By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
Lebanese President Camille Chamoun once stated in his memoirs, at the height of his country’s civil war, that he did not fear Lebanon would fracture into several independent states. His real worry, though, was if Iraq fell apart. That would doom the unity of his country.
I’m quoting indirectly from a lecture that’s still reverberating in my head, by Joseph A. Kéchichian, Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies: “The Enduring Arab Gulf States: A Medium Term Perspective”, held at the American University in Cairo, on 26 March, 2015. Kéchichian’s conclusion was that ISIS would lead to the final breakdown of Iraq, and with that the division of Syria, and from there the breakup of Lebanon. As terrible as this spill over effect may sound – and Kéchichian was not eager for this happen, residing in Lebanon himself – it could very well happen. The Lebanese regularly note how any political move directed at the region invariably affects Lebanon, even if the policy in question isn’t targeted at Lebanon itself, because of the ethnic and sectarian mix.
The still-missing Sheikh Musa Al-Sadr, who used to be known as the unofficial foreign minister of the Islamic revolution in Iran, with his right-hand man Nabih Berri – current leader of the Lebanese Shi’a Amal party – used his law firm to defend Iranian revolutionaries being pursued by the Shah. Members of Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) in France fought on the side of the Phalangists during the civil war, and Lebanon’s various parties and militants have always drawn support from outside actors.
So it should really come as no surprise that Camille Chamoun’s long dead prophecy seems to finally be coming true. If you listen to what decision-makers in Washington have to say, that is. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has posed the question: “What if a multi-sectarian Iraq turns out not be possible?” He added that this eventuality was an “important part of our strategy now on the ground. If the government can’t do what it’s supposed to do, then we will still try to enable local ground forces, if they’re willing to partner with us, to keep stability in Iraq—but there will not be a single state of Iraq”. More specifically they are trying to pull the carpet from underneath ”Islamic State” (IS), sending in “advisors” to bribe Sunni supporters into switching sides, whilst helping arm the autonomous Kurds, even if this means weakening the authority of the central government.
The help to the Kurds in turn spills over into Syria, where Kurdish groups are fighting both IS and the Baathist regime. To add insult to injury Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer is championing the idea, beginning an article with these words: “It’s time to rethink Iraq and Syria. It begins by admitting that the old borders are gone, that a unified Syria or Iraq will never be reconstituted, that the Sykes-Picot map is defunct. … in Mesopotamia, balkanization is the only way to go.” He doesn’t seem to be aware of the after-effects of his choice of words, since Sykes-Picot is the Arab byword for imperialist plots to divide-and-conquer in the Middle East.
It is prudent to remember here that the term ‘Cold War’ was popularised in the US, and so the world, by columnist Walter Lippmann with his article series “The Cold War in 1947”. Such journalistic excursions, in a country like the US, have a tendency to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Krauthammer thinks in such wilfully fatalistic terms himself, talking about how the US pullout in 2011 was okay because: “At the time, Iraq was a functioning state. That state is now gone. We should not expend treasure or risk blood trying to resurrect it. Our objective right now is to defeat the Islamic State and to ensure the fall of the Assad regime. That does not require an American invasion. It does require recognising reality and massively supporting our few genuine allies on the ground.”
Note also his revival of Cold War taxonomy, talking about American military support to the “Iraqi Kurds in a direct, 24-hour, Berlin-style airlift”. He’s happy about Kurdish ambitions in Syria too, apparently, not aware of the knock on effects this will have on, yes, Lebanon. Then again, he may very well want the contagion to spread to Lebanon, to take out yet another Iranian alley. He might want it to take out the whole region, for all we know.
We have, so far, survived the independence of southern Sudan, both in the Arab world and Africa, and given the mess that South Sudan has found itself in, it is unlikely anyone would want to emulate it as a model. Then again, the kind of sectarian and ethnic bridges that connect Iraq to its neighbours are far more extensive and deep rooted, so we’re doing our damn best to avoid the Krauthammer scenario and cheat fate one more time.
The Americans are on the right track as far as trying to drain IS’s pool of Sunni support, but, as Krauthammer himself says, why would Iraqi Sunnis trust the Americans, having sold them out before to Iran? They would trust fellow Sunnis, however. All the more reason to start dissolving “Islamic State” through a détente policy, if you ask me.
(Kéchichian’s talk was the seventh and final of the “Making Better Policies Seminar” series, moderated by Hamid Ali, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Public Policy and Administration at the AUC.)
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas