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Stabalizing Iraq and Syria

After years of war, it appears that Iraq and Syria are gradually stabilizing. The government forces supported by the US and Russia respectively are restoring their control over the two countries, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost virtually all of its territory. Yet, this may just be an ephemeral peace. The social and economic foundations of the two states remain shaky at best, and many issues are still unsettled; notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the future of the Kurds. Without a comprehensive action to solve such questions, peace in Iraq and Syria will not be achieved on a solid basis.

I’m your host Kasim, welcome to another KJ Vid. In this video we will discuss the future of Iraq and Syria. Just before we begin, we would like to invite you to our Patreon account where you can get the full reports and other perks for our content. Supporting us on Patreon helps to keep our channel independent and create more videos.

Iraq and Syria in chaos

Iraq has been ravaged by conflict with practically no interruption since the US invasion in 2003. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime destabilized the country and resulted in a long insurgency against the occupying American forces. Progress in state-building was slow and limited in scope. The US ultimately withdrew its troops from the country in 2011 by a decision of then-President Barack Obama; but Iraq was still too weak to ensure the authority of the central government over all of the territory. In the same year, the Arab Spring broke out all over the Middle East. In Syria, it rapidly degenerated into a violent civil war opposing the loyalists to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels; a broad term indicating various armed groups of different affiliation, ranging from those who favoured Western-like democracy and jihadist groups.

Things got more complicated in 2014 with the rise of a Sunni extremist group that would later become known as Islamic State. Exploiting the chaos that reigned in Syria due to the civil war and the power vacuum caused by the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, it took control of large swathes of lands in the northern parts of the two countries. In particular, it seized important facilities such as oil fields and dams in Iraq and it even threatened Baghdad. This prompted the US to organize a multinational coalition to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the terrorist group by deploying special forces and by conducting air strikes. Soon, they also started operating in Syria, where the conflict was about to turn into a major international matter involving various foreign powers that supported the government or the rebels to pursue their own interest.

Russia intervened actively since 2015 to sustain Bashar al-Assad, its main ally in the area. Western powers assisted the rebels and bombed facilities to punish the loyalists for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians. Turkey, who opposed the al-Assad government, became directly involved in 2016 with the main objective of preventing the formation of some kind of Kurdish territorial entity. As a matter of fact, the Kurds had rapidly proved to be an effective combat force in fighting the IS, and received support from the American-led coalition. This allowed them to take control over a large strip of territory at the border with Turkey, who feared the area would become independent or at least a rear base for Kurdish fighters operating against its territory. As such, it conducted several military operations to secure the lands along its borders and expel Kurdish forces. Iran also took part to the war by sending weapons and troops in support of al-Assad on the basis of the common Shia faith and of converging geopolitical interest. To counter its growing influence, Israel also carried out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian outposts.

Now, it seems that the two intertwined conflicts are about to end. In Syria the government is slowly restoring its authority and the Islamic State has lost almost all of the territory it controlled there and in Iraq. Yet, many issues remain unresolved, notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the Kurdish question.

Sunni Arabs: excluded from power

Sunni Arabs belong to the largest of the two main branches of Islam, the other being the Shias. But even though they are a majority in the Ummah as a whole, their situation in Iraq and Syria is particular.

For what concerns the former, Sunnis are indeed a minority. Most Iraqis are Shias, which also means that they are politically closer Iran, the main centre of Shiism. Yet, Sunnism had its glorious days in the country. During the Middle Ages, Baghdad was the heart of the mighty Abbasid Caliphate, from which today’s Islamic State took many symbols. More recently, Sunni Arabs formed the ruling elite in Iraq during the years of Saddam’s rule. His Ba’athist regime was dominated by Sunnis, which meant that in Iraq a minority was ruling over the majority. But the situation was reversed after Saddam was overthrown following the US invasion in 2003. Since Sunnis had formed the backbone of Saddam’s dictatorship, they were removed from their posts and largely excluded from power to the benefit of the Shias. At that point, the Sunni Arab community became the main pool of recruitment for the anti-American insurgency and then for the Islamic State. The situation has improved since then, but properly integrating Sunnis in Iraqi political life remains a central matter to stabilize the country.

The situation of Sunnis in Syria is the opposite and resembles that of Iraq under Saddam, albeit inverted. Sunni Arabs form the majority of Syria’s population, but the governing elite belongs to the Alawite movement, which is a sect of Shia Islam. This generated much resentment among Sunnis, who felt politically emarginated. As a result, many of them joined the ranks of the rebels when the uprising started in 2011. Now, the government seems close to prevailing, but it will have to establish a more inclusive form of governance to ensure peace in the long term.

The Kurds: a stateless people

In the case of the Kurds, the problem is slightly different. Here, it is not about a religious divide, but rather an ethnic and linguistic one. The Kurds are mostly Sunni and speak their own separate language, and as a single people they count around 40 million individuals. They live in a region located at the crossroad of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Yet, their demands for an independent state have systematically been frustrated, and today they remain a stateless nation with little prospects of getting their own independent country.

Yet, they play an important political role. The lands where they live include the oil-rich areas of northern Iraq. The Kurdistan’s Workers Party, or PKK, has been waging a decade-long insurgency against Turkey to obtain independency or at least autonomy for Kurdistan; but Ankara has always firmly opposed their demands without hesitating to use violence and there is no indication that things will change anytime soon. In Iraq, several tens of thousand Kurds were killed by Saddam’s regime during the ‘80s in what is known as Anfal genocide. Later on, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds became America’s most effective on-the-ground allies in the fight against the Islamic State. But this angered Turkey out of fear that Kurdish-controlled territory could turn into an independent state or a base for operations on Turkish soil. As such, Ankara dispatched its military several times to secure Kurdish areas along its borders. However, this has led to a clash with the US, in a moment when bilateral relations are already strained. Washington has been supporting the Kurds and needs to reward them somehow; but any concession implying autonomy would upset Ankara, who is also an important ally. At the same time, Turkey cannot defy the US because the political and possibly economic retaliation might be too harmful. This has resulted into a stalemate that remains unresolved.

As in the case of Sunni Arabs, solving the Kurdish question will be of central importance for ensuring a long-lasting peace in Iraq and Syria, but finding a common agreement is even more difficult in this case: it is not a mainly domestic matter, but a transnational one involving various stakeholders, which makes finding a solution an even more complex endeavour.

Conclusion: ensuring inclusivity

As we have seen, conflict resolution in Iraq and Syria demands to integrate both Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the social and political life of the two countries. This is essential for granting peace in the long term: if Sunnis are not adequately represented, the Islamic State or a similar organization may soon rise again; while the Kurds may take arms and start a large-scale insurgency that would be difficult to tackle. Unfortunately, actually doing so is not easy. Both groups have powerful enemies and are internally fragmented, and other players can exploit these divisions for their own interests. As a matter of fact, major powers like the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey all have their own interests in the area; which is another complicating factor. In addition, given the large number of tribes, parties, armed factions, ethnic groups that live in Iraq and Syria, finding an agreement that satisfies everyone is extremely difficult. But to prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups or a new violent phase of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and to ensure the stabilization of Iraq and Syria, a solution must be found in this sense.

That’s all for today guys, thanks for watching another KJ Vid. What are your views on CPEC, is it a good thing or bad thing for Pakistan? Is it likely to succeed or fail? We would love to hear your views in the comments below.

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5 Geopolitical Trends to watch in 2019

In today’s globalised world, many geopolitical events take place every year, and they have a long-lasting effects in time. So, considering what happened on the international scene in the year that has just ended, what are the top five global trends to watch in 2019?

1 – “America first”, America alone?

President Trump’s “America First” policy was put into practice various times in 2018. He introduced new tariffs to protect the US economy; he abandoned those agreements that he deemed contrary to America’s national interest; he criticised allies for free-riding on the US in security issues.

This is a trend that will continue as long as Trump remains in the White House, and that will have an important impact on the global order. For decades, the international system was centred on the US and its commitment to sustain its rules and provide security; albeit with limitations and largely for its self-advantage. But now, Washington prefers pursuing a narrow definition of its own national interest. This has already raised concerns with traditional partners; most notably with the European members of NATO to whom he demanded to spend more on defence. This divergence between the two sides of the Atlantic has cast doubts over the tenure of the Alliance. All this happens in a moment of renewed tensions with Russia, who in turn is taking benefit from the situation because in case of a confrontation, it will have to face a more divided and therefore weaker NATO. This uncertainty over the future of the Alliance damages European but also American interests: alienating its traditional allies risks to isolate the US and to reduce its international influence.

All this happens in a delicate moment for the US economy. While its GDP grew of almost 3% in 2018, its monetary policy is object of political debate as Trump accuses the Federal Reserve of being the “only problem” of America’s economy. If the Fed keeps on raising the interest rates to contain inflation, the US growth will slow down. This will also combine with the effects of tariffs plus the considerable public and private debt. Moreover, American stock markets have lost much value in the past year: the price of shares according to the Dow Jones index dropped of around 9.5% in 2018. And if the US economy slows, the rest of the world will follow.

2 – China’s economic slowdown

The world’s second-largest economy is also facing troubles. While it is predicted to grow of about 6.6% this year, which is still extraordinary given its size, the rate is no longer a double-digit figure as in the past. The Chinese economy is also slowing down, and this will inevitable have repercussions on the global scale. As economic prosperity is considered fundamental for social stability and for the rule of the Communist Party, the government is taking measures to maintain a steady growth. This explains various initiatives like “Made in China 2025” aimed at upgrading its industry, the huge investments in high-tech, or the far-reaching “One Belt, One Road” project.

Apart from purely economic issues, this will also have geopolitical consequences. Beijing has been increasing its worldwide presence in the past decade, notably through economic means; but if its growth slows down, its ability to sustain its greater plans in the Asia-Pacific and beyond will suffer. In this sense, the very plans it is implementing to boost its economy may result counterproductive: they are certainly ambitious projects with a great potential, but they are also very challenging. The enormous investments they require will result in a waste of resources if they do not translate into economic growth, and this will hamper China’s economy. As such, observing Beijing’s economic policies and its performance through 2019 will be an indicator of its future global role.

3 – The European (dis)Union

The EU will cross troubled waters in 2019. Anti-EU movements have risen everywhere, its economic recovery remains sluggish and each of its four most important members is not in the position to lead a reform of the common institutions. The United Kingdom will finally leave, but the exact terms are still undefined and a “No Deal” Brexit seems probable. This is the worst scenario, because it means uncertainty for economic and political actors alike. Italy is now ruled by a Eurosceptic coalition that has already clashed with the EU over immigration and economic policy. Germany continues opposing more economic integration in the form of a common fiscal policy, and Angela Merkel’s leadership has been weakened. In France, President Macron is calling for a reform of the EU and promotes further integration, but his popularity is at a record low and the country has first to deal with domestic issues.

Other members are also unable or unwilling to move the integration project ahead. The emerging countries of Central-Eastern Europe, notably Poland and Hungary, want to preserve their sovereignty and therefore oppose devolving more powers to the EU. Moreover, the Union has even initiated the infraction procedure for violation of core values against these two countries, thus leading to an open diatribe. Spain is focused on problems at home; while Greece is heading towards elections in 2019, and any change in its government could make the markets nervous and result in a renewed standoff with the EU.

As such, no state is in the condition to take the lead and move forward the much-needed reform of the Union. However, what is more worrisome is that the divergences do not simply concern the policies to implement, but the basic values of the EU and its very legitimacy are questioned and openly criticised. Considering also its complex institutional procedures, it is unlikely that the stalemate will be solved in 2019. On the contrary, it is likely that the EU will be even more divided at the end of the year.

4 – Sanctions on Iranian oil

Following President Trump’s decision to scrap the nuclear deal, a boycott on Iranian oil will be reintroduced in 2019. Given that it is largely dependent on oil revenues, the Islamic Republic will certainly suffer. The effects will not be only economic, but they will extend to the social sphere as well. Signs of discontent already appeared in late 2017 – early 2018, when mass protests erupted all over the country. As pressure increases on Iran’s economy, similar episodes may repeat in 2019 with destabilising effects on the region. Moreover, this means that Iran will have much less resources to sustain its goals abroad; notably in Iraq and Syria. As a result, it will have to reduce its international commitment and focus on domestic issues.

But this will also affect other countries who used to buy oil from Iran. China and India were its main customers, followed by Japan, South Korea and European countries. As sanctions come back into effect in 2019, such states will comply and change their import sources to avoid angering the US. This will impact the global oil market by putting an upward pressure on its price; even though many effects such as a less than expected demand may nullify this effect at least in part. Finally, while the intended effect of the boycott is to put pressure on the country and force it to negotiate another deal deemed more compatible with America’s interest, it is possible that the result will be the opposite. If Iran feels threatened enough by the US, it may decide to resume its nuclear programme after concluding that is the only way to ensure its national security. This is not likely, because Teheran would be even more isolated, but if this happens the whole region will be further destabilized.

5 – Tension with Russia

Relations between Russia and the US have not improved through 2018. Many important issues continue dividing them, like the war in Syria or Ukraine’s issue. The situation remains volatile in both cases, and the recent Kerch Strait incident has revived tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Additionally, there is another country to watch: Georgia. The new President Salome Zurabishvili has pro-EU Western views and openly calls for Georgia to join the EU and NATO. Russia will hardly accept such a scenario and may launch a military operation to prevent it, thus sparking another crisis in the post-Soviet space.

Moreover, a pillar of the longstanding strategic equilibrium between Russia and NATO has fallen: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF. This agreement, dating back to the Cold War, prohibited the deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe, as they risked compromising the nuclear balance in the region: due to their limited range, such weapons enabled the Soviets to strike NATO in Europe without threatening the US territory, thus casting doubts among Europeans that in such an eventuality the Americans would have exposed themselves to retaliation by launching nuclear weapons on the USSR just to protect Europe.

Now that the Treaty is gone, a new arms race is likely to take place, and in fact this is already happening. Russia has tested several nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in 2018, and is rapidly working to deploy new hypersonic missiles capable of travelling at five times the speed of sound or more. The US is doing the same, and both powers are developing new weapon systems and doctrines to prevail on the other. But to pursue these objectives, Russia needs economic resources. Since oil is one of its main sources of revenues, Moscow will seek to coordinate with other producers to keep its price high enough to sustain its economy. This will largely determine the evolution of Russia’s role in 2019, but one thing is sure: Moscow will do its best to pursue its interests abroad, and as the Russian-American rivalry continues, the international scene will remain tense.

Will Germany and Russia create an alliance?

Germany’s relations with Moscow have always been, and remain, one of its central strategic challenges. Yet views on how to deal with the country have historically remained split. To temper Russia’s advancement in Europe, pressures Germany feel now have led to both an alliance and conflict with Russia in the past. Are we seeing the return of a German-Russian Alliance?

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