walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: December 4, 2012
What a Day

Truth be told, there is very rarely a slow news day in what our government types referred to as the MENA region (MENA standing for Middle East and North Africa). But some days really stand out above the average for action, avarice and atavistic behavior. Yesterday was one of them. The place is really hopping, and I frankly don’t know how typically ambitious American newspaper readers who are not already fortuitously expert in these matters by one means or another can possibly gain a sound understanding without the help of The American Interest.

I shall now proceed to illustrate this bold claim with reference to only three stories that populate the New York Times: those having to do with Iraq/Kurdistan, Egypt and, of course, Syria. I will try to be brief because, after all we’re all busy, this is only a blog, and everybody realizes that the number of people with the ability to read more than a few dozen words on any topic is dropping fast.

There is a town, I’m told (since I’ve never been there), called Tuz Khurmato, which is located in the gray zone between Arab and Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. Apparently, a few days ago Iraqi federal agents tried to arrest a Kurdish man in that place—Heaven knows why—and the attempt resulted in a gun battle between the Iraqis and members of the Kurdish militia, now really an army in all but name, known as the Peshmerga. As of this writing, the military forces of the two sides stand cheek by jowl. No one is giving in, and no one is going home.

Tuz Khurmato isn’t all that far from Kirkuk, a major city surrounded by loads of oil fields that is one of a few major bones of contention between what, for lack of a better phrase, one may call Iraqi nationalism and its very hale and hearty Kurdish counterpart.

Everybody who has ever paid much attention to Iraq, both before the United States fought two wars against it and since, knew this was going to happen sooner or later. It has been nearly a year since the U.S. military presence in Iraq was withdrawn by the Obama Administration, and this crisis is right on time—even if pretty much nothing else in Iraq ever is. If you really want to understand what is going on, and what is likely to happen next in general terms, read this brilliant essay by Ofra Bengio. You wouldn’t do yourself much harm either to read what I had to say about this subject in one of my rare Via Meadia guest posts back in August. The simple truth is that Iraqi Kurdistan exists as an autonomous proto-state, and it is not going to be reabsorbed into the Iraqi state anytime soon, if ever. This region, innocuously called the Kurdistan Regional Government today, is the epicenter for a welling up of regional Kurdish nationalism that is bound to affect Turkey, Iran and Syria—all of which have significant Kurdish populations.

The gist of the insights on Iraq TAI has been publishing since the beginning is this: The modern Iraqi state, having been cobbled together by the British after World War I from three disparate Ottoman provinces, has never been able to cohere as a strategic or even an administrative unit without the sly hand of foreign domination or the iron hand of local tyranny. Iraq is unique among Arab countries in that it is the only major one with a majority Shi’a population (Bahrain isn’t major) that for all of its modern history until 2005 was ruled by a Sunni elite. It is one of only a few Arab countries, too, with a politically salient non-Arab minority (Syria also on account of its Kurds and Sudan still, despite South Sudanese independence, with a variety of non-Arab groups south of Khartoum). This twin heterogeneity, sectarian and ethnic, has always made Iraq a very hard case for the growth of liberal, let alone democratic, institutions and attitudes. So it remains today despite its creaky, made-in-the-USA democratic facade.

I know lots of people in the U.S. government who were involved with the Iraqi reconstruction and democratization effort after the initial fighting stopped back in May 2003. As I have said before, when you are in the government it is your job to make the policy work. That is why, frequently, those who care the most are always the last to know when that policy simply can’t work. Since my job in the government back in 2003 was off to the side of this effort, I was at my ease in playing Team B to my colleagues, teaching them what I knew (and what they usually didn’t) about the history of the country, and suggesting that what they were doing was very unlikely to succeed in the not-so-long run. They told me I was mistaken, but ever since I have been out of government I have maintained my view that the rickety democratic scaffolding we erected in Iraq could not endure long without our presence there to maintain it. It seemed to me like the showy coating of a seedpod in a garden, bound to fall away when the weather turned, leaving the seeds to grow wild according to the only patterns they knew.

No one can be sure just how the collapse of Iraqi democracy will unfold in its specifics, or how long that will take; nor can anyone predict when Kurdish independence will pass from de facto to de jure. But I do know that Iraq is like a three-legged stool between the Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish communities. As long as there are three actors, shifting alliances can keep the play going despite their ambient suspicions, conflicting interests and the occasional body piles. But if one of the legs of the stool falls off (and it really doesn’t matter which one), the two remaining protagonists are bound eventually to look each other square in the eye and begin to make plans. The leg that is falling off, and falling off fast, is the Kurdish leg, leaving the Sunni and Shi’a Arabs to contemplate their respective circumstances. As they do so, they hear a deafening regional echo from their respective counterparts. This will not end like a June Allyson movie. Actually, in a sense, the problem is that it won’t really end at all.


Not even Egyptians understand what’s happening in Egypt. From the looks of things, President Morsi took the opportunity of his heightened stature from having helped broker an Israeli-Hamas cease-fire to overreach politically at home, issuing a series of decrees clearly favoring Muslim Brotherhood political prospects. The essence of the decrees was to neuter the Egyptian judiciary, which, it may be reasonably surmised, at its upper echelons functions as a holdover from the Mubarak period dead set on limiting Morsi’s elbow room and, if necessary, breaking his arm outright if it can. So as Morsi and his supporters took the measure of the old regime’s remaining sources of power, the standard Middle Eastern version of the Golden Rule manifested itself once more: Do unto others before they do unto you.

That much is clear, but nothing else is. On the one hand, there is in Egypt a judiciary, and there are lawyers and professional legal associations, and there are academic faculties and scholarship and all that, and the people involved in these walks of life take them very seriously, at least most of the time. And it must be said, the sophistication of these activities has been much greater in Egypt than in most other Arab countries. On the other hand, throughout the period of military bureaucratic rule since July 1952 the judiciary has never really been independent. It has been an arm of the autocracy, which is essentially the army. So when the judiciary rose up in protest last week, seemingly as one at first, against Morsi’s decrees, it was not at all obvious what this meant. Was this an act devoted to safeguarding an honorable and cherished civic institution, which didn’t really function at high levels at all, or was it a political act using the pretense of righteous legal ire as a battle axe?

No doubt, some who rose in protest care deeply about the law, while others, also no doubt, care about ultimately limiting and defeating Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt. Those who supported the judiciary’s strike out in the streets represent an array of interests, from the twenty- and thirty-somethings who first twittered the Midan al-Tahrir revolution to salafis who are competing with the Brotherhood to, especially, broad strata of Egypt’s urban middle classes who want nothing to do with the Brotherhood’s ever more evident determination to catapult Egyptian society back to the 11th century.

The President’s office has to at least pretend to care about the courts, because Morsi is pretending to be a democratic ruler. But the practical truth is that below the political level the courts have to function or the government’s own administration, let alone the formal private sector, will grind to a halt. For all of its politicization, Egypt, like most Arab countries, is a very litigious place.

If this isn’t confusing enough, it now seems like the judiciary has split, with some prepared to engage with the President’s office and others not. As I say, no one really knows what this means, including Egyptians.

The best way to get at least a feel for this in lieu of an actual understanding is to read what Nancy Okail, formerly of a cage in a Cairo courtroom and now of Freedom House in Washington, has written for us. Come to think of it, it wouldn’t hurt to read Ashraf Khalil’s recent post as well, and that by Charles Dunne and David Kramer. My own comments going back now a year or so might help too, and ultimately readers would do well to re-visit Michelle Dunne’s TAI essay from September/October 2008. When the Mubarak regime tumbled into its final crisis, a lot of surprised mainstream media commentators whined that no one had foreseen collapse. Horse crap: Anyone paying attention to the country knew that the end of the Mubarak era was approaching fast and worried that the U.S. government was not prepared properly to deal with it. Ambassador Morton Abramowitz and Mark Lowenthal’s constructive “what-if” analysis of that failure in the January/February 2012 issue is also worth a look. (If mainstream media honchos would actually read serious analyses once in a while, maybe their “surprise quotient” would drop some.)

As confusing as it is, what’s going on in Egypt matters enormously—for the country itself, of course, but also for the region and for U.S. interests in it. Broadly speaking, Egypt faces three alternative futures. The current regime could collapse and the country fall back into the arms of the military bureaucracy. Democratic forms might be retained, as they were before, but very little democratic substance. Or the Muslim Brotherhood regime could eventually consolidate itself, declare a populist-propelled but socially regressive and intolerant “democracy in one country”, and create a regional foreign policy as aggressive and disruptive as was Nasser’s pan-Arabism of a generation ago. Or the country could muddle about, being neither military fish nor Islamist fowl, for rather a long time, with democratic norms (with Egyptian characteristics, of course) being used as a bludgeon by all sides to prevent its rivals from emerging triumphant.

The first outcome would insult our values but not necessarily our interests. The second outcome would insult both our values and our interests. The third outcome would be as indeterminate as the situation itself is indeterminate. We would just draw a psychological fence around the place and hope that it did not contaminate its neighbors, its weakness more or less ruling out aggressive forms of danger. No one can predict at this point which of these three futures will emerge, and the current mass really doesn’t yet point clearly in one direction or another. We need to be patient—something we can certainly learn from Egyptians. Aside from their uncannily wry sense of humor, Egyptians do patience rather well.


But the big news concerns Syria. And I do not mean the aspect of the news in which the President of the United States warns the Syrian dictator not to use chemical weapons against his own people. We have warned against this before, and I suppose it was a sensible thing to do, the alternative being a loud, howling nothing. But as feckless as the Obama Administration has been over the past 23 months with regard to Syria, it has not really earned the right to be taken seriously by anyone in the region.

Don’t get me wrong: The Administration had very good reason for taking a modest approach to Syria, and even I have been prepared, at least on alternate Tuesdays, to give it the benefit of the doubt when it came to the apparently supine policy of subcontracting American interests to Russia. About a year ago we actually had some genuine options for a bold policy, options that did not involve American boots on the ground, that could have saved innumerable thousands of innocent lives and turned the crisis toward a resolution favoring our interests. Michael Doran made the case early on in TAI, as did I in some detail in a March 6 post called “The Wisdom of Sheikh Zubar.” But the Administration hesitated, and the opportunity was all but lost as the protraction of the crisis brought to the fore increasingly nasty Islamist elements in Syria. Others acted, however, and we pretended to coordinate and help them. The Turks, Saudis and others provided the wherewithal to eventually tip the tide of battle, and now the regime is losing aircraft to man-portable SAM missiles and shelling its own capital as it struggles to keep its international air links open and its military bases and depots safe from marauding rebels.

The big news, however, concerns Russia. News reports indicate that, for the first time in the crisis, the Russian government is considering backing off its support for President Assad and actively urging him to surrender power. That’s what came out of Vladimir Putin’s recent trip to Ankara. The Russian government is also considering evacuating Russian nationals from Syria, and one of its key interlocutors with the Syrian elite has let slip that President Assad no longer sees much hope for escape. He expects now to lose, and he expects to be killed in the process. Either the opposition will kill him, as the Libyan opposition killed Muammar Qadaffi, or his own Alawi kin will kill him if he tries to skip town, leaving them holding the bag as hordes of vengeful Sunnis try to rip their throats out.

This is a very different tune from the one Assad was singing just a few weeks ago, the Russians told us. So the change in their assessment, at least as it now appears in public, indicates that they are in the process of trying to powder their own asses. They bet on the wrong horse, and now they will certainly try to make it look like they did no such thing, hoping that people have very short memories—which, of course, they do.

From the Obama administration’s point of view, however, this is helpful. No matter that it took the Russians so long (because it took the rebels so long, because it took the Turks, Saudis and others so long…), and no matter that they are therefore complicit in the needless deaths of so many innocents—as if they gave a damn. No matter that there was a better and quicker way. Still, when all this is over and done with and the Alawi-dominated Syrian Ba’athi regime is no more, the Administration may be able to make a plausible argument that its Russocentric, not-really-lead-from-behind tactic actually had some purchase power at the endgame. It will try to powder its ass, too. It may even try to claim disingenuously that it struck a blow regionally against Iran; that would be the ultimate exercise in chutzpah, but as everyone knows, exercise is good for you. It remains to be seen, of course, how much clout the United States has in any multinational effort to assist the reconstruction of Syria. We don’t deserve any, that’s for sure.

We may find out soon, because, if one can believe the news, the end is approaching. Military experts have been saying for months that the rebel forces are too week and too disorganized to actually seize the presidential palace or occupy Damascus. Some months ago in a post I said it, too. I also pointed out, however, that weakness is relative. If the regime’s key supporters and its praetorian guard take a hint from President Assad’s morbid demeanor, and decide to take a hike into the hills, then a troop of badge-seeking Boy Scouts might be capable of bringing down what’s left of the regime. It doesn’t take much power to push against an open door. That is, I suspect, something like what we will see over the next few days or weeks.

We may also see the great bulk of regime-associated Alawis take to the specific hills of the province of Latakia. That’s where they are originally from, and several scholars believe that the Alawis are the progeny of one of the original Canaanite tribes you can read about in the Bible. If they go back there en masse and bring as many weapons and chemicals with them as they can, there is every prospect that, at least for a while, a rump Alawi mini-state can hold out against what passes for the next Syrian government. That mini-state might have some friends, powerful ones at that: elements of the Iranian regime and Hizballah, too. So it is a mistake to think that the collapse of the current regime in Damascus means the end of the civil war. It might, but it more likely would presage a new stage in that war. It ain’t over, they say, until the fat lady sings. In Syria, at least, singing fat ladies are scarce these days.

Let me leave you, for now, with a further suggestion for reading—but not from the pages of The American Interest. If you want to gain a deeper sense of what sectarian warfare in this part of the Levant can involve with regard to attitudes, grisly tactics and self-exculpatory rationalizations, study the murderous mayhem that followed in the wake of Mohammed Ali’s failed attempt to subdue Syria in 1840. In the years that followed his retreat all hell broke lose. Happily, an Englishman was there to take it all in and write it all down. His name was Charles Henry Churchill, a colonel in the British Army and at the time the British Consul in Damascus. The book in question containing the indicated material is Mount Lebanon: A Ten Years’ Residence from 1842 to 1852, describing the Manners, Customs, and Religion of its Inhabitants with a Full and Correct Account of the Druze Religion and Containing Historical Records of the Mountain Tribes from Personal Intercourse with their Chiefs and Other Authentic Sources (three volumes).

Am I suggesting that nothing has changed in the region between the 1840s and today? That would be preposterous. Of course not. Today, nearly everyone has a cell phone.

show comments
  • Anusar Farooqui


    I am sure glad I renewed my subscription to TAI yesterday. Thanks for all the reading recommendations. Here is one from me: The Political Economy of Syria under Asad by Volker Perthes. If you have already read it, what’s your view on it?


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