Iraq and the West are haunted by history

Once again, Iraq is tearing itself apart. The country’s existence as a cohesive whole is now in more danger than it was at the height of the civil war in 2006/07, when the yearly civilian death count was over 20,000. Now, with a disintegrating Syria providing an ideal base for terrorism, Iraq is being threatened by ISIS, a group aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate across much of the Middle East.

Much of the debate swirls around the controversies of Western intervention. Two apparently contradictory questions are being asked again and again: did the 2003 invasion set up the conditions for ISIS’s emergence (namely, the severe weakening of the Iraqi state, and the dominance of Nuori al-Maliki’s Shia government over minority Sunnis)? And, even so, should the West act again, to save the Iraq it spent so much blood to create?

But there is one Western act neglected in the endless news articles and opinion pieces, and it is the one perhaps most crucial in understanding ISIS’s determination to redraw the map (and, as it happens, sheds a lot of light on the recent history of both Iraq and Syria): the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917. As WWI put strain on the empires of France and Britain, the countries’ diplomats drew up a plan for a quasi-independent Middle East; dividing their territory into countries with arbitrary strokes of a pen. Thus, the region’s countries never lined up with its nations, and the stage was set for the next 100 years of bloody strife.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement failed, crucially, to distinguish between Sunni and Shia Arab areas, resulting in the formation of countries with sizeable minorities and powerful majorities. Sometimes, as was the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it is the minority group which wields power – often by force. It is hard to overstate the feelings of animosity between Sunnis and Shias, especially in the most polarised countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon); there hasn’t been peace between the two groups since the great schism after Muhammad’s death.

Al-Maliki’s divisive style of government has not helped matters, but it is naïve to blame the Prime Minister for all of is his country’s woes. Iraq is a product of Western imperialism – and in many ways should never have existed in its current form. ISIS is abhorrent for many reasons, but its rejection of arbitrary borders isn’t one of them; it is based, instead, on an embedded historical narrative.

So we have to ask ourselves, is Iraq’s integrity really our paramount priority? In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the West advocated self-determination for ethnic minorities, and now many countries exist where once stood just one. Surely the same right cannot be denied to the peoples of the Middle East. And yet, the consequences of the dissolution of Iraq are hard to fathom, both within its current borders and worldwide. Having misguidedly brought the country into being, the West is bound to defend it. There is no righting the mistakes of history.

Only questions

Sometimes there is a problem to which no one has an answer, to which there is no answer. So it seems with the Syrian crisis – the ‘worst war of our time’ as one Newsnight reporter put it yesterday. Sorry Obama, Cameron and Hollande, for all your good intentions you’ll just have to wait this one out – there’s nothing you can do.

Since last week’s White House confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s forces, the pressure to arm the rebels has grown and Obama has finally bowed to it. But he was right to express concern in doing so – there is nothing the West can do to stop any arms ending up in the hands of the jihadists who are already gaining strength and support. No one wants a repetition of what happened after we armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this mind-blowingly accurate book) – the Taliban made us miss the Soviets, and missing Assad is a sickening thought. If we were going to arm the rebels, we should have got on with it 18 months ago before the Islamists took control.

Even without the Islamist element to worry about, it is hard to ignore the harsh fact that more weapons generally means more death. Let’s not forget; 93,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria, many of them women and children and non-combatants. But that is not to say that the reasons given for arming the rebels are flawed – they’re just as sensible as the ones against. Proponents of the policy point out that, with his forces pushing back rebel lines, even taking back much of Aleppo, Assad has no incentive to enter any settlement which could lead to a peaceful transfer of power. Change the situation on the ground and his political rational will have to shift, sending him running for the negotiating table.

Still, I am inclined to believe that arming the opposition cannot have a positive outcome and so the question remains: what is to be done? The humanitarian in me cannot counternance not taking any action at all. A Libya-style no-fly zone is pretty much out of the question; Syria is too big, too spread out, to be comprehensively covered, and Assad’s air-defence systems are very advanced (thanks in no small part to his dear friends the Russians). The West, then, should give up on the fanciful idea of changing the balance of power and start doing what it can to stop people dying. The enormous sums of money which could be spent on arms should be spent instead on bullet-proof vests and helmets, on food and blankets for the homeless, on doing something to make the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan more than a living hell. These are the things which can be done without any risk, solely benefiting a population which, having spent two years living in a warzone, desperately needs help.

We will feel that this is inadequate – that our only thought should be to stop the bloodshed. But we can’t; the situation is too complex for any interference to be successful. Indeed, the Syrian conflict needs to shed the veil of the Arab spring and be seen for what it is, a proxy war between Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad on one side and Iraq and the West on the other. Put simply, it is just a small, bloody episode in the never-ending Sunni-Shia war. It is spreading over boarders – tensions in Lebanon, not-long dormant after the civil war, are rising again, and Turkey and Iraq are struggling too. The unrest threatens to engulf the entire region in bloody sectarianism – this is no place for American guns.