In my career as a journalist, my beat has been technology, but I am a bit of a self-proclaimed political and military historian in my own right. I don’t have the accolades or even the experience of a foreign correspondent or war reporter, but I do try to understand a situation based on the dots that connect. The current crisis in Iraq has me mesmerized, and a big reason why is because of how political decisions from 100 years ago can have such a lasting impact on the events of today.
By now, the basics of the unfolding mess in Iraq are well-known. An ultra-fundamentalist jihadist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and then proceeded to occupy other key towns sweeping south toward Baghdad. What was astonishing about this wasn’t just how quickly it happened, but the fact Iraqi government troops melted away and didn’t put up a fight.
Much of the blame for the chaos has been laid at the feet of U.S. President Barack Obama for pulling out of the country too early in 2011. Others pin it on his predecessor, Dubya, for going in there in the first place. Then there’s Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who has done a terrible job of uniting the country, choosing a more sectarian form of governance. It seems Maliki forgot that when you are elected to serve as a country’s head of state, you have to also govern for those who didn’t vote for you or aren’t in your camp.
In my view, the seeds of Iraq’s potential dissolution stem not from the 2003 invasion, or the Gulf War in 1991, but from the Paris Peace Conference that followed World War I.
Look at a map of Iraq and you will find borders that were drawn by British and French imperialists in 1919. In fact, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine (now Israel and Palestine) were all carved out at that time as the carcass of the Ottoman Empire was being divvied up by the victorious allies. These borders were literally drawn using pencils on a map, with no seeming regard for what ethnic, religious and tribal communities lived there. This is precisely why Kurdish-majority geographies are spread out across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It’s also why Syria and Iraq (and Lebanon) are nowhere near being homogenous.
The ethnic and religious makeup of Iraq today — Kurds in the northeast, Sunni Muslims in the northwest, west and centre and Shia Muslims in the south — was the same going back to when the Ottoman Turks were ruling over them for hundreds of years. The Turks had the presence of mind to separate these areas into different administrations within their empire for reasons of security and local acquiescence.
The British and French had other ideas, insisting on implanting the concept of a nation state onto a part of the world that had never really had such a thing. Worse yet, they did so in a way that prioritized access to resources like oil more than demographics.
It’s not hard to see the correlation with what’s going on today. The modern state of Iraq has never known democracy. It had a puppet monarchy submissive to the British until a bloody coup destroyed that system in 1958. Ten years later, the Baath Party took power in another coup with Saddam Hussein as vice-president. The 1970s were arguably the most prosperous for the country, with oil revenues funding rapid modernization, literacy programs and one of the best health care systems in the Middle East. In return, the Iraqis pretty much gave up all civil rights and liberties. By the time Saddam took over in 1979, the country was well on its way to self-destruction.
War with Iran in the 80s, the Gulf War, sanctions, a cruel regime, international isolation and a hard drop into the depths of the Third World. Saddam has been credited with having been able to keep the country together and his hatred toward Islamic fundamentalists, except these facts gloss over the truth. The country was unified through fear and terror by a ruling minority. Keeping quiet was more valuable than speaking up. Shias were not allowed to practice their rituals and holidays publicly. Kurds were massacred rather than courted. Only when Saddam’s army withdrew from Iraqi Kurdistan in the face of a Western No-Fly Zone after the Gulf War did the Kurds begin to taste freedom.
It’s impossible to predict the future 100 years down the line, but it should be easy enough to recognize warning signs. British and French policymakers had plenty of evidence in Europe. World War I led to the collapse of at least four empires, each with new nations rising from the ashes. This move toward self-determination wasn’t enough to avoid another global war, because Europe’s victors forced an outrageous peace deal on the Germans that gave rise to the Nazis. I suppose that if they didn’t have the foresight to see another war coming, they couldn’t begin to understand Iraq and the wider Middle East of that time.
There is talk that this crisis will hasten Iraq’s disintegration into three independent states based on religious and ethnic lines. Ironic, considering that’s exactly what could’ve been done back in 1919.
It’s that kind of shortsightedness that has become a problem in other formerly colonized parts of the world, too. The trouble in Nigeria with the Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram, can be traced back to the fallacy of creating (and naming) a country with a Muslim-majority north and Christian-dominated south. It’s why the Rwandan Genocide happened. It’s why Sudan and South Sudan eventually got a divorce in 2012. It’s why the DR Congo hasn’t found peace in its eastern frontier areas for two decades.
True, local government has to share the blame for these events because they don’t rule inclusively, but tribal, ethnic and religious loyalties clearly loom large in these communities. If the Sunnis of Iraq, who had to accept that they were no longer going to run the country, felt they were part of the political process and not being targeted by a hostile prime minister, groups like ISIS would have a hard time finding traction.
Back in 1919, the politics and later independence of these lands weren’t negotiated in good faith, and didn’t take into account their social fabric. So, what followed the subservient monarchies were repressive nationalists with fascist undertones. The chaos in Iraq, civil war in Syria and strife in Libya are the result of these systems, imported from abroad, and perpetuated by a cynical elite happy to maintain the illusion of unity at the barrel of a gun.
It’s not for me to say whether Iraq should be or shouldn’t be a country under its current borders. As a federalist system, it might work someday. Or it could’ve worked had that form of governance been introduced in the first place by the ‘civilized’ world a century ago.