Jawad Falak l

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq shook the fault lines upon which the post WWI Middle East rested upon. The removal of Saddam Hussain from power set a chain reaction which led to shuddering the roots of contemporary Middle East; formed under the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.This region, now, is embroiled in civil wars, sectarian conflicts and ethno-nationalist terrorism. The resulting instability has resulted in creation of various de-facto enclaves based on ethnicity and sects. The balkanization of this region, which was considered unrealistic only a decade ago is now a reality.

The root cause of Middle Eastern Balkanization

This New Middle East notion gained prominence in the post Saddam Iraq. Iraqi politics under Saddam Hussein had been based upon the sectarian identities, namely the Shia and Sunni identities which were supplemented by the ethnic divide between the Arabs and Kurds.

The imposition of US backed Shiite government after the 2003 invasion exposed deep divisions within Iraqi society. The insurgency against US occupation was accompanied by sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shiites and the country became divided into Sunni and Shiite regions. However, the US surge in Iraq starting in 2006 curbed this violence and it experienced a brief period of stability. President Barack Obama pulled out US forces from Iraq in 2011 and the Shiite government in Baghdad was expected to unite the country and bring prosperity in the war torn nation.

However, the oppressive and discriminatory attitude of the central government once again kindled the sectarian divide in Iraq. The crackdown of Shiite dominated Iraqi security forces on Sunni minority, cemented way for the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) which quickly captured large swaths of Sunni majority areas in the country.

This IS blitzkrieg was happening at a time when the region was experiencing a wave of revolutions, categorized as Arab Spring.  This so called pro-democracy movement showed the doors to many dictators who had been ruling Arab states for decades. These dictators since than have been replaced by other dictators or Islamist regimes. However, high hopes tied to this Arab Spring were shattered and this revolution came to a halt in Syria where pro-democracy protests quickly turned into a complex civil war.

The civil war in Syria created vacuum which was filled by IS and it became one of the most powerful non-state terrorist group in history. The rise of insurgency and terrorism motivated by ethno-nationalism and religious extremism has exacerbated the state of affairs in these states which lie geo-graphically at the heart of the region.

The rise of Kurdish autonomous enclaves

This unrest wreaked havoc across the landscape of various Middle Eastern states but the Kurdish majority regions mostly escaped this destruction.  Kurds inhabit northern parts of Iran, Iraq and Syria and south eastern parts of Turkey. They have for decades strived to form an independent state based on Kurdish nationalism. Their armed struggles were brutally suppressed by the governments but the removal of Saddam Hussein resulted in the creation of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq.

The Barzani led Iraqi Kurdistan has amassed power and resources; thanks to the support provided by the western countries and Turkey. This Kurdish enclave possess strong military force known as the ‘Peshmerga’ which has played a vital role in checking the advances made by IS forces.

Rojava is another de-facto autonomous region in northern Syria consisting of Kurdish majority cantons. The region gained its de-facto autonomy as part of the ongoing Rojava conflict and the wider Syrian civil war. In March last year, the de-facto administration self-declared the establishment of federal system of government as the Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava.

The Syrian regime seems to have acknowledged the existence of this enclave and has developed an understanding of non-aggression against it. Reason being, the Kurds are serving the purpose of not only checking the advances of IS but also have served as a check to the Turkish aggression in Syria. The presence of American and now Russian Special Forces in this enclave has granted de-facto recognition to this region as an autonomous Kurdish entity.

The Kurds in Turkey and Iran are waging a protracted guerilla war against the government forces. But it is the Kurdish majority regions in Iraq and Syria which truly possess the potential to move the region towards balkanization to form a greater Kurdistan. This can change the entire political and strategic dimensions for the region in general and Turkey and Iran in particular.

The US-Russian proxy war in Syria and its implications

The proxy war between the USA and its allies on one side and Russian-Iranian alliance on the other, has destabilized the entire region with Syria bearing the brunt of it. This proxy war has deepened the sectarian divide in the volatile region that has helped Islamic State expand its influence in addition to the creation of various sectarian and ethnic cantons.

The Syrian civil war which started as an armed struggle to bring democracy in a dictatorial state is now overshadowed by the sectarian conflict between the Alawite led regime backed by Russia and Iran and the religious fundamentalist led Sunnis supported by US and allies.

Syria already seems to have been divided into Alawite, Druze, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves, with each group controlling territory with a system of administration. Syrian regime forces are regaining ground from Sunni insurgent groups and terrorists. But to contemplate that these forces will restore the writ of state in all parts of the country will be a fantasy.

The proxy war between various regional and extra regional powers in Syria has increased the probability of the balkanization of this once peaceful, secular state.

The forgotten war

The forgotten and ignored war in Yemen which lies to the South of Saudi Arabia has also divided this country into enclaves. The country is now divided into areas controlled by Houthi led Revolutionary Committee, Hadi led government, the Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State. The coalition of AQAP and IS in Yemen can also disturb the regional security which in turn can lead to balkanization of countries surrounding Yemen.

New Middle East: A perception ‘no more’

The term “New Middle East” was introduced to the world in June 2006 by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. This concept envisioned the redrawing of the maps of Middle Eastern states. This could only have been achieved by overthrowing the governments either by invasions or creating instability. At that time, Middle East was in firm grips of dictators and the realization of this concept seemed impossible. After fourteen years, this notion seems to be turning into a reality. The balkanization of this resource rich and strategically important region seems to be realistic now. However, this balkanization has a cost i.e. hundreds of thousands of lives and vast destruction of infrastructure in addition to millions of refugees. The death and destruction in the region might come to an end, but the Sykes-Picot Middle East, will never be the same.

Jawad Falak is a graduate of National Defense University, Islamabad.

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