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How 'Manageable Chaos' Spawned ISIS In The Middle East

20/08/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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'Manageable chaos' is a myopic idea that has torn the Middle-East apart. To understand why, we need to go back a hundred years in the past. In 1916, Britain and France signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement in secret. Then, in the middle of the First World War, they decided the Ottoman Empire needed to go. Sultan Mehmed VI in Istanbul controlled crucial shipping lanes and the oil riches of the Persian Gulf. So, while T.E Lawrence duped the Arab sheikhs with promises of a "Greater Syria," the European powers divided the Levant as it suited them.

The problem was not that outsiders drew the borders. The problem was these borders were indifferent to the people who lived within them. The clean lines carved through the Middle-East ignored sectarian, tribal or ethnic geographies. Many Shia majority areas ended up under Sunni control, and vice-versa. Thirty-million Kurds also ended up homeless. These progeny of the mighty Median Kings of Asia Minor became minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

"The problem was not that outsiders drew the borders. The problem was these borders were indifferent to the people who lived within them."

Nevertheless, neither Britain nor France were naive in their carving up of old Ottoman territory. They required a stable Middle-East for trade, not a strong one. Both were fine with the natives squabbling amongst themselves and needing their protection. They would happily maintain the status quo. Even if this sectarian soup ever spilled over, it would still be 'manageable chaos'. Failing which, Britain and France were far away enough to not let any blowback singe them. Indeed, until the rise of Al-Qaeda, Arab nationalism and not Islamic extremism concerned them most.

When we think of 'manageable chaos' as an acceptable geopolitical risk, the rise and staying power of the Islamic State (ISIS) becomes clear. Turkey, for example, thought of ISIS as a foreign policy tool until the Suruc bombing in July. It considered Kurdish militias like the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the People's Protection Units (YPG) as far "more dangerous than ISIS."

President Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, overtly Islamic, felt that ISIS militants were wayward Sunni brothers who it could reason with. The Kurds, meanwhile, threatened the country's borders with their endless struggle for statehood. Since 2011, militants bound for ISIS camps flowed back and forth through Turkey, and an illegal oil and weapons trade flourished behind Ankara's willfully turned back. Erdogan, panicked by the early PKK/YPG wins over ISIS in Syria, staunchly declared "the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier" was unacceptable.

Erdogan wanted ISIS to neuter the Kurds nationalists in Syria. It mattered not that Kurdish militias were NATO's allies in the fight against Al-Baghdadi's brigades. Turkey would happily play a double-game if it meant getting rid of both them and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Baathist leader had provided material and moral support to a Turkish Kurd insurgency that lasted three decades. Assad had also sheltered PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, a declared international terrorist. Today, even as Turkish planes bomb ISIS targets in Syria, they unleash the same hell on PKK posts in northern Iraq.

"As with Turkey, America was comfortable in the knowledge that whatever entity survived this casserole of a conflict would never be stronger than the original Al-Qaeda, and hence another 'manageable chaos'."

Earlier, in September 2014, retired US General Thomas McInerney admitted "We helped build ISIS." By "We," he meant Saudi and Israeli intelligence along with the CIA. The first two shared a deep interest in containing Iran's "Shia Crescent" ambitions. Sen. John McCain, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had long lobbied to arm the "moderate rebels" of Syria after President Obama dithered on a military solution. Obama's constant redrawing of the red line for Assad became a public relations nightmare after the Ghouta chemical attacks killed hundreds of civilians in August 2013.

Clearly, the conspirators needed a more potent predator, and duly recruited the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq to start pummeling Assad from a new, northern front. As with Turkey, America was comfortable in the knowledge that whatever entity survived this casserole of a conflict would never be stronger than the original Al-Qaeda, and hence another 'manageable chaos'.

They, however, overestimated former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's polarizing reign in neighboring Iraq, and the sectarian grumblings it created. As Assad's forces ceded space in Syria, so did Maliki's surprised and ill-prepared ones next door. Mosul fell spectacularly, but ISIS was far from an overnight sensation.

There are two possible big-ticket outcomes if the fight against ISIS becomes long-drawn. In two years, many Arab democracies could follow the General el-Sisi route in Egypt and revert to military or civilian dictatorships. Cornered societies with weak governments historically veer towards nationalism, which more often than not results in the rise of tyrants.

Conversely, if Kurdish militias are able to terrorize ISIS in the Levant, they will have a strong case for statehood and the West will back them despite Turkey. Especially if the next US president mirrors Obama in being allergic to talk of boots on the ground. Either way, peace will elude the Middle-East for some time.

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