By Kumar David –
The scope and limitations of foreign power; Baghdad: Barbarians at the Gate
The barbarians are at the gate! Trouble started with the dumb American invasion of 2003. Nay, the fault is Saddam’s; the eventual overthrow of his nightmarish regime by the people would have left the nation in shreds. Or maybe the blunder lies with the brain-dead sectarian Shiite regime of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki whose refusal to share power has alienated Sunnis and Kurds and driven them to a dervish compact with bloodthirsty fundamentalist-extremists. Yes all true and you can apportion blame in your preferred proportions. Lanka’s liberals, leftists and minorities, angered by Rajapakse’s hostility to Tamils and Muslims, may pick the third as prime cause.
Aside from the maze on the ground, the two-country (Iraq and Syria) nexus of civil wars, and the tangle of alliances (some may rapture soon, some persist), another dynamic is at work; the international dynamic of the reluctant superpower and the powerful neighbour Shiite Iran on the eastern border. It is near impossible to lay out everything in a neat matrix of interactions and predictions. Marxists, I am one, are prone to reductionism where, and unlike Marx, they boil history down to crude economic categories and simplified class relations. But it is indefensible to flee to methodological reductionism or trivialised casuistry in the current narrative where epiphenomena, that is the momentum of unfolding events, is cause and consequence. This essay is situated in this difficult terrain.
Madmen of the Middle East
The ISIL or ISIS (L for Levant or S for Syria) qualifies for first place the global savagery-index. Not even the Khmer Rouge beheaded its prisoners, impaled heads on stakes and released grisly videos for the edification of the faithful and entertainment of the public at large. Its blood lust was too much for al-Qaeda which expelled it; now al-Qaeda’s recognised regional agency and ISIL are locked in fratricidal conflict leading to hundreds of inter-jihadist deaths. The IS in the acronym stand for Islamic State (the middle I is for Iraq) and denotes the movements short term aim; a cross-border Sharia state spanning NE Syria and NW Iraq. This is to be the first step to a greater Islamic-fundamentalist world order where adulteresses will be stoned to death, thieving children have arms chopped off, and heretics beheaded.
It is wrong to call this a throw back to a Dark Age of Islam; this barbarism never manifested itself during, before or after the golden age of Islamic civilisation. I am biting my tongue not to say “This is a drift to the moral jungle because the global order (a.k.a. capitalism) in its death agony can no longer provide compass for the world at large”. America’s remit, which spanned the Middle East and the world for decades before, and for a decade after, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, is much diminished. It now fires on only half its cylinders and in the Middle East even less. The manifest weakening of America and the rise of Asia and China as alternative economic and strategic pole is taking its toll.
Flipping through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall I chanced upon on a passage pertinent to these times. “Whatever evils either reason or declamation have imputed to extensive empire, the power of Rome was attended with some beneficial consequences to mankind; and the same freedom of intercourse which extended the vices, diffused likewise the improvements of social life” (p.58, Penguin Classics Abridged Edition). Iraq never existed as a nation; three satrapies were cobbled together by the British at the end of the First World War. America has replaced Britain as global umpire but its remit no longer runs. In these circumstances it would be no surprise if Iraq broke apart into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish constituents. That America’s wings have been clipped has nothing to do with Obama. It is neither tactical nor strategic; it is an inevitable outcome of historical evolution.
Israel has buried the ‘two-sate solution’; war weary and pessimistic Americans has shrunk from Obama’s thin-red-line warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now the US can manage events in Iraq and Syria only in consensus with regional actors Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the Russian Bear hibernating in the north. Since the ISIL is universally hated an international deal may be possible because the vacuum in practical governance in the region is fuelling political psychosis. For the first time in decades direct US-Iran talks took place in Vienna on 16 June and Obama is deploying 275 troops to Baghdad to protect the US embassy and US interests, certainly with a nod and a wink from Teheran.
If there ever was a regime dumber than Lanka’s in its stubborn refusal to devolve power, it is Iraq’s, where the demographics are 50% Shia, 25% Sunni, 20% Kurds and 5% Turkmen. Like Rajapakse, Maliki, in his madness, cynically subverts minorities (think Justice Wigneswaran and the NPC) and effortlessly breaks promises to Sunni citizens and departing Americans alike (think 13A). Assad is worse; in the long-run, suicidal. The Alawites, Assad’s community an offshoot of Shia, makes up 3.5 million of Syria’s 23 million and at 12% it is not even the largest minority; Christians and Druze, often lumped together, add to 13%.
The end result of Maliki’s and Assad’s obduracy has been to drive Sunnis and Kurds to make common cause with the jihadist ISIL. Syria and Iraq have been dominated by secular Baathism for decades and have no derived fundamentalist heritage. Now Sunni politicians and the Kurds are in league with the ISIL to excise two malignancies. The ISIL could not have made such rapid progress taking Mosul, Tikrit and Kirkuk, closing in on Samara, and perhaps within cannon shot of Baghdad, without the help of the Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas, the Kurdish Workers party, wry Sunni politicians in Baghdad and Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, and clandestine pro-Saddam clusters of the old military.
A gene has escaped from the bottle in Iraq and aroused the Shia masses. They are arming in Basra and the south. A sectarian people’s-war looms and a mass Sunni-Shia showdown will destroy the region. The ISIL may be halted or turned back in the coming weeks; counterattacks have commenced and some lost ground regained. Iran and the US cannot allow Baghdad to be overrun and the ISIL cannot overcome the antagonism of both regional power and the superpower. But these powers will have to pay a price when reordering Iraq; Maliki will have to go. Lanka has learnt the first lesson; the exit of the siblings will seal the second. Lanka cannot settle its ethno-political dilemma or the now exploding religious mayhem without international political and diplomatic support and intervention. Remember, the highest powers of the Lankan state are responsible for the inflamed Sinhala-Muslim sentiments along the south coast.
Despite the limitations faced by external actors, without decisive foreign political intervention the powder keg in Iraq cannot be diffused. The first step is for Iran and the US to coordinate the removal of Maliki, second recast the constitutional structure of Iraq, and third remove Assad. The trade-off on the political chessboard will look like this: The US sacrifices Maliki and in exchange Iran and Russia agree to oust Assad. Can it be so neatly settled? I don’t know; the world is far from rational.
The Kurds are a convergence of several tribes in northern Persia, the Fertile Crescent and the Caucuses, who began merging in about the sixth century BC; contemporaneous with Vijeya’s arrival. Today there are about 35-40 million in the world distributed mainly in Turkey, 15 million (20%), Iran 7.5 million (10%), Iraq 6.5 million (20%) and Syria 3 million (8%). The percentages are the proportion of Kurds in relation to the population of each country. They have a long history of struggle. Not many outside the region know that the great conquering sultan el-Malik en-Nassir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known in Christendom as the chivalrous and noble Saladin, was not an Arab at all; he was a Kurd born in Tikrit, in the north of what is now called Iraq.
The Kurdish struggle for freedom and for a country of their own has been long and bitter. They are oppressed in Turkey and Iran and marginalised in Iraq and Syria. In Turkey 700,000 were deported, villages wiped out and the land depopulated in ethnic cleansing started by Kemal Ataturk’s Yong Turk government after WW1. The Turkish military and death squads roamed the countryside committing genocide. The reaction from the pseudo-Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan) was armed revolt and terrorism. In the early 2000s the PKK was listed as a terrorist organisation by NATO, USA and UK.
For a long time, utterly unbelievably, the Kurdish language was banned from education, publication, radio and TV. There was uproar when Kurdish MP Leyla Nana added the highlighted words when she took her parliamentary oath: “I take this oath for the brotherhood of the Turkish and Kurdish peoples”. I don’t know whether singing the national anthem in Kurdish is banned!
Kurdistan is one case where the right of a people to self-determination and to constitute their own nation-state is unquestionably justified. In modern times the demand for a separate state rarely arises on ethnic, linguistic or religious grounds alone. More often, culturally diverse communities in a contiguous region strive to adapt to global reality through their own modern plural state. The Kurds are an example where while this is true, their homogeneous identity is also of paramount significance.
Carving out a new state for the Kurds would be a forward step; the biggest obstacle is bigoted Turkey, and the curse of nationalism in Iran, Iraq and Syria are also barriers. A Kurdish state, ideally, would incorporate portions of all four. America and the outside world cannot unilaterally dictate such outcomes, but they can help in smoothing out a transition. The world must inscribe the liberation of the Kurdish people as one more assignment on its much overcrowded banner.