19 June 2015
The following is a key paragraph from “The Modern History of Iraq” by Phebe Marr:
“Without substantial international support and lacking in understanding of Iraq or clear planning for Iraq’s future, the decision by the United States to occupy Iraq was fraught with dangers. Toppling Saddam proved easy and swift, but replacing the government and the political and social institutions that underpinned the regime was a long, difficult, and costly process – for both the United States and Iraq. The initial attack, followed by unchecked looting and the ill-advised dismantling of the political and military structures, created widespread destruction and a political and social vacuum, which foreign personnel proved unable to replace. Iraq soon began to fracture into ethnic and sectarian components.”(*)
The fracturing of Iraq gave an opportunity to al Qaida to extend its reach and al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) was founded. In October 2006 AQI established Islamic State ıf Iraq (ISI) with the goal the establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq.
On May 2, 2011 Usame bin Laden was killed. Some thought that this marked the beginning of the end for al Qaida. Surely this was a major blow to the group but defeating it remained a challenge because enough people within the “wider Middle East” remained prone to radical ideologies if not terrorism. Four years after his death, ISIL controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Al Qaida has gained new footholds elsewhere. And, the Arab spring has only brought turmoil to a region extending from Afghanistan to the Gulf and further into Africa with signs of trouble in central Asia.
All we hear now is the need to “degrade and defeat ISIL”, the recapturing of Tikrit, the fall of Ramadi, train-and-equip programs for the “moderate” Syrian opposition to topple Assad, Saudis bombing the Houthis and ISIL bombing Shiite mosques in Sana. Of course, there are ongoing efforts aiming at political solutions. But these inspire little confidence since those who can make a difference are not fully engaged. In other words, as in the past, the world is continuing to look at the symptoms of Middle East unrest and ignoring the causes. The latter should have been addressed decades ago but opportunities were squandered.
The constitution of UNESCO says that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed. This was after the Second World War and the overriding concern was avoiding another world conflict. This has been accomplished. But in the case of the Middle East the defenses of peace could not be built. The terrain did not allow for that because the peoples of the region were never offered any hope of democracy, fair and equal opportunity, economic and social progress and fair distribution of income. All they saw was a vicious circle where internal and external problems fed on one another impeding political maturity. The West was only after its own interests and failed to meet the expectations of the peoples of the region so much so that Western public discourse on democracy eventually became suspect. And, the invasion of Iraq opened Pandora’s box.
Democracy cannot be airdropped. It can be promoted but not lectured. And, the best way to promote it is leading by example. Turkey has been far ahead of the Middle East in this respect essentially for two reasons: Our proximity to and centuries of close relations with Europe and Atatürk’s enlightened reforms. This is how Turkey became a member of the Council of Europe, NATO and launched accession negotiations with the EU. Had the process moved forward or at least kept on track this would have set an example for the peoples of the Middle East. Unfortunately, the EU lacked strategic vision and Turkey failed to continue with reform. Thus, the axiom “Turkey is a bridge between East and West” failed to prove its wisdom. Not much, in the political sense, crossed the bridge towards the east. On the contrary, refugees are now trying to cross it by the thousands in the opposite direction.
Turkey’s democratically held June 7 elections have confronted Turkey with yet another test of political maturity: formation of a government with no party commanding a parliamentary majority. Should the efforts to form a coalition fail there would be new elections. Whoever forms the next government there should be a genuine effort to revive the EU accession process not only to encourage Turkey to return to the path of reform but also to offer some inspiration to those trying to break the vicious circle of the Middle East.
(*) Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq, Westview Press, 2012, p.257.