The unfolding humanitarian and political disaster in Iraq and Syria is ultimately a consequence of confusion, impetuosity, a preoccupation with tactical issues at the expense of strategic ones, and an ignorance of the political, communal, religious and cultural dynamics of Mesopotamia that borders on culpability.
The fall of Mosul, Palmyra and, more recently, Ramadi to the daesh (ISIL) forces, together with the jockeying for control of Tikrit, are the early indicators of a far more significant change in the strategic landscape of Mesopotamia (Iraq and Syria) and the Levant.
At the core of this strategic change are five intersecting factors:
- the continuing death throes of the Ottoman Caliphate as formerly centralised authority gives way to communal and tribal leadership;
- the progressive collapse of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which reflected European notions of the nation state that weren’t shared by the tribal leaderships that exercised local power;
- the long-term consequences of Balfour’s ‘betrayal’ of the promises made to the pan-Arabist Hashemite Emir Faisal in return for the support of Arab tribes against the Turkish forces during WWI;
- the mid- and long-term consequences of the decisions taken by the US administration in Baghdad under Ambassador Bremer following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to proscribe the Ba’ath party, to dismiss Ba’ath party members from Iraq’s civil administration and to dismantle the Iraqi army;
- and the absence of a comprehensive strategy on the part of any of the parties engaged, excepting the daesh.
While the historical factors that are central to the present situation in the Middle East are as disparate as they are profound, in terms of this essay they can be dealt with collectively. At its most successful, the Ottoman Caliphate was a rickety association of emirs and local leaders who were prepared to use their authority to underwrite the religious legitimacy of the Ottoman leadership in Constantinople—the Caliphate. At its peak, it was a loose federation united by Islam and divided by competing ethnic, cultural and linguistic traditions.
The imperial Europeans, particularly Britain and France, effectively ignored both the competing interests of the Arab tribes and the potential for massive political instability that their interference and artificial cartography might generate. As Peter Mansfield points out in his study The Ottoman Empire and its Successors, Balfour was keenly aware of the fact that the Balfour Declaration deceived the Arabs and betrayed the pledges of self-determination for the peoples of the former Ottoman provinces—delivered not least of all by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). We are still paying for that betrayal, as are the people of the Middle East.
The astonishing arrogance that marked the European powers’ approach to the Middle East in the 19th and early 20th centuries continues to influence the behaviour of most of nations that make up ‘the coalition of the willing’. In his two magisterial works Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said charted the dynamics that rendered Western attitudes both normative and determinative. The unshakeable faith in the integrity and efficacy of western democratic values fails to come to grips with values and traditions that stem from entirely different civilisations, cultures and communities.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the failed attempts by the US to impose western democratic practice on Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul Bremer’s interregnum sowed the seeds of the present disaster. The success of daesh forces owes as much to the fact that they are largely led and peopled by former members of the Ba’athist Iraqi defence force as to the weakness and timidity of the current Iraqi army.
The fact is Iraq is a failed state, with the obvious consequence that the Iraqi army doesn’t know what it’s fighting for or where its loyalties lie. Daesh, on the other hand, know exactly what they stand for and what they’re attempting to achieve. They have strategic purpose.
For countries such as the US and Australia, to even contemplate deploying front line forces to defeat daesh reveals a profound misunderstanding of Clausewitz’s dictum ‘war is the continuation of policy by other means’. In the case of Iraq, there is simply no policy. How could governments justify the sacrifice of young Australians and Americans when even the Iraqis aren’t willing to stand and fight?
And in the case of the US and its partners in the Middle East, the absence of strategy is even more obvious. Indeed, the continued deployment of armed force—at an accumulated cost approaching a trillion dollars—is an indication of the powerlessness of the western allies rather than a sign of their strength.
The delivery of ordnance from 30 thousand feet and some gap-plugging training for what passes for an army in Iraq may appear to sanction the activities of various groups of irredentists, guerillas, militias and armed ‘death cults’. But far from solving the underlying problems, western military intervention actually exacerbates them by giving them focus and reason. The deployment of smart power in the form of a sustained diplomatic effort has a greater chance of success than the continued reliance on hard power.
In some surprising ways, Mesopotamia in 2015 resembles Europe at the beginning of the 17th century, when communities were locked into savage mutual slaughter in the name of God. It took the Treaty of Westphalia to end the Thirty Years War and introduce a measure of political stability based on rules. As it was in Europe then, so is it in Iraq and Syria now: the political leaders and the combatants need to call a truce, come to the table and forge the kinds of agreements that end the suffering and displacement of communities.
This might at least offer some hope that disaster does not become catastrophe.