It’s time to renegotiate the contract that put this whole thing together.
The “whole thing” is the Middle East, and the “contract” is the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The world those documents created no longer exists except on yellowed maps, and the issues left unsettled, primarily the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and a Kurdish homeland, have now come home begging. War is not fixing this; diplomacy might.
In November 2014, I wrote the only solution to Islamic State, and mess of greater Iraq, was to use American/Coalition peacekeepers to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide.
However, in the intervening 15 months the problems swept in Turkey and Russia, and perhaps soon the Saudis. The United States, Iraq, Islamic State, and Iran never left. Only a massive diplomatic effort, involving all parties now on the playing field, including Islamic State, has any potential of ending the bloodshed and refugee crisis. That means a redivision of the region along current ethnic, tribal, religious and political lines.
A new Sykes-Picot Agreement if you will.
The old Sykes-Picot divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. The Agreement was enforced by the superpowers of that moment, Britain and France with buy-in from the Russians. The immediate goal was colonialism, not independent states, but the unspoken end point was a form of stability. Following the massive realignment of the balance of power that was World War I, the lines were literally drawn for the next eight decades. The lines themselves did not cause all the problems per se; the lines codified the problems on the ground.
The other important event of the era was that the idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
Zoom to some more modern history. In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, and the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire.
From a geopolitical perspective, here’s what you have right now: The invasion of Iraq blew open the power struggle among the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. Forces unleashed led to some of the Arab Spring-driven chaos in Syria, and drew Iran into the Iraqi conflict.
Shi’ite militia and Iraqi government threats and attacks on Iraqi Sunnis opened the door for Islamic State to step in as a protector. The struggle metastasized into Syria. The Kurds, aided by the U.S. military, are seeking to create new transnational borders out of their current confederacy by displacing Islamic State and Turkish forces. The Turks are looking to repel that, and perhaps seize some territory to tidy up their own borders. Russia has re-entered the region as a military force. The Saudis may yet send troops into Syria. Iran is already there via proxy forces. Assad still holds territory in Syria, as does Islamic State. There are many local players as well.
In short, many forces are redrawing the borders, as violently as their weapons allow, creating massive human suffering, to include refugee flows into Europe that no one seem sure how to handle.
A New Struggle
The struggle has shifted from a semi-ideological one (Islamic extremism) that could not be bombed away to one of seizing and holding territory. The effort now ongoing to bomb that problem away has resulted primarily in repeatedly destroying cities like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs and soon Mosul in order to save them.
With the realignment of borders a process that can only be delayed — at great cost in every definition of that word — the answer is only to negotiate a conclusion. That conclusion will be ugly and distasteful, though if it is any help, it will be distasteful to everyone participated. It will need to be enforced by military power (we’ll call them peacekeepers) that is coordinated by the U.S., Russia and Iran, with each speaking for, and controlling, its proxies. The U.S. is basically doing something like that with Jordan, forming a military dam against the mess in Syria, and Israel has done it for years.
It will mean giving Islamic State a seat at the table, as the British were forced to do with the Irish Republican Army, to resolve “troubles.”
Out of the negotiations will have to emerge a Kurdistan, with some land from Turkey and the former-Syria. Assad will stay in power as a Russian proxy. Iran’s hold on Shi’ite Iraq will be stronger. A Sunni homeland state, to include what Islamic State will morph into, will need to be assured, with a strict hands-off policy by Baghdad. At the same time, that Sunni homeland offers the first real framework to contain Islamic State.
The World’s Policeman
American efforts will shift from fanning the flames (purloined HUMVEES are as ubiquitous as iPads in the region) to putting out fires. You want to be the world’s policeman? This is the neighborhood to prove it, because this now needs cops of a sort, not warfighters. There is no quick fix. There isn’t really a medium-term fix. Four America presidents have bombed the region, and Obama‘s successor will be number five.
Yes, I hate it too. And of course I understand the difficulties of an imperfect resolution. But solution is no longer a viable term I am afraid.
After you’ve soiled the bed, you do your best to clean it up. The process will be messy. But it is too late for elegant solutions. So with the Middle East.
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