Five brief lessons from a turbulent Middle Eastern summer

By Dr. André Barrinha

The world has been watching in shock as the until-recently-unknown Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) armed movement suddenly invaded a significant area of Iraq (after already controlling parts of the Syrian territory). An offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS ascent has raised questions about the political situation in Baghdad, and the way in which the US has dealt with Iraq’s nation-building process. More importantly, though, it has made us rethink some of our common notions of how international relations operate. In my view, there are five key aspects worth discussing:

1. Power is always limited in international relations. Arguably the most powerful state in human history, the US has a combined military, economic and diplomatic power that (still) dwarfs that of any other country in the planet. The Iraqi invasion cost Washington over $1 trillion, a value that is superior to the annual Gross Domestic Product of all but 15 countries in the world.

And yet, for all the US investment and involvement, Iraq is a much more unstable country now than it was in 2002. Many wrong decisions were taken since 2003, starting with the idea that Iraq only had a future with an immediate de-Ba’athisation of the country, i.e. the removal of anyone linked to Saddam Hussein’s party from any political and administrative position. Not only that led to a significant shortage of qualified cadres in the country, but it also contributed to the alienation of a Sunni population (which the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki certainly reinforced) that is now (at least) partly supportive of ISIS. That said, it is far from clear that even if some of those mistakes had been prevented, Iraq would now be a stable and prosperous country. For instance, although ISIS was formed in response to US interventionism in the region, its current success is intimately linked with Syria’s civil war.

2. Brutal dictators will always lead to brutal outcomes, whether removed by force or left to stay in power. The 2003 US intervention was based on a manufactured lie that had tremendous human and financial costs. That said, the end of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime was a positive outcome of a poorly planned and wrongly motivated intervention. For decades he had provided order, but one that came at a particularly high price for his people. Thinking that had Saddam Hussein been left to stay in power things would now be different is an illusion, as it can be proved by what is happening with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. Mirroring its Iraqi version, Syria’s Ba’athist regime was solid and based on a highly repressive security apparatus. When the revolutionary winds of the so-called Arab Spring challenged the regime’s authority, the once ‘stable’ Syria degenerated into a protracted civil war to which there is no end in sight. Iraq and Syria prove that neither the forceful removal of dictators nor the expectation that if they remain power order and progressive change might ensue will necessarily produce positive results.

3. There is no such thing as a non-intervention. Traumatised by the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US and its Western allies have approached the Syrian conflict with great caution, promoting the use of diplomatic channels and the indirect support of rebel movements instead of an active, and direct involvement in the conflict. As it has become quite clear in Syria, once an armed conflict unfolds, any external involvement will always benefit one side over another. In that context, the question is never whether to intervene but rather how to intervene. Doing nothing is not an option; it is a form of intervention.

4. Applying the label ‘terrorist’ to any non-state armed group in the Middle East might not be particularly helpful. Corporate-level organisation, heavy military equipment, strong financial resources. Would the word ‘terrorist’ be applied to a movement with these features if instead of operating in the Middle East, it was operating in Central Africa? And what is the usefulness of a concept that is applied to movements with goals and means as different as the IRA in Ireland, the Red Brigades in Italy (during the 1970s) or Hamas in Palestine? ISIS is the latest example that is probably time we move away from the ‘terrorist’ label. As proved over and over again, today’s terrorists will probably be tomorrow’s political interlocutors, ISIS included.

5. Old colonial borders might be about to change. Turkey seems willing to see an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq, Syria is unlikely to ever return to its pre-2012 borders and the same might be happening with the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq. The international society’s obsession with territorial sovereignty is intimately related with the strong need of an ordered international system. As recent conflicts in the Middle East have been recently demonstrating, maybe sustaining that order is no longer possible in the face of increasing cultural, religious and ethnic pressures that cut across national borders. The question then is: shall this process happen ‘organically’ or should external powers attempt to ‘guide’ it? The latter option would presuppose a consensus between the major international and regional powers, something that seems highly unlikely in our current international political context.

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