How is the Middle East likely to change as a result of the ISIS operation in Iraq? And could it be a coincidence that the emerging new Middle East landscape is strikingly similar to the so-called Peters Map, first published by the Armed Forces Journal in June 2006? The Voice of Russia is discussing the consequences of the ISIS push in Iraq with Halil Karaveli, senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
With the Islamic State of Sham declaring a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq, other states start to feel the heat. In one of As the Foreign Policy magazine would have it, “if ISIS attacks Jordan, neither the United States, nor Israel will be able to stay out of the fray.”
The Washington Post, following what now appears to be a tradition, has come down on the CIA in a story entitled “CIA blew it in Iraq, blamed for failing to warn about rise of Islamic State.”
Has the ISIS operation really come as a surprise for the US top brass? And what consequences could it have for the region?
Says Halil Karavelli, senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center:
We should, first of all, state the obvious, which is that we have the ongoing disintegration of the states in the ME. The Arab Spring, if anyone still remembers it, three years ago gave rise to big hopes. And now we are actually seeing the results of the so-called Arab Spring, together with other developments that took place before that.
And the general pattern throughout the ME is that the states that were established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the WWI, that system of states is now rapidly breaking down. We’ve seen that in Libya, which is in a state of chaos. We’ve seen it of course in Syria, which has de facto ceased to exist as a functioning state after the civil war. Now, in Iraq we see the same thing happening.
The rise of the militant group – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (actually, I recently heard that they now changed their name to just the Islamic State) – it signifies the final breakup of Iraq in three pieces. One Sunni piece, another Kurdish piece and the leftover Shiite piece.
Of course, these divides were already apparent after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. And for a couple of years it seemed that Iraq would be able to patch the country together. But the rise of the rise of the Islamic State signifies, I would say, the final, the definite breakup of the Iraqi state.
And we are also simultaneously seeing that de facto the borders in the region are becoming blurred. De facto there is no more a border between Syria and Iraq, because the Islamic State, which recently proclaimed caliphate, straddles Syria and Iraq. So, for them, that border in the sand, in the desert doesn’t mean anything.
This is the general pattern. Once again, Syria has broken up and ceased to exist as a state, and Iraq has also ceased to exist as a unitary state. This is in general a chaotic situation in the Middle East and no one is in a position today to predict where this is headed, other than it will be a very troublesome time ahead.
What kind of fate do you see for smaller Gulf kingdoms?
They may not be immediately threatened, although, of course, they have played a hand in what is happening, because, as you know, especially Qatar has been highly instrumental in enflaming the sectarian fire in Syria by its support to the Sunni insurgents there.
I would be more concerned in the short-term about the fate of Jordan. There is a strong jihadi presence in Jordan already. And the news is that the next aim of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is to take over Jordan as well. So, I will not be surprised to see the disturbances occurring in Jordan in the coming weeks or months, definitely.
When it comes to the smaller Gulf states, as I said, I don’t see that they are immediately threatened. Although, of course, the big question mark, as always, is the fate of Saudi Arabia, because Saudi Arabia, I would suspect, without having any clear evidence about that, but the circumstantial evidence I would say points to the Saudi involvement in what is happening today in Iraq and Syria.
Of course, we know that the Saudis have been financing the Sunni rebellion in Syria. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there are links between the Saudis and the Islamic State that has risen in Iraq and Syria now, because the Saudis’ game is to counter the influence of Iran. And the takeover of the Iraqi state after the fall of Saddam Hussein by the Shiite majority there was a huge blow to Saudi Arabia in terms of its geopolitical status versus Iran.
So, the Saudis have been actively fomenting troubles in Iraq ever since. And the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would not have been possible, I believe, without the active support of Saudi Arabia, and also the indirect support, which this jihadi group has benefitted from, from Turkey.
But, at the same time, going back to Saudi Arabia, it itself is a highly unstable country. Actually, the Saudi dynasty sits at the top of a volcano that is going at some point to erupt. And with the sectarian fire now spreading throughout the Middle East and the state systems breaking down in one state after another, no state in the region can actually count on being untouched by what is happening. Of course, Jordan is on the frontline, Saudi Arabia will be very much affected by what is going on, and Turkey is also going to be very much affected by what is going on.
Okay, you are saying that the whole situation with the ISIS in Iraq is going to have repercussions in Turkey too. What kind of repercussions?
To be honest, it is impossible to say that today. What I’m just saying is that we can observe that the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu a couple of days ago for the first time admitted that a huge crisis is – as he said – at our door, and we as neighbours are going to be affected, are already feeling the effects of what is happening.
In material terms, Syria together with Iraq, they were important export markets for Turkey. Turkey has of course totally lost Syria since the civil war erupted. And now, with the rise of the ISIS and the total instability in Iraq, Turkey is said to lose billions of dollars in export earnings, because the Turkish trucks no longer go through Iraq as they used to.
So, in material terms, the Turkish economy is going to be affected or is already affected by the fact that Iraq as a market has been lost due to the instability or the war there.
And when it comes to the sectarian situation, the Turkish Government, although it denies this, it is still a well-known fact that the rise of the jihadi movement in Syria, especially, would not have been possible without the Turkish active or passive support, because these jihadists were able to travel across the Turkish border over to Syria and they could also freely cross that border back to Turkey to get medical treatment. So, Turkey, in a sense, served as a base for the jihadi movement in Syria, because Turkey, as we know, was trying to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Now, Turkey has of course realized that now the jihadi groups have become too powerful and may pose a threat to it. So, now Turkey is trying to shut that border. It has declared Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization. And Prime Minister Erdogan just a few days ago asked the governments of the EU to stop jihadists from traveling from Europe through Turkey. So, Turkey realizes that this is the threat, which, in turn, raises the aspect that the jihadists are going to punish Turkey, because it withdraws its support to them.
So, Turkey is in the same situation as Pakistan versus the Taliban. Pakistan has supported the Taliban, because it served its geopolitical and strategic interests in Afghanistan. But, at the same time, Pakistan has created a monster that is now heading back at Pakistan itself, which is pursuing its own agenda in Pakistan.
It has not gone that far, of course, in Turkey and we don’t know if it ever will, but still, Turkey has contributed to creating a Sunni-Jihadi monster. Now, that that monster can stand on its own feet, it has become unmanageable. You never know what that monster might attempt to do.
There have been a few incidents of terrorism in Turkey as well, which have been related to the jihadists emanating from Syria. So, this is absolutely something that the Turkish Government is very much concerned about. It is not as the sectarian Sunnis hitting Sunnis in that sense, but this jihadi element has made the southern borders of Turkey totally unmanageable. So, in that sense, that instability itself poses a threat to Turkey and, of course, to all other countries in the region.
You also said that one of the main trends is the disappearance of national borders. And in this situation, how is Israel going to survive?
This is a very interesting question. I just know that before we started our interview, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Kurdish independence should be supported, that the Kurds have earned their right to become independent and that the creation of the Kurdish state in the Middle East would serve the purpose of moderation in the region.
This is very interesting, because we know that for decades Israel has supported the Kurds in Iraq. And it is a very interesting statement coming today from Israel. Just a few days ago the leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq Barzani said that they are going to hold a referendum in a couple of months deciding the question of their independence.
So, clearly, the Kurds in Iraq, they already enjoyed the de facto independence, they are headed towards the full independence. And the support that Israel gives is very interesting.
Of course, the whole situation poses multiple dangers for Israel. The mere fact that large parts of the Middle East, the territories of the former states of Syria and Iraq have now come under the control of the Islamic Sate, that you have a huge jihadi presence in the heart of the Middle East, which has never ever been the case…remember, al-Qaeda was born out of Afghanistan from where they were able to launch 9/11 and unsettle the whole international order. The jihadi movement has been defeated in Afghanistan, but it has moved its center to the Middle East. It is actually de facto on the borders of the eastern Mediterranean. It stretches from the eastern Mediterranean to Mesopotamia.
And it is in a position, as I just said, Saudi Arabia is supporting the jihadi movement, because that serves its purposes against the Shiite Iran, but eventually, the creation or the strengthening of the Islamic State in the Middle East is also going to pose a threat to Saudi Arabia itself, just as it was the case with al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia supported the beginning of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Eventually, that became a big challenge to Saudi interests as well.
So, we are seeing now, going back to Israel, that Israel is in a desperate need of creating moderate states in the region, as Netanyahu says –moderate forces. And I think the calculus that the Kurds might serve Israel’s interests is correct. So, Israel is going to try to help establish an independent Kurdistan. And, of course, that in turn is going to have other repercussions as well, especially when it comes to the territorial integrity of Turkey.
That is an apocalyptical scenario we are witnessing.
Generally, it is extremely complicated. It is mind-numbing, it is confusing. But the general thing to keep in mind is that we have one sectarian dynamics in motion. We have two separatist dynamics, mainly the Kurdish dynamic in motion. And we have the disappearance of the states. Syria and Iraq have de facto disappeared as the states. We have to state that as a fact today. And they are not going to come back and many different new states are going to come in their place.
Syria is going to break up into three or four states, we don’t know. Iraq is already split into, as I said, three states. And the question is – what is going to happen to Turkey? Is Turkey going to be able to maintain its territorial integrity in a region where huge shift dynamics has been set in motion? Honestly, I doubt it. I don’t think that Turkey will be able to cope with the emergence of an independent Kurdistan without this affecting its own territorial integrity.
So, the whole Middle East is breaking up and the sole part of the Middle East that is stable, if you could call it that way, is Egypt, where a bloody dictatorship has been established and the threat of the Islamic militants has been crushed, but at a huge price.
Doesn’t it actually remind you of that famous map of the greater Middle East with fragmented states?
And the crucial question, as always, with all this turmoil, do you think we could somehow trace someone who stands to benefit from it? Who is to benefit? Obviously, those are not the ISIS, which are merely an instrument, right?
Yes, they are.
Every other state in the Middle East seems to lose.
This is a situation which easily gives a rise to conspiracy theories, of course. And I believe that a lot of people in the Middle East are going to conclude that the US and Israel are behind this pulling the strings.
But I would say that this is an out-of-control situation. A lot of actors are playing here now. Turkey is playing there, Iran is playing, Saudi Arabia is playing, Israel is paying. They are all in their turn contributing something into this big fire, but there is no big master that controls things. And I would say there is no big winner in this game at all. No one is going to win, but everyone is potentially at risk and everyone is going to feel the catastrophic effects of what is happening.
To recapitulate, Saudi Arabia itself faces the very real risk of disintegrating, because, in the long run, the situation in Saudi Arabia is unmanageable for the Saudi dynasty. Jordan is of course a state that has long been a candidate for disappearance and it will do that eventually. Syria and Iraq have already disappeared as states. And Turkey faces a huge risk that it will lose part of its Kurdish areas, as a result of the emergence of independent Kurdistan. And of course, Turkey will also feel the effects of the rise of Sunni radicalism.
We don’t know how those consequences will look, but if you look at the sectarian fault lines that run through Turkey, Turkey is also a divided country between a Sunni majority and a huge Alawite minority. The Alawites are related to the Shiites. And of course, the big question I would say when it comes to Turkey, is how all this sectarian dynamics eventually going to affect the Sunni-Alawite conflict or polarization in Turkey.
So, that is also something. Turkey is within the pool of the Kurdish dynamics and it is also affected by this sectarian Sunni-Shiite dynamics. Basically, these dynamics are going to control the actors in the Middle East and no one stands to benefit from this. When I look around, I can only see losers or at least actors who are going to be very negatively affected and who will be at risk for many years to come.