Opinion

Do Syria and Iraq still exist?

20th century borders are breaking down in the Middle East

January 24, 2014 9:00AM ET
Anti-government fighters moving towards their position during clashes with Iraqi security forces in the Anbar city of Fallujah on Jan. 21, 2014.
AFP/Getty Images

War-torn Fallujah is reportedly more in the grip of Al-Qaeda than at any time since the U.S. military secured Anbar province in 2007–08. The same strongman who lorded over the town after the first battles in 2004, Abdullah al-Janabi, has returned as the emir of the city of 300,000 — preaching at the mosque and establishing a “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered the Iraqi army to deploy around the perimeter of Fallujah along the Euphrates, 50 miles west of Baghdad, but he has decided against an offensive. Rather, the Maliki government is asking the neighboring Sunni tribes for help in dislodging the insurgents flying the black flag of Al-Qaeda. At the same time, Maliki has ordered the Iraqi army to attack the jihadists in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, upriver from Fallujah, where local tribes are battling jihadist elements.

Maliki is also beseeching the U.S. for assistance. Secretary of State John Kerry has ruled out a return of U.S. combat forces to Iraq.

Despite these unsettling events, neither the fall of Fallujah to the jihadists nor the Ramadi battle with the jihadists is the most profound development in the region from the last months.  

Rather, the most important news is the birth of a new Arab state, called by Arab and regional observers the Emirate, or the Emirate of Iraq and Sham, or colloquially the Emirate of al-Jazira (the Arab heartland).

The newborn Emirate stretches from the west gates of Baghdad to the ruins of Aleppo in northwestern Syria. It is a blend of traditional and ideological elements that are struggling mightily for areas of influence within the vast landscape. Along the lower Euphrates between Ramadi and Fallujah, my sources tell me, Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are scrapping with the local tribes. In Syria, it is the jihadist Al-Nusra Front battling with the local Sunni tribes. Also in the mix are the regional minorities that fill the margins of the Emirate, such as the Kurds, the Druze, the Alawites, Ismailis, Christians and Jews.

The Emirate redraws the map by erasing the sovereign state borders created by the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between England and France and their subsequent division of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I.

For example, there is no more border between Iraq and Syria, my sources tell me. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are disappearing as coherent centralized states. Jordan’s borders have vanished to the south, east and north, and only the Israeli potency maintains the border to the west. 

The new Emirate makes a mockery of the U.S. aim to negotiate a peace treaty to solve the Syrian civil war. Syria no longer exists.

Along the north of the Emirate, the Kurdistan consolidation defines a buffer from the Shias of Iran. Along the south of the Emirate, the Arabian Peninsula is fracturing into tribal confederations. The Buraida tribe to the northwest of the peninsula has largely detached from Riyadh’s authority. The central tribes look to Israel and others (Egypt, Russia) for military support.

The Emirate creates surprising facts on the ground that may define the immediate and distant future.

The rising in Iraq’s Anbar province is driven by extreme hostility toward the Shia-dominated Maliki government. Back in 2007–08, during the U.S. surge of troops to increase security and stability in Iraq, the local Sunni tribes aligned with the American forces to drive the jihadists out. Now the local Sunni tribes align with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Sham to deny the Shia Maliki any authority.

Also, Iran’s expedient Al-Quds force, an elite wing of the country’s Revolutionary Guards, is making the best it can of the conflicting alliances within the Emirate. Iran supplies the jihadists with weapons, but it also supplies the landlocked local tribes with goods and access to markets. In return, Iran can continue to traverse the Emirate in order to reinforce its ally, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus; it can also keep an eye on the hate-filled Salafists among the jihadists. Meantime, Iran’s relations with the Maliki government in Baghdad are secure.

Further, the de facto state of Kurdistan has not known such power since the end of the Ottoman Empire. With their oil wealth and the retreat of Maliki, the Kurds are so strong that they have not only the reach to secure the Kurdish northeastern corner of Syria from the jihadists, but they have also come to an accommodation with Turkey, in spite of the internal threat to Ankara from Kurdish dissent. 

Significantly, Russia favors the birth of the Emirate. The ethnocentric minorities get along with and even quietly tolerate the sub-state Sunni tribes to produce what a source describes as “grassroots stability.” What Moscow wants, my source contributes, is a “Fertile Crescent of the minorities.” What Moscow does not want is more centralized governments, aligned with the West, that batter the desperate populations, leading to resistance, spillover effects and transnational violence. At the same time, Moscow has opened a conversation with Riyadh as well as with Jerusalem and Cairo in order to create a working coalition with the strongest players of the region: the Iranians, the Saudis, the Israelis and the Egyptians. 

Russia knows the region lacks stability. As insurance, Moscow will continue to support Iran and its client state, Syria, as the lesser evils to Al-Qaeda. Russia most fears that the jihadists in the so-called Emirate of the Caucasus — who now threaten the Winter Olympics in Sochi — will link with the jihadists of the Arab heartland. One way for Moscow to maintain its own security is to remain in communication with the mix of the Emirate, Sunni and Shia as well as the minority groups.

Most striking is what the birth of the Emirate does to U.S. hopes in the region. It makes a mockery of the U.S. aim to negotiate a peace treaty to solve the Syrian civil war around a table of foreign ministers and Syrian factions. Syria as drawn by the Versailles Treaty makers no longer exists. Secretary of State John Kerry is singing a utopian tune in a region that has moved on from the nationalist ghosts of the last century.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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