The Islamic State Is Right About The Borders Of The Levant And Iraq


The Australian government, like many in the West, is currently weighing up its response to recent catastrophic events in Iraq.

My contention is that is a mistake to use military force to shore up the states of Iraq and Syria (or Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey for that matter) in the face of the so-called Islamic State (IS), or any similar threat.

More importantly we must actually listen to IS. Barbaric as they are, IS, like Al-Qaeda, is not the problem, but a symptom of an underlying regional crisis.

Until we address this crisis we will have no option but to support partisan and often brutal regimes or to deal with the consequences, tremors and occasional seismic readjustments that arise from natural processes constantly tearing these artificial states apart.

The crisis IS highlights is that the borders of the Middle East, from Lebanon to Pakistan, were defined not by the ethnic and political boundaries of their inhabitants, but by 19th and 20th century struggles between three colonial powers.

Britain, France, and Russia fought over the declining Ottoman Turkish and Persian states. By the time the present nation-states of the region had been defined through this struggle, we were left with a broken region, where borders cut ethnic regions into fragments, combine people disparate in ethnicity, language and religion.

Even more damagingly, entire nations such as the Kurds and Balochis remain completely occupied, destabilising all the countries that spend their military and political resources to maintain occupation.

Kurdistan is hardly ever discussed because Cold War allegiances between Turkey and the West were made at the Kurdish expense.

Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, their borders and political directions were drawn up (in reaction to those of modern Turkey) by the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France in 1916. Western nations continue to invest in these tragic and untenable national constructs.

IS state clearly that they are engaged in nothing less than “the demolition of the Sykes-Picot borders”. In these countries, with their weak and factional governments, IS moved in like an opportunistic infection in a host with a compromised immune system.

Radical Islam is the discourse they use and the narrative they instrumentalize, but they succeed because of the conditions in the region.

In their recent publication, Dabiq, they write of the strategy of “immigrating to a land with a weak central authority to use as a base where a jama’ah [Islamic community] can form, recruit members, and train them.

The jama’ah would then take advantage of the situation by increasing the chaos to a point leading to the complete collapse of the… regime in entire areas… The next step would be to fill the vacuum by managing the state of affairs to the point of developing into a fully-fledged state.”

In fact IS refuses to speak in terms of the Syrian, Iraqi or Lebanese governments, talking instead of the regional tribal, ethnic and sectarian allegiances, and so should we.

It has been all too easy for us in the West to have contempt for dictators such as Assad and Saddam Hussein, and judge these countries consumed by sectarian violence and terror.

Our leaders, for all their faults, are not monsters like these men. But they are products of the unnatural countries they lead. Only a tyrant could hold together a Frankenstein of a country such as Iraq, composed of a brutally oppressed fragment of Kurdistan, an area of tribal Sunni Muslims with strong links to allied tribes in Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as an Arabised region of Sunni Muslims interspersed by Aramaic speaking Christians and other indigenous groups, and a southern region of Shia Muslims which extends across the border into the Arabic-speaking Shia region now controlled by Iran.

Each of these populations has strong links and allegiances across the Iraqi borders. The same situation exists in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many of the Gulf States.

Iran is in a similar position. Perhaps half its population are ethnic Persians. The Iranian government occupies regions of Shiite Arabs adjoining Iraq, Kurds adjoining Turkey and Iraq, Azeri Turks adjoining Azerbaijan, and Balochis adjoining Pakistan.

These groups, along with other people with trans-border allegiances have been absorbed into modern Iran by a series of historical accidents.

More importantly, due to the historical decline of Persia, areas inhabited by Persians have been torn away.

The British Empire attempted to absorb Afghanistan, largely Persian. The Russians had the same ambitions. Those Persian regions they absorbed became Tajikistan, whose language is a dialect of Persian now written in Cyrillic script.

What we know as Afghanistan was simply the region of Persia and that segment of the Pashtun tribes neither Russia nor Britain could subjugate.

In short, Iraq cannot be healed by bombing IS strongholds, nor by ground forces or invading armies, because 'Iraq' is the problem.

IS is merely symptomatic of the inherited ethnic nightmare we do not want to address because it means nothing less than the dismemberment of the region as we know it, including Turkey.

In the absence of such a process the Islamic State is following its own hideous process of realignment.

The entrenched patriarchal values of the region, which enabled the spread of IS, owe much of their staying power to the weakness and arbitrary nature of regional governments and civil society.

My argument is not that we should not respond militarily to this appalling, murderous group, but that to only respond militarily, shoring up the boundaries defined by former European powers, we can only ever treat the symptoms.

The underlying disease remains untreated.

National self-determination, when equitable, can be a powerful force for regional stability. Weak states breed strong men to hold them together.

So what would treating the real disease look like in the Middle East?

For a start, a free, independent and adequately armed Kurdistan that would stabilise the entire region, and an Arab Shiite state, joining the regions now under Iraqi and Iranian sovereignty.

For the sake of brevity I did not address North and North East Africa, the southern areas of the Arabian Peninsula or Israel and Palestine here, but the systematic redrawing of the borders of the region, from Gaza to Pakistan, would create a virtuous circle, strengthening civil society and the actual economic and civil structures which can lead to genuine, functional democracies.

Those self-determined states might well, as they did in Europe in the aftermath of WWII, seek to form a common market and live peacefully together, freed from the destabilising forces which were tearing them apart.

This, I feel is the real vision of a just Middle East that IS is hijacking with its call to the Khalifate.

I am not arguing that is probable, even possible, only that the tragic suffering of the modern Middle East will continue to flare up in different forms until this problem is solved, no matter how many bombs we drop, or soldiers we send.

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