WASHINGTON — In a sign of the complexity of the crisis in Iraq, where Islamic radicals have declared a modern caliphate that stretches across century-old borders and politicians appear deadlocked on who should lead a new government in Baghdad, scholars who’ve devoted their lives to studying the Middle East express no consensus on what the future is likely to hold for the beleaguered region.
Does the declaration of the Islamic State herald the erasure of borders that France and Great Britain drew on the region’s map 100 years ago, when they divvied up what was left of the Ottoman Empire? Or have those borders become so accepted that it would be all but impossible to separate the different ethnic blocs that have found themselves living with one another within modern countries?
Will the tumult in Iraq lead at last to an independent homeland for the Kurds, whose population is spread across four nations, including the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq? What other forces will be unleashed if Iraq splits into three separate nation-states _ a Kurdish one, a Shiite Muslim-ruled one in the south and a Sunni Muslim one in the north and west, dominated, perhaps, by fundamentalists from the Islamic State. Last week, the al Qaida offshoot’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, demanded the allegiance of all Muslims as the Caliph Ibrahim?
“We have not seen such a period of instability in the region since World War I,” said Orit Bashkin, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago. “The Arab uprising certainly unleashed new forces, and this idea that you can challenge the regime and its autocrats.”
Paul Salem, the vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute in Washington, gave only a slightly more conservative historical perspective for the recent crisis.
“I would say for the Levant, this is on par with massive changes of the world wars,” Salem said, referring to the region that includes Syria, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus and parts of Turkey.
One seemingly universal point of agreement among scholars with expertise in Middle East politics and history is that the border between Iraq and Syria is no longer a viable political line. The Islamic State, whose area of control now stretches from Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province to parts of Syria’s Aleppo province, has decreed that the border between Syria and Iraq no longer exists.
But there’s no consensus on what that actually will mean.
Salem predicts that the region will devolve into “rump states” around Baghdad and Damascus, with separate Sunni and Kurdish states operating with regional autonomy. “The borders are hardly there anymore,” Salem said.
Fred Donner, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, disagrees.
“Even if (the borders) don’t make sense, they’ve become a reality,” he said. In Iraq, where there have been calls for separation into three entities along ethnic and religious lines between Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, Donner said generations of people living within the modern borders have created a “mosaic of small communities” living in close proximity to each other.
“Dividing people up into such hard and fast enclaves is going to be problematic,” he said, noting that intermarriage has often blurred the lines between groups. “You can’t divide someone in half.”
At a recent panel discussion at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, two senior officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government noted that the regional government has operated in a de facto state of autonomy since being cut off from Baghdad by the spread of the Islamic State.
Fuad Hussein, chief of staff for Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, and Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the regional government’s Department of Foreign Relations, said the Kurdish government still was willing to work to establishing a federal Iraq, but it would not accept a return to the conditions in the country prior to the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul on June 9.
The Kurdistan government quickly took advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi army to expand its control to Kirkuk, a city that has long been subject to rivalry between Kurdish and Arab control. Kurdistan will not give it back, he said.
“Iraq is an artificial state, it was a state put together to keep some balances between the Shiites and Sunnis, and anything that is built on wrong foundations will not survive, unless it’s voluntary, unless it’s through an understanding among these communities,” Bakir said.
Any movement by the Kurds in Iraq to create an independent nation likely would be met with opposition from Turkey, which has a large and restive Kurdish population of its own. Estimates indicate that 55 percent of all Kurds live inside Turkey’s borders, where the Kurdish Worker’s Party, the PKK, has fought a separatist war for more than 30 years.
Still, the Turkish government in Ankara has allowed oil to be shipped through it from Iraq’s Kurds directly to ports in Israel, bypassing the government in Baghdad, which has traditionally controlled the flow of all Iraqi oil.
Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said this was not a sign of warming toward Kurdish sovereignty by Turkey, but a business decision. He said the benefits to the Turkish economy of fees for transporting Kurdish oil could be “very dramatic,” and that Ankara “likes to collect.”
Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa in Israel, said that the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate represents the purest form so far of an ideology known as Pan-Islam.
But what it is not clear is whether it will be any more successful than the Pan-Arabism of the 1950s and ’60s, which gave rise to the secular governments of Iraq and Syria, both of which were governed by branches of the Baath party, as well as to the short-lived United Arab Republic, which stitched together Egypt and Syria in a confederation.
Pan-Arabism didn’t bring real democracy to the region or “pull Arab nations that didn’t have a lot of oil out of poverty,” Donner said, and it fell out of favor in the 1970s.
While Pan-Arabism promised an idealistic hope of modern state-building, Baram said, Pan-Islam, particularly among radical Sunnis, has focused on promises of “world domination” through a 7th century version of Islam.
How strong the movement becomes will depend on what percentage of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are attracted to the caliphate, Baram said. Less than 1 percent probably would see the ideology peter out. If the movement were to attract 10 percent, “the damage they could do is incalculable,” he said.
“There is no way of telling how far they will go in 10 years,” he said.
Some experts said the largest threat the Islamic State poses to the region is that it would attract militants from neighboring countries to fight in proxy wars.
“If they continue to be successful, they will continue to galvanize other Sunni jihadi groups,” Rabinovich said.
That’s likely to mean bloodshed on an unprecedented level. A report issued by the RAND Corp. this year found that the number of jihadists in the Middle East has seen a sharp increase since 2011, rising to the highest level recorded by the group since 1988.
“We didn’t have such horrible events, even before or after World War I,” said Baram, calling the turmoil in Iraq and Syria the most pronounced fighting between Muslims since fundamentalist Sunnis known as Wahabbis attacked the Shiite shrines at Karbala in 1801. “This is worse than anything we have had in the last few hundred years.”
The potential for that sort of violence remains high. Bashkin, the University of Chicago Middle East history professor, singled out the rivalry between the Gulf States _ Saudi Arabia and Qatar, specifically, where Wahabbism remains the dominant strain of Islam _ and Iran, which is ruled by a Shiite Muslim theocracy, calling that conflict “more relevant to our concerns” than the introduction of jihadis from outside.
When asked how the crisis in Iraq would likely play out, Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador, said, “In terms of months, more or less a state of war.” But he declined to give any longer-term predictions.
The situation, he said, would largely rest on the cooperation of foreign powers that have a mutual interest in maintaining a unified Iraq, saying the United States should work with Iran to strengthen the central government.
“You don’t need to be working in tandem, but in part you are working towards the same goals,” Rabinovich said.
At the recent Washington Institute for Near East Studies panel, a reporter asked a long-winded question. Hussein, the Kurdish president’s chief of staff, offered a lighthearted joke in response:
“Many questions in one,” he said. “Just like Iraq, many countries in one.”