Monday, June 30, 2014

Avoiding Another Imbroglio: A Mound Of Sound Guest Post

This note from the Mound of Sound accompanied the post that follows:

Some of the course material I’ve been going through lately got me thinking about the conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq. I got thinking about them in the context of water and food security as well as climate change. Our corporate media really drops the ball in these situations. They look for one convenient villain, give it the pack journalism treatment, and then serve it up for public consumption. I have been writing for some time about growing tensions between Iraq and its upstream neighbours, Turkey and Syria, over conflicting demands to the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Today I got out the maps and looked at water security in the context of the anticipated breakup of Iraq. The map that I have appended reveals how a hostile, Sunni breakaway state could wreak havoc on the Shiite south.

NATO’s former Supreme Commander Europe (Saceur) recently urged NATO states to come to the rescue in the turbulent Middle East. He didn’t overtly suggest that NATO forces be deployed on the ground in Syria or Iraq but he did argue that we need to reinforce and secure our fellow NATO partner Turkey against the insurgent forces just over its borders.

Two words that need to be kept in mind today – “mission creep.” Yes we have a clear duty to Turkey under the NATO charter, at least if it actually is attacked, but we must not allow that to extend into military campaigns beyond Turkey’s borders. The Middle East is becoming a cauldron of unrest and instability that they’re just going to have to sort out for themselves. As Western forces demonstrated so clearly in Afghanistan and Iraq, deploying “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” into that theatre yields lousy results and may even make the situation worse in the long term.

The Middle East appears to be at full boil with civil war raging in Syria and Iraq, suppression of democracy in the Gulf States, the reinstatement of military rule in Egypt, insurgencies blossoming across North Africa. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Unrest in the region could get far worse before it gets any better and the worst could last for generations, especially if outside states begin manipulating proxies in the region to expand their own geo-political spheres of influence. Cold War II could be waged along the Sunni-Shiite divide. No thank you.

Religious extremism is just one of the stressors fuelling instability across the greater Muslim world. Add to that the Iranian Shiite and Saudi Sunni sectarian rivalry. These religious tensions are compounded by the ongoing impacts of Western meddling in the wake of WWI when Britain and France carved up the Ottoman empire according to their European interests without regard to ethnic, tribal and religious realities on the ground. It never worked except at the muzzle of a gun. We needed monarchs, royalty real or imagined, and tinpot dictators to wield the sort of brutality needed to keep our newly demarcated states under control. Syria, Iraq and Iran are all products of Western meddling in the Middle East just as India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all Britain’s doing in South Asia.

We get a lot of news reports about the civil war raging in Syria and Iraq today. The situation is so confused that it’s unclear whether it’s actually two civil wars or just one civil war being waged against two state actors. Our focus is drawn to Sunni Islamist radicals alternately known as ISIS or ISIL or al Qaeda in Iraq. Today the narrative of Western choice is that this is really all about the long-festering religious dispute between the Shiite and Sunni factions of Islam and today it’s the Sunni extremists poised to destroy Christendom (see, it really is all about us).

Back in 2003, the Muslims we feared were the Shia. Remember Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army? Remember the Badr Brigades? They were the intractable nasty shits that absolutely, positively needed to be wiped out if we were ever again to have a peaceful night’s sleep. So what happened? Well, the majority Shia got control of the Iraqi government and Muqtada decided to go back to his real passion – eating. His gang got absorbed into the new government’s security apparatus and got busy oppressing their former Sunni masters. Another squall in a much larger, more powerful storm yet to pass through.

Climate change is also playing a big role in destabilizing the Middle East. The crowds of young people who flocked to Cairo’s Tahrir Square might have been after democracy and an end to military dictatorship but they probably would have been crushed pretty quickly if it hadn’t been for a lot of their countrymen being furious at the government over high food prices and food insecurity, nepotism and the lack of opportunity, and various other complaints. Grievances are like a bag full of magnets. They attract and become attached. We look at the top magnet and say, “well, see, there’s the problem.”

Climate change actually sparked the brutal civil war in Syria that continues to rage. Drought triggered famine that triggered unrest among Syria’s Sunni majority. They weren’t getting a fair deal from the Alawite (Shia) government of Assad and they finally had enough. The al Qaeda bunch joined in after the uprising was already well underway. They piggybacked their religious war atop what was really a food security-driven civil war.

It should come as no surprise that climate change is also a significant stressor in the unrest in Iraq. The ‘fertile crescent’ of Iraq depends on the waters of two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. From those rivers was born the ‘cradle of civilization,’ ancient Mesopotamia. It is from their waters that Iraq irrigates its farmland. Those rivers are fed from the mountains of eastern Turkey, an area also hit with drought. The rivers pass through both Turkey and Syria and, when a region is plunged into drought, it’s never good news for the downstream countries, in this case Iraq. The Euphrates leaves Turkey to bisect Syria before passing into Iraq. The Tigris enters Iraq where Turkey and Syria meet Iraq. Within Iraq, the rivers pass through the Kurdish north and the Sunni central part of the country. The majority Shia are concentrated in the south, the end of the line for the Tigris and Euphrates. This map should give a pretty good hint at what could lie in store for the Shiite south if the Sunni extremists in central Iraq get control of that territory.

If, as many expect, Iraq dissolves along sectarian lines, this could leave the Shiite south at the mercy of their historic, Sunni nemesis in central Iraq. It could go pretty hard for the Shia at the bargaining table. Shiite Iraqis might have no choice but to seek the protection (and muscle) of Iran and, should that happen, all bets are off. The Shiite-Sunni divide could just be the next Iron Curtain for Cold War II between the Russians and Chinese backing Iran, Shiite Iraq and Syria versus the West as reluctant defender of a gaggle of rapidly destabilizing Sunni states. No good can come to us or them by allowing ourselves to be drawn into that sort of quagmire.

The conflicts underway and those to come in the Middle East will likely be multi-generational, another good reason for us to keep our distance. As we showed in Iraq, Afghanistan and, before that, Vietnam, we don’t do wars without end. To us, ten years is a stretch. and, if we ever needed a reason to wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil fuels, this one’s a dandy.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting analysis by the Mound, but to be honest, I have no idea what the Shiite-Sunni divide is about. And NATO should not intervene. The US should know by now that people riding bicycles can defeat even the most technologically advanced army.