The Islamic State’s military triumphs in Iraq and Syria are not only fueling a humanitarian catastrophe; they are also throwing the region’s existing alliances into disarray and even calling into question national borders. A new Middle East is emerging, one that already differs from the old order in two significant ways: an enhanced role for the Kurds and Iran, and diminished influence for the region’s Sunni powers.
The Middle East is not just facing the possible triumph of a force that seeks to achieve its strategic goals by mass murder and enslavement (for example, of Yazidi women and girls). What is also becoming apparent is the collapse of the region’s old order, which had existed more or less unchanged since the end of World War I, and with it, the decline of the region’s traditional stabilizing powers.
The political weakness of those powers – whether global actors like the United States or regional players like Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – has led to a remarkable role reversal in the region’s power dynamic. Although the US and the European Union still classify the pro-independence Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization (whose founder, Abdullah Öcalan, has been in prison in Turkey since 1999), only the PKK’s fighters, it seems, are willing and able to stop the Islamic State’s further advance. As a result, the Kurds’ fate has become a burning question in Turkey.
Turkey is a NATO member, and any violation of its territorial integrity could easily trigger the North Atlantic Treaty’s mutual-defense clause. And the Kurdish question entails a potential for much wider conflict, because statehood would also threaten the territorial integrity of Syria, Iraq, and probably Iran.
And yet, in fighting for their lives against the Islamic State, the Kurds have won new legitimacy; once the fighting has ended, they will not simply forget their national ambitions – or the mortal threat they faced. And it is not just the Kurds’ unity and bravery that have raised their prestige; they have increasingly become an anchor of stability and a reliable pro-Western partner in a region that is short on both.
That presents the West with a dilemma: given its reluctance to commit its own ground forces to a war it knows it must win, it will have to arm the Kurds – not just the Kurdish Peshmerga militia of northern Iraq, but also other Kurdish groups – with more advanced weaponry. That will not sit well with Turkey – or, most likely, with Iran – which is why resolving the Kurdish question will require a large investment of diplomatic skill and commitment by the West, the international community, and the countries in question.
But the biggest regional winner could prove to be Iran, whose influence in Iraq and Afghanistan gained a substantial boost from US policy under President George W. Bush. Iranian cooperation is essential to stable solutions in Iraq and Syria, and the country plays an important role in the Israel-Palestine conflict and in Lebanon.
It is impossible to bypass Iran in the search for solutions to the region’s myriad crises. In fact, in the fight against the Islamic State, even limited military cooperation between the US and Iran no longer seems to be off the table.
The key strategic question, however, will not be resolved on the region’s battlefields, but in the various negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. If compromise (or even a short-term extension of the current interim agreement, with a realistic prospect for a final accord) is achieved, Iran’s broader regional role will become both stronger and more constructive. But that outcome remains highly uncertain.
The nuclear issue implicates another important hidden question, namely Iran’s relationship with Israel, at whose northern border in Lebanon stands Hezbollah, Iran’s closest partner in the region. Hezbollah remains committed to Israel’s destruction, and Iran supplies it with powerful weapons. And here, unfortunately, no major change should be expected.
This much is clear about the new Middle East: It will be both more Shia and Iranian and more Kurdish, which will also make it a good deal more complicated. Old alliances (and conflicts) will no longer be as self-evident as in the past – even if they continue.
Beyond that, one can say only that the Middle East will remain the powder keg of world politics in the twenty-first century. Its stabilization, while of global interest, will be difficult to achieve – and only by a complicated mixture of military and diplomatic means. No single global power is likely to manage that alone.
This article was originally published by Project Syndicate.