Back to the caliphate

Sectarian identities seem to be proving stronger than the Levant states.

al-monitor A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, speaks during his first public appearance at a mosque in Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

saddam hussein, islamic state, iraq, history, arabism

Jul 11, 2014

Arab politicians, mainly Sunnis and followed by other Islamic sects, whether in power or in the opposition, as well as Christians in general, have woken up to the Islamic State phenomenon (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS). They used to describe ISIS as “armed gangs,” but now IS has declared statehood in Iraq and Syria and named its leader the caliph of Islam.

That declaration upended the entire Levant, especially since IS quickly took over Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, whose population is close to 3 million if the suburbs are included. This filled the large “vacuum” from Raqqa in eastern Syria to Tikrit in northeastern Iraq.

The Kurds directly benefited from the breakdown of the central authority in Baghdad. They immediately grabbed Kirkuk province and started intimating that they would declare independence in their own “state,” an old Kurdish dream.

Disputes erupted inside the central authority in Baghdad, politically and religiously. Iran, Turkey, the United States and Russia awoke to a new danger that threatens to shred the region’s map. The Gulf states were shaken, and Saudi Arabia saw the new threat creeping from the north.

There was renewed talk about new maps for the region in light of the new threat: an Islamic state that would erase the border between “the states spawned by colonial countries.”

Advanced countries have long resolved the debate over the state and its system: The republics are republics, kingdoms are kingdoms, and change, when it happens, targets the rule, not the state or the system itself. But in the Arab countries, the nature of the “state” is still a matter of contention.

Some wanted a “unity,” in which mainly the Levant countries that were created by the colonial powers would merge. Others wanted regionalism that is fortified with sectarianism. Between these two desires, some started justifying the colonial “interest” by finding fake historical justifications to consecrate the de facto states.

There’s no historical state called Iraq, nor one called Syria, or Lebanon. Those words were used to describe locations, not national identities. Also, there was no state in the Arabian Peninsula, nor on the shores of the Gulf extending from Shatt al-Arab to the Strait of Hormuz, where three countries (Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar) were established, as well as Oman, which always had different features.

Babylon is not today’s Iraq. The Hittites and the Assyrians did not have a “state” — in today’s sense of the word: a specific political entity — even though they had swept the whole Levant and expanded their empires by occupying other peoples’ lands.

In the era before Islam, the Levant — specifically most of the so-called “Fertile Crescent,” i.e., Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and part of today’s Iraq — came under the rule of the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Byzantines. When Islam came and spread in the entire Arab region, the state of Islam under the Umayyad dynasty was an empire whose capital was Damascus. Then, with the Abbasid state, the capital became Baghdad. Then the caliphate withered away and was inherited by the Mamluks and the Seljuks, till the Ottoman dynasty came and built their empire under the Islamic banner and the Ottoman sultan.

The “states” that we know in the Levant are less than a hundred years old. They were established by colonial powers and weren’t created, in their current borders, by the will of their people, but rather according to the interests of foreign countries that have dominated the region after the defeat of Turkey and Germany in World War I.

The borders of the Levant countries were drawn according to the victors’ interests, and they have remained a matter of dispute till the compromises among the victors succeeded in cutting up the map to suit their purposes. Thus, for example, Mosul, which was claimed by Turkey, was given to Iraq instead of Syria, and Iskenderun was given to Turkey after it was carved out of Syria.

Because the interests of the colonial powers determined the borders of the nascent countries, there was an explosive problem between Iraq and Kuwait. Kuwait, along with its oil, was carved out of Iraq and a settlement was imposed almost by force when the state of Kuwait was proclaimed. The whole world intervened, and the position of Gamal Abdel Nasser was crucial: He refused unity by force.

There was also a border problem with Saudi Arabia, a problem caused by oil. To solve that problem, they invented the so-called neutral zone and agreed on an interim solution that is still in effect.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created by the sword, oil and the intersection of foreign interests. The kingdom ended up having a vast land area and ​​enormous wealth compared to the rest of the Levant. The ruling family was left to handle internal matters after an understanding was reached regarding the oil, in accordance with a US decision.

It is obvious that Yemen, which remained abandoned to its imam in the Middle Ages, after a bitter war with the Saudis, has remained out of memory. South Yemen was a group of very poor sultanates and sheikhdoms. Aden was a British base that overlooked the intersection of the sea facing it.

For further clarification: The colonial powers planted the causes of discord among the countries that they founded over the heads of the people, confident that these countries contain the seeds of collision in their maps and in the divisions of their people, in their religions, sects and denominations, and most importantly in their clans, which were divided over three or four countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria).

Of course, there have been popular objections to these divisions, but generally they were too weak to prevent them. The Shiites in Iraq refused to participate in the government under the British Mandate, thus the government was constructed without them. They effectively stayed outside the decision-making circle until the 1958 revolution. Then they entered it symbolically through the Arab Socialist Baath Party. But their sense of injustice and marginalization remained. It may well have worsened during the wars waged by Saddam Hussein on Iran over seven years (1980-1987), then against Kuwait to return it to its mother country Iraq (1990-1991). That war ended with the United States occupying Iraq’s south and threatening its capital.

After that, the Americans falsely claimed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. So, they and other parties invaded Iraq, captured Saddam and most of his associates, military and party members. They sentenced him to death and handed him over to agitated Shiite groups, who hanged him amid an ugly demonstration that would provoke even a stone. This was done to inflame tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. Then the occupation completed its work by handing over power to the Shiites on the pretext that they had been deprived of it.

Iraq also had a Kurdish problem, a manifestation of a historical and geographical injustice. The Kurds were distributed over three countries: Iran, Iraq and Turkey, with a minority in Syria. Their geographic reality and the control of the region’s decision-making by colonial powers have denied the Kurds a national state. The Arabs of Iraq were relatively more merciful toward the Kurds because they allowed the Kurds autonomy in their region in northern Iraq within the Iraqi state. Turkey was not happy about this decision because there are more Kurds in Turkey than in Iraq. It’s the same case for Iran.

Israel saw in the Kurdish bitterness and the US occupation an opportunity to penetrate the Kurdish north. Also, the Shiites were thirsty for power and wanted revenge against those who denied them that power. So, there was a divide between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and the latter wanted compensation for the past.

Thus, the government in Iraq was made unstable. The American occupation — using the Shiite thirst for power and the Sunni sense that they have been excluded from the decision-making — planted the seeds for strife. The Shiites were accused of dominating the government. The Kurds controlled their own decision-making in their area and received more than their fair share in the central government (the president, many ministers, most notably the Foreign Ministry and high posts in the army and security forces). The Sunnis were treated as a minority, carrying Saddam’s sins. Moreover, neighboring countries didn’t want a strong Iraq.

The net result was an ongoing crisis, in addition to corruption, bribery and theft of national wealth. The Kurds gained their share and took from the central government more than their fair share by playing a dual game: They were sometimes Kurds and sometimes Sunnis.

The central government became weaker. Corruption helped the remnants of the Sunni opposition raise their voice in objection, accusing the Shiites of trying to avenge historical wrongs by targeting the Sunnis.

When war broke out in Syria, a war that lasted for a long time, and when the Syrian government abandoned several parts of the country, most notably in the east on the border of Iraq, an excellent opportunity presented itself to anyone who wanted to get out from under the central government in Baghdad.

So, where do we go from here?

This region will certainly go through an era of bloody turmoil with unpredictable outcomes, especially given Egypt’s absence, Saudi Arabia’s fear and the dispute between Washington and Tehran over the sharing of influence.

And where are the Arabs in all this?

Good question.

More from  Talal Salman

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