The Future of Iraq and Syria
As we all know, predicting the future is tricky business. At the same time however, it isn’t impossible. We know, for example, that in roughly 5 billion years, the sun will expand to a red-giant star, ending any life on Earth that might’ve still existed. We don’t know specifically when this will happen or how big the sun will get, but we have some information. In the same way, we can make some general predictions about the near future of one of the most complicated regions on Earth - the Middle East.
Let us start with Syria, which has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since 2011. Almost 400,000 people have been killed, millions have been displaced, and the situation is overall dire. However, the war is nearing an end. ISIS forces have been on the run for the better part of a year, and are losing ground rapidly in both Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has gradually been crumbling. In December of 2016, the Syrian government retook Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria. Additionally, the United States has gradually ended support for the Syrian rebels, who are also having to fight off Al-Qaeda’s remnants. Overall, the general consensus appears to be an Assad victory. There is simply no force in Syria that can match Assad’s ruthlessness, Russia’s sheer power, and Iran’s cunning. The only gray area seems to be the Kurds, who are holding a referendum to legally enforce the de-facto autonomy they have enjoyed since the onset of the war in 2011. In general, the Kurds and Assad have largely stayed out of each other’s way during the civil war, with the Kurds focused on fighting ISIS and consolidating territory in Northern Syria. A deal between Assad and the Kurds would be the most peaceful outcome, with the Kurds enjoying some form of autonomy while at the same time keeping Syria whole. If negotiations fall through, there is little doubt about Assad crushing the Kurds, as the US would be reluctant to help the Kurds given the fact that Turkey (one of the most powerful countries in NATO) views the Kurds as a security threat and an enemy to the Turkish people. Thus, it is near certain that Assad stays in power, and the civil war will likely come to an end before 2020, if not earlier. The Kurds may be crushed by Assad, but there is a greater chance of a deal occurring that grants the Kurds autonomy in exchange for recognizing the Assad regime.
Iraq is slightly more complicated. In the past, I have argued for Iraq to be broken up, and I still believe that this is the best solution for Iraq. However, the future of Iraq after ISIS is defined by one thing: fear. Tension levels between the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis are still very high, and with an Iranian-backed Shiite government in Baghdad, Iraq could disintegrate into the same type of religious and ethnic violence that has plagued it since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
These tension levels are already manifesting themselves in a Kurdish independence referendum, which was held on September 25, 2017, with the outcome in strong support of independence. Already, the Iraqi government has voiced strong opposition to the referendum, cutting off air travel to Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan region in Iraq. The referendum is also opposed by Turkey and Iran, who fear that it could lead to uprisings among their own Kurdish populations in their respective countries. Indeed, Turkey and Iraq launched joint military drills just after the referendum, and Turkey also threatened to cut off an oil pipeline exporting oil from Kurdish held northern Iraq. Regardless, Kurdish leaders wish that the “yes” vote will give them a mandate to start negotiations with Baghdad and the Iraqi central government, despite Iraq’s refusal to hold discussions on the referendum.. Whether Iraq and the Kurds will actually sit down and negotiate is anyone’s guess, and the Kurds could retain their de-facto autonomy without having de-jure autonomy. This is a highly interesting and rapidly developing scenario - expect more coverage of it over the coming weeks.
Elsewhere, tension remains high between Sunnis and Shiites. Iran backed Hezbollah fighters recently attacked a Sunni village, as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wishes to cement his grasp on Iraq. Additionally, Iraqi Sunnis deeply mistrust the Iraqi central government, as they have been oppressed under the regime of the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, as well as the former prime minister, Nouri al-Makini. It likely holds true that Iraq will be a site of sectarian and ethnic violence over the coming years, due to the lack of strong central authority and stability in the war-torn country.