Divide and rule in the Middle East

The United States appears to have adopted the strategy of the British Empire when dealing with the Middle East, creating dissent and lending assistance to whichever side opposes its enemies. However, history shows this approach to the Middle East policies is likely to backfire.

Children playing Tal Abyad, Syria
Kurds live alongside other ethnic groups in patchwork areas across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. © dpa

Two important decisions were made concerning the Kurdish area in northern Syria.

First, President Donald Trump decided to call back the United States military presence that protected the Kurdish rebels. The U.S. now finds itself in a position where it must make some crucial decisions, but every possible decision is wrong. This state of affairs results from past choices based on flawed principles – either “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” or “divide and rule,” and in most instances a combination of both. This approach can bring short-term advances and victories, as history proves, but is catastrophic in the long term.

Second, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered an invasion of the Turkish armed forces into northern Syria. Turkey wants to establish a buffer zone protecting it against potential terrorist attacks sponsored by a Kurdish stronghold in the area. It is not threatened by the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, but when it comes to Kurdish-held areas in Syria, Ankara has real reasons for concern. Some of the latest terrorist attacks in the country were carried out with resources from northern Syria. Even if Turkey is opposed to the regime in Damascus, it is in its interest to preserve Syrian integrity to prevent a Kurdish state.

Failed politics

Kurds lived in the Ottoman Empire for centuries. The Sultan’s troops crushed local Kurdish uprisings from time to time, but never had any real problems with ethnic minorities. In today’s Republic of Turkey, Kurdish and Turkish populations live in a geographical patchwork in eastern Anatolia. Separation is certainly impossible.

This difficult situation is the result of the failed politics of the last hundred years.

In the “peace dictate” of Sevres after World War I – labeled A Peace To End All Peace by historian David Fromkin – Britain and France carved out territories from the Ottoman Empire. During the war, London especially had encouraged Arab uprisings and sponsored terrorism against Turkey. Later on, the United Kingdom broke its promises to the Arab world and took control of most of the Middle East, creating areas with artificial borders. Iraq and Syria are examples of such political entities.

After World War II these areas became independent countries. They immediately fell prey to foreign powers during the Cold War. This had different consequences for Syria and Iraq, both multireligious and multiethnic states created during the Paris conferences after World War I with no consideration for the opinions of their people or regional leaders.

Syria was long under the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president. He cunningly navigated the tension between the Soviet Union and the West, and was an important player in the Arab League. Much like his son today, he kept the country together and protected the minorities that supported the regime. This maintained a certain stability and prosperity.

Washington started copying the old British model, assisting the enemies of rivals.

In Iraq, after a murderous coup d’etat and the assassination of the royal family, a military clique came to power. Saddam Hussein held the country together with an iron fist, even resorting to genocide. Still the West supported him in his war with Iran, which was a declared enemy of the U.S.

The British Empire was built on the basis of dissent. For centuries, England fostered conflict between France and the Habsburgs on the European continent, continuously changing sides, to promote a “balance of power.” India was easily conquered by creating dissension between the different states on the subcontinent in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the era leading to World War I, the United Kingdom felt challenged by two powers: Russia and Germany. The war was in large part caused by London’s attempts to escalate tensions between them. The strategy succeeded, but its consequences resulted in the dissolution of the British Empire 40 years later.

After World War II, the U.S. took on the mantle of the Western hegemon. Slowly, Washington started to copy the old British model, assisting the enemies of real or potential rivals. It was in this context that Saddam Hussein received U.S. support against Iran. During the Arab Spring, the West backed those who rebelled against the Assad regime, including Islamic State (also known as Daesh or ISIS). When ISIS then overran large territories in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. looked for allies against them. The Western game of changing alliances continued, helping to permeate the conflict.

Meanwhile, Iran succeeded in promoting its own interests. The only foreign intervening power with a consistent policy is Russia. Moscow’s objective is to curb Islamic terrorism, but also increase its influence in the area, and it has been successful.

For Turkey, certain developments, some of which could be brought about by erratic Western policies, will be lethal. Syria and Iraq are direct neighbors.

In Turkey, Kurds live among Turks in mixed geographic areas. There are also autonomous Kurdish areas in northern Iraq with a high degree of self-administration, populations in northern Syria, and a smaller group in Iran.

Mutual understanding

The idea of a Kurdish state emerged after World War I. This was a pipe dream, since Kurds, Turks, Turkmens and others ethnicities and religious groups lived alongside each other in the same region. The solution would have been a forced and inhumane resettlement operation, much like during the partition of India and Pakistan. The situation did not require national boundaries, but a mutual understanding between the groups.

There are various tensions between the Kurds themselves. In northern Iraq, the Kurdish population achieved semi-sovereignty and is highly interested in good relations with Turkey. By contrast, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the Kurdish movement in northern Syria on the Turkish border, has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has carried out several attacks and is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey.

Even if the U.S. and Europe disapprove, there is a logic to Turkey’s intervention.

Even if the U.S. and European countries profoundly disapprove, there is a logic to Turkey’s intervention. The wish to prevent future terrorist attacks is legitimate.

The Kurds were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS. The question remains whether the retreat of U.S. troops from Syria is a betrayal. It can be interpreted that way, but the Americans also helped the Kurds against ISIS and cannot stay there forever. The YPG supported a terrorist group in Turkey and must face this responsibility. We must also acknowledge that the Turkish military has standards and are not barbarians in their dealings with civilians. A differentiation has to be made between the Kurdish population on one side, and YPG and PKK on the other.

It is up to both Turks and Kurds to live together. This is already happening in many areas, offering hope for the future.

Unfortunately, the entire Middle East is an ideal environment for foreign powers to use the divide-and-rule principle. The long-term consequences are always disastrous.

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