Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel
The military coups of the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt, Syria and Iraq had remarkably little effect on the general nature of most Arab regimes and their policies. Calm ruled, at least on the surface, despite the disparities in wealth and the new calls for social justice by the recently urbanized populations of the region. The perception turned out to be untrue; the calm witnessed for some decades was only indicative of oppressive regimes that maintained a tranquil façade. What many hoped would last an eternity turned out to be only a speck in time.
At the turn of the 20th century, it seemed more unlikely that the colonial borders would remain as they were. The events of 2011 – following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – saw a catastrophic change in the picture of Middle East stability portrayed by historians. With the start of Arab revolutions and the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), uncertainty permeated the region.
The Islamic State has proved to be different from any threat the Middle East has seen in recent history. Ill-informed understandings of ISIS’s structure and its basic philosophy have led to many costly errors. Earlier cookie-cutter approaches utilized by some foreign governments such as the U.S. and Russia, in addition to Middle Eastern foreign policies, proved ineffective to defeat ISIS and even exacerbated the Syrian civil war.
Headlines of ISIS’s downfall, Syria and Iraq’s supposed liberty and a Kurdish referendum in Iraq beg the question of what will come next. How will the two states, and ultimately the region, restructure around the inevitable power vacuums to ensure a process of sustainable peace?
In the case of Syria and Iraq, some have even suggested that the two countries will split into smaller nation states based on sectarian rifts. There’s also speculation concerning the potential impending emergence of a Kurdish state. Currently, it seems that fighting will actually reach a plateau in favor of the Syrian and Iraqi governments. The question arises of what role the international community plays in moving towards peace, lest power vacuums give way to extreme ideologies and hostile national identities.
The term Middle East is in itself contentious, with a loaded academic history and evolving complexities. A geographic definition of the Middle East is impossible when we consider the fact that the term has been used in intellectual opposition to the West since ancient Greece. The region has never been static in terms of history, culture, religion, geography, politics or economy. This catch-all term corresponds to foreign policy that incorrectly treats the Middle East as a singular entity. Historically, this has also been the case. Some even attribute the roots of many of the current crises to the reality of state formation in the Middle East, which created crises of legitimacy caused by said incoherent colonial borders. Being treated as one identical region only aggravated different states. In modern times, the result is various struggling states. A simple search on stakeholders in Syria and Iraq could attest to the puzzling labyrinth of contending preferences and involved parties.
Stakeholders range from behind-the-scenes proxy interests that manifest in arms deals, UN Vetoes, and public support of governments to airbases and stationed troops. Moscow's role in the war has helped to turn the tide in favor of Bashar Al-Assad. News of the Kurdish referendum in Iraq affects Turkey, Iran and Syria, who also have large Kurdish populations and all oppose an independent Kurdish state. With Syrian Turkmen’s long fight for survival, and U.S. and Western interests at hand, the U.S. has vocalized concerns that a Kurdish referendum could renew conflict with the Iraqi government in Baghdad and distract the Kurds from fighting ISIS. News agencies continue to ponder the actual possibility of an independent Kurdish state and the larger implications for Iraq and the Middle East. With Turkey currently escalating diplomatic a row with Germany and its frozen bid for EU membership, statements by Recep Tayyip Erdogan show a clear bid not for EU membership but for a regional hegemony. However, what has become more certain in this growing uncertainty is that alliances and regional developments have empowered the Syrian and the Iraqi governments’ positions in both situations.
Yet, power vacuums can still emerge and history has shown extremist groups’ ability to exploit a power vacuum. Re-emergence of such groups after a military defeat is well documented in the cases of Iraq and Syria. There are certain steps we must take to prevent history from repeating itself, ensuring good governance post-ISIS.
There are certain steps we must take to prevent history from repeating itself, ensuring good governance post-ISIS. Military action alone will not suffice to defeat strong and opportunistic ideologies. If we are to react in a way that will not strengthen similar ideologies, and prevent chaos from developing, we must instead help such ideologies to self-immolate before maturing: when an idea arises without a platform to harbor it, it burns out before gaining momentum Response to such ideologies must take into account that such they are fostered not only in the confines of the physical world spheres, but also in social and online ones. Reports suggest that bottom-up, grassroots and existing social networks might be the answer rather than imposing top-down, foreign and often Western governing mechanisms. Exploiting the inherent knowledge concerning societal regulation, and extrapolating to the national scale, is the way forward.
Therefore, we, as the international community, whether directly impacted or not, must capitalize upon existing family and tribal links that could be key at this very sensitive time. Building on and benefiting from small-scale initiatives was only a dream a few months ago, but now is the time to utilize these opportunities. However, the key to this approach is to correctly identify such networks before a vacuum is negatively exploited. Both the international community and the region’s most direct stakeholders must channel previous thinking by tapping into the influential networks already present. The first step is to garner a better understanding of existing networks at play, and the next is to identify and cultivate them to ensure sustainable good governance post-ISIS, irrespective of developing geographical borders.
Daniah Kheetan is Opinion Deputy Editor. Email her at [email protected]