Thu, Oct 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

A federation of weakness bodes ill for the region

The introduction of a weak Iraqi federal constitution is likely to unleash an ethnic and sectarian crisis over a wider theater

By David Hirst  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The adoption of a federal formula is seen by the Arab world not as a remedy for Iraq's inherent divisiveness, but, in conditions of rising intercommunal tensions and violence, as a stimulus to it.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the veteran Saudi foreign minister and voice of the Sunni Arab establishment, told the US that it is "part of a dynamic pushing the Iraqi people away from each other. If you allow for this -- for a civil war to happen between Shiites and Sunnis -- Iraq is finished forever. It will be dismembered." What makes it more alarming is that, unlike the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, however ambivalently they feel about it, enjoy the strong support of a powerful neighbor.

Now, under its new president, in something of a neo-Khomeinist revivalist mode, Iran is clearly accumulating all the Shiite-based geopolitical assets it can, from Iraq to south Lebanon, in preparation for the grand showdown that threatens between it and the US.

Arabs have long warned of the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, automatically mindful of the fact that virtually every Western-created state in the eastern Arab world contains the latent ethnic or sectarian tensions that produced that archetype of Arab civil war.

But whereas, in concert with the US, the Arabs finally managed to put out the Lebanese fire before it spread, their prospects of achieving the same amid the violence in Iraq are slight indeed. The inter-Arab state system -- and its chief institution, the Arab League -- has long been incapable of concerted action against what, like Iraq, are perceived as threats to the Arab "nation."

Now the system itself is threatened by the growth of non-state activities, the cross-border traffic in extreme Islamist ideology -- along with the jihadists and suicide bombers who act on it -- or ethnic and sectarian solidarities of the kind that threaten to tear Iraq apart.

Syria, once the nub of the Sykes-Picot carve-up, is again in the frontline, alone among Arab states to be exposed to the Iraqi contagion in both its Kurdish and Shiite dimensions. Thanks to the sudden, self-inflicted weakness of Iraqi Baathist rule, it was Iraqi Kurds who, in 1991, achieved the first great, contemporary breakthrough in the Kurdish struggle for self-determination.

Syrian Kurds now sense similar weakness in their own, deeply troubled Baathist regime. If it collapses amid generalized chaos, many will push for secession and amalgamation with their brethren in north Iraq.


On the Shiite front, if sectarian identity is to become the organizing principle of Arab polities, Syria is the most vulnerable to the convulsions that it will unleash. A small minority, the Alawites, has in effect run the country for more than 40 years. It is a predominantly Sunni society, which, historically, represents an even greater anomaly than the Sunni minority rule, also in Baathist guise, that the majority Shiites and Kurds dispensed with in Iraq.

A Sunni majority restoration will become unstoppable if, with the eventual break-up of Iraq, its disempowered Sunnis turn to Syria, of which, but for Sykes-Picot, a great many would long have been citizens anyway.

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