Wednesday, June 18, 2014
The Middle East Turned Upside Down
The Middle East Turned Upside Down: As power shifts violently, will Obama help restore a sustainable order from today's chaos?
By WILLIAM A. GALSTON, Wall Street Journal
June 17, 2014 7:23 p.m. ET
The rapid advance of the hard-line Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Iraq's Sunni heartland has sparked a cottage industry of commentary on the plan devised in 1916 by British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, that laid the basis for the map of the modern Middle East and led to the formation of Syria and Iraq.
For centuries, the Ottomans had presided over a multiethnic, multireligious empire by allowing many individual groups substantial autonomy while preserving enough central authority to keep the peace and guarantee an adequate flow of resources into the imperial treasury. The collapse of that empire could have led to a Rubik's Cube of intergroup strife. Instead, the Sykes-Picot agreement replaced imperial administration with Western colonialism. As in colonial Africa, lines of demarcation divided many groups while bringing others into compulsory coexistence with their sworn enemies.
Only force could maintain this system. When France and Britain pulled back from Syria and Iraq, autocrats emerged who used brutal tactics to suppress revolts among groups who found themselves the underdogs in the postcolonial order. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed long suppressed centrifugal forces in that country, as did the Arab Spring in Syria a decade later. Iraq's new Shiite government proved stubbornly unwilling to share power with the long-dominant Sunni minority, creating widespread disaffection. In Syria, Bashar Assad's Alawite-minority government made the same mistake with its Sunni majority.
Like nature, power abhors a vacuum. Chaos brings forth new aspirants; victory often goes to those with the clearest vision, the greatest daring and the strongest will. So it proved with ISIS, whose founding dream of a new Sunni caliphate enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic law seems closer to realization than ever before. Its zone of influence in northeastern Syria and western Iraq has obliterated—at least for now—the significance of colonial-era borders.
Today, one phrase echoes throughout the region: "the end of Sykes-Picot." Granted, this may prove to be the overwrought judgment of a passing moment. It is possible that the combination of Shiite mobilization and U.S. airstrikes in Iraq would halt and reverse the ISIS advance and that more-moderate forces could regain the upper hand in the struggle for control of the anti-Assad insurgency.
Still, we must take seriously the possibility that the century-old map of the Middle East is being redrawn before our eyes. Now that Iraqi Kurds have moved into Kirkuk, an independent Kurdish state seems only a matter of time, and Turkey—in the past a fierce opponent of this possibility—has signaled its willingness to cooperate.
Tehran is coming to the aid of Iraq's government; the outcome may well be a smaller, virtually all-Shiite Iraq from Baghdad to Basra, even more tightly linked to Iran than in recent years. Clearly alarmed by the rise of ISIS, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has floated the idea of cooperation with Washington to stem the tide, and the Obama administration appears willing to take him up on it. According to many Israelis, these developments may well lead Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to conclude that the U.S. has no intention of responding militarily if the nuclear talks with Iran fail, increasing the odds of unilateral Israeli action.
That leaves the disaffected Sunnis. It seems possible—even logical—that a Sunni-dominated state would emerge in the areas where ISIS now exercises de facto sovereignty with many attributes of government, such as keeping order and providing basic services. Whether radical Islamists would long control such a state is less clear. In recent weeks, Sunni leaders in Iraq who turned against al Qaeda and cooperated with the U.S. to expel them have expressed confidence that the Islamists have learned their lesson and will refrain from brutally enforcing their version of Shariah religious law. Against this backdrop, ISIS's imposition of strict Shariah on Mosul must have come as a rude shock.
As for the U.S., the Obama administration's real red line is its unwillingness to deploy ground forces. Although air power (manned as well as unmanned) can help prevent defeat, it can neither gain nor hold ground. At some point, U.S. diplomacy will have to accept a reality that it is unable or unwilling to alter. If Iraq is broken beyond repair, President Obama or his successor will have to make the best of it. If every scenario for Syria leaves the Alawite dictatorship in control of Damascus and the corridor to the west, we will have to make the best of that as well.
The U.S. should stop sponsoring conferences based on fantasies and grasp the nettle firmly. International agreements have always been needed to ratify large changes in the Middle East (and elsewhere). Once the front lines stabilize, farsighted diplomacy would begin planning for an all-parties conference to bring a new and sustainable order out of today's bloody chaos. It is far from clear that President Obama is willing to invest his dwindling political capital in such a task, but we would all be better off if he did.