The 21st century witnessed paradigmatic shifts in the Middle East in various ideological, social, political, geostrategic and military areas. The most recent and impressive was the establishment of what one may call Suraqiland, namely the Islamic Caliphate, in parts of Syria and Iraq. This sudden development is, in fact, the apex of deeper and long-standing changes which have only recently surfaced.
On the ideological level, the vacuum left behind by the death of old ideologies such as socialism, pan-Arabism or local patriotism is being filled by the new-old ideology of Islamism. This ideology has found fertile ground especially among the young, frustrated by the failure of the “Arab Spring” revolutions.
Politically speaking, while for the greater part of the 20th century much of the Middle East was controlled by various authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, by the beginning of the 21st century people started to revolt against these oppressive regimes. The forces of revolution included ethnic groups such as the Kurds; marginalized religious groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS); and finally the popular masses that managed to topple regimes in the Arab Spring uprisings. The result of these transformations was that authoritarian nation-states such as Iraq, Syria and Libya were metamorphosed little by little into failed states, which are now on the verge of disintegration.Keep up to date on the latest opinion pieces on our new Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
These failing nation-states and the geopolitical vacuum they left behind them gave room to various nonstate actors, which are attempting to fill it. Presently the Middle East is witnessing two opposite but simultaneous phenomena: the disintegration of existing states and the emergence of new forces which aim to establish new states upon the debris. The two most important actors in this regard, which have reached the point of collision, are Islamist groups on the one hand and Kurdish national groups on the other.
With regard to Iraq, the state has disintegrated into three new states-in-the-making: Kurdistan, Shi’istan and the Islamic Caliphate or Suraqiland. Comparatively speaking, Kurdistan is the oldest and the most stable of the three; Shi’istan, which was erected on the debris of old Iraq, is a newer phenomenon where Shi’ites for the first time in hundreds of years are trying to build a new Iraq and to lead it; and Suraqiland which is the newest and which purports to revive ancient Arab glories. This configuration of forces, which are motivated by totally different ideologies and have distinct political directions, makes it very difficult for them to coexist. Hence the struggle between them might last for long time with no decisive results.
With regard to the Kurds the common wisdom in the 20th century was that the possibility of the emergence of a Kurdish entity could be a major destabilizing force for the region. However, the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and the three Kurdish cantons in Syria defy this wisdom.
These entities have proved to be more stable, democratic and secular than the surrounding areas.
More importantly they have become the main barrier against the onslaught of various radical Islamist forces which endanger the Middle East in general and individual states in particular.
There was another paradigmatic change that impacted the Kurds and their role in the region. While in the 20th century the four states sharing Kurdistan managed in different periods to form various alliances against the Kurds with a view to containing them, this formula was no valid any longer in the 21st century.
The most glaring example is the alliance which Turkey forged with the KRG against the central government in Baghdad.
Linked to this is the blurring of geographical borders between states that was triggered by the rise of nonstate actors and which helped the Kurds in bolstering trans-border nationalism. The two most important examples are the fight for Sinjar and Kobane in which Kurds from different parts of Kurdistan and even from the diaspora came to the rescue of these beleaguered regions.
Concerning the wider panorama there were big shifts in the Middle East as a whole. Thus, while in the 20th century the Arab-Israeli conflict was the main focus of interest of this region, by the turn of the 21st century other conflicts relegated it to secondary importance. These are the deepening Sunni-Shi’ite conflicts which started with the 1980 Iraq-Iran war; the Sunni-Sunni conflicts such as between the more moderate Arab states and the radical Islamic states or forces; and the intra-state conflicts which came to the open in the events of the Arab Spring.
Part and parcel of this shift is that while in the 20th century the Palestinian issue monopolized world attention thus overshadowing Kurdish nationalism altogether, by the turn of the century there developed a kind of hidden competition between the Palestinian and Kurdish issues. And while the Kurds, who represent the largest ethnic group in the world with no state of their own, were all but ignored in the 20th century, they have become now a main focus of interest for the media, researchers and politicians alike.
The map of alliances has also changed drastically.
Old alliances such as that between Turkey and Israel or between Turkey and Syria have collapsed. Instead quiet and informal alliances are being formed to try to combat the extremist forces in the region including Iran and the Islamic caliphate. Such alliances include for example Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf countries and Israel.
Finally, even though colonialism is something of the past, outside powers from the region and the international arena do play an important role in attempting to perpetuate their influence in the Middle East or reshape it. Thus one can talk about reincarnation of the Cold War in the Middle East.
In conclusion the old system of the Middle East is undergoing a process which resembles the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of new states amid its debris. It is also clear by now that the process in this region resembles the violent Yugoslavian model rather than the peaceful Czechoslovakian one.
The famous Huntigtonian clash of civilizations is no longer just between the West and Islam but within the world of Islam itself as well. The ideological and physical clash between Sunnis and Shi’ites which has reached its height these days is a case in point. The democratization process has failed in most of the Arab Spring countries thus leaving the door open to extremist forces to take the lead. It was also proven that outside powers, including the US, cannot enforce democratic values on other societies, nor can they endow them with cohesion if they inherently lack it.
Concerning the future map of the region, in the coming decades we are likely to see the emergence of two new states: The Islamic or for that matter the Sunni state in Suraqiland and Kurdistan in Iraq.
The Sunni state is likely to have staying power for the following reasons: It is a revisionist, highly motivated and dynamic force. It is also a belated reaction to the Shi’ite Islamic revolution in Iran which may increase its appeal in some quarters in the Sunni world. Furthermore, the Islamic state has built itself on frustrated but highly motivated youth whose numbers is on the rise due to demographic factors and for whom the economic crisis in many of these states does not leave other outlets.
Another important factor on the socio-cultural level is that the new Islamic state bases itself on a history- oriented society, namely one which yearns for a glorious Arab-Muslim past. The model then is a queer combination of a revival of old traditions and modern media outlets and modern weapons. Kurdistan, too, is likely to emerge as full-fledged state.
Of the four parts of Kurdistan the most likely candidate is the Kurdistan Regional Government which together with 19 other entities in the world shares the status of an unrecognized state. Even though the rise of the IS seemed to have derailed it from this path, in the longer run the KRG stands to gain important dividends from this setback. First of all it has positioned itself as the main barrier against the Islamic avalanche. Secondly, it is likely to get military equipment for confronting IS which will also bolster its independent ambitions.
Lastly, it has managed to put itself on the international map as a positive player thus changing completely the image of the Kurds as a whole.
All in all, for the Kurds this is a period of severe constraints but also of great opportunity. This situation befits the description of Charles Dickens in his memorable book A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair ... we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
The author is head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University and author of
The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.