Ever since Francis Fukuyama argued, more than two decades ago, that the world had reached the end of history, history has made the world hold its breath. China’s rise, the Balkan wars, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the global financial crisis of 2008, the “Arab Spring, ” and the Syrian civil war all belie Fukuyama’s vision of the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. In fact, history could be said to have come full circle in the space of a quarter-century, from the fall of communism in Europe in 1989 to renewed confrontation between Russia and the West.
But it is in the Middle East that history is at work on a daily basis and with the most dramatic consequences. The old Middle East, formed out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, is clearly falling apart, owing, in no small part, to America’s actions in this conflict-prone region.
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The United States’ original sin was its military invasion of Iraq in 2003 under President George W. Bush. The “neoconservatives” in power at the time were oblivious to the need to fill the power vacuum both in Iraq and the region following the removal of Saddam Hussein. President Barack Obama’s hasty, premature military withdrawal constituted a second US failure.
America’s withdrawal, nearly coinciding with the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the eruption of the Syrian civil war, and its persistent passivity as the regional force for order, now threatens to lead to the disintegration of Iraq, owing to the rapid advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including its capture of the country’s second-largest city, Mosul. Indeed, with ISIS in control of most of the area northwest of Baghdad, the border between Iraq and Syria has essentially ceased to exist. Many of their neighbors’ borders may also be redrawn by force. An already massive humanitarian disaster seems certain to become worse.
Should ISIS succeed in establishing a permanent state-like entity in parts of Iraq and Syria, the disintegration of the region would accelerate, the US would lose its “global war on terror, ” and world peace would be seriously threatened. But even without an ISIS terror state, the situation remains extremely unstable, because the Syrian civil war is proving to be highly contagious. In fact, “civil war” is a misnomer, because events there have long entailed a struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional predominance, powered by the age-old conflict between Islam’s Sunni majority and Shia minority.
The Kurds form another unstable component of the Ottoman legacy. Divided among several Middle Eastern countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey – the Kurds have been fighting for their own state for decades. Nonetheless, they have shown great restraint in northern Iraq since Saddam’s fall, contenting themselves with building up their autonomous province both economically and politically – to the point that it is independent in all but name, with a strong and experienced army in the Peshmerga militia.
The advance of ISIS and its capture of Mosul have now resolved, in one fell swoop, all territorial disputes between the central government and the Kurdish regional government in favor of the latter, particularly regarding the city of Kirkuk. Following the Iraqi army’s retreat, the Peshmerga promptly took over the city, giving the Kurdish north ample oil and gas reserves. Moreover, neighboring Iran and Turkey, as well as the US, will urgently need the Peshmerga’s support against ISIS. Thus, an unexpected window of opportunity has opened for the Kurds to achieve full independence, though their dependence on good relations with both Turkey and Iran for access to global markets will moderate their political ambitions.
Moreover, with its invasion of Iraq, the US opened the door to regional hegemony for Iran and initiated a dramatic shift in its own regional alliances, the long-term effects of which – including the current nuclear negotiations with the Iranian government – are now becoming apparent. Both sides are fighting the same jihadists, who are supported by America’s supposed allies, the Sunni-ruled Gulf states. Though the US and Iran remain opposed to official cooperation, the wheels have been set in motion, with direct bilateral talks becoming routine.
One key question for the future is whether Jordan, which plays a key function in the region’s equilibrium, will survive the geopolitical shifts unscathed. If it does not, the entire balance of power in the traditional Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could collapse. The consequences would most likely be far-reaching, if difficult to assess in advance.
For Europe, developments in the Middle East pose two major risks: returning jihadi fighters who threaten to bring the terror with them, and a spillover of their extremist ideas to parts of the Balkans. In the interest of their own security, the European Union and its member states will be compelled to pay much closer attention to southeastern Europe than they have until now.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2014