The Middle East is known to be a rough and unstable neighbourhood, but, of late, it has surpassed its own standards. The whole region seems to be in a flux. We are witnessing a disintegrating Iraq, mayhem in Syria, the spillover of the Syrian war into Lebanon, the return of the military-led establishment in Egypt, the prospect of a third intifada in the Occupied Territories, chaos in Libya, lawlessness in Yemen and the Sunni-Shiite schism. But the urgent and most pressing development is the spillover of the Syrian crisis and war into Iraq. This has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders had warned successive US administrations about it.
However, the US has its own agenda and reading of the situation. Iraq today is a failed state and is witnessing real disintegration and splintering into sectarian and ethnic enclaves, as it was feared. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) is a product of the Syrian war and composed of hardline Islamist insurgents who splintered from Al Qaida. Isil has continued its blitzkrieg towards Baghdad, controlling large swathes of land in northern and western Iraq, including the second largest city — Mosul — and Tikrit, Saddam Hussain’s hometown. But the most ominous development is Isil declaring the establishment of the ‘caliphate’ and asking the 1.6 billion Muslims all over the world to pay allegiance to its anointed “caliph” Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Isil’s territory now stretches from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyla Province in Iraq on the border with Iran!
In the meantime, in the US, the Iraqi crisis has again become headline news dominating talk show programmes and front pages of major newspapers and magazines. The argument is about ‘Who lost Iraq?’ and ‘Who is responsible for the debacle in Iraq?’ The blame game has started. As the debate in Washington rages between Democrats and Republicans, former vice-president Dick Cheney openly lambasted US President Barack Obama, saying: “Rarely has a US president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.” The Democrats’ rebuttal came from former president Bill Clinton, who said: “If they [the Republicans] hadn’t gone to war in Iraq, none of this would be happening ...” The US media joined in the chorus with Time magazine doing a cover story on Iraq, with an illustration of a map of Iraq burning at the western border, with the caption: ‘The End of Iraq’. The Atlantic magazine reminded its readers about its January-February 2008 edition, with the Arab Mashreq redrawn, showing the fragmentation of many states in the region.
However, what is indeed very alarming about the Isil narrative is the erasing of borders, invalidation of sovereignty and end of the notion of a nation state. The other dynamic is not only an imploding Iraq, but also the end of Iraq as we know it. Kurdistan is already on its way to independence. The president of the autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barazani, has asked the Kurdish parliament — after grabbing oil-rich Kirkuk, the cultural capital of the Kurds — to prepare for a referendum on Kurdistan’s independence. “The time has come for us to determine our own fate and we must not wait for others to determine it for us,” Barazani said. It seems the Kurds are keen on independence despite pressure from the US and other regional actors.
These unprecedented and ominous developments not only indicate a spillover of the Syrian mayhem into Iraq, but they have also alarmed Iraq’s neighbours, especially the GCC states, reaffirming the naivety and gullibility of the US. This has elevated Iran’s influence as it offers to lend a hand to fight Sunni hardliners, consolidating its role as the most influential player in Iraq — thanks to US blunders and miscalculations. This allows Iran once again to use Iraq as a trump card and a leverage in its negotiations with world powers in Vienna. They are racing against time to reach a final deal over Iran’s nuclear programme by July 20.
The Obama administration’s involvement has been hesitant, sending about 750 military advisers to Iraq, along with drones to protect the US embassy and train Iraqi security forces. Last week, the US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, and the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, ruled out any direct military intervention unless the US was threatened. America’s handling of the Iraq debacle and its overall smaller footprint in the region has not been received favourably in the region. The Saudis have deployed 30,000 troops to the border with Iraq and made some significant reshuffles in the senior military and security profiles. GCC states are pushing for more cooperation and coordination in order to lay out a deterrence strategy to fend off these threats and to deal more effectively with the crisis.
This messy scenario, wherein the entire region seems to be imploding, is adding more strain in relations between the GCC states, led by Saudi Arabia, and the US. But this can be a blessing in disguise for the GCC states to get their act together, think out of the box, consolidate their efforts and act more strategically and seriously towards a Gulf Union.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@docshayji