Can Iraq and Syria be fixed when the fighting stops?
CIA director John Brennan was not being overly dramatic when he expressed doubts last week about whether Syria and Iraq “can be put back together again” after “so much bloodletting” and “destruction”.
This is not just about territorial integrity, but also governance. “I question whether we’ll see, in my lifetime, the creation of a central government in both of those countries that’s going to have the ability to govern fairly,” he added.
Neither Syria nor Iraq can be described today as unitary states, and their current borders are artificial products of colonial tampering by France and Britain. Large chunks of both countries, including strategically important territories, still make up the so-called “caliphate” of ISIL, despite it steadily losing ground to air and ground forces in both countries.
Iraqi Kurds have cultivated their autonomy since the 1991 Gulf war. In February, their president, Masoud Barzani, repeated a call for a referendum on independence that he initially made in July 2014. “It’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence,” he said at the time. “From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now.”
Mr Barzani may be counting on divisions among Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbours, as well as the fight against ISIL, muting the backlash against a referendum. He may also be hoping that the region has come to accept a fait accompli, given that Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed autonomy for a quarter of a century.
Syrian Kurds in the oil-rich north-east have had de facto autonomy since the early days of the revolution against Bashar Al Assad. They declared autonomy in November 2013, and again in January 2014.
Governments supporting Kurdish forces, particularly against ISIL, insist on the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq. However, that very support is emboldening separatist sentiments and actions among Kurds in both countries, who have expanded into hotly disputed territories and those beyond their traditional heartlands (though Turkey’s current intervention in northern Syria is rolling back some of those gains).
Iraq’s Kurds postponed their independence referendum in 2014 due to the war on ISIL. However, as the latter’s territory steadily shrinks, they may well resurrect plans to hold the referendum, which would overwhelmingly support independence. It would be a major domestic gamble for Mr Barzani to repeatedly insist on the right to independence while indefinitely postponing a vote on it.
Syria exists as a country in name only, its territory carved up between the regime, ISIL, the Kurds and various rebel groups (not to mention Israel’s occupation and annexation of the Golan Heights, which Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to return).
Given Mr Al Assad’s acknowledgement of manpower shortages in his army, and its increasing reliance on foreign forces and militias, even the territory under his control can be considered something of a patchwork.
The regime has shown itself unable to capture territory or keep hold of it without the help of foreign forces and militias. This highlights the fact that its recent battlefield gains – which are relatively modest considering the extent of Russian air power and reinforced Shiite ground forces – are somewhat transient and illusory.
As such, Mr Al Assad’s vows to retake the whole country, when he currently controls less than half of it, are laughable. It would require a full-fledged, long-term military occupation by his foreign allies – something they are as unlikely to accept as they are to achieve – and this would be fiercely resisted by his domestic and regional opponents.
There is no prospect of outright military victory by any of the warring sides. Nor is there hope for a negotiated solution, since the regime insists that Mr Al Assad’s position is not up for discussion.
Thus Syria will continue to be divided for the foreseeable future, not just geographically but also demographically. Continued population displacement and transfer have created distinct areas of sectarian and ethnic homogeneity, as happened in Iraq during and since its civil war following the US invasion. The longer that goes on, the harder it will be to undo.
The increasing influence of local sectarian militias in both Syria and Iraq poses serious long-term threats to the viability of both countries, as they behave as a law unto themselves and act with impunity (there is the added problem of some maintaining varying degrees of loyalty or affiliation to a foreign country, Iran).
As their role and power have increased, so too have their demands and expectations vis-à-vis increasingly dependent central authorities. Damascus and Baghdad have unleashed genies that will not easily be put back in their bottles.
Furthermore, widespread abuses by these Shiite militias have heightened alienation and anger from mainly Sunni communities (a majority in Syria and a sizeable minority in Iraq). This will fuel further conflict, heighten separatist sentiment, and nurture jihadist groups such as ISIL and Al Qaeda. In short, both countries are increasingly resembling Libya, which has a nominal government but is effectively ruled by myriad militias.
However, lawlessness in Libya has led to amnesia and whitewashing over the brutal and dictatorial rule of Muammar Qaddafi. Similarly, if militias are a major problem in Syria and Iraq, so too are the governments in Damascus and Baghdad. Both have appalling human rights records, both are sectarian and both are authoritarian (that Iraq’s governments are elected does not make them less so).
As long as Syrians and Iraqis are forced to live under such flawed, corrupt, repressive and unrepresentative systems of governance, neither country will have peace, stability or even a viable future as the states we recognise today.
Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs
Updated: September 19, 2016 04:00 AM