Page 1 of
redux: The Middle East
fragments By Brian M Downing
National borders from the eastern
Mediterranean to the Iranian border were made
after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.
Britain and France, with little consideration for
sectarian or ethnic realities, drew lines across
the area and established the new countries of Iraq
As authoritarian regimes
disappear under the weight of the 2003 US invasion
of Iraq and the ongoing uprising in Syria,
regional boundaries may be redrawn by indigenous
peoples and regional powers. Five new states could
emerge: Shi'ite Iraq, Sunni Iraq, Sunni Syria,
Greater Kurdistan, and Shi'ite Syria.
Shi'ite Iraq Sunnis governed the
Mesopotamian area since the time of the
Ottomans, as they did
after the British installed the Hashemite monarchy
to govern Iraq in the 1920s and also under later
rulers, including Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless,
Iraq was, and is, overwhelmingly Shi'ite - at
least 60% today, perhaps much more owing to
Sunnis' fleeing to Syria over the last few years.
Representative democracy in Iraq, however
tentative and imperfect it presently is, will
always mean Shi'ite rule. Representative democracy
also means ties to Iran - not simply because of
sectarian affinities, but also because Iran
organized many of Iraq's political movements and
militia bands during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-89).
All this should have been clear before the US
invaded in 2003, as should the prospects for
Iran's influence is
substantial but not dominant. After all, Iraq has
granted oil licenses and defense contracts to US
companies and this could not have sat well in
Tehran. Further, Iraq was amenable to a continued
US troop presence but it insisted on subjecting
them to local law, which was unacceptable to
Washington. And so the troops left in December
The Iraqi government faces the task
of holding together a fractious country and
negotiating a middle way between Iran and the US.
As oil income climbs to the levels of affluent
neighbors, the government will have extraordinary
revenues, giving it the opportunity to become a
"rentier state" that holds together disparate
groups through generous subsidies.
unifying rentier-state approach for Iraq has two
problems. The Kurdish north has its own oil
resources which make their way to world markets
via Turkey, avoiding the older routes into
southern Iraq. The Sunni center has only modest
oil resources, though promising tracts lie in its
Anbar province. Sunni participation in the Baghdad
government is limited by an unwritten principle of
government that has more force than any passage in
the constitution: the Sunnis will never have
significant political power again.
will be ruled by Shi'ites, whether it remains
unified or breaks apart. Internal and external
forces make the latter scenario more likely.
Sunni Iraq Angered by lost power
and inauspicious prospects, Sunnis seek to
establish an autonomous region in the central and
western provinces. Eventually, they may try to
establish an independent state which will allow
them to predominate as they had long been
accustomed until 2003. They will not have to look
far for help.
Iraq, in Riyadh's view, is
not negotiating a middle way between Iran and the
US. It is a staunch ally of Iran, if not its
vassal. A portentous chapter in Riyadh's Gulf
policy is opening. Previously, Saudi Arabia
supported Saddam's invasion of Iran in 1980 and
argued against the US's invasion that ousted him
in 2003. Today, it is scrambling furiously to
contain Iranian-Shi'ite power. Insurgency and
intrigue in Sunni Iraq are promising tactics.
Saudi Arabia wields influence in the
Salafi networks in Iraq and in the Dulayim tribes
that straddle the Iraq-Saudi frontier. That
influence was important in helping the US abate
the Sunni insurgency in 2007 and it remains in
force as Shi'ite power consolidates in Baghdad.
Today, the Saudis are reorganizing the
disparate groups of the old Sunni insurgency.
Ba'athists, demobilized soldiers, Salafi networks,
and tribal bands act in a more disciplined manner
now and ply their deadly skills against Shi'ite
targets in their campaign for autonomy or
The Shi'ite government held
back from confronting the new Sunni insurgents
while US troops were still in country, but with
their departure in December, a crackdown looms.
Events, however, are complicated by the ongoing
Gulf crisis, which makes any action a potential
trigger of a regional war, and by the Syrian
uprising, which is drawing away Sunni insurgents.
Sunni Syria The Bashar al-Assad
government - an Alawite elite in a predominantly
Sunni country - faces widening revolt from within
and growing opposition from without. It is
unlikely to survive. Even many Shi'ites are
voicing their opposition to the Assad regime. They
do so out of sincere recognition of the need for
political reform and out of fear of a post-Assad
reckoning for those deemed supportive of the
increasingly murderous regime.
owing to sectarian and geopolitical complications,
presents graver regional problems than do any of
the other countries in the Arab Spring. The Assad
regime is chiefly Alawite, a Shi'ite sect, though
Syria is 74% Sunni. The regime is backed by Iran
and Russia, but opposed by Saudi Arabia and to an
uncertain extent by many North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) powers as well.
Further complicating the situation are the
hundreds of thousands of Sunni Iraqis living in
Syria, who fled the sectarian fighting in Iraq and
resent the Shi'ite government in Baghdad. They are
eager to avenge their loss of power back home and
have maintained contacts with like-minded people
still in Iraq.
Russia has a warm-water
port in Syria and sells large amounts of arms to
Damascus. Iran too sells it arms, shares its
sectarian beliefs, and sees it as a link to allies
in Lebanon and Palestine. China is also a supplier
of arms, and like Russia, used its veto on the UN
Security Council to protect the Assad government.
All three states have voiced support for their
beleaguered ally, but none is likely to send
ground troops to help it. Syria will have to face
mounting opposition on its own.
Arabia is eager if not desperate to detach Syria
from Iran. It has vast funds, of course, and a
number of Sunni fighters at its disposal. Smaller
Sunni states are already smuggling weapons to the
rebels, as they did in Libya last year. Riyadh's
deployment of men and materiel into Syria requires
no debate in its public or at the United Nations.
Many Sunni insurgents who operated against
the US and then Shi'ite Iraq - the tribal bands,
Salafis, former soldiers - are beginning to shift
their energies against the Shi'ite regime to the
west. Iraqi veterans who took the Saudi king's
riyal and now serve in Saudi forces are eager to
settle accounts with their sectarian foes. The old
smuggling routes that brought arms and fighters
from Syria into Iraq are of course two-way streets
and capable of bearing heavier traffic.
These Saudi-backed forces are capable of
sustaining guerrilla operations inside Syria
almost indefinitely and should Assad's pitiless
repression continue for some time, Damascus and
Aleppo could resemble Baghdad and Falujah of a few
The guerrillas will not want
for funds and will enjoy safe havens in western
Iraq, well outside the control of the government
in Baghdad. The indigenous fighters of the Free
Syrian Army will have skilled and resolute allies
as long as Assad remains in power. After that, all
bets are off as Riyadh's preference for autocracy
will not mesh with the hopes of the Syrian
A Sunni-dominated Syria may be
in the offing. The arduous problems of building
democracy and restructuring the crony-dominated
economy now facing Tunisia and Egypt will command
the attention of Syrians for many months or even
years, but Saudi Arabia will use its wealth to
align Syria with Riyadh's foreign policy.
The Sunni majority is unlikely to have
warm feelings for Iran, which supported and armed
Assad, or for Shi'ites inside Syria, who may be
uniformly deemed traitors. The new Syria will
share Saudi Arabia's opposition to Iran, Shi'ite
Iraq, and Iran's allies such as Hezbollah and
Hamas. Sunni Syria will support a Sunni Iraq in
central and western Iraq.
this may lead to a federation of the two Sunni
regions, with Shi'ite Syria left in a precarious
situation. In strengthening regional opposition to
Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel will expand their
cautious, initially puzzling, yet productive
Kurdistan The Kurdish people over the years
have been the victims of regional powers and the
pawns of various intelligence services. Events
have given them the opportunity to create their
own state; nature has given them the opportunity
for a wealthy one.
Following the First
Gulf War in 1991, the US, Britain, and France
enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, which
gave the Kurds the opportunity to govern
themselves without fear of large-scale attacks
from Saddam. The Second Gulf War shattered the
Iraq government and the Kurds have all but
seceded, establishing their own flag,
constitution, and army.
economy is booming and oil production is poised to
grow nicely, especially if the Kurds break from
from the revenue-sharing programs demanded by
lower Iraq. Sectarian conflict inside Iraq and
Syria may provide the opportunity to break away.
Working arrangements with Turkey and Exxon Mobil
may prove helpful here.
people, of course, dwell in several countries -
Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. The uprising in
Syria has been accompanied by demands from Syrian
Kurds (some 8% of the 22 million Syrians) for
greater "autonomy" - a term to the Kurdish people
approximating "independence," if not a code word