence and control before, during and after World War I. These European powers liked geographical simplicity – straight lines and natural boundaries like rivers and mountains – and couldn’t care less about how the local peoples thought their own geopolitical boundaries should be.
Think of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 declaring Palestine a natural Jewish homeland with little or no consideration as to how a conflict-free integration could be implemented or the 1916 Sykes-Picot accord between France and England shoving Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds into an unnatural country called “Iraq.” Immediately after World War II, with Jews having escaped Hitler’s genocide, Israel was formed and began what seems a perpetual war with her neighbors, still battling a nascent Palestinian efforts towards autonomy to this very day.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, people with little in common or, much worse, natural animosity, were shoehorned into new “nations” that were fundamentally ill-conceived. These new borders also meant nothing to nomadic cultures. Western military assistance to regional monarchs, who played ball with the West, forced primitives into political configurations that the locals had little or no say in creating. Let’s just say that power and access to oil formed the West’s motivations.
When the United States began deep involvement as a major power, it brought with it the naïve assumptions of a nation with only two countries on its border – Mexico and Canada – oceans on the other sides… isolated from a history dealing with hostile ethnic neighbors with powerful militaries. And very little experience with colonial rule. Europe, correctly at first, understood this lack of international political sophistication and took full advantage of our naiveté.
The tables turned when Europe miscalculated Hitler’s rise in pre-World War II days, as Winston Churchill lost every pre-US-involvement military confrontation of early WWII with Germany in an effort to preserve Britain’s colonial holdings, and as FDR confronted Churchill to make colonial independence a condition of U.S. providing of arms, planes and ships before we formally joined the Allies in WWII. Hitler did not formally declare war on any state in that war – he simply attacked and/or invaded – except one: the United States of America. The carve out and release of colonial control, with much bloodshed, defined the post-WWII world.
In the middle and end of the twentieth century and clearly in the twenty-first century, the rotten seeds planted by Western powers in the WWI era grew to spread their toxic weed throughout the Middle East. The United States bought into the mythology of these artificial boundaries as if they had always been there. We imposed what were to be two of the most corrupt regimes in history in our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, forcing those living in those countries to accept what we call “representative democracy” defined by U.S. “nation-building standards. Today, Afghanistan has almost completely returned to the repressive rule of the Taliban we deposed in 2001.
We took a relatively stable country, Iraq, ruled by a brutal but efficient tyrant of the minority Sunni side of Iraq (20%), and handed control to a 60% majority Shiite government that promptly set about effecting retribution on their former Sunni rulers. The Kurdish north slowly ignored the fray in the south and set up a de facto autonomous Kurdish enclave with its own political and economic system that actually worked exceptionally well. Nervous Turkey and Syria (and even Iran) looked nervously at this successful Kurdish zone in northern Iraq and began to fear that their own local Kurds would defect to this autonomous region and form an entirely new nation. Turkey in particular had been battling internal Kurds factions seeking independence for many years.
As the great Syrian/Iraqi drought, one of the many consequences of global climate change, loosed well over a million disenfranchised and mostly Sunni farmers and their families – no longer able to eke a living out of now-fallow farmland – into a sea of desperate and angry peoples, the failure of the Shiite government in Baghdad or the Shiite minority (10%) government in Damascus to provide needed relief gave rise to the opportunists from the newly-formed Islamic State to declare themselves as the saviors of regional Sunnis and punishers of non-Sunnis (primarily Shiites – from Iran and Iraq – and the West).
Even as the United States looks to Iraqi forces – now controlled by Shiites who are feared by Sunnis in “conquered lands” more than ISIS – to provide boots on the ground to crush the Islamic State, it seems that Iraq itself is unraveling, are finally likely to hive into the three ethnic states that were shoved into unnatural boundaries after WWI: Shiites in the eastern sector, Sunnis in the southwest and Kurds in the north.
Shiite strongman and religious leader, Moqtada al-Sadr (pictured above), and his Mahdi Army defected to the safety of Iran when the United States invaded Iraq. Four days after the bulk of US-led NATO forces (all the combatants) exited Iraq, a-Sadr and his militia were back in Iraq, with the full blessing of the Shiite-controlled government. They asserted their power against Sunnis and enjoyed almost full military status within this troubled nation. Sunnis were not even second class citizens anymore. But the Shiite members of parliament continued to slop at the bribery and corruption trough, clearly against the wishes of al-Sadr and his followers.
On April 30th, “Hundreds of supporters of Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed into Baghdad's Green Zone and entered parliament on Saturday after Sadr denounced politicians' failure to reform a political quota system blamed for rampant corruption.
“The protesters, who had gathered outside the heavily fortified district housing government buildings and many foreign embassies, crossed a bridge over the Tigris River chanting: ‘The cowards ran away!’ in apparent reference to departing lawmakers.
“There were no reports of clashes with security forces. But an army special forces unit was dispatched with armored vehicles to protect sensitive sites, two security officials said. No curfew has been imposed, they said.
“All entrances of Baghdad were shut ‘as a precautionary measure to maintain the capital's security,’ another security official said.
“A United Nations spokesman and Western diplomats based inside the Green Zone said their compounds were locked down. A U.S. embassy spokesman denied reports of evacuation.
“Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with three tonnes of explosives into a gathering of Shi'ite pilgrims in the southeastern Baghdad suburb of Nahrawan, killing 19 people and wounding 48 others in an attack claimed by the ultra-hardline Sunni militants.
“Sharqiya TV showed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi walking inside the Green Zone with dozens of armed guards following the breach, discrediting reports he had fled. Protesters later entered the nearby cabinet headquarters.
“Such a breach is unprecedented, though only a few years ago mortars frequently rained down on the 10-square-kilometre Green Zone, which once housed the headquarters of the U.S. occupation and before that a palace belonging to Saddam Hussein.
“Checkpoints and concrete barriers have blocked bridges and highways leading to the neighborhood for years, symbolizing the isolation of Iraq's leadership from its people.” Reuters, April 30th. They pulled back to allow security forces to protect pilgrims but pledged to return unless big changes were implemented. Was this just one more nail in the coffin of the “nation of Iraq”? Probably. Iraq no longer seems able to sustain the mythology that in is a viable and coherent nation as currently configured. The bigger question is what happens next? Do the Kurds make their move? Does Iraq fracture along ethnic lines? It appears that regional conflicts will get a whole lot worse before they improve.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as bad as the Western carve-up of the Middle East was, American foreign policy in the last two decades has made a horrible situation much, much worse.