Patrick Cockburn writes: The Syrian civil war is spreading. This, not well-publicised advances or withdrawals on the battlefield, is the most important new development. Political leaders in the region see the dangers more intensely than the rest of the world. ‘Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish the other off,’ Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said earlier this year. ‘If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq.’ Of these countries, the most vulnerable is Lebanon, given the division between Sunni and Shia, a weak state, porous borders and proximity to heavily populated areas of Syria. A country of four million people has already taken in half a million Syrian refugees, most of them Sunnis.
In Iraq, the Syrian civil war has reignited a sectarian conflict that never entirely ended. The destabilising of his country that Maliki predicted in the event of an opposition victory has already begun. The overthrow of Saddam brought to power a Shia-Kurdish government that displaced Sunni rule dating back to the foundation of the Iraqi state in 1921. It is this recently established status quo that is now under threat. The revolt of the Sunni majority in Syria is making the Sunni minority in Iraq feel that the regional balance is swinging in their favour. They started to demonstrate in December, modelling their protests on the Arab Spring. They wanted reform rather than revolution, but to the Shia majority the demonstrations appeared to be part of a frighteningly powerful Sunni counter-offensive across the Middle East. The Baghdad government equivocated until 23 April, when a military force backed by tanks crushed a sit-in protest in the main square of Hawijah, a Sunni town south-west of Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people including eight children. Since then local Sunni leaders who had previously backed the Iraqi army against the Kurds have been demanding that it leave their provinces. Iraq may be disintegrating.
The feeling that the future of whole states is in doubt is growing across the Middle East – for the first time since Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. ‘It is the end of Sykes-Picot,’ I was told repeatedly in Iraq; the reference was to the agreement of 1916 which divided up the spoils between Britain and France and was the basis for later treaties. Some are jubilant at the collapse of the old order, notably the thirty million Kurds who were left without a state of their own after the Ottoman collapse and are now spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. They feel their moment has come: they are close to independence in Iraq and are striking a deal with the Turkish government for political rights and civil equality. In March, the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK declared an end to their thirty-year war with the Turkish government and started withdrawing into the mountains of northern Iraq. The 2.5 million Kurds in northern Syria, 10 per cent of the population, have assumed control of their towns and villages and are likely to demand a high degree of autonomy from any postwar Syrian government.
What will the new order in the Middle East look like? This should be Turkey’s great moment in the region: it has a powerful military, a prospering economy and a well-established government. It is allied to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in supporting the Syrian opposition and is on good terms with the US. But these are dangerous waters to fish in. Three years ago, Ankara was able to deal peaceably with Syria, Iraq and Iran, but now it has poisonous relations with all three. Engagement in Syria on the side of the rebels isn’t popular at home and the government is clearly surprised that the conflict hasn’t yet ended. There are signs that the violence is spilling over Turkey’s 510-mile frontier with Syria, across which insurgent groups advance and retreat at will. On 11 May, two bombs in a Turkish border town killed 49 people, almost all Turkish. An angry crowd of Turks marched down the main street chanting ‘kill the Syrians’ as they assaulted Syrian shopkeepers. Arab politicians wonder whether the Turks know what they are getting into and how they will handle it. ‘The Turks are big on rhetoric but often disappointing when it comes to operational ability,’ one Arab leader says. ‘The Iranians are just the opposite.’ The recent deal between the government and Turkey’s Kurds could easily unravel. A long war in Syria could open up divisions in Turkey just as it is doing elsewhere.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it changed the overall balance of power and destabilised every country in the region. The same thing is happening again, except that the impact of the Syrian war is likely to be less easily contained. [Continue reading…]