The sectarian and ethnic civil wars that have ravaged a large part of the Middle East over the past 40 years are coming to an end. Replacing them is a new type of conflict in which protests akin to popular uprisings rock kleptocratic elites that justify their power by claiming to be the defenders of communities menaced by extreme violence or extinction.
I was sitting in my hotel room in Baghdad earlier in October thinking about writing an article about the return of peace to the Iraqi capital after the defeat of Isis. It has been three years since the last big bomb had exploded in its streets killing great numbers, something that used to happen with appalling frequency.
I was about to set to work when I heard a distant “pop-pop” sound that I identified as shots, but I thought it might be people celebrating a wedding or a football match. But the ripple of gunfire seemed to go on too long for this explanation to be true and I took the lift down to the lobby with the intention of finding out what was happening in the street outside the hotel. Before I got there, a man told me that the security forces were shooting protesters in nearby Tahrir Square: “There are 10 dead already.”
The death toll was to get a great deal worse than that: the official toll is 157 dead and 6,100 wounded, but doctors told me at the time that the real number of fatalities was far higher. The protesters, initially small in numbers, had wanted jobs, an end to corruption and improved essential services such as a better water and electricity. But somebody in government security, supplemented by pro-Iranian paramilitaries, had considered these demands for social and economic justice as a threat to the political status quo to be suppressed with live rifle fire, a curfew on the seven million inhabitants of Baghdad, and a shutdown of the internet.
Repression worked briefly, but such is the depth of rage against the theft of $450bn from Iraq’s oil revenues since 2003 that the protests were bound to break out again, as they have done this week.
I thought this was exactly what was happening a couple of weeks later when, back in the UK, I switched on the TV and saw masses of protesters in what was evidently a Middle East city. But it turned out to be Beirut not Baghdad, though the motivation is similar: anger against a ruling class saturated by corruption while failing to provide the basic services to the population. Encouragingly, in both Lebanon and Iraq, the leaders of different communities are finding that their followers increasingly view them as mafiosi and ignore appeals for communal solidarity.
It is a period of transition and one should never underestimate the ability of embattled communal leaders to press the right sectarian buttons in order to divide opposition to their predatory misrule.
I first went to the region in 1975, fresh from sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland, in order to report on the beginning of the Lebanese civil war between a mosaic of communities defined by religion and ethnicity. In later years in Iraq, I watched divisions between Sunni and Shia grow and produce sectarian bloodbaths after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Popular protests in Syria in 2011 swiftly turned into a sectarian and ethnic civil war of extraordinary ferocity that may now be coming to an end.
This is not because combatants on all sides have come to see the error of their ways or that they have suddenly noticed for the first time that their leaders are for the most part criminalised plutocrats. It is rather because winners and losers have emerged in these conflicts, so those in power can no longer divert attention from their all-embracing corruption by claiming that their community is in danger of attack from merciless foes.
Victors and vanquished has long been identifiable in Lebanon and became clear in Iraq with the capture of Mosul and the defeat of Isis in 2017. The winners and losers in the Syrian civil war have become ever more apparent over the last month as Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran take control of almost the whole country.
The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds had been able to create and expand their own quasi-states when central governments in Baghdad and Damascus were weak and under assault by Isis. The statelets were never going to survive the defeat of the Isis caliphate: the Iraqi Kurds lost the oil province of Kirkuk to the Iraqi army in 2017 and the Syrian Kurds have just seen their quasi-state of Rojava squeezed to extinction by the Turks on one side and the Syrian government on the other after Donald Trump withdrew US military protection.
The fate of the Kurds is a tragedy but an inevitable one. Once Isis had been defeated in the siege of Raqqa in 2017 there was no way that the US was going to maintain a Kurdish statelet beset by enemies on every side. For all their accusations of American treachery, the Kurdish leaders knew this, but they did not have an alternative protector to turn to, aside from Russia and Assad, who were never going to underwrite a semi-independent Kurdish state.
A problem in explaining developments in the Middle East over the last three years is that the US foreign policy establishment supported by most of the US and European media blame all negative developments on President Trump. This is a gross over-simplification when it is not wholly misleading. His abrupt and cynical abandonment of the Kurds to Turkey may have multiplied their troubles, but extracting the small US military from eastern Syria was sensible enough because it was over-matched by four dangerous and determined opponents: Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Assad government.
The final outcome of the multiple Syrian wars is now in sight: Turkey will keep a small, unstable enclave in Syria but the rest of the Syrian-Turkish border will be policed by Russian and Syrian government troops who will oversee the YPG withdrawal 21 miles to the south. The most important question is how far the Kurdish civilian population, who have fled the fighting, will find it safe enough to return. A crucial point to emerge from the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi last Tuesday is that Turkey is tiptoeing towards implicitly recognising the Assad government backed by Russia as the protector of its southern border against the YPG. This makes it unlikely that Ankara will do much to stop a Russian-Syrian government offensive to take, probably a slice at a time, the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition in Idlib.
The ingredient that made communal religious and sectarian hatreds so destructive in the past in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq is that they opened the door to foreign intervention. Local factions became the proxies of outside countries pursuing their own interests which armed and financed them. For the moment at least, no foreign power has an interest in stirring the pot in this northern tier of the Middle East, the zone of war for 44 years, and there is just a fleeting chance of a durable peace.