A New Middle East Arises in the Shadow of Old Feuds.
“I would rather have one dictator than a thousand Jihads!” says Amer, from the Anbar Province, over a raised teapot. Two years ago he fled the central part of the country along with thousands of other Iraqis north to Iraqi Kurdistan. Amer currently lives in Sulaimani and works at the reception of a local hotel, which is mostly visited by Arabs—often new displaced people. Approximately 1,500,000 internal refugees and 200,000 Syrian Kurds are hiding in this region from ISIS violence.
As a joint effort of the Iraqi army, Shiite militia and Kurdish Peshmerga, and with support from international allies, most of the towns that were taken over by ISIS extremists in the summer of 2014 have been taken back. The last decisive battles are taking place in the western part of Mosul, where in the narrow streets of the old town the fighters face a cornered enemy and numerous self-made explosives, which can be hidden in anything from teddy bears to refrigerators. Despite the perseverance of ISIS, their defeat in the surrounding areas of Mosul has become inevitable, since the external support line from Syria has almost been entirely cut off. The victory over the extremists is expected to be announced no later than the end of May, before the beginning of Ramadan—the Islamic holy month.
In light of these developments there is a lot of talk in Iraq now about what will become of the country after the terrorists have been defeated. There are various panel discussions and meetings, where the motivation behind the extremist actions, the future of the Kurdistan area as well as the new power relations across the Middle East are discussed more widely.
The Price of Safety
Despite the large number of refugees in Kurdistan and the areas controlled by the Peshmerga, the region has been stable and peaceful for a long time now. During the last four years, only three serious extremist attacks have taken place in Erbil, the first of which was against the Kurdistan internal security service Asayish, the second against the US consulate and the third against a local municipality building. Three terrorist attacks and 14 people killed in four years with many of the fatalities being security workers.
After the previous year’s bloody events in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, it is perfectly reasonable to ask how Kurdistan manages to ensure its security with such success despite the large numbers of refugees and the physical proximity of ISIS. How can a pastor wearing a clerical collar walk around peacefully in Erbil in the evening and shake hands with people, while at the same time churches are being burned 80 kilometres away in Mosul?
The first important factor is the ethnic cohesion of Kurds and an overall sense of togetherness, which is apparent even when passing through the checkpoints between large cities. A Kurdish driver can usually pass through with only a nod and a few Kurdish greetings, while an Arab has to pass a thorough document check or even a security search.
Another, somewhat politically incorrect aspect is the distinguishing between refugees. Kurdistan greeted the first people from Syria and from other regions of Iraq fleeing ISIS with open arms. It was often the numerous minorities of the region (Assyrians, Yezides, etc.) that became the main targets in areas controlled by extremists four years ago. Many of them still live in refugee camps surrounding Erbil, which do not have any special security controls. People walk around freely, a school is operating in the camp and football fields are being set up.
Attitudes towards the people who left Mosul and its surrounding areas during the last six months vary. The Hassan Sham refugee camp is located 25 km from Mosul towards Erbil. Approximately 60,000 people live in the overcrowded tent city and surrounding camps. There is a strict order in those camps and people are allowed to leave only after a thorough background check. “Why are they keeping me here? I only want to go back home,” an inhabitant of the camp grabs onto my sleeve, thinking I am an interpreter for some aid organization. Unfortunately, the international humanitarian aid organizations also incorrectly assessed the number of people fleeing Mosul. The UN warned in autumn that up to one million people may flee the city due to war.1 The actual number is likely to be about four times smaller. “The aid that was prepared for the camps should actually be distributed in the town, because people do not want to leave their homes,” explains British journalist Gareth Browne, who has been working in the front line for six months now.
The strict restrictions on movement are being justified with the fact that the liberated areas have not yet been cleared of explosives. But in reality it is also based on security considerations. At the moment it is very hard to say how many ISIS fighters, supporters or people whose view of the world has changed radically after living in the “caliphate” for two years, are among the new refugees or the ones who stayed back.2 Kurdish camp workers, medics and security experts all say the same: “Sadly we cannot see what is going on in their hearts.” Considering this uncertainty, a price measurable in human lives has been added to Kurdish security. There is first aid available in the camps next to the Mosul highway, but in order to get help for more serious issues, one still has to go to Erbil. But even in the case of an emergency, it is necessary to get a separate permit to leave the camp from the specially assigned security service official. “We were waiting for a stamp but it was too late. He died right there in front of us,” a medic who deals with refugees describes one of the many tragic cases, but he admits that keeping Kurdistan safe in the middle of an on-going war requires sacrifices.
The longer it takes to free the western part of Mosul, and for people to get back home and to restore essential services, the more likely it is for tensions between Kurds and Arabs to heighten in the no-man’s land controlled by the Peshmerga. In addition to the potentially growing feud between the two ethnic groups, old fears of the West still remain.
Extremism and Anti-Western Sentiment
“Tell me, why did he come here?“ asks Amer, as if I, as someone from the West, should be able to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq that took place under the leadership of George W. Bush. Whatever the real reasons, the American invasion and the severe economic sanctions that preceded it have left deep marks in the consciousness of Iraqis and other Arabs, which are now, almost fifteen years later, followed by the black-garbed ISIS fighters. The latter was also referred to with caution by the decision-makers of that time, such as Tony Blair.3
The international economic sanctions imposed on Iraq due to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 devastated the country’s economy. “This punishment struck Iraq at a time when the world economy and technology were undergoing big changes. Unfortunately, Iraq was cut off from these key developments for a decade,” noted Laka’ Makki, lecturer from the University of Baghdad and columnist in a colloquium that took place in Doha in January, referring to the mistrust towards the West and the reasons why Iraqis are lagging behind. During the US invasion and the battles that followed, more than 100,000 civilians died in the course of ten years. An onlooker cannot fathom the impact of casualties corresponding to the number of people living in the town of Tartu, but these painful experiences became part of being Iraqi. Today, the sufferings have been imprinted on the cultural history of the nation. Distorted memories and resentment are reflected in the poetry, art and literature of the Iraqi Arabs. “Even the songs went silent, not surviving this fight, the saddest part that I myself have to pay for every bomb dropped on my country,” writes poetess Lami’a Abbas in dark tones.4 No less telling are the controversial portraits by Mahmud Obaidi of George W. Bush surrounded by different shoes and the Statue of Liberty hanging from the ceiling by a rope, which from a distance, looks like an execution.
Paradoxically, the recent departure of the Americans from Iraq has also caused problems, mostly among the Sunni tribes. The Iraqi anthropologist, Hisham Dawood, working in Paris, writes in his extensive report that a large number of Sunnis felt betrayed by the US decision to withdraw their forces from Iraq after essentially defeating the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda.5 The Sahwa (reawakening) of Sunni tribes that took place with American support played a key role in the rooting out of Al-Qaeda from the Anbar Province south of Baghdad since 2005.6 “Most of these tribes saw the US army as the only force that could protect them from the Iranians,” writes Dawood, referring to the fear Iraqi Sunnis had of their great Shiite neighbour. With the withdrawal of these forces, the Iraqi Sunnis were left to face a Baghdad supported by Teheran. During the rule of Prime Minster Nuri Al-Maliki, the tensions between the sects began to grow once again. Due to renewed violence, half a million Iraqi Sunnis were forced to leave their homes already before the establishment of ISIS. The security vacuum caused by the departure of the Americans and the following escalation resulted in opening a door to ISIS, who gradually took over the role of the protector of the local Sunnis.
Disappointment with the West caused by sanctions, war and apparent betrayal has not disappeared among Iraqi Sunnis. In addition to Iran, the Western countries and first and foremost the US are seen as the causes of the problems for the country and the on-going violence. According to conspiracy theories that circulate among local Arabs, ISIS is supported by the Americans. “It is common knowledge here,” said the men who had just escaped Mosul in December and were headed towards the aforementioned Hassan Sham refugee camp.7 Taking the former facts into account, it seems likely that if the Iraqi Sunnis once again become victims—be it from the Shiites or the Kurds—the terrorist organizations will largely gain from the rising fear, which will in turn threaten the European public space in one way or another.
There have been naive statements in Estonia, according to which many of the Middle Eastern problems will begin to solve themselves from the moment Islam goes through a “reformation”. In fact there is no cause to believe that a complete historisation of religion would end the rise and spread of dogmatic (incl. extremist) interpretations of the religion. Marx was read dogmatically, despite its materialistic content. If we place that reasoning into the Iraqi context: The reformation of Islam will not help much in relieving the tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis. “The problem of Iraq is not the pluralism of sects, but a power that is not able to find a balance between them,” Makki stated.8 Long-term peace and stability rely mainly on social equality and promoting the rule of law.
The Kurdistan Challenge and a New Middle East
“In the old Middle East we were a menu item, but now we are sitting firmly at the table,” says Hemin Hawramy, director of external relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who is also a member of President Masoud Barzani’s inner circle. By taking part in the military campaign against ISIS, the Kurds have once again caught the attention of the world media and gained favour from great powers. For the Europeans, in turn, the Kurds have become important allies in giving aid to the refugees. Simple logic states that by giving enough support to Kurdistan, the progression of refugees to the north—towards Europe—is averted.
In return, the Kurds now expect backing of the West in talks with Baghdad and organizing an independence referendum. But until now the official positions of the European Union and the US have stressed the importance of keeping Iraq unified, as the disintegration of the state would bring chaos, which could lead to military intervention from neighbouring states (Turkey and Iran). Issues surrounding the referendum have become even more intense due to the on-going political crisis of Kurdistan, where the ruling KDP has especially tried to increase the number of its supporters with the promise of soon holding an independence referendum. The race against time is even tenser as the next elections in that region should take place already in October.9
In light of these tensions it is hard to assess exactly what the future of Iraq will be, but the outbreak of widespread violence between Arabs and Kurds seems rather unlikely, taking into account the current regional developments. “Neither Baghdad nor Erbil actually want a new war. Both want a political agreement,” I am told by Peshmerga ministry adviser, Saed Kakei. The spirit of cooperation was also evident during the military operations against ISIS, where the Kurds and Arabs fought side by side. “Peshmerga has given the Iraqi army invaluable support during the liberation of Mosul, especially on the logistics side,” stressed Lieutenant General Jabar Yawar during a discussion at the end of January – the general leads the liberation of the Nineveh Province.10
A new Middle Eastern order will be formed on the ruins of Iraq and Syria. The following balance of power is characterized by two features—decentralisation and opposing regional leaders.
In relation to the former, it is important to understand that the fading of the power of central governments in controlling their territory, as has happened in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, does not necessarily mean the collapse of states. “The internal borders of communities may change in the conflict zones, but the shifting of external borders is less likely,” says Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, leader of the Kurdish forum MERI, on the future of the Middle East.11 The borders drawn by Mark Sykes and François George-Picot were not the most thought-out but still seem to be elastic enough even for the beginning of this century. Another important tendency is the growing influence of regional powers, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, over their neighbours. As a result of the intensifying confrontation, small countries and the non-state actors, like Iraqi Kurdistan, have to choose sides even more clearly from now on. For Kurds this is of course bad news, because on the one hand, they do not want to upset the Saudis, and on the other hand, they have to take into account the physical proximity of Iran.
A networked globalizing world and a regional cold war with two power centres are both simultaneously unfolding in the Middle East. As a result, Iraq and Kurdistan are becoming a litmus test, which will show whether it is possible to overcome ethnic, religious and regional tensions peacefully or arms will once again be raised.
1 The assessment of the UN of the refugee crisis accompanying the liberation of Mosul from last autumn: reliefweb.int/report/iraq/mosul-humanitarian-crisi… 2 Parwas, D. 2016. “Iraqi Kurdistan: Everything is all right—everyone is ISIL,” Al-Jazeera Blogs:
www.aljazeera.com/blogs/middleeast/2016/10/iraqi-k… 3 At the end of the year before last, Tony Blair admitted that both the US and Great Britain failed to assess the influence that the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime would have. Blair also cautiously acknowledged that the invasion of Iraq has contributed to the establishment of ISIS.
4 My translation. Abbas refers to the fact that the oil revenues belonging to the country itself were used to build up Iraq.
5 Dawood, H. 2016. “Al-Qabail al-‘Araqiya ‘ala Ard Al-Jihad,” Omran 15: 97–112.
6 The successful inclusion of the Iraqi Sunni tribes in the fight against Al-Qaeda has also been discussed in the National Defence library series: Kilcullen, D. 2015. Juhupartisanid (Grenader): 153–228.
7 My longer report on Bartella, a town located next to Mosul, and the refugees:
Raudsik, P. 2016. “A report from ruined Iraq: The crushing war will not break ISIS,” Postimees:
maailm.postimees.ee/3936263/reportaaz-varemeis-ira… 8 The relations between the religious sects in Iraq has probably most thoroughly been analysed by Khalil Osman, who stresses that the current tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites result from the failed attempts to create a unified and equal national identity. In more detail: O. Khalil. 2014. Sectarianism in Iraq: the making of state and nation since 1920 (Routledge)
9 In light of the fight against ISIS, and the refugees, it seems more likely that the elections will take place at the beginning of next year.
10 In a public discussion held in Arabic, many other high ranking Peshmerga and Iraqi military staff members held speeches in addition to Yawar, who also stressed the importance of a continuing cooperation after the liberation of Mosul.
In more detail: www.meri-k.org/_events_/the-mosul-operation-progre… 11 Ala’Aldeen, D. 2016. “The Future of the Middle East,” Middle East Research Institute:
Hille Hanso, freelance journalist
The trilemma between safety, democracy and human rights is relevant across the whole Middle East and Peeter Raudsik discusses the different sides of this problem very thoroughly.
Even though Kurdistan might be distinguished by a renewed national cohesion, this is not reflected in political cohesion. It is still a regional government that can be classified as a hybrid democracy, being governed by a political dynasty. It also has the characteristics of a rentier state. A rentier state is characterized by the primacy of power and patronage, because the country does not get its main income from taxes, rather than natural resources or transit, which minimizes the value on an individual in the eyes of the state. The citizens, in turn, have no right to pressurize the country to meet their needs, which is why forming a civil society and political consolidation in rentier states is complicated. The openness of the Kurdistan economy is also directly dependent on the will of the leaders. Political stalemate, corruption and the heavy burden on services and infrastructure due to the inflow of refugees do not make the situation any easier and tensions materialise in the form of ethnic or religious conflicts.
Speaking of the external factors. Kurdistan is one of the many hidden fighting arenas of the large states in the Middle East (and through these, the global superpowers), depending simultaneously on Iraqi central power, but directly also on Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turbulent power relations and the attempt to pursue their interests on the basis of the conflicting interests of larger countries directly affect the daily lives and security of the citizens, immigrants and internal refugees, as Raudsik himself states.
If the Kurdish regional government is able to take steps from being a rentier state towards becoming a democracy (which could be influenced by the long-standing low price of fuel and low demand), it would be a promising ray of hope even in light of the events of Syria and Iraq and the apparent distancing from democracy going on in Turkey in recent times. The idea that Iraq and Syria could in the future function as ethnic or religious confederations with central governments is not in any way new to experts anymore.
Vladimir Sazonov, Senior Research Fellow in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Tartu
Peeter Raudsik has succeeded in painting a very good picture of the current state of the Kurds living in Northern Iraq. The author has travelled a lot in that region and conversations with different people have allowed him to gather interesting material that will definitely help us understand the current situation in Iraq. The author lists the US invasion but also the severe economic sanctions imposed by the West against the Hussein regime as causes for the current difficult situation in Iraq. One of its “fruits” was the foundation of ISIS. There were more reasons for extremism to blossom. One of these is definitely the activities of the Hussein regime itself. In particular, the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Shiite Iran and the Iran-Iraq war that broke out in 1980 caused Saddam to have a paranoid fear of the Shiites. About 65 per cent of the population of Iraq is made up of Shiites. In fear of the growing influence of Iran and the Iraqi Shiites, Saddam and many of his close associates began to cooperate with the Sunni extremist Islamists. As a result, many chief executives of the Hussein administration and army got themselves involved with extremist Sunni Islam. Later, many officers of Hussein and members of the BAATH party joined ISIS and at times even took on key roles.
But what could the future hold for Iraq and Kurdistan? It might be too soon to predict in this case. It is true—the Iraqi Kurds have achieved some things in developing their autonomy. At the same time it does not mean that the Kurds could not achieve de jure independence from Baghdad. There are many factors against it—Ankara among others. Peeter Raudsik makes an interesting conclusion in his article that a new Middle Eastern order will be formed on the ruins of Iraq and Syria. The following balance of powers is characterized by two features—decentralization and opposing regional leaders. The developments in this region could very well follow a different path, but is it even possible to speak of any balance in a region as fragile and explosive even after ISIS is gone? In the end, we might, for quite a long time, still face the question: Will Iraq and Syria persist as countries, will they reach an agreement and will there be no disintegration?
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.