After years of war, it appears that Iraq and Syria are gradually stabilizing. The government forces supported by the US and Russia respectively are restoring their control over the two countries, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost virtually all of its territory. Yet, this may just be an ephemeral peace. The social and economic foundations of the two states remain shaky at best, and many issues are still unsettled; notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the future of the Kurds. Without a comprehensive action to solve such questions, peace in Iraq and Syria will not be achieved on a solid basis.
I’m your host Kasim, welcome to another KJ Vid. In this video we will discuss the future of Iraq and Syria. Just before we begin, we would like to invite you to our Patreon account where you can get the full reports and other perks for our content. Supporting us on Patreon helps to keep our channel independent and create more videos.
Iraq and Syria in chaos
Iraq has been ravaged by conflict with practically no interruption since the US invasion in 2003. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime destabilized the country and resulted in a long insurgency against the occupying American forces. Progress in state-building was slow and limited in scope. The US ultimately withdrew its troops from the country in 2011 by a decision of then-President Barack Obama; but Iraq was still too weak to ensure the authority of the central government over all of the territory. In the same year, the Arab Spring broke out all over the Middle East. In Syria, it rapidly degenerated into a violent civil war opposing the loyalists to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels; a broad term indicating various armed groups of different affiliation, ranging from those who favoured Western-like democracy and jihadist groups.
Things got more complicated in 2014 with the rise of a Sunni extremist group that would later become known as Islamic State. Exploiting the chaos that reigned in Syria due to the civil war and the power vacuum caused by the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, it took control of large swathes of lands in the northern parts of the two countries. In particular, it seized important facilities such as oil fields and dams in Iraq and it even threatened Baghdad. This prompted the US to organize a multinational coalition to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the terrorist group by deploying special forces and by conducting air strikes. Soon, they also started operating in Syria, where the conflict was about to turn into a major international matter involving various foreign powers that supported the government or the rebels to pursue their own interest.
Russia intervened actively since 2015 to sustain Bashar al-Assad, its main ally in the area. Western powers assisted the rebels and bombed facilities to punish the loyalists for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians. Turkey, who opposed the al-Assad government, became directly involved in 2016 with the main objective of preventing the formation of some kind of Kurdish territorial entity. As a matter of fact, the Kurds had rapidly proved to be an effective combat force in fighting the IS, and received support from the American-led coalition. This allowed them to take control over a large strip of territory at the border with Turkey, who feared the area would become independent or at least a rear base for Kurdish fighters operating against its territory. As such, it conducted several military operations to secure the lands along its borders and expel Kurdish forces. Iran also took part to the war by sending weapons and troops in support of al-Assad on the basis of the common Shia faith and of converging geopolitical interest. To counter its growing influence, Israel also carried out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian outposts.
Now, it seems that the two intertwined conflicts are about to end. In Syria the government is slowly restoring its authority and the Islamic State has lost almost all of the territory it controlled there and in Iraq. Yet, many issues remain unresolved, notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the Kurdish question.
Sunni Arabs: excluded from power
Sunni Arabs belong to the largest of the two main branches of Islam, the other being the Shias. But even though they are a majority in the Ummah as a whole, their situation in Iraq and Syria is particular.
For what concerns the former, Sunnis are indeed a minority. Most Iraqis are Shias, which also means that they are politically closer Iran, the main centre of Shiism. Yet, Sunnism had its glorious days in the country. During the Middle Ages, Baghdad was the heart of the mighty Abbasid Caliphate, from which today’s Islamic State took many symbols. More recently, Sunni Arabs formed the ruling elite in Iraq during the years of Saddam’s rule. His Ba’athist regime was dominated by Sunnis, which meant that in Iraq a minority was ruling over the majority. But the situation was reversed after Saddam was overthrown following the US invasion in 2003. Since Sunnis had formed the backbone of Saddam’s dictatorship, they were removed from their posts and largely excluded from power to the benefit of the Shias. At that point, the Sunni Arab community became the main pool of recruitment for the anti-American insurgency and then for the Islamic State. The situation has improved since then, but properly integrating Sunnis in Iraqi political life remains a central matter to stabilize the country.
The situation of Sunnis in Syria is the opposite and resembles that of Iraq under Saddam, albeit inverted. Sunni Arabs form the majority of Syria’s population, but the governing elite belongs to the Alawite movement, which is a sect of Shia Islam. This generated much resentment among Sunnis, who felt politically emarginated. As a result, many of them joined the ranks of the rebels when the uprising started in 2011. Now, the government seems close to prevailing, but it will have to establish a more inclusive form of governance to ensure peace in the long term.
The Kurds: a stateless people
In the case of the Kurds, the problem is slightly different. Here, it is not about a religious divide, but rather an ethnic and linguistic one. The Kurds are mostly Sunni and speak their own separate language, and as a single people they count around 40 million individuals. They live in a region located at the crossroad of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Yet, their demands for an independent state have systematically been frustrated, and today they remain a stateless nation with little prospects of getting their own independent country.
Yet, they play an important political role. The lands where they live include the oil-rich areas of northern Iraq. The Kurdistan’s Workers Party, or PKK, has been waging a decade-long insurgency against Turkey to obtain independency or at least autonomy for Kurdistan; but Ankara has always firmly opposed their demands without hesitating to use violence and there is no indication that things will change anytime soon. In Iraq, several tens of thousand Kurds were killed by Saddam’s regime during the ‘80s in what is known as Anfal genocide. Later on, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds became America’s most effective on-the-ground allies in the fight against the Islamic State. But this angered Turkey out of fear that Kurdish-controlled territory could turn into an independent state or a base for operations on Turkish soil. As such, Ankara dispatched its military several times to secure Kurdish areas along its borders. However, this has led to a clash with the US, in a moment when bilateral relations are already strained. Washington has been supporting the Kurds and needs to reward them somehow; but any concession implying autonomy would upset Ankara, who is also an important ally. At the same time, Turkey cannot defy the US because the political and possibly economic retaliation might be too harmful. This has resulted into a stalemate that remains unresolved.
As in the case of Sunni Arabs, solving the Kurdish question will be of central importance for ensuring a long-lasting peace in Iraq and Syria, but finding a common agreement is even more difficult in this case: it is not a mainly domestic matter, but a transnational one involving various stakeholders, which makes finding a solution an even more complex endeavour.
Conclusion: ensuring inclusivity
As we have seen, conflict resolution in Iraq and Syria demands to integrate both Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the social and political life of the two countries. This is essential for granting peace in the long term: if Sunnis are not adequately represented, the Islamic State or a similar organization may soon rise again; while the Kurds may take arms and start a large-scale insurgency that would be difficult to tackle. Unfortunately, actually doing so is not easy. Both groups have powerful enemies and are internally fragmented, and other players can exploit these divisions for their own interests. As a matter of fact, major powers like the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey all have their own interests in the area; which is another complicating factor. In addition, given the large number of tribes, parties, armed factions, ethnic groups that live in Iraq and Syria, finding an agreement that satisfies everyone is extremely difficult. But to prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups or a new violent phase of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and to ensure the stabilization of Iraq and Syria, a solution must be found in this sense.
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