Lt. General Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said on Thursday that he feared Iraq and Syria might never recover from the Islamic State invasion, Syrian civil war, and related stress factors. “I’m having a tough time seeing it come back together,” Stewart confessed, as quoted by the Associated Press.
His bleak assessment was supported by CIA director John Brennan, who “noted that the countries’ borders remain in place, but the governments have lost control of them,” according to the AP report, which went on to helpfully remind readers that “a self-declared caliphate by the Islamic State straddles the border between both countries.” That would seem like a substantial argument against the argument that the borders of Iraq and Syria remain in place, as opposed to the respective national governments losing control of them.
Brennan anticipated that the Middle East “is going to be seeing change over the coming decade or two that is going to make it look unlike it did. Iraq and Syria are being torn apart by a number of forces Stewart and Brennan described: sectarian conflict, ethnic strife, disenchantment with central governments (which would be putting the state of the Syrian mind rather mildly at the moment, but the Middle East has many cases of remote communities and minority groups losing all confidence in their nominal governments), and, of course, the Kurdish question.
The latter could be one of the most difficult questions for the Western world to solve. Obama foreign policy has destroyed American influence almost everywhere in the Middle East, but the Kurds are one of the few serious allies left. They have demonstrated both fighting spirit and signs of interest in establishing a relatively benign and honest state. Unfortunately, that state would absorb chunks of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, none of which are eager to contribute territory and population to Greater Kurdistan.
“The Obama administration’s official policy is that Iraq and Syria remain internationally recognized nation states,” the AP writes. “Administration officials, for example, have resisted calls to send arms directly to the Kurds, who have carved out a measure of autonomy in northern Iraq and have been America’s most loyal ally in the region. The administration has insisted that arms for the Kurds be routed through the government in Baghdad.”
The AP mentions Joe Biden’s proposal in 2006 to let Iraq fall apart into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish states—an idea that would clearly leave Iran either absorbing or controlling the Shiite segment at this point. Sunni fears about Shiite governments and Iranian domination is one of the reasons ISIS and al-Qaeda have done so well at recruiting. Many existing Middle Eastern borders are seen as century-old artifacts of postwar Western politics, so if Western influence in the region fades, it wouldn’t be surprising to see different forces reshape those borders.
It really is difficult to see Syria recovering, as General Stewart said, although a brutal Assad backed by Russian and Iranian forces might be able to regain a good deal of control from ISIS and suppress other rebel factions once and for all. Few of the plausible outcomes seem cheerful. Just imagine the wave of “refugees” that will pour out of the Middle East if its borders are redrawn with bloody force by sectarian conquerors.