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The Middle East’s costly wrong bets

As uncertainty engulfs a bleeding Middle East, besieged by regional and global powers each pursuing their own agenda, dormant ambitions and sensitivities are waking up and finding the current situation suitable to express themselves. Such ambitions and sensitivities would have never emerged had it not been for huge regional disorder and radical change in the international balance of power.
Domestic consensus toward national identities and boundaries is not guaranteed these days, even in Western democracies that value human rights, as Scottish and Catalan nationalists seek to secede from the UK and Spain, respectively, through the ballot box. Yet internal instability remains a sure prerequisite to animosities and partition, as we witness in Iraq and Syria.
There is a close relationship between loyalties and interests. Under multi-ethnic empires such as the Ottoman one, which ruled the Arab Middle East for four centuries, many oriental constituent ethnicities accepted interaction, coexistence and intermarriage. Thus many Arabs became Turkified while many Kurds, Syriacs and Chaldeans were Arabized.
In those days, pragmatic interests necessitated interaction and coexistence, even assimilation. Moreover, internal migration and sometimes population exchange became almost common within that great political, social and economic space.
So when some constituent ethnicities or sects seem as if they are “correcting” past mistakes or “avenging’ old injustices, they are not doing so because they are necessarily braver or more decisive than their predecessors, but because times have changed, and they may be able now to get away with what was impossible in the past.
Some proponents of political Shiism are now openly calling to avenge the murders of the Talebis (the descendants of the fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abi Taleb) and “reclaim the legitimacy” of government in the Muslim world in favor of the mullahs of Iran against the Sunni descendants of the House of Omayya. This would have been impossible without the active support of Tehran, and the West turning a blind eye to its plans for regional hegemony and acquiring nuclear capabilities.
Others among religious minorities — namely Christians — were hard-pressed to openly welcome foreign protection had it not been for the emergence of Daesh, an extremist sanguinary and dubious phenomenon.
Its atrocities have managed to divert attention away from plans for hegemony and “revenge” carried out by Iran and its henchmen. Thus we see these minorities not only convinced of the need for foreign protection, but also for building an “alliance of minorities.”
Then there are large ethnic and linguistic minorities, like the Kurds, who discovered that they have a unique opportunity to realize their dream of a nation-state over the ever-expanding territories they now control and claim as their own.

Past experiences and lessons of history have taught us that moderation and openness were always signs of periods of renaissance and ascendancy, while extremism and intolerance were signs of weakness, decay and internal division.

Eyad Abu Shakra

The Kurds may have genuine grievances that would tempt some of their extremists to risk open animosities with the Turks and Iranians — whom the Kurds have long accused of discriminating against them — as well as the Arabs, led in recent decades by regimes that combined chauvinist discourse with tribal structure.
But the Kurds are not blame-free from discriminating against others. It could be argued that what they perpetrated against the Assyrians and Chaldeans early in the 20th century in northern Iraq and the Hakkari Mountains may be regarded as ethnic cleansing.
Furthermore, the arrogant attitude currently adopted by some Kurdish leaders in several mixed areas of northern Iraq — such as Kirkuk, Tal Afar, and the villages and towns of the Nineveh plain — as well as large areas of northern Syria — specifically in the provinces of Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo — does not augur well for a future free of hatred and bad blood.
Here lies the real challenge. It is very important to realize the dangers of adventures, opportunism and over-reliance on foreign promises of support. This is risky not only for religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities in the Arab Middle East, but also for the religious and sectarian majority.
The mere presence of a phenomenon like Daesh is a symptom of a dangerous crisis in both the Arab and Muslim worlds. Past experiences and lessons of history have taught us that moderation and openness were always signs of periods of renaissance and ascendancy, while extremism and intolerance were signs of weakness, decay and internal division.
Terrorism and indiscriminate murder also reflect a failure to understand the world, and to take into account the repercussions of such heinous acts. The outcome for all to see throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds today is the retreat of intelligent dialogue and broad agreements in the face of violent and exclusionist mob rhetoric.
Given the above, the greatest fear is that the worst is yet to come, and that the heavy price already paid may not be enough. This background provided the excuse for former US President Barack Obama to sign the nuclear deal with Iran’s rulers after describing them as “not suicidal,” and the veil Western powers hid behind as they conspired against the Syrian uprising.
Still, there is no guarantee that the current situation is permanent. Sooner or later, Iran’s exploitation of and investing in Daesh will end, more so in light of accelerating international military involvement in Iraq and Syria. There are too many contradictions between competing regional plans that hope to sell the bear’s fur before hunting it.
In northern Iraq, there are danger signs of potential confrontation between the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces and pro-independence Kurds. This is natural, as it is quite unlikely that Iran, which has its own secessionist Kurds, would be happy to see an independent Kurdish state on its western borders, north of an Iraq that Tehran had subdued and destroyed.
The picture is not much different in Syria, where Washington has encouraged secessionist Kurds — under the pretext of fighting Daesh — to establish their own mini-state along the Syrian-Turkish border. This has been done with Washington’s full awareness that Turkey is the country in which almost half of the Middle East’s Kurdish population lives.
Thus much of what becomes of the Kurds depends on Washington’s and Moscow’s visions for the Middle East in the foreseeable future. As for what the Shiites will achieve, along with their erstwhile Alawite extension in Syria, much depends on Russia’s regional strategy and the US reaction to it.

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published.