The Middle East as maps still show it in atlases and globes, schoolbooks and Foreign Office corridors, no longer exists. It has vanished under our noses in less than five years. The consequences range from the serious to the disastrous. Yet Western policymakers still act as if they could put Humpty Dumpty together again. Here’s a guide to what is wrong and what should be fixed in Western foreign policy.
Error number one: the collapse of the regional order into sectarian mayhem is not something that can be contained or ignored. The flood of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean or overwhelming absorption centres on Greek and Italian islands is not going to stop until order is restored in the lands they are escaping from, and the Islamic State, or ISIS, will not lose its appeal to restive young European Muslims until it is defeated.
Error number two: borders are neither sacred nor eternal. Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have ceased to exist since 2011. These countries have disintegrated under the weight of ethnic and religious divisions, sectarianism and civil war. To a varying degree, all four central governments have melted away — existing only on paper or as warlords of a small portion of what were once their now lost domains. Western policy should acknowledge this reality rather than insist that the territorial integrity of these states can somehow be reconstituted. It should identify those forces across these territories that are likeliest to side with Western interests — and support them.
Error number three: rather than propping up friends and likeminded allies, the West is relying on its enemies to do its bidding, under the grand illusion that the interests of countries like Iran and Turkey somehow align with Western ones. By doing so, it is empowering forces that are inimical to Western goals.
How does one fix these errors?
Europe can invest as much taxpayer money as it wants on chasing smugglers’ boats across the Mediterranean. But rather than blocking the refugees at the water’s edge in North Africa, it should realise that bringing an end to civil war in the region is a more salutary and cost-effective approach to the crisis. These refugees are escaping from war and will continue to come until the war is over.
This requires working out what can be fixed and what will stay broken. Iraq and Syria no longer exist and we should stop pretending they do. In their wake, four entities are emerging: ISIS, Iranian proxies, a hodgepodge of moderate pro-Western and Islamic forces, and the Kurds.
The West should invest more energy crushing ISIS. Since August 7, 2014, when Operation Inherent Resolve (codenamed by the British as Operation Shader) began, the number of air sorties launched and targets hit has been disappointing. The operation was spurred by the conquest of Mosul, in June 2014, by ISIS fighters. A year later, ISIS controls not only Mosul, but Ramadi and Fallujah too. Despite official insistence that ISIS is losing ground, it is not inconceivable that its fighters could take Baghdad before long. Yet they are not irresistible.
In the north-east, where it is fighting the Kurdish Peshmerga, ISIS is in retreat, despite the Kurds having insufficient military equipment. What the Kurds do not have in hardware, they make up in ingenuity and resolve. They are defending their homes and land and are determined not to lose. Western equipment is slow in coming because of fears that a sweeping Kurdish victory would create the conditions for the establishment of a Kurdish state. Turkey might be destabilised as a result. Western governments, all Nato partners of Ankara, thus prefer to prop up an increasingly authoritarian Turkish president, despite his support for Islamists in Syria, rather than give political and military backing to the stridently pro-Western Kurds, who, among other merits, are open-minded, tolerant of minorities, and respectful of women.
Western leaders increasingly believe that Iran can fix the problem for them. After eight years of fighting in Iraq, Americans are understandably weary of military adventures in Mesopotamia. Europeans were never enthusiastic to begin with. It is tempting to see Iran, given its commitment to Baghdad’s Shia-led government, fighting ISIS with more vigour and resolve than the Iraqis themselves. What Western policymakers do not see is that Iran is not fighting ISIS over some theological dispute. After all, in Syria, Iran’s proxy Bashar al-Assad has prudently avoided clashing with ISIS while ISIS has mostly battled Assad’s other Sunni foes, rather than the regime, since it came to the fore. Iran only fights those who interfere with its ambitions — and ISIS’s Iraqi operations threaten Tehran’s clients. Otherwise, Iran is perfectly content to find a modus vivendi with ISIS.
The West should thus see Iranian proxies as no less implacable a foe than ISIS. They serve Iran’s goal of dominating the region, not its nonexistent generosity toward those threatened by Sunni radicals. After all, Iran has funded and armed the Taliban in Afghanistan against the West, and Hamas in Gaza against Israel. What drives Iran is a desire not to deepen the Sunni-Shia divide.
It is tempting to pretend that the mayhem unleashed by the Arab Spring will somehow not affect us. It will. It already does. Unless suitable resources are committed and there is more direct involvement in solving these conflicts to the advantage of more moderate forces, the region’s chaos will spill over into areas that are vital to our own interests. When that happens, the cost of reversing the consequences of this tragedy will be much more significant.