By William Harris
In mid-November 2014, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander invited me to join his small convoy headed for the precariously perched military outposts on the front with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at and around the Mosul dam in northern Iraq. Once there I was able to get as far as a hilltop outlier on the western side of the Tigris river. In those days, ISIS probed the front at night. The 12 mile (20 kilometre) access route from Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory was entirely exposed to the ‘caliphate’ in the direction of Mosul city. Our evening return in the dark proceeded at best possible speed on a dilapidated road; the atmosphere was tense, with no one saying a word. We were acutely aware that ISIS had updated capability thanks to its seizure of much of the Iraqi army’s American equipment.
In the overall setting of the Syria–Iraq conflict zone this little corner illustrated both the kaleidoscopic character of contestation across the Fertile Crescent and how far matters had divaricated in the three and a half years after the street uprising in Syria in the spring of 2011. On the one hand, there was a clear line from Dera’a in 2011 to the Mosul dam in 2014. Bashar al-Assad’s firestorm galvanized Islamist fanatics in northern and eastern Syria, the almost defunct Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) reached across the border to take advantage of a new Syrian base, and foreign jihadist recruits flowed into Syria via a lenient Turkey at a steadily rising rate. ISI became ISIS, which took advantage of the manpower and resources that its expanding presence in eastern Syria added to its Iraqi capacity in order to surge to Mosul and challenge the KRG Kurds. Of course, the contestants on this spin-off front were new and different compared with the original collision in Syria between the Assad regime and substantially secular but largely Sunni Arab street protesters. The decisive feature that connected the 2011 regime–opposition scene in Syria to the 2014 Kurdish–ISIS scene in Iraq was the double boost ISI/ISIS received from Syria’s implosion and the porous Syrian–Turkish border. This feature integrated two scenes widely separated in time, space, and character into a constantly reconfiguring and mutating Quicksilver War.
Contours of the Quicksilver War
What of the big picture? In 2011, the Syria of President Bashar al-Assad and its eastern neighbour, the new Iraq patronized by the Americans after their demolition of Saddam Hussein’s apparatus in 2003, both entered trajectories towards implosion. The circumstances were independent, but the trajectories intersected and the two countries became a common arena of violence by 2014. In the Syrian case, mismanagement, repression, and complacent arrogance on the part of the ruling clique provided a setting receptive to emanations from the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian autocrats in early 2011. In Iraq, a tight parliamentary election in March 2010 led the executive prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to turn decisively to his majority Shi’a Arab coreligionists to reboot his leadership after a forced deal with rivals in December 2010. Maliki had no intention of honouring the deal; instead, he reinforced his personal authority over the government and the new Iraqi military primarily at the expense of Sunni Arabs. The latter had only just been detached from the jihadist religious extremism that had accompanied the American occupation after 2003.
A renewed Shi’a–Sunni breakdown in Iraq became confirmed by December 2011, when the United States withdrew its last troops and Maliki’s administration had Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi charged with murder a day later. Whereas in Syria a street upheaval in the dusty southern town of Dera’a in mid-March escalated into wider turbulence within days, in Iraq there was a more gradual deterioration through 2011, driven from within the corridors of power before it later overtook the Sunni Arab street.
The purpose of this book is to interpret the ongoing crises across Syria and Iraq from their onset in 2011 through their coalescence by 2014 to the complex scenery of geopolitical fracturing and foreign entanglement in 2017. The two modern countries make up the bulk of the so-called Fertile Crescent, a term the American archaeologist James Breasted proposed in 1916.1 The Fertile Crescent refers to the arc of modestly watered lands fringing the Syrian desert, reaching from the Mediterranean coast across the north Syrian plain to the Tigris– Euphrates river system. It expresses the shared physical environment and cultural diversity of the two countries. Assertion and negation of diversity have been a substantial part of the story of the crises and warfare since 2011. The Fertile Crescent embraces Syria and Iraq in an overarching geography that has also become an overarching war zone.
The book title Quicksilver War refers to a shape-shifting pattern of interlinked conflicts across Syria and Iraq, encompassing multiple parties, theatres, interventions, and phases. The overall conflagration has constantly evolved in terms of balances of advantage, the prominence of this or that front or theatre, and the impact of outside powers. Actual warfare began when elements in the Syrian opposition, spearheaded by army deserters, took up weapons against the relentless regime military crackdown against street protestors in mid- to late 2011. In Iraq, the initial manifestation was sporadic Sunni Arab insurgent activity against the security forces in west central Iraq in 2012, which at first had no connection to events in Syria.
Syria and Iraq began to come together when Iraqi Shi’a militias crossed to Damascus to reinforce a briefly tottering Syrian regime in late 2012, and Iraqi Sunni jihadists entered Syria to take advantage of newly available spaces in 2012–13. After June 2014, the ISIS jihadists established their bellicose ‘caliphate’ occupying eastern Syria and western Iraq. For a while, it raided in all directions. In 2015–16, after ISIS peaked, Iraqi Shi’a warlords increased their contribution to propping up the Syrian regime in western Syria, with a crucial role in the final regime–Russian offensive in Aleppo in late 2016. Their Iranian patrons of course had strategic aspirations across both Iraq and Syria, coexisting uneasily with Russia in Syria and with the US reappearance in Iraq. With all the criss-crossing, Syria and Iraq could be considered, for a time at least, an integrated war zone.
Analysis of Syria and Iraq together, however, does not mean that they have been equal sources and stages of events. From the triggering of the crisis in Dera’a in Syria in March 2011, the primary dynamic played out in Syria. The life-and-death struggle between the Syrian regime and those whose main purpose was to displace it led and dwarfed everything else. The ISIS that we have did indeed originate in Iraq, but its particular scale, reach, and character has derived from the bonanza of resources, new territory, and access to recruits that simply would not have existed without Bashar al-Assad’s military firestorm across Syria in 2011–14. Without the Syrian crisis alongside it, Iraq may well have muddled through Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian provocations. Bashar al-Assad, impresario of the firestorm, carries heavy responsibility not only for the physical wrecking of Syria but for derivative damage much further afield.
Short of the World Wars, there are few modern precedents for the Quicksilver War across Syria and Iraq, involving so many participants and shifting fortunes, and with such diverse international involvements. Two comparisons come to mind. First, the succession of wars in the former Yugoslavia between 1990 and 1999, from Slovenia to Croatia–Serbia to Bosnia to Kosovo, was easily equivalent in its twists, turns, and intricate phasing. The Yugoslav wars, however, lacked the multi-sided foreign interference that has characterized the Syria–Iraq arena. Russia could not and did not wish to exert itself for Serbia as it did twenty years later for Assad. Second, within the Middle East, the fifteen-year war period in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 had similar complexity to Syria–Iraq, but on a lesser geographical scale. Some features of the Lebanese crisis might prove indicative for the future, specifically in Syria. Lebanon showed that an apparent victory or settlement might turn out to be nothing more than another phase in a conflict that has more dark chapters ahead. In 1983, many felt that Lebanon was on the way to stabilized government and reconstruction, but in late 1983 and 1984 it all fell apart again. Then, when Hafiz al- Assad’s Syria finally registered its advantage in 1990, after another six years of various conflicts, some of the leading characters at the end of the story could not even have been imagined at the outset in 1975: Hezbollah and General (now President) Michel Aoun, for example.
Comparison and commonalities with other cases assist understanding but, as with any particular case, the Syria–Iraq war arena also stands apart, including from Lebanon’s war. Syria and Iraq share a unique modern legacy that Lebanon was lucky enough to avoid: Ba’athist Arabism brutalized their politics and warped their cosmopolitan societies into the early twenty-first century. Ba’athism, meaning Arab ‘resurrection’, was a heady cocktail of European-style nationalist chauvinism and socialist zeal mixed together by two Syrian students at the Sorbonne in Paris in the early 1930s. Under Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assads in Syria, Ba’athism became the ideological justification for secular Arab nationalist tyranny in their two countries. It fostered a culture of absolutism and intolerance that also provided a hothouse environment for Islamist religious extremism. Ba’athist Syria and Iraq produced paranoid mafioso security machines that repressed non-Arab identities and manipulated Islamic movements and sectarian sentiment. Both targeted their substantial Kurdish populations with ferocious Arabization.
Saddam Hussein, who had never shown a trace of religious commitment, cynically turned to militant Sunni Islam as a prop for his regime in the 1990s. The future ISIS ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (really Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri from the northern Iraqi town of Samarra), took a Ph.D. from the Saddam University for Islamic Studies.2 For his part, Bashar al-Assad of Syria patronized murderous Sunni jihadists as tools against his Arab neighbours—against Lebanon, Jordan, and the US-promoted new Iraq. In the late twentieth century, Lebanon had plenty of misfortunes with communal jealousies and external intrusions, but not the monstrous additional load of totalitarian Ba’athism.
Like other complex, multi-player regional conflicts, the Quicksilver War of Syria and Iraq since 2011 provides insight into the agency of personalities in pivotal positions, the implications of stressed ethnosectarian identities, and the interplay of states, both with one another and with a range of semi- and sub-state actors. This book explores these topics. It weighs structure and agency in the crisis, following the hypothesis that although Syria and Iraq have been conditioned by their histories we would have nothing resembling the Quicksilver War without Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It examines the inflammation of Sunni– Shi’a, Sunni–Alawite, and Arab–Kurdish divides. It surveys the geopolitics of the wartime fragmentation of Syria and Iraq. Among the jostling post-2011 entities, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes have operated rump states; the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has been termed a ‘quasi-state’;3 the ISIS ‘caliphate’, contracting through 2017, might be labelled a pseudo-state; and the Syrian Kurdish cantons and assorted Syrian Sunni Arab opposition bailiwicks are sub-states. Apart from the regimes and KRG, all have come out of wartime circumstances, and it remains to be seen what will survive the war period.
The book also provides an opportunity to refer to concepts of ‘proxy war’ and ‘failed state’. These terms have been thrown about carelessly in relation respectively to the so-called Syrian civil war and the modern Syrian and Iraqi states. In popular understanding, ‘proxy war’ implies that local combatants are principally agents of external sponsors. It is true that local parties can service Russian president Vladimir Putin in resuscitating Russia as a global power, or the Iranian theocrats in their version of Persian imperialism, or the USA in rolling back jihadist terrorism. The local parties, however, equally look to manipulate erstwhile patrons and play among competing foreigners in servicing their own agendas of domination, survival, and geopolitical revisionism. The Syrian regime views Russia and Iran through this lens, and Turkey’s mildly Sunni Islamic oriented government miscalculated in conceiving in 2012–13 that jihadist tigers might converge against the Syrian regime. Western adoption of the ‘proxy’ concept has not helped serious comprehension of the arena.4 In addition, obscuring the power of local agency through terming the crisis a ‘proxy war’ risks devaluing the criminal responsibility of local agents.
As for ‘failed states’, if this means effective regime collapse then it has not happened to Syria and Iraq. The regimes and their state machinery have continued in substantial territories, including the capitals, and in mid-2017 would be better described as resurgent states. The Syrian security agency (mukhabarat) ‘deep state’ persists. At least up to 2014, it conducted its curious interactions with jihadists far more adroitly than Turkey managed in the same years. Indeed, in the Kafkaesque modern Middle East, where state success means successful repression, state terrorism, and mafia-style predation, Bashar al-Assad looks healthily viable in mid-2017.
Moving to the scale of events, the Quicksilver War has been the leading regional and international conflict of the early twenty-first century. In Syria, there were at least 350,000 deaths from violence between March 2011 and late 2016,5 to which one can add 100,000 in Iraq in the same period, overwhelmingly after the ISIS shock in June 2014.6 This is double the toll in Iraq between US entry in 2003 and departure in 2011, triple the toll in Bosnia in the 1990s, and triple the toll in the entire history of Arab–Israeli hostilities. In Syria, the direct war deaths are moving towards or even beyond 2 per cent of the whole population, and the proportion is obviously much higher for young adult males. In addition, out of a 2011 population of about 22 million, around 5 million Syrians fled the country as refugees up to late 2016 and at least 6 million were internally displaced. This alone is unprecedented since the demographic upheaval in the Indian subcontinent in 1947. For Iraq, one might add 1.5 million people who fled majority Sunni Arab central and northern provinces to Kurdish-controlled territory during the ISIS offensive in mid-2014.
Beyond such numbers, it is worth briefly outlining the Middle Eastern and global repercussions of the prostration and at least temporary fracturing of two major Arab states. Syria and Iraq together occupy a salient location at the core of the great continental landmass of Eurasia and Africa—the ‘world island’ of Halford Mackinder’s early twentieth-century geopolitics.7 They sit amid four hypersensitive regional powers— Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel—each of which is intimately concerned with what happens and what others are doing in this large intervening space. As for the great powers, the West worries about the future of Iraq’s oil reservoir, among the five largest in the world, and about spillover of refugees and jihadist terror—particularly from Syria. Russia has sustained the Syrian regime to compel the USA and the rest of the West to concede to Russian influence in the eastern Mediterranean. For Moscow, this is the near south and continuation of a ‘great game’ dating back to the nineteenth century and competition between the Tsarist and British empires.
Overall, Syria and Iraq presented a quadruple international challenge, especially after mid-2014: competing geopolitical interests among regional and global players; sectarian rupture between Sunnis and Shi’a, both within and beyond Syria and Iraq; rampant Sunni Islamic jihadist fury against enemies ‘near’ and ‘far’; and a humanitarian catastrophe. In mid-2014, the ISIS jihadists seized the centre of the war zone and top billing in the world media, although this did not give them real top significance in the war. Their ersatz ‘caliphate’ based in al-Raqqa (Syria) and Mosul (Iraq) threatened the Iraqi regime, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq, and anyone else who got in their way, by mid- 2014 intermittently including the Syrian regime as well as Syrian rebels. They massacred non-Sunnis and ‘apostate’ Sunnis, and beheaded American and British hostages. The reluctant Obama administration mobilized a dozen Western and Arab countries in a limited US-led bombing campaign to contain ISIS. Meantime, Iran pursued strategic ambitions across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, provoking widespread Sunni Arab hostility. Iran’s Russian ally, looking to retain options across the Sunni Arab world, tried to steer clear of this Iranian project.
As for the humanitarian challenge, in 2015 the stream of Syrian refugees heading towards Western Europe swelled into a flood. A million or so Syrians with the means to pay smugglers could no longer tolerate wasting their lives in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey, or in holding out fatuous hopes for a new Syria. Facing refugees, ISIS jihadist infiltration, and mobilization of some European Muslim citizens by the new terrorist entity, the Germans, French, and others suddenly had to be nice to Turkey, which held the European front line. Some Europeans feared incorporating Turkey into the European Union, and had stalled the supplicant ‘candidate member’ at the gates. Now they wanted Turkey to hold back Syrians and Iraqis, to block transit of Europeans turned rogue, and generally to serve as EU border guards. Turkey thereby acquired levers, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not hesitate to flaunt them. The Quicksilver War impact on Europe and Turkish–European relations well illustrated its international reverberations.
Extract from Harris, William, Quicksilver War: Syria, Iraq and the Spiral of Conflict, 2018, Hurst & Co. Publishers, London, pp.1-8.
William Harris is a Professor of Politics at Otago University. He is the author of Quicksilver War Syria, Iraq and the Spiral of Conflict.