Media Foreign Affairs and National Security 2014.06.24
Too many mistakes have been made since the foreign occupation of Iraq in 2003-4, while too few lessons seem to have been learned in Washington D.C. Some pundits there still blame the historic U.S. fiasco either on the disbanding of the Iraqi Army in 2003 or the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in 2011. Dear friends, close but no cigar!
They only see trees but not the forest. First of all, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) did not disband Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army because the soldiers had already slipped away and gone home before they confronted the U.S. troops in 2003. Although, this is exactly what their successors did in front of the ISIS fighters in Mosul on June 10, 2014.
Similarly, the United States never left Iraq willingly in 2011. It was Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki who declined to sign a SOFA (Status of U.S. Forces) agreement with Washington, in which all American allies in NATO or in Asia decide if they wish to host U.S. troops on their soil. Simply put, it was the Iraqis who chose to go solo without the Americans after 2012.
It is no use crying over spilt milk. Damage has been done and cannot be rectified. The most important thing for the United States now is to look to the future and try to see the entire forest. In order to do so, Washington should consider the following three perspectives about the recent ISIS phenomenon in Iraq's Sunni heartland.
First and foremost, ISIS is just one of the many episodes of tug-of-war between the East and the West in Mesopotamia in the past three millennia. Her rulers changed from the Achaemenids to the Parthians, then to the Romans, Persians, Arabs and finally the Ottomans before the land was put under British Mandate. Now with the West gone, it is probably time for the Persians to come back again.
Secondly, the international borders in the Fertile Crescent, which the British and the French drew in the early 20th century, may be obsolete and disappearing. Unfortunately, this may happen not only to the Syria-Iraq border but also to many other artificially drawn international demarcation lines in this war-torn part of the world.
Finally, the advance of ISIS could be a sign of a new chapter in the historical rivalry between the worlds of Sunni Arabs and Shiite Iranians. The recent showdown started in 1978 when an Islamic Republic was born in Iran. It is an open secret that some Arab Gulf monarchies including Saudi Arabia have acquiesced in their citizens' financial support for ISIS, to say the least.
Based on the above assumptions, the following is my gloomy take on the possible future course of events in the Fertile Crescent. I hope I am wrong. If I am not, however, we may have to prepare ourselves and accept the "unthinkable" in the Gulf region and perhaps also in the greater Middle East in the years to come.
- The teaching of Islam, whether moderate or radical, will continue to dominate the region without contributing to stability in the Middle East.
- With some exceptions in North Africa, it seems that Sunni Arabs in the heartland will reject the legacy of Western colonization and not embrace a Western-style secular democratic government with a separation of powers.
- Despite their long trial-and-error years of constitutional monarchies, Arab socialism or Islamic rules, they have not been successful in creating their own mode of governance and, therefore, there will be no functional democracy or successful theocracy in the Middle East except in Israel.
- The 20th century Europe-drawn borders will be gone and Mesopotamia will rejoin the historical Persian sphere of influence.
Between 550 BC and 1925, except for the Abbasid period, at least one part of Mesopotamia has always been either occupied or controlled by Persian dynasties for more than 1000 years. With the rise of Shiite Iran, perhaps the Sunni Arabs, not only in Iraq and Syria but also in smaller Arab Gulf states, will be forced to realign themselves in coping with this new regional challenge.
The end game of the ISIS advance is still unknown. However, it is ominous that two former Hashimite kingdoms--Syria and Iraq--have been ruined already. The West will continue losing ground and probably will not regain political momentum in the Fertile Crescent in the years to come. No matter what we do in Iraq in the next few weeks, we are probably losing Iraq to Tehran in the long run.
If this is the case, we will have to find ways to deal seriously with the Islamic Republic of Iran, no matter how shrewd they are or how much we mistrust them. Are we ready for that? In addition, we should also note that the next nation that will require urgent protection is, of course, Jordan. We must prevent the House of Hashim from being haunted again.