In 2016, the Fight against ISIS Offers a Unique Opportunity
By Ryan Migeed
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” — former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
While the Syrian civil war, coupled with political factors in Iraq, spawned the monster that is ISIS, the current chaos in the Middle East has given world leaders a tremendous opportunity. It is an opportunity unique in world history: to redraw the national borders that helped create the chaos in the first place.
Before ISIS even came onto the scene, Iraq was splintering under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into three enclaves: a Kurdish north, a vast Sunni middle, and a Shiite south. Al-Maliki, a Shia, had led a campaign of political retribution against the Sunnis, who had suppressed the Shia while Saddam Hussein was in power. The Iraqi military, mostly Sunnis, had been disbanded after the 2003 U.S. invasion, leaving trained soldiers with no work — and now, political suppression.
A sectarian civil war was almost a foregone conclusion as soon as the U.S. removed Hussein from power, at least according to a report from intelligence officials in the summer of 2004.
The case is much the same across the Middle East. Syria is a majority-Sunni country led by a family from the small Alawite sect found in the northeast. Lebanon fought a brutal fifteen-year civil war from 1975–1990 among its Sunni, Shia, Maronite Christian, and Druze communities. (There are also Druze communities in southwest Syria.) In Turkey, the Kurds in the southeast have long clamored for more autonomy; Turkey has responded by exploiting the anti-ISIS bombing campaign to strike Kurdish militia members. And in Yemen, Iran is supporting the minority Shia Houthi rebels in the west against the Saudi Arabia-backed Sunni government controlling the east.
It should be no surprise that there is so much internal warring among modern-day Middle East states. Their borders were drawn haphazardly by British and French officials, who decided in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement to carve up the lands of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I. The erratic borderline between Jordan and Saudi Arabia is even known as “Winston’s Hiccup,” based on the legend that then-Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill hiccuped while drawing the line.
A New Framework for the Middle East
ISIS has since erased the border between Iraq and Syria, claiming a caliphate that snakes from Raqqa (in the north) down to Palmyra (in the south) in Syria, and across to Mosul (north) and — until recently — Ramadi (south) in Iraq. In erasing these hastily-drawn national borders, ISIS has given the world an opportunity to right the wrongs of the early twentieth century.
The first priority is defeating ISIS. But, as the Obama Administration and some 2016 presidential candidates have made clear, this fight must be waged hand-in-hand with a diplomatic strategy for removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
In the New Year, foreign policymakers should seize this opportunity to think strategically about what the Middle East should look like after the guns fall silent and the dictators have been toppled.
First, the Kurds need a state, with land from northern Iraq and Syria. This is not merely because they are a minority ethnic group that has agitated for one, but because they are a substantial regional presence with a historic claim to a defined part of that region; a semi-autonomous government already capable of making decisions; and a military with a monopoly over the means of violence. Although it is not a prerequisite, it is also worth noting that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have done at least as much to repel ISIS as the Iraqi military.
Second, the risk of future conflict must be balanced with a stable bipolarity between Sunni and Shia. In part, this means revisiting the idea of splitting Iraq into three states — one of which would be part of the Kurdish state, one of which would inevitably be a Sunni state, and one of which would inevitably fall under Shia control.
As Fareed Zakaria argues in his column this week, the United States should not pick sides in the Sunni-Shia struggle currently engulfing the Middle East. Balancing the scales in a new, reimagined framework of power-holding states in the region is a safer way to ensure U.S. interests than doubling down on the current map of the Middle East, which was artificially constructed and has so far only perpetuated violence between groups swapping power over decades.
Just as the Cold War created proxy wars between U.S. and Soviet client-states, so the Saudi Arabia–Iran struggle is breeding proxy conflicts and reopening older disputes, like those in Yemen. Redrawing the borders of states like Iraq and Syria, while temporarily angering some actors (i.e. Saudi Arabia and Turkey), would put expansionist aims (particularly those of Iran) to rest.
This need not — and should not — be a U.S./Western endeavor alone. Indeed, by agreeing to these new lines — assuming that there would be an actual written agreement — the stakeholders, new states and existing ones, would relinquish their right to dispute these lines in the future.
The purpose of any “new framework” in international politics should be to reduce tensions and the likelihood of conflict. The competition between Sunni and Shia, led by their respective regional hegemons Saudi Arabia and Iran, must be managed to dispel the fears and ensure the security of each group. Ultimately, cementing a stable bipolarity in the Middle East is a surer bet against sectarian conflict than hoping that the Iraqi model, which has already failed, will somehow succeed.
Ryan Migeed holds a BA in Political Science from American University in Washington, DC, and studied his junior year at the London School of Economics. His travels include an interfaith trip to the Holy Land, where he met with local NGOs working to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Recently, he was a Fellow at LEVICK, a strategic communications firm, where he worked for clients in various spheres, from cyber security to the South African energy sector. He is now a digital writer at Correct the Record and writes a monthly LinkedIn post. Follow him on Twitter @RyanMigeed.