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The Turmoil in the Mideast Underlines the Erosion of the Arab State System

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 28/03/2016 Kanan Makiya

Kanan Makiya is the author of "The Rope: A Novel," released March 15.
Amidst the tumult and chaos raging everywhere in the Middle East, a constant stands out: the eroding power and influence of the state. It is perhaps best described as a tendency toward erosion, even fragmentation, that seems to be underway across the region, but nowhere more so than in Arabism's heartland -- Syria and Iraq.
And yet, while the whole Arab region seems to be affected to one degree or another, Turkey and Iran are not. Why? What accounts for this "Arab" exception? And just how deep-rooted is this state of affairs?
The phenomenon is unlike anything so-called experts on the region, like myself, recognize from the post-Ottoman past; the deeper, pre-Ottoman past, is even less relevant.
The best one can say is that we seem to be at another of those great historical junctures in Arab history, like the early 1960s, during the peak of pan-Arabism's ascent, when events in one country leapfrogged into others with the greatest of ease. The difference now is that there are declining states, not centralizing and powerful ones, and there are no charismatic leaders or integrating ideologies like pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, Arab revolution or the struggle against imperialism and Zionism. Even political Islam, in its latest and most venal incarnation -- the so-called Islamic State -- seems to be constructed to repel rather than attract large numbers of people to its cause.
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Syrians celebrating the announcement of the union agreement between Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic on Feb. 7, 1958. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

In the midst of all this upheaval, new realities are asserting themselves: the future of Iraq, for instance, can no longer be disentangled from that of Syria, in part because ISIS has redrawn the maps of each country. If the Lebanese civil war (1975-1989) could be contained, the Syrian civil war clearly cannot. Anyway, it is at this stage more of a proxy war than a civil war. The fates of Lebanon and Syria, along with Iraq, have become inextricably intertwined.
It is worth noting that not only are strong leaders or integrating ideologies absent as the fates of whole countries merge, but their emergence has become difficult to imagine. There was a time in Iraq, in the 1960s before the Baath Party, when you could expect a group of army officers leading a column of tanks to take over strategic points in the capital and then conquer the state. That scenario is a thing of the past now. Political power is just too fragmented, like a sheet of glass that has shattered into a thousand pieces.
Power is about people coalescing around an idea, whether represented by a leader or not. It may be the idea of single Arab nation, or the idea of Syria or the idea of Iraq, or the great illusory nostalgia of another Caliphate.

There is no longer any unifying principle in the sphere of politics around which people can coalesce.

But nowadays, there are just too many ideas out there, not merely in the sphere of culture and personal identity -- which is normal and healthy -- but in the sphere of politics. Am I an Arab first, or an Iraqi? Should I, for the first time in my centuries-long history, be a Shiite, politically speaking? Or a Sunni? What does that even mean? Or perhaps I am a Kurd and not any kind of Syrian or Iraqi.
Much of what counts as politics has turned into competing narratives of victimhood. So what does all of that do to a person's identity, politically speaking? There is no longer any unifying principle in the sphere of politics around which people, and therefore political power, can coalesce.
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U.S. Army engineers move into position on March 18, 2003 near the Kuwait-Iraq border. (Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

What caused this tendency toward erosion and fragmentation? Could it have been the ouster of a particular dictator in 2003? Or perhaps it was the fall of a whole slew of them during the course of the Arab Spring? Or perhaps it was caused by the rapid transformation of the Arab Spring into the deep winter we are now living through.
It is enough to ask the question to see the fallacy of looking too closely at the present. Far more convincing is the realization that the fall of dictators and an Arab Spring-turned-deep-winter are all symptoms of a much broader, decades-long erosion of state and politics in the Arab world. These tendencies toward erosion were there all along but only became visible after these watershed events.
We should not reduce the Arab state to its dictators, tempting though that may be. Some sectors of the Iraqi and Syrian public, demoralized as they are by a new crop of leaders or by the failure of the Arab Spring, look back with nostalgia at life under Saddam Hussein or Syrian President Bashar Assad. Thinking that life then was better than life today -- and that the ouster of the dictator was a bad idea -- is to suggest that no form of governance other than by a "strongman" is conceivable in countries like Iraq and Syria. Certainly the argument is a rational one, given the chaos. But it is also a cynical one. And I at least will not go there.
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Assad, left, talks to government soldiers in the village of Maaloula, Syria, on April 20, 2014. (SANA via AP, File)

If there is an exception to this way of looking at things, it has got to be that of the Kurdish experience in northern Iraq. But here a slightly different version of the problem raises its head. It is not that the Kurds don't want to constitute a state or are somehow unqualified and too divided to do so -- most certainly not. It is that it has become too dangerous for them to do so. And not because of dangers emanating from the Iraqi state, as was previously the case, but because of dangers emanating from the region around them.
And yet the Kurds' fighting prowess against ISIS is altering the perceptions of European and American powers working with them -- for the first time in modern Arab history. One can therefore imagine a pro-Western Kurdish garrison state that buttresses Western interests in an Arab landscape in turmoil, alongside Israel. There is nothing desirable about that scenario -- certainly not for the Kurdish people. But the state of Arab affairs is pushing the Kurds in that direction.
So how are we to understand what is going on? Wars, and the political inability of the Arab states to deal with their aftermath, are a good place to begin understanding the origins of the fragmentation afflicting the region today. Four of them have defined the Arab landscape as we see it today:

  1. The 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The outcome of this war, in the shape of the occupied Palestinian Territories, still haunts the region -- both Palestinian and Israeli political thinking is still entirely dominated by it.
  2. The eight-year Iran-Iraq war. The long-term impact of this war on Iraq and Iraqi-Iranian relations is still evident today. Just look at the background of those now running the show in Iraq, like Qassem Suleimani -- the leader of the Quds Force, a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard -- and the Shiite political elite in Iraq.
  3. The 1990-91 Iraqi occupation, annexation and destruction of Kuwait, followed by the U.S.-led Gulf War. There are unique features of that war that need to be mentioned: Saudi Arabia paid for it and the U.S., not the Arab world, waged it. Why? To restore the Arab state system to what it had been before Saddam violated it -- the same system that is falling apart everywhere today. A new kind of event in Arab politics had taken place, one that, like 1967, underlined the fragility and helplessness of the Arab state system.
  4. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Quite unexpectedly, this war lifted the lid and made visible the extent of the rot. Here was a war that showed that the emperor -- the all-powerful Baath state that Saddam built -- was without any clothes. The extent of has nakedness caught everyone by surprise, from the Americans who waged the war to the Iraqis like myself who supported it to those who opposed it. In point of fact, there was no war to speak of in 2003, certainly not in the sense of the other wars that Saddam had waged. The Iraqi army collapsed long before Paul Bremer, President George W. Bush's special envoy to Iraq, called for its dissolution. There was no fighting to speak of. All the rest of the state's institutions followed suit, which is why Iraq is now traversing completely uncharted and dangerous waters in state building.
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A group of Yazidis from Iraq walk on train tracks near the Greek village of Idomeni on March 3. (LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

kanan makiya the rope © Provided by The Huffington Post kanan makiya the rope So where do we go from here? Bringing the state back into the picture seems to me the most urgent task facing the region. In the political firmament, there is absolutely nothing worse than not having a state, as any Palestinian -- or, nowadays, any Iraqi or Syrian as well -- will tell you. What better proof of this proposition than all the refugees piling up on Europe's borders?
And it has to begin in Syria. Bringing back the Syrian state -- to be sure, not in the image of the old one — is a very tall order that cannot be left to the Arab world alone. It can only come about through a regional and international consensual arrangement, which at the moment seems most unlikely to happen.

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