Iran panics about its Arab, Kurd or Baluch minorities. Conventional wisdom, argues that federalism
A federal cure for a shattered Middle East
By David Gardner
The ultra-centralism of the Arab security state is a recruiting sergeant for Isis
A ny chance of an end to the carnage in Syria and Iraq, and a return to some level of stability, looks contingent on an international deal on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which unlocks US rapprochement with Tehran. That, in turn, would have to lead to a cessation of the proxy war across the Middle East, if not detente, between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. These rivals for regional hegemony would have to conclude that their poisonously sectarian tactics had rebounded – not least in the eruption of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis, a deadly threat to them both.
But then what? Iraq and Syria have been shattered by the sectarian whirlwind howling through the Levant. Can these and other imploding mosaic states in the wider region, from Libya to Yemen, be put back together again? There is a slim chance of transmuting this fragmentation into an institutionalised devolution of power, within a new national compact to preserve a unitary but not uniform state.
Note how that last sentence dances around the word “federal”. For most political actors in the Middle East this word is so toxic it means “a foreign plot to dismember my country” – and there have been enough cases of that for the idea to take root. In the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, the British and French empowered local minorities in Syria and Mesopotamia to advance their imperial aims, adding layers of bitterness to sectarian antagonism. Yet one need not go back so far.
Iraq was smashed into pieces after the US-led invasion of 2003, which replaced the Sunni minority tyranny of Saddam Hussein with what turned out to be ruinously sectarian leaders from the Shia – a majority in the country though a minority in Islam. In Syria, once the west withheld decisive support for mainstream rebels of the country’s Sunni majority, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime used sectarian tactics to drown the rebellion in blood, the Isis narrative acquired real traction. Its revanchist message of Sunni supremacism, and the otherwise fanciful idea that more than 1bn Sunni worldwide are victims of the minority Shia, is turbo-charged by the Sunni sense of dispossession in Iraq and betrayal in Syria.
This hallucinatory message needs a convincing counter-narrative. The US-Iran rapprochement, and Saudi-Iranian detente, has to be fleshed out. After Isis seized huge tracts of Iraqi territory this year, both Washington and Tehran, for example, concluded it was essential to replace Nouri al-Maliki, the sectarian Shia Islamist who had persecuted the Sunni and alienated Iraq’s Kurds, with a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.
There are signs this may rally some Sunni tribes against the jihadis. But there is little chance of mainstream Sunni sentiment in Syria turning against Isis if the Assads stay, kept in place by Iran and its allies. An Iran that wants to reintegrate regionally and internationally should ditch the Assad clique, as it did Mr Maliki.
The Saudis, for their part, must be persuaded to combat the sectarian bigotry of their Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which Isis has taken many murderous steps further. A Saudi court, for example, recently sentenced Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a cleric and activist from the kingdom’s Shia minority, to death by beheading and crucifixion – barbaric signature practices of Isis as it massacres its way across the Levant.
The ultra-centralism of the Arab security state – whether cloaked in the fascism of the Ba’ath parties of Saddam’s Iraq and the Assads’ Syria or the religious absolutism of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia – is part of the problem, not the solution. These closed systems are recruiting sergeants for Isis.
Yet this culture of centralism has roots. When the Ottoman Empire crumbled a century ago, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Jacobin republic of Turkey as well as the Wahhabi kingdom of Ibn Saud were forged by centralising force, with total disregard for minorities. As the fires of sectarianism melt regional borders, even an ancient national entity such as Persian Iran panics about its Arab, Kurd or Baluch minorities.
Conventional wisdom, in and about this convulsed region, argues that federalism – whether you dodge the word or not – is anathema, a non-starter. But the reality is that Syria and Iraq, bolted together for Anglo-French convenience from Ottoman ruins a century ago, have burst asunder.
A preference for centralised institutions, or the seductive old model of strongmen as guarantors of stability, is not going to put them back together. Most institutions except tribe and sect have collapsed. Security – to use the term loosely – is in local hands across much of the region, and mostly with warlords.
The trick now is to find ways of institutionalising local power, and making it mutually acceptable across diverse groups, through such things as local policing or a fair share-out of national resources. Mr Abadi, the new Iraqi premier, has pushed in a federal direction with a deal on sharing oil revenue with the Kurds, as well as in putative policing deals with the Sunni, whereby security is devolved to local entities – nationally linked up – rather than imposed from outside by one community on another.
Announcing the Kurdish oil deal this month, Mr Abadi explicitly rejected the prevailing zero-sum mentality. “Even if I win a little bit more than him or the other way around, at least we’re not both losing,” he said.