A parallel proposition appears to apply in the Levant, where the only thing worse than a post-colonial order is a post-post-colonial order.
The underlying idea of post-WWI mandates in the Middle East—including the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1922, which replaced the formal British Mandate for Mesopotamia under the Covenant of the League of Nations—was that established powers would ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nascent powers until those regimes could stand on their own. In practice, it was imperfect; it was, in fact, badly abused. But it nevertheless represented the ideal of an international system of sovereign nations, the weakest and most insecure of which would be protected by the strongest and most stable.A longer analysis of the situation suggests the same proposition.
That system, based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, has more or less held the Middle East together for nearly a century, preventing the region from cracking up and descending into widespread civil and ethnic war. Last week, the system rapidly began to dissolve. In time, history may well judge that its dissolution was the direct result of negligence and inaction by the United States—whose de facto mandate over Iraq began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and whose erstwhile leaders simply threw it away.
To an extent, what is happening in the Middle East is what happens when America and the West suddenly lose interest. But for the US, the reasons for that new lack of interest are obvious. With America soon predicted to attain energy independence, why should the country continue to involve itself deeply in a region which has cost it so much in blood, treasure and international reputation? Why should the US 5th Fleet continue to attempt to maintain regional security in a continent whose regional resources are increasingly rewarding nobody so much as the Communist Party of China?But in that fracturing of Sykes-Picot, long held ambitions stir.
It was only as Syria fell apart and the regional powers were pulled inexorably into a more open battle, that the cold war between Iran and Saudi found its hot battleground.Ominous signs proliferate.
There are those who think that the region as a whole may be starting to go through something similar to what Europe went through in the early 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out. This is a conflict which is not only bigger than al-Qa’eda and similar groups, but far bigger than any of us. It is one which will re-align not only the Middle East, but the religion of Islam.
Certainly the sides remain fundamentally irreconcilable. As one of Saudi Arabia’s most important figures, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said on a recent visit to London, ‘Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the birthplace of Islam. As such, it is the eminent leader of the wider Muslim world. Iran portrays itself as the leader of not just the minority Shiite world, but of all Muslim revolutionaries interested in standing up to the West.’Left unanswered: whether the fighting will be confined to the proxies (as was mostly the case during the Cold War) or whether the regional powers will come to blows.
It is only two years ago that the Iranians attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The plan was thwarted only because the two suspects — an Iranian-American and an officer from Iran’s Quds Force — unwittingly connected with an informant from US Drug Enforcement Administration. Of course Iranian officials denied the assassination plot, but America’s attorney general, Eric Holder, announced at a press conference in Washington that the plot had been ‘directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds force which is an integral part of the Iranian government.’How bad can it get? It's already bad enough that Turkey's government now prefers an independent Kurdish state in what we still refer to as Iraq, and that state is cooperating with Turkey's government.
The war between Saudi and Iran has already reached America’s shores. It has been devastatingly fought out across Syria’s wasted land. In fact the only place where it has yet to strike meaningfully is on the soil of the main protagonists. If what has been happening so far looks bloody, it is the work of an Armageddon-ist to consider what will happen when those gloves come off. In a region replete with bitter rivalries and irreconcilable ambitions, that will be perhaps the ultimate clarification.
Kurdistan has exported its oil through Turkey, while the Iraqi Kurds have helped the Turks suppress the PKK. Experts thought until recently that this also involved a deeper trade: the Turks would back de facto Kurdish autonomy within Iraq, and in return, the Iraqi Kurds would make no claims on full independence, so as not to encourage Turkey’s Kurds to break away. From Turkey’s current pro-Kurdish stance in this crisis, and especially if emerging reports about the AKP’s stance are true, however, this may have just changed.Developing.
Washington may also be taking another look at the Kurdish question as Iraq falls apart. A newly-independent Kurdistan would likely be both anti-extremist and friendly to America. If Kurdish independence is a fact on the ground, and the Iraqis don’t think they can reverse it, what then is the White House’s plan? Where do US interests lie? Even by Middle Eastern standards, the future of Kurdistan is one of the most explosive questions out there. Washington needs to think fast, think hard, and keep in close touch with the Turks going forward.