by Marianna Charountaki
The Syrian crisis has altered local discourse and the foreign policy orientation of many of the regional state and non-state actors in the Middle Eastern region, not forgetting the powerful member states of the international community. This is illustrated by the explicit refusal of the European states as well as the US administration to become involved in direct interference in the Syrian crisis, despite the accelerating massacre of increasing numbers of citizens, and the heavily-curtailed reporting by the international media of the actual situation on the ground.
Bashar Al Assad’s unparalleled strength in preserving his power and surviving in the changing and challenging Middle Eastern political arena, in alliance with Tehran and other Shi’a forces in the region has elevated Iran’s status as central player in the region.
Whether as a constructed reality or as an actual long-term threat, the rise of IS (Islamic State, formerly known as the State of Iraq and the Levant – داعش, July 2013), the powerful mercenary army recruited following the transfer of power to the Iraqis (28 June 2004), has facilitated developments in the region, mostly to the advantage of the targets of Iranian foreign policy. IS revealed Syria’s political and military power; gave Iran the opportunity, and probably the ability, to push Turkish foreign policy into a corner; and in Iraq temporarily hindered the rapid progress of the Kurdish development project that had emerged in recent years. Whereas IS blurred the aim of the revolution in Syria, transforming it instead into a brutal civil war, for the Kurds IS slowed down their momentum and a smooth transition from a non-state to a de facto state entity. Eventually the broader MENA region was forced into turmoil, so that issues such as the Iranian nuclear file and others were temporarily forgotten.
The rapid expansion of IS, and the shifting of the conflict from Syria, where it was directed primarily towards Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas, to Iraq and specifically the ‘corner’ where the Turkish, Iranian and Kurdish territorial borders converge, does not seem to have been accidental, especially since it was taking place before any major IS attack had actually been concluded against the Syrian regime or its forces.
According to recent assertions by the PYD (20 January 2015), the latest attacks against the oil-rich province of Al-Hasakah carried out jointly by Iranian troops and forces of the Syrian regime, along with IS’s strategy of targeting mainly the Kurdish population raise queries about the actual identity of IS itself, since there was no evidence of any attacks on towns such as Latakia, an area populated by Alawis, or Homs, at the borders with South Lebanon where Lebanese Hezbullah operations are based. In addition, and given the Kurdistan Region’s stability and security thus far compared with most places in the broader MENA region, IS’s expansion into the Kurdish areas of Iraq was also intimidating.
Iranian foreign policy needs to isolate Turkey and gain influence over Iraq and the Kurdish parts of both Syria and Iraq, so that pressuring the US administration and its foreign policy decision makers appears as a tactical albeit a long-term objective.
Unfortunately there are signs that as a result of such events, a Sunni/Shi’a divide, which is starting to take shape, can only deepen. It can thus be concluded that, counter to all the arguments against the artificial nature of sectarianism as advocated by regional foreign policies, along with the desire of the region’s leaders and their citizens for homogeneity by resolving any differences for the common good, sectarianism, as an intrinsic element of the region’s foreign policies, represents a future threat.
The role of both Iraq and Syria as centres for Middle Eastern developments will be crucial. The challenge facing all political agents in the region today is for a stable and secure Middle East. The Kurds appear to be key players in moving towards their much-desired form of democratisation, based on their specific cultural and traditional terms (given that each national entity in the area understands and translates democratisation differently according to its’ structures). Abdullah Ӧcalan’s prediction almost a decade ago(2003) that “the democratisation of the Middle East runs through Kurdish democratisation” today sounds quite prophetic.
Finally the GCC as the regional organisation that is the least affected by the onslaught of IS, and that supports regional security and stability, instead of interference; it could possibly pursue a much more constructive policy in supporting greater cooperation and alliance among its neighbours.
Dr. Marianna Charountaki is a Sessional Lecturer at Reading University (UK). Her research interests range from international relations and foreign policy analysis to the international relations of the broader Middle East. She is the author of the book The Kurds and US Foreign Policy: International Relations in the Middle East since 1945, (Routledge, 2010) as well as articles like “US foreign policy in theory and practice: from Soviet-era containment to the era of the Arab Uprisings(s)”, Journal of American Foreign Policy Interests: the Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Vol.36, Issue 4, (Routledge, 2014), pp.255-267.