12 Aug 2014

It’s complicated: who’s on whose side in Syria and Iraq

When it comes to the Middle East, if you’re not confused, you’re deluded. What’s happening is complex and western policy is contradictory. So here are some key questions and answers.

Q1: Why are the Americans arming the Kurds when they disagree with the Kurdish plan to split off from the rest of Iraq and form a separate state?

A: Because they’re desperate. Kurdistan is the only stable and prosperous part of Iraq. Scores of US oil companies have set up shop there, as well as US diplomats and spies. It’s a buffer zone between the crazies and Europe. Protecting it from Islamic State (IS) jihadis is a core western interest not a humanitarian gesture.

A displaced child from minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to Islamic State in Sinjar town, rests as she makes her way, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain

Q2: So is all about oil then?
A: Partly. But is that all bad? Oil provides income and jobs. Relative stability has led to the oil boom. Kurdistan has also been a refuge for people fleeing more turbulent parts of Iraq.

Q3: Why all the fuss about Yazidis and Christians? Weren’t Muslims in danger from IS too?
A: Yazidis and Christians arguably face genocide – the jihadis want to wipe them out. But saving them, while difficult, is probably doable. They are limited in number – it’s a discrete problem. Saving Muslims, be they Shia or Sunni, from IS is much more complex, and not all of them want to be saved.

And, yes, there is a western bias towards minorities, especially Christians. France has offered asylum to Iraqi Christians but not Muslims who might equally be fleeing persecution.

Q4: There’s plenty of evidence that Syrian Muslims in Aleppo fear IS. Why not save them?
A: Sorry, it’s too difficult. And it would mean intervening on the same side as President Bashar al-Assad, whom western governments oppose.

Q5: But Assad is fighting IS like us.
A: I know. But we support other supposedly secular (the code word is “moderate”) groups fighting against Assad.

Q6: So we’re on the same side as IS in Syria but on the other side in Iraq?
A: Indeed

Q7: Does that make sense?
A: Not really. It’s a result of history – the US midwifed the current Shia-dominated Iraqi government after their 2003 intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein, in the hope that it would be democratic and non-sectarian. Didn’t work out. They oppose the government in Syria because it’s so brutal, but now Assad’s most potent enemies are as brutal as he is.

Q8: Oh God, let’s leave them to stew in their own juice.
A: I refer you to Q1 about core western interests. And Q3, the plight of minorities.

Q9: So which regional powers are our friends and which are our enemies? And where do they stand on these issues?
A: The US and UK’s closest regional allies are the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, our traditional sources of oil and gas. They say they’re against IS but seem to turn a blind eye to some of their wealthy citizens who fund jihadis. Iran is our enemy. It supports the government in Syria, so we’re very much enemies there. But it supports the government in Baghdad like us. So in Iraq, we’re friends. Clear?

Q10: What is the difference between UK and US policy in the region?
A: Timing. The UK policy is formulated after the Americans have told us what to do.

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