By Kamran Bokhari
While the international community seeks to find a solution to the conflicts raging in the Middle East, Syria and Iraq have – for all practical purposes – effectively dissolved as nation-states. These two countries – conceived after the implosion of the Ottoman Empire following World War I – are not simply casualties of the rise of the Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliphate. Rather, they have collapsed under the weight of a complex and interlocking set of dynamics involving transnational jihadism, geopolitical sectarian struggles and the meltdown of autocracy in the Arab world. Even if the Islamic State is defeated and Turkey and Iran – the two major Muslim powers with the greatest stake in Syria and Iraq – are able to reach an understanding, the Levantine-Mesopotamian land mass will still be divided between multiple Sunni emirates, Kurdish enclaves and Shiite dominions.
Defending the Integrity of Nation-States
Over the past several weeks, the media has highlighted four developments with regards to Syria and Iraq: 1) Rebels have lost significant ground to Syrian regime forces backed by Russian air support, especially in the strategic Aleppo area near the Turkish border; 2) The United States and Russia engaged in negotiations toward a cessation of hostilities in Syria; 3) Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, on the prodding of the United States, said they would send forces to Syria to fight the Islamic State and; 4) The Islamic State lost control over the city of Ramadi to the Iraqi government.
Taken together, these events would seem to suggest that considerable progress is being made by the Iraqi and Syrian governments – supported, respectively, by the American-led coalition and Russia – in restoring the territorial integrity of both states. Certainly, the world powers are dealing with the cross-border conflicts on the basis of the idea that national boundaries must be respected. Regimes may come and go but the nation-state is a fixed sacrosanct entity that cannot be altered. Indeed, in 1991, the United States led a 29-nation military coalition (the largest since World War II), which restored the sovereignty of Kuwait after it was forcibly annexed by Baathist Iraq, with the intent of making it Iraq’s 19th province.
Today, IS controls large tracts of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq and has effectively erased the borders established by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Again, the international community is invoking the principle of inviolability of borders drawn up by European colonial powers a century ago. More important, the expectation is that IS will eventually be defeated, a new republic will emerge in Syria as a result of a negotiated settlement between the regime and rebels and the Sunnis of Iraq will rejoin the post-Baathist republic. In other words, once the dust of war settles, Syria and Iraq will yet again be sovereign states.
From a normative point of view, a return to the status quo prior to the wars in Iraq and Syria is what the international community must be working toward. If the world accepts the dissolution of the Syrian-Iraqi border, then that would set a precedent for other fault lines that run through the international system. Not pushing back against transnational currents would lead to greater anarchy around the world. Therefore, there is no choice for the United States and other global and regional players but to try to reverse the course of the region and defend the integrity of nation-states.
That said, there is a great need to be mindful of the massive variance between what global powers want and what they can achieve. The conditions on the ground – shaped by the imperatives of multiple state and non-state actors as well as the constraints of extra-regional powers, including the United States – are as such that it is unlikely that Syria and Iraq can be put back together. These two countries may continue to exist on paper but the areas that they will actually control will be much smaller. In order to understand why the maps of Syria and Iraq will not be going back to the way they were before the conflicts erupted, let us consider both countries separately.
Iraq: A Broken State
We begin with Iraq, where the U.S. move to effect regime change in 2003 led to the toppling of the Baathist regime led by former President Saddam Hussein. Washington spent eight years and $2 trillion in a military intervention that sought to replace an autocratic polity with a democratic one. The result was a fragile Shiite-dominated state whose authority is largely limited to Baghdad and the south, while an Erbil-based autonomous Kurdish region in the north has been trying to enhance its territory and self-rule capabilities. The Sunni regions in the central and western parts of the country had never really been brought into the new order but since the summer of 2014 the situation has gone from bad to worse.
The Islamic State re-emerged in the Sunni areas with its seizure in June 2014 of the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and its declaration of the caliphate. It is true that since that time, Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have prevented IS from further expanding and have even taken back significant areas. However, the fact of the matter is that neither the Shia nor the Kurds are willing to make the political compromises with the Sunnis or with each other needed to ensure that IS will be defeated. The bottom line is that Iraq is a state broken along triangular fault lines and is dominated by three different entities.
That said, there is still an international consensus that the resolution to the conflict in Iraq lies in the Sunnis being brought back into the fold of the post-Baathist republic built by the Americans, as well as having Baghdad and Erbil work out their differences.
Syria: Fractured Beyond Repair
In sharp contrast to Iraq, the problem in Syria is that there is no political system that the various warring sides can be brought back into. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is at the heart of the dispute, and if there is to be a settlement to the war radiating out of Syria then a new political dispensation will have to emerge out of a power-sharing arrangement between the regime and the rebels. But the situation is far more complex than a classic civil war between two sides.
The Syrian rebel landscape is highly fragmented with countless groups, most of whom are Salafist-jihadists with different agendas controlling territories in different parts of the country. In the northeast, we have Kurdish separatists. But the largest obstacle to uniting the country is the fact that IS, with its transnational agenda, controls a big chunk of territory in the provinces of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour in the east, which is organically linked to its holdings in western Iraq. The country is fractured into different pieces. What is more significant is that despite the recent gains made by the regime, it is not in a position to retake lands from any of the other opposing sides and thus what we have is a precarious balance where all sides are weak.
There is also no outside power that can easily impose order and patch the various parts back together again. The United States has been hoping that the regional players will take the lead in dealing with the situation in Syria. But the regional powers themselves are divided. The most glaring divide is the sectarian one between the Saudi-led Arab Sunni camp, which backs the Syrian rebels, and the Iranian-led Shiite camp, which hopes to strengthen the Assad regime. Even on the Sunni side, Saudi Arabia faces competition from Turkey, which is pursuing its own interests in Syria.
Being the strongest power in the region, Turkey has the capability to play the biggest role in Syria. However, it has to overcome a number of hurdles before it can project power on its southern flank. It must first deal with the Syrian Kurds who hold territory right on the Turkish-Syrian border and are deeply linked to Turkey’s own Kurdish separatists. Russian support for the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds further complicates matters for Turkey, which is trying to manage the chaos south of its border.
In fact, for the Turks to effectively pursue their goal of regime change in Damascus, they have to deal with Kurdish separatism in Syria, which directly impacts Turkish domestic security. In the event that they are able to suppress Syria’s Kurds, they will then have to turn to the Islamic State, which will have benefited from a weakening of the Kurds. Getting Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies to fight IS will not be easy given that the Turks do not have a monopoly on influence over the rebels. Saudi Arabia also has some clout over rebel groups. IS may be weakened but it is unlikely to be eliminated as a stakeholder.
In addition, a weakened IS does not mean that a more coherent rebel configuration will materialize. New groups may emerge from old ones. While the rebels will continue to hold different territories in the eastern half of the country, the Assad regime can be expected to remain fortified in the western half. While the Turks become increasingly engaged in rebel-held territories, they will have to eventually confront the Assad regime, which also means dealing with their traditional rivals, the Iranians.
A Return to the Levant and Mesopotamia
Five hundred years ago, the Turks during the Ottoman era occupied the territory that is now known as Syria and Iraq. This allowed them to largely limit the Safavid Empire, which ruled over what is today Iran, to its Persian core. Fast forward half a millennium, the situation is almost the reverse. It is the Iranians who have greater presence in both Syria and Iraq and are thus blocking the Turkish path into the Arab world. The Iranians are not about to allow the erosion of their influence in the Levant. In other words, the Turks will at some point have to confront the Iranians. Regardless of how this new Turkish-Iranian competition plays out, it will not lead to the restoration of the Syrian nation-state.
In fact, it will worsen the fracturing in neighboring Iraq. Turkish-allied Syrian rebels can be expected to align with their counterparts in Iraq to weaken both the Islamic State and confront the Iranian-supported Shiite government in Baghdad. The leadership of Iraqi Sunnis may not be in the hands of IS but that does not translate into the Iraqi government expanding its writ into the Sunni areas. The Sunnis on both sides of the border – even if the so-called caliphate is somehow dismantled – will not go their separate ways. On the contrary, they have an imperative to work together to fight their respective Shiite enemies.
The Iraqi Sunnis have the Shia to their east, while the Syrian Sunnis have to deal with the Alawites to the west. Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis will undoubtedly use each other as strategic depth to confront their respective foes. At the same time, the Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis cannot be treated as monoliths. Even within their respective realms, different groups can be expected to be in control of different areas. IS may be a temporary construct but it is one that is built on a sectarian logic overlaid by geography, which is far more permanent.
These tensions were suppressed for decades by the post-colonial states of Syria and Iraq, which kept these ethnic and sectarian forces at bay. Regime change in Baghdad, followed by the efforts to undo its unintended consequences in Damascus, has led to the dismantling of these two neighboring states dominated by rival wings of the Baath Party. What remains is a landmass stretching from the Zagros Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea divided between different warlord-type forces. The Kurds control a good chunk of the northeastern part of this area, though their situation is very vulnerable given the lack of natural boundaries of defense and the fact that they are taking advantage of chaos. The Sunnis control the central parts of this territory while the Shia are in possession of the areas along the far eastern and western parts.
This is the new emerging map of what used to be called Syria and Iraq, which Turkey and Iran will be competing over for the foreseeable future.