It appears Iraq and Syria, dubbed the “twins” by Thomas Friedman, probably cannot be restored to their previously defined borders:
There is much talk right now about America teaming up with Iran to push back the coalition of Sunni militias that has taken over Mosul and other Sunni towns in western Iraq and Syria. For now, I’d say stay out of this fight — not because it’s the best option, but because it’s the least bad.
After all, what is the context in which we’d be intervening? Iraq and Syria are twins: multiethnic and multisectarian societies that have been governed, like other Arab states, from the top-down. First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralized fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and later by iron-fisted nationalist kings and dictators.
Today, the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone and now many of the kings and dictators are gone. We removed Iraq’s dictator; NATO and tribal rebels removed Libya’s; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some people in Syria have tried to topple theirs. Each country is now faced with the challenge of trying to govern itself horizontally by having the different sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.
In Iraq, the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the U.S. in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally — chose instead, from the moment the Americans left, to empower Iraqi Shiites and disempower Iraqi Sunnis. It’s no surprise that Iraqi Sunnis decided to grab their own sectarian chunk of the country.
So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another. It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics from the ground up — a generational project for which there are no volunteers.
Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogeneous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey. It will happen when they want to or when they have exhausted all other options. Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.
The U.S. does not support an independent Kurdistan, instead favoring Iraqi reunification. I believe this position stems from perceived “sunk costs”; the U.S. invested so much into nation building in Iraq, supporting Kurdish independence would mean admitting the Iraq war was a failure (something most American’s have already done, but politicians are still reluctant to do). Fighting for a unified Iraq at this point seems like a lost cause, but the obvious alternative, supporting Kurdistan, could be used as political ammo in the 2014 midterm elections. In sum, while Kurdish independence may be the best alternative for those committed to democracy and pluralism in the Middle-East, it may not be best for American politicians, and that alone could hold back any independence movement for the time being.
Both Israel and Turkey have voiced support for Kurdish autonomy (although they have backed away from those statements in the following days), and it is not difficult to see why. The Kurd’s have historically promoted many values consistent with “modern” societies; democracy, human rights, inclusion, gender equality, etc.
Equally as telling are Kurdistan’s detractor’s, notably Egypt’s President Sisi. Sisi publicly stated on Sunday that Kurdish independence would be “catastrophic”, empowering ISIS militants. However, he offers no actual evidence to support his claim. Kurdistan, for the reasons listed above, represents a threat to both the Islamic State’s (formerly ISIS / ISIL) and Sisi’s brands of authoritarianism.
Kurdistan would be another reliable ally in the Middle East alongside Israel. The success of Kurdistan would show that a Muslim, Middle Eastern, pluralistic democratic state can exist, and revitalize democratic movements in the region. Turkey is too “European”, Tunisia is small (and not landlocked), Egypt has slid back into authoritarianism, and Syria and Iraq coming apart at the seams; the legacy of the “Arab Spring” revolutions may ultimately rest in the in the success or failure of Kurdistan.
And while the timing for Kurdish autonomy may not be right for American politicians, it is right for the Kurds, and that is ultimately of more importance. The Kurds have recently gained control of the Kurikut oil field, adding financial viability to a future Kurdistan. When determining which regimes to support, Thomas Friedman talked about “islands of decency” in the Middle East, a call I echoed in a recent blog. The Kurd’s are planning a referendum for independence “within a matter of months”; the U.S. and other democratic powers must be ready to stand by our Kurdish partners with this referendum takes place.