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Erbil, Iraq © Serkan Senturk

Signs of Hope in the Middle East? Don’t Hold Your Breath

The optimistic view may be that the Middle East is six years into an era of political, economic and social change.

Optimists see hopeful signs that the Middle East may be exiting from a dark tunnel of violence, civil war, sectarian strife and debilitating regional rivalries. The Islamic State (IS) is on the cusp of territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia may be groping for an exit from its devastating military intervention in Yemen, and Gulf states are embarking on economic and social reform aimed at preparing for the end of oil. Haltingly, countries in the Gulf may be forced to find a face-saving solution to the Qatar crisis, and there may even be an effort to dial down tension between the Riyadh and Tehran. Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, has also said it is willing to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about joint rule of the strip and move toward long overdue elections.

At first glance, these are reasons for optimism. But don’t hold your breath. Optimists base their hopes on shifting sands and tentative suggestions that protagonists may be looking for ways out of the malaise. Yet none of the indicators involve actions that would tackle root causes of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and problems. In fact, some of the solutions being tossed around amount to little more than window dressing, while others set the stage for a next phase of conflict and strife.

Talks between the feuding Palestinian factions have repeatedly failed. It is not even clear if Hamas would put pen to paper, as any deal would mean putting its armed wing under Abbas’ control — a key demand of the Palestinian president that the Islamists have so far rejected. It also remains to be seen how Israel would respond. Together with the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Israelis see Hamas as a terrorist organization.

KURDISH INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM

Beyond Palestine, the contours of future conflict are already discernible. If Myanmar’s Rohingya are the 21st-century’s rallying cry of the Muslim world, the Kurds could be one of its major fault lines. Disputes over territory, power and resources between and among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds that fueled the rise of IS in Iraq are resurfacing with its demise. In a twist of irony, a poll in April showed that Sunnis were for the first time more positive about Iraq’s future than the country’s majority Shias.

Reconstruction of Sunni cities in the north destroyed in the fight against the Islamic State is key to maintaining a semblance of Iraqi unity. With no signs of massive reconstruction gaining momentum, old wounds that have driven insurgencies for more than a decade could reignite IS in new forms. “All the writing is on the wall that there will be another ISIS,” said the former Iraqi foreign minister and Kurdish politician, Hoshyar Zebari, referring to the group by another of its acronyms.

The initial flash in the pan threatens to be the fact that Iraqi Kurds are certain to vote for independence in a unilateral referendum scheduled for September 25. If the independence issue did not provide enough explosives in and of itself, the Kurds’ insistence on including in the referendum the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk and adjacent areas have further fueled the fire. The referendum and the dispute over Kirkuk reopen the question of what Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders are even if the Kurds opt not to act immediately on a vote for independence and to remain part of an Iraqi federation for the time being.

The issue could blow a further hole into Iraq’s already fragile existence as a united nation state. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has denounced the referendum. His efforts to persuade the Iraqi parliament to fire the Kirkuk governor, Najmaldin Karim, for backing the poll, as well as calls for parliament to withdraw confidence in Iraqi President Fuad Masum and sack ministers and other senior officials of Kurdish descent could push the Kurds over the edge.

Iraqi military officials and Iranian-backed Shia militias that are aligned with the army have vowed to prevent the referendum from being held in Kirkuk. “Kirkuk belongs to Iraq. We would by no means give up on Kirkuk even if this were to cause major bloodshed,” said Ayoub Faleh, commander of the Imam Ali Division, an Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militia. A possible fight may not be contained to Kirkuk. Kurdish and Iraqi government forces are vying for control of areas from which IS has been driven out, which stretch westward along the length of northern Iraq. Abadi has warned that he would intervene militarily if the referendum, which he described as unconstitutional, provoked violence.

Add to that the ganging up on the Kurds by Iran, Turkey and the US. Washington backs the Iraqi government even if it was the one that put Kurdistan on course toward independence, when it allowed the autonomous enclave to emerge under a protective no-fly zone that kept the forces of Saddam Hussein at bay. Breaking with the US and its Arab allies, Israel has endorsed Kurdish independence.

Hakan Fidan, the Turkish intelligence chief, and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Al Quds Force, have warned the Kurds on visits to Iraqi Kurdistan to back away from the referendum. Iran has threatened to close its borders with the region. Describing the referendum as “a matter of national security,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that “no one should have doubt that we will take all the necessary steps in this matter.” Turkey fears that Kurdish independence would spur secessionist aspirations among its own Kurds, who account for up to 20% of its population, and that an independent Kurdistan would harbor Turkish Kurdish insurgents already operating in the region.

Abadi has alluded to possible Turkish and/or Iranian military intervention to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan by suggesting that the referendum would be “a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders … The Turks are very angry about it because they have a large Kurdish population inside Turkey and they feel that their national security is threatened because it is a huge problem for them. And, of course, the Iranians are on the same line,” the Iraqi prime minister said.

The Kurdish quest for some form of self-rule is likely to manifest itself in Syria too. The US backs a Syrian-Kurdish militia aligned with Turkish-Kurdish militants in its fight against IS. The militia that prides itself on its female fighters is among the forces besieging the IS capital of Raqqa.

The Kurds are hoping that an end to the war in Syria will leave them with an Iraq-style autonomous region on the Turkish border — an aspiration that Turkey, like in Iraq, vehemently opposes. As the target of strikes by the Turkish air force, the Kurds hope to benefit from the force’s shortage of pilots following mass purges in the wake of last year’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In August, the air force ordered all former fighter pilots flying for Turkish airlines to report for service.

The Kurds may provide the first flashpoint for another round of volatility and violence, but they are not the only ones. Nor are sectarian and other ethnic divisions that are likely to wrack Iraq and Syria, once the current round of fighting subsides.

LOOKING AT THE GULF

Eager to find a face-saving exit from its ill-fated invasion of Yemen that has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss, Saudi Arabia will have to cope with a populous country on its border, many of whose citizens harbor deep-seated anger at the devastation and human suffering caused by the Saudis that will take years to reverse.

Similarly, the rift between Qatar and an alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE is likely to leave deep-seated scars that will hamper integration among the six states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Middle East’s only functioning regional bloc prior to the crisis. A failure in talks between Qatar and its detractors, mediated by US President Donald Trump — even before they got started — suggest that a resolution to the diplomatic standoff is nowhere in sight.

Coping with the fallout of the crisis and the Yemen War simply adds to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s woes as he prepares to, at some point, succeed his ailing father, King Salman. Prince Mohammed, who is popular among the country’s youth in expectation of economic and social change, has had to backtrack on some of his promised changes. Foreign lenders have also indicated a lack of confidence as they head for the exit rather than explore new opportunities.

In addition, Prince Mohammed has signaled concern about opposition to his proposed reforms within the royal family, determination to avoid political change and a willingness to rule with an iron fist. Prominent religious scholars and activists have been arrested in recent weeks, while dissenting members of the Saud family have been put under house arrest.

The optimistic view may be that the Middle East is six years into an era of political, economic and social change. If historic yardsticks are applicable, that amounts to one-third of a process of transition that can take up to quarter of a century to work itself out. There is little reason to believe that the next third will be any less volatile or violent.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Serkan Senturk / Shutterstock.com