Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012

2011 was a busy year for independence, secession, and autonomy movements—Palestine’s application for United Nations membership, the independence of the Republic of South Sudan, all the tumult of the Arab Spring including Libya being divided between rebel- and loyalist-controlled territories for much of the year, a regionally divisive election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Kenyan invasion of Somalia’s Jubaland region, the death of the former president of Biafra, Basques in Spain laying down their arms, the weakening of the European Union by a currency crisis, more and more Tibetan monks immolating themselves, and a U.S. presidential candidate mocked for statements in support of Texan secession.  Some of those stories will persist into 2012, some have crested, and there will be new ones as well.  Here is my list of separatist movements to keep an eye on in the new year, listed here in order of increasing significance.  (Please suggest others in the comments section if you like.)

10. Flanders and Wallonia

As I reported on this blog earlier this month, Belgium—perennially divided by political fault lines that map the boundary between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings—ended nearly two years without a working government a few weeks ago in an attempt to address the European currency crisis.  The new Socialist prime minister, Emilio Di Rupi, is neither a Fleming nor a Walloon—he is an Italian raised in a Belgian orphanage—and hopes to be a uniter.  But now that Belgium is actually starting to do things and implement policies, there have been street demonstrations against expected austerity policies just as there are in Greece and elsewhere.  If the Di Rupi government falls, it will likely be replaced by a more pro-Flemish one.  Flemings, who tend to be more right-wing and more separatist than Walloons, dislike the foppish Di Rupi (continental Europe’s first openly gay prime minister) and resent his poor mastery of their language.  This may be the year Belgium finally splits apart.

A Francophone view of Belgian politics (the lion is Flanders, the rooster is Wallonia)

9. Baluchistan

Some of Pakistan’s divisions are well aired in the Western media—the dispute with India over Kashmir, the government’s half-hearted (to put it generously) war with Islamists in their lawless Waziristan region, and the corrosive effects of their intelligence service, ISI, on Pakistani politics.  But the dispute that has been taking the largest toll in this most fractious of all hodgepodge nations is the brutal government war against separatists in Baluchistan (also spelled Balochistan), Pakistan’s largest province, which covers 44% of its territory.  Nearly all parts of Pakistan have secessionist movements or have had them, including Punjab, Kashmir, and Sindh, and Waziristan is in the de facto control of local warlords.  But it is in Baluchistan that separatist national feeling is strongest.  The Baluch people, who speak a language related to Persian and utterly distinct from Pakistan’s official Urdu, never wanted to be part of Pakistan and still feel that their king sold them out in 1947.  Pakistan has put down several pro-independence uprisings there over the years, sometimes assisted by Iran, which has its own Baluchistan province over the border.  The ISI is widely seen responsible for the thousands of reporters, activists, their families, and others “disappeared” in recent months.  Human-rights observers are not having much luck getting the West to notice this ongoing “dirty war.”  The international community seems so worried about Pakistan’s nuclear arms falling into the wrong hands that they are willing to turn a blind eye to any atrocities that help preserve unity.  But sometimes oppression merely fuels separatism all the more.  If Pakistan ever does split apart, it will happen in Baluchistan first, and it will be bloody.

The flag of Baluchistan

8. Padania

The Euro Zone crisis has exposed many cultural rifts in the European Union, reinforcing stereotypes of thrifty, responsible, hard-working Northerners and lazy, welfare-dependent spendthrifts and coddled civil servants along the Mediterranean rim.  See #10 above for how this dynamic plays itself out in microcosm in Belgium; but it is also the motivating psychological and cultural force behind Italy’s Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania (Northern League, in English), founded in 1991 with the idea of separating Italy’s more industrialized, prosperous north from its (as northerners characterize it) dysfunctional, Mafia-ridden, impoverished south, where the capital is.  Padania is a more-or-less invented name for a northern Italian homeland, and it consolidates several previous autonomist movements identified with individual regions like Tuscany, Lombardy, and the South Tyrol.  Europe is full of such small regional movements, in places like Cornwall and Savoy and Lapland where there is no real hope of secession.  But the Northern League crowds out national parties in northern regions and is the main political party in Veneto and the second-largest in Lombardy.  In 2008 it joined Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition government as a clinching junior partner, and this put the push for greater devolved federalism in Italy squarely on the table.  But then came the 2011 currency crisis.  Many Northerners shared the general northern European view that it was a culture of laziness exemplified in places like Greece, Spain, and southern Italy that created the Euro mess, and this galvanized separatist feelings.  At the same time, disputes over how to confront the crisis brought about Berlusconi’s downfall.  The new, more left-leaning government of Mario Monti left the right-wing Northern League out in the cold.  So, now, with the currency crisis as a galvanizing emergency and exile from coalition politics as a grudge that can be nursed, the Northern League may see 2012 as the year in which they flex their muscles and push their agenda for independence like never before.

The flag of Padania

7. West Papua

Indonesia, the world’s most populous predominantly-Muslim country, has always been full of restive ethnic groups and has always cracked down on them with an iron fist.  It took decades for East Timor, which Indonesia had illegally invaded after its Portuguese colonizers departed, to break free, which it did in 2002.  Aceh, on the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s northwesternmost major island, Sumatra, agitated for independence for decades as well, but those ambitions were swept away in the Indian Ocean “Boxing Day Tsunami” of 2004, which left Acehnese more dependent than ever on federal largesse and perhaps skeptical that they had a viable state.  But in many ways Indonesia’s fiercest separatists have been those of West Papua, or Irian Jaya, comprising the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half being Papua New Guinea).  Initially, the departing Dutch colonizers agreed with Australia, which was running Papua New Guinea, to eventually reunite both halves of New Guinea as one state.  But Indonesia moved in precipitously to annex it in 1962, with the connivance of both the United Nations and the Kennedy Administration, a supporter of Indonesia’s anti-Communist dictator, Sukarno.  The Netherlands succeeded in inserting into the U.N. resolution a promise of an eventual referendum on independence, but, as with a similar promise to East Timor, Sukarno had no intention of keeping it.  In 1971, rebels declared a Republic of West Papua and wrote a constitution, but Indonesia cracked down on the separatists and sealed the province off.  For decades, West Papua has been mostly closed to foreigners, so it is hard to know exactly what form the repression is taking, but during 2011 violence escalated and more Indonesian troops are being sent in.  To all appearances, West Papua’s national aspirations have reached a boiling point.  Here is West Papua’s “Morning Star Flag,” which is banned in Indonesia; many of the shooting incidents in the West Papua violence begin with illegal hoistings of this banner by separatists.  To me it looks a bit Americophilic, no?

6. Kawthoolei

When Burma became independent from the U.K. in 1947, many of its minority peoples, with their own long histories as independent states, were given deferred promises that their national aspirations would be met.  The Shan and Karenni states were told that after ten years they could secede, but the Karen (a.k.a. Kayin), angry at having been overlooked by the British earlier on, boycotted discussions of the subject and got nothing.  Nor did a succession of dictatorial regimes (the current one calls the country Myanmar) have any intention of fulfilling what promises had been made.  For these and other reasons, the Karen have been the most militant, the crackdown on them has been the most grievous, and the Karen struggle for an independent state called Kawthoolei is sometimes called the oldest ongoing armed struggle in the world.  In 2011, cracks appeared in the Myanmar junta’s repression of dissent, and the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, traveled to Rangoon (Yangon) in December 2011 as part of a series of negotiations to end Myanmar’s international isolation in exchange for some democratization.  It seems natural that freedom for Myanmar’s subject peoples should be on the agenda, especially for a secretary of state who helped usher South Sudan to independence.  Expect that if Karen autonomy is not on the agenda, the insurgency may intensify, and that, if it is, Burma may start to unravel—in a good way, of course.

The Karen national flag

5. Northern Nigeria

Those mourning Chukuwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Biafran separatist hero, in November 2011, recalled his dream of a federalized Nigeria, if not necessarily a dismembered one.  With Igbos in the southeast (Biafra would have been their homeland), Yorubas in the southwest, Hausas in the north, and scores of smaller national and tribal groups, this most populous of African nations, with more than half as many people as the U.S., never made much sense as a unitary country.  After the federal government put a bloody end to Biafra’s aspirations in 1970, would-be Nigerian separatists have largely toed the line.  Exploited Ogoni people in the oil-soaked Niger delta seeking autonomy and a share of their homeland’s natural wealth have been an exception, though not a particularly well organized one.  But in 2011 that seemed to be changing with the rise of Boko Haram, a radical Islamist organization operating in the predominantly Muslim northern states of Nigeria.  The above map shows the twelve of Nigeria’s 36 states that have already imposed sharia, Islamic law, on their own.  A little less than half of Nigerians are Muslim, the same proportion, roughly, that are Christian.  Most Muslims are in the arid north.  They are emboldened by some of the events of 2011—sub-Saharan Muslims in neighboring Mali and Mauritania aiding (sometimes as mercenaries) Moammar Qaddafi’s last stand against European powers in Libya, and a Western-sponsored partition of Sudan into a Muslim Arab north and a Christian and tribal south.  The Islamist uprising in Nigeria has been haphazard—there is no flag, no borders of a proposed state, not even a name for a state, no constitution—and has been led by a radical extremist terrorist organization called Boko Haram, whose full name means People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad but whose leadership is utterly unknown.  Boko Haram not only call Christians infidels worthy of death, but they reject the notion of evolution, the notion of a spherical Earth, and the Satanic decadent notion that the formation of rainclouds is a byproduct of evaporation.  Their methods have mostly been random murder.  In 2011, they claimed responsibility for terrorist incidents which killed nearly 500 people, including bombings of Christian churches.  Not all Hausas or northerners are separatists or fundamentalists, not by a long shot, but Nigeria is a mess, and Boko Haram could spark the first true attempt to break up Nigeria since Biafra.

The flag of the Hausa people

4. South Yemen

From 1967 to 1991, Yemen was two countries: the Arab Republic of Yemen, a.k.a. North Yemen (succeeding a Kingdom of Yemen that rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1916), and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a.k.a. South Yemen (comprising the territory of the former British-ruled Aden Protectorate).  (To look at a map, you’d think they should be called West and East Yemen, but North Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is close to due north of Aden, the southern capital.)  This division was intensified by the two Yemens’ becoming client states of opposing sides of the Cold War.  After the fall of Communism, North Yemen absorbed the Communist south (almost simultaneous with the Federal Republic of Germany’s absorption of the Communist east), to create the Republic of Yemen.  But the old border also mapped tribal divisions, and those remained, resulting in a brief civil war in 1994.  (Among other differences, North Yemen tends to be more predominantly Shiite, while South Yemen has more Sunnis.)  With the Arab Spring of 2011 and the people-power movement that removed Yemen’s long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, those divisions, and some old grievances, have returned to the fore.  Separatists are becoming a more prominent part of Yemen’s ongoing violence, and it is common to see militias dusting off their old South Yemeni flags in demonstrations.  South Yemen is high on my list of possible next members of the U.N.

The flag of South Yemen

3. Kurdistan

As I discussed in a recent blog post following the official end of the United States’ war in Iraq, there are legitimate fears that this is the moment when Iraq will beginning splitting up in earnest.  Already, with U.S. troops barely gone, Shiite Arab and Sunni Arab factions within the government seem close to a shooting war.  The U.S. never really tried to dismantle the sectarian militias that turned Iraq into a bloodbath during the mid-2000s under U.S. occupation; some of them continued to be useful.  A division of the southern two-thirds of Iraq into a Sunni homeland centered on Baghdad and a far-southern “Shiastan” will be long and bloody if it happens at all, but Kurdistan, in the north, has a far better chance of escaping with some form of sovereignty.  Kurdistan-in-Iraq already has many of the trappings of an independent state, and the Obama administration is already sort of treating it as a separate diplomatic entity in the region.  Much of this grows out of the autonomy they enjoyed under the protection of the U.S. “northern no fly zone” in the years between the last two Gulf Wars (1991-2003).  But the areas where Kurdish people live also extends into northwestern Iran, a sliver of northern Syria (see my earlier discussion of sectarian and ethnic dimensions to Syria’s civil war), and, most famously, a huge chunk of southeastern Turkey.  The Turkish government has done a fine job of keeping itself well outside the European definition of a civilized country with its brutal, almost genocidal suppression of Kurdish language, culture, and identity.  Turks will complain the loudest about any moves toward a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, and Turkish troops and bombers routinely foray across the border to attack alleged rebel positions in the mountains of northern Iraq.  But Turkey is no longer as strategic a country as it once was.  It used to be NATO’s bulwark against the Soviet Union in the Middle East and the state to whose quirks and preferences other NATO countries were willing to defer as they operated in the region.  But the Cold War is over, and Turkey’s relations with the West continue to sour, especially after two U.S.-led Gulf Wars.  If Iraq goes up in flames in 2012, as many expect, and Kurds try to declare independence, we will see how important it really is to cater to the Turkish government’s paranoia and prejudices.  My guess is: at the end of the day, not that important at all.

The flag of Kurdistan

2. South Sudan

But wait, didn’t the Republic of South Sudan already gain independence from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011?  Well, yes, and it is now firmly a member of the United Nations, but in reality the south’s decades-long war for secession from the Arab Muslim north is far from over.  When plans for Sudan’s referendum on separation were drawn up (the vote was held in January, with more than 98% choosing to secede), three areas were deliberately left out, with the idea that separate referenda would be held there later (though it’s now clear that won’t happen).  These were South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces, and the Abyei district, all of them areas where the presence of oil and recent migrations and population shifts make it difficult and contentious to draw a precise border.  Fighting and even ethnic cleansing started occurring in Abyei before independence was even declared, and it has now shifted rather intensively to South Kordofan and Blue Nile.  All are currently under the control of the north, with its much more powerful military.  Ideally, the Sudans should learn how to cooperate—the south has the oil, and the north has the resources and coastline to get it to market—but a badly drawn frontier and a referendum that deferred all the difficult questions for later have resulted in a civil war that some fear may never end.  Look for some bloody fighting over this border well into 2012.

The flag of the Republic of South Sudan, on independence day

And finally, at number one, ...

1. Palestine

The biggie.  The idea in 1949 was that there would be two states in what was the British protectorate in Palestine: one for Palestinian Arabs and one for Jewish settlers.  We all know what happened next: Palestinians rejected the idea of sharing their homeland, Israel was established, Palestinians were made refugees in neighboring Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s neighbors tried to wipe it off the map, Israel prevailed and conquered bits of three neighboring countries as a security buffer, and over long years of rebellion—and the withdrawal of Egypt’s claims on the Gaza Strip and Jordan’s on the West Bank—these areas became first a de facto, then a semi-official, and increasingly a recognized State—sort of—of Palestine.  Palestine, with its self-governing, U.N.-recognized Palestinian Authority, was already a sovereign state in all but name by 2011, when it took the step, against Barack Obama’s stern advice to be more patient (sic!), of applying for membership in the United Nations.  The application passed the General Assembly, where all states have an equal vote, but stalled at the Security Council, where the major nuclear-armed states wield vetoes—here, most relevantly, the United States, Israel’s closest (some would say only) ally.  This was predicted, and the whole move was largely symbolic.  It has not had much effect on the ongoing sporadically violent relations between Israel and Palestine.  And there was already a large number of countries, and not just Muslim ones, that recognized Palestine back in 1988, when the Palestine Liberation Organization declared independence from its exile in Tunisia.  Moreover, nearly all Arab countries still refuse to recognize Israel.  So this is merely a new dimension to a very old stalemate.  But U.N. membership would change a lot.  It would make any movements by Israel against Palestine not simply infractions against U.N. resolutions but an attack by one state upon another—the very sort of thing that could authorize a vast international response, as in the Iraq–Kuwait War.  Israel, which encircles Palestine like a prison camp and reserves the right to attack it at any time, obviously wants to avoid that.  But now that U.N. membership is on the table and one by one countries are supporting it (western military powers like the Czech Republic, Iceland, and Luxembourg have already done so), this originally symbolic move may gradually prove, in 2012, to have been the game-changer.

Map showing the 128 countries that recognize Palestinian independence (note that Somaliland, South Sudan, and Eritrea refuse to recognize Palestine, just to piss off the countries they seceded from)

Happy new year!

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Iraq War Is Over, but Is Iraq’s Partition Just Beginning?

On December 15, 2011, President Barack Obama declared that the U.S. war in Iraq his predecessor George W. Bush had started was over, and the last troops began returning home.  But now that Iraq has been left to fend for itself, is the originally feared partition into separate Shiite and Sunni Arab and Kurdish—and perhaps other, smaller—states now inevitable?

One might think so to see the latest news of scores dead in coordinated attacks on Shiite targets that bear hallmarks of the Sunni-aligned terrorist organization Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  These attacks appear to be in retaliation for moves by Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who barely waited for the last U.S. helicopter to lift off before calling for the arrest of his vice president, Tarik al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, for running secret terror and assassination squads.  Hashimi is now hiding out in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Maliki has warned the Kurds against harboring him.

To understand the exact texture and consistency of the shit now hitting the Iraqi fan, however, it is necessary to review some tangled history.

Iraq is one of the more infamous examples of an “artificial” country—riven by internal strife largely because its borders were drawn by imperial powers without regard to where actual cultural and ethnic boundaries lay.  It was part of the Ottoman Empire until the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres (a subcommittee of sorts of the Treaty of Versailles), when, as among the losers of the First World War, Ottomans saw their possessions outside Asia Minor parceled out to European victors under League of Nations auspices.  Under that dispensation, the British ended up with Iraq, Trans-Jordan, Palestine, and Kuwait, and the French got Syria and Lebanon, while the Ottomans were left with a rump Turkish Republic.  (Saudi Arabia gradually established itself as an independent kingdom to the south of Iraq in a more complicated process.)

Of all these territories, with the exception of the much smaller Lebanon, the boundaries of the British Mandate of Mesopotamia (as Iraq was then called) corresponded the least well to any “naturally” bounded cultural area.  Northern Iraq was populated by Kurds, whose homeland also extended into neighboring areas of Iran, Syria, Armenia/Azerbaijan, and, of course, Turkey.  In the 1920s two separate attempts to establish a Kingdom of Kurdistan were put down by Turkish troops in southeastern Turkey and by the British in the Mesopotamia mandate.

The rest of Iraq, to the south, was mostly divided, with significantly less geographic clarity, between Arabs who followed Sunni Islam and those following Shi’a Islam—Islam’s deepest sectarian divide, as fundamental as the Catholic–Protestant divide in Christendom.  (Kurds, too, are predominantly Sunni.)  There are also smaller minorities, such as Turcomans, but they dominate only small areas.  Here is a rough map of the three major ethnic areas of 20th-century Iraq:

(The areas colored white are areas where almost no one lives; we’ll get to that oddity of geography later.)

In 1932, the U.K. granted independence to the Kingdom of Iraq, installing Faisal I as king.  Faisal, a Sunni Arab, had fought alongside T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in the Arab Revolt during the First World War and had been king of the short-lived British puppet state in Syria immediately after the war.  Faisal’s dream was to unite Sunnis and Shiites in either a confederation of sovereign Arab states or an Arab superstate including much of the former Ottoman empire.  Faisal remained, however, a close ally of the British forces that had installed him.  Part of the agreement under which Iraq became independent was that the British would remain a military presence and play a role in shaping Iraqi politics.  Resentment of close ties to the British was a source of constant internal tension in the new country.  After the Second World War, as Western powers scrambled to preserve commercial interests in former colonies and in the oil-rich Middle East in particular, the Iraqi monarchy was an eager member of the U.K.-led Central Treaty Organization, or Baghdad Pact, which also included Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey—an organization designed to preserve Western oil interests along a swath running the length of the Near East.

In 1958, the Iraqi army staged a coup d’état, executing Faisal II and his family, declaring a republic, withdrawing from the Baghdad Pact, and aligning itself with the Soviet Union.  In a subsequent coup, in 1968, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party installed as president Saddam Hussein, a megalomaniacal but incredibly shrewd tyrant who stayed in power for decades mainly by playing superpowers against one another.  Hussein’s rule consolidated Sunni rule over a country where a majority of Arabs are Shiite (Shiites making up 60-65% of the population), and Hussein made sectarianism a point of conflict where it had not been before.  Hussein was mostly socialist and secular, but the Iranian revolution of 1979, which installed a Shiite theocracy next door in an unaligned country with a powerful military, made him paranoid about the possibility of an uprising among the mostly poor and disenfranchised Shiites in southern Iraq, including the so-called Marsh Arabs of the Tigris and Euphrates delta lowlands by Iraq’s narrow coastline, wedged between Iran and Kuwait.  This fear more than anything else prompted Hussein in 1980 to provoke a war with Iran, with the avowed goals of expanding its coastline by annexing areas that included Khuzestan, the only Sunni-Arab-dominated province in Shi’a-dominated Iran, just east of Iraq’s coast.

By this point, Iraq and Iran had both isolated themselves from most of the international community (Iran through the hostage crisis and other atrocities).  Western and Eastern powers in the Cold War supplied arms to both sides in the long Iran–Iraq War, and to some extent probably hoped both would lose; certainly, no outside powers were making as much money out of the region’s oil as they would like.  Iran’s alliance with Kurdish peshmerga rebels in northern Iraq led to Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds, often called genocidal, including the 1988 Halabja poison-gas attack, which killed thousands—using, it needs to be remembered, internationally banned chemical weapons provided clandestinely by the U.S. government, in the mistaken hope that they might be used against Iranian civilians instead of Iraqi ones.

The Iran–Iraq War ended in 1988 with no clear winners, gigantic death tolls on both sides, and the border pretty much where it had been at the beginning.

Frustrated in these attempts to expand power abroad, even as he consolidated it brutally at home, Hussein chose as his next target Kuwait, the oil-rich coastal city-state to the south.  Sunni-dominated Kuwait had been a much more autonomous member of the Ottoman Empire than Iraq, although at times it had come under the jurisdiction of Basra, now Iraq’s southernmost (and incidentally Shi’a-dominated) province.  In 1899, Kuwait aligned itself with the U.K., further loosening its ties to Constantinople.  Britain’s motivation here had been an economic rivalry with the German Empire, which, in the decades before the First World War, had been consolidating its ties with the Ottomans.  During the period of Faisal’s rule, Iraq had eyed Kuwait hungrily but never wanted to risk antagonizing the British.  The Ba’athists, with their anti-Western Arab nationalism, saw Kuwait’s independence from Britain in 1961, and its subsequent close ties to Saudi Arabia and the West, as a further affront to its national pride.  In 1990, after Kuwait amped up its oil production, thus depressing Iraqi oil revenue, Hussein invaded Kuwait, using mostly misty-eyed nationalistic rhetoric, claiming that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq.  It is perhaps significant, too, that, as with the attempted annexation of Khuzestan, the annexation of Kuwait would have tipped Iraq’s population toward a Sunni majority, and would have encircled the Shiite region with Sunni areas.  (Never mind that Kuwaitis, to a man, resisted and rejected Iraqi sovereignty; Hussein had no allies on the ground there.)  In the Iraq–Kuwait War (a.k.a. the Persian Gulf War—a.k.a. the Second Persian Gulf War, if you count the Iran–Iraq War as the first one), President George H. W. Bush Sr. led a coalition of the U.S., the U.K., and other Western allies, under United Nations auspices, to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, doing significant damage to Iraq’s infrastructure in the process, though not going to so far as to remove Hussein.

One of the results of that February 1991 Blitzkrieg was an even more severe economic stranglehold on Iraq by the international community.  The Iraqi military, one of the region’s strongest, was all but dismantled, and the war’s victors established two “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq—policed on a daily basis for more than a decade by U.S. and other air forces—to prevent Ba’athist reprisals against those populations.  These no-fly zones were also a sort of guilty consolation prize offered to populations who had falsely hoped, in 1991, that Bush Sr. might either remove Hussein or assist them in their own uprisings.

For Iraq’s Kurds, the northern no-fly zone became the closest thing to autonomy that they had experienced in their lifetimes, even though the latitudinally drawn southern border corresponded only roughly to any boundary between Kurdish and Arab areas.  The whole enterprise irked the government of Turkey, which quite reasonably feared that a quasi-independent Kurdistan could emboldened the brutally repressed Kurds in neighboring southeastern Turkey.  Turkey also saw this pseudo-state as an affront because of their loan of air bases to the U.S. and its allies in the war (a favor Turkey did not repeat when the next gulf war came around).

Kurdistan’s flag

The allies were less keen to allow similar autonomy to the southern Shiites in and around Basra, not only because the Shiites’ nationalist feelings were more vague and less historically grounded than the Kurds’, but also because the southern no-fly zone included many large Sunni areas; in fact, it practically rubbed up against Baghdad’s southern suburbs.  Also, the West shared what had been Hussein’s initial fears—that Iraqi Shiites could become dangerous allies of Iran.  Saudi Arabia, which had also lent its military bases to the allies, felt (and today still feels) itself to be in a Sunni-vs.-Shi’a mini-superpower struggle with Teheran.  Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait together held in those days what was thought to be a huge portion of the world’s known oil reserves—perhaps as much as a quarter of them.  Turkey, already squarely in NATO, was an ally the U.S. could afford to alienate a bit, but Saudi Arabia was not.  So, although the southern Shiites were protected somewhat from Ba’athist retaliation, they were, unlike the Kurds during this period (1991-2003), not allowed a regional government of any sort.

In 2003, as part of the War on Terror inaugurated by President George W. Bush in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. led an unprovoked and globally reviled invasion of Iraq.  This became one of America’s longest wars, with famously shifting objectives.  First, in 2003, Bush and the U.K. prime minister Tony Blair disingenuously (to put it mildly) portrayed Saddam Hussein’s regime as on the brink of attacking the West with weapons of mass destruction.  By the time those lies had been definitively exposed, the goal was refocused to removing Hussein from power.  When that was achieved, the rationale for remaining there (despite Bush’s initially avowed aversion to “nation-building”) was to stabilize and democratize Iraq and keep it unified—thus, the U.S., the U.K., and their allies found themselves presiding, sometimes helplessly, over a bloody civil war among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian militias.

A convincing argument can be made that all along the West’s goal had been to clear aside obstacles to Western economic exploitation in what had been in 2001 one of the only three countries strategic to oil interests with which Western oil companies could not do business—the others being Afghanistan (strategic as an avenue to the sea for central Asia’s inland oil fields) and Iran.  The war in Afghanistan that the U.S. waged just after the September 11th attacks and then Bush’s second-term ramp-up to a possible war against Iran (a plan permanently shelved when John McCain failed to succeed Bush) could be held up as further evidence for that interpretation.  In that respect, the war has been, from a Western perspective, a qualified success—unless one is so rude as to bring up the fact that, despite Bush’s statements to the contrary, al-Qaeda did not operate in Iraq before the Iraq War but now does.

One of the immediate and inevitable effects of the democratization of Iraq under U.S. auspices—and one thing one cannot take away from Bush is that Iraq does indeed now have elections—was that the slight majority of Shiites in the country now held majority power and that it was the Sunni minority, including former Ba’athists, who feared marginalization and disenfranchisement.  With the predominantly-Sunni Kurds withdrawing more and more from mainstream Iraqi political life and refusing to side decisively with either Sunni or Shi’a Arabs, the Shiites’ hold on power is even more secure.  Much of the U.S. and other occupiers’ energy over the last eight years have involved keeping Sunnis’ and Shiites’ fingers away from each other’s throats, with varying degrees of success.  There was a certain balance provided by the occupiers’ ambivalent interests in Iraq’s internal dynamics: while the West made a good show of dismantling the Ba’athists’ political, military, and secret-police institutions, the West was also not eager to see that power vacuum filled by Shiite radicals potentially sympathetic to Iran.

In 2006, Senator Joseph Biden (now Obama’s Vice-President), who had played an active role in NATO’s successful intervention in—and mediation to conclude—the Bosnian War in the 1990s, co-authored and pushed through the U.S. Senate a non-binding resolution in favor of partitioning Iraq into three quasi-independent entities, very similar to the internal partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Dayton Accords.  Some versions of this plan called for an independent Kurdistan, a southern “Shiastan,” and a Sunni rump Iraq abutting Syria and Jordan.  But that proposal was anathema to the U.S. and Iraqi governments and got no traction.  The fear was that, unlike the situation in Bosnia, the veneer of confederation would quickly shatter, resulting in an Iranian client state with a capital in Basra and an independent Kurdistan on the brink of a war with Turkey that would divide NATO far more fatally than the Bosnian War ever had.

In any case, at that point in the Bush administration, occupation of Iraq seemed as though it might go on forever, so why not just keep U.S. troops there to stabilize the situation?  Moreover, the Iraqi civil war between Sunni and Shi’a militias did eventually calm down, not least because (again, echoes of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, for which the term ethnic cleansing was coined) civil strife had forced Shiites and Sunnis into more sharply defined segregation—urban neighborhood by urban neighborhood, village by village.  If nothing else, this makes for an unhappy peace.

But with this month’s rather precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops—and thus the just-under-the-wire fulfillment of one of Obama’s most urgent and popular campaign promises—Sunnis no longer feel like a protected minority, nor do Shiites any longer feel immune from a resurgent Ba’athist coup d’état or some other such sectarian calamity.  Kurds also fear being drawn into Sunni–Shi’a conflict and feel more vulnerable than ever to the occasional Turkish foray over the border to hunt down rebels in Iraqi Kurdistan.  The U.S. was even nice enough to let Turkey use some of its lethal drone aircraft as a parting gift on their way out of the region.  So is it now time for Iraq to split apart?

Iraq’s Kurds mostly hope so.  This moment may be the best if not only true chance to establish an independent Kurdistan, and if Shi’a and Sunni Arabs in the rest of Iraq start killing each other in even greater numbers, all the more reason to leave.  (For those drawing Yugoslavian parallels, think of Slovenia separating off with such alacrity partly so as to stay out of the crossfire of the impending Croat–Serb showdown.)  Kurds understand that NATO countries have been wary of supporting an independent Kurdistan mainly out of deference to Turkey’s meshuggeneh form of hypernationalism.  But with Turkey having sat out this most recent Iraq War and western Europe unwilling to budge on letting a country with Turkey’s abominable human-rights record even be considered for European Union membership, Kurds have reason to hope that Turkey may no longer be a factor and that, like Palestine or Kosovo or Taiwan, they may eventually be able to assemble a motley but slowly expanding coterie of Western countries that recognize it.  All it would take is a small number of E.U. or NATO allies to support a Kurdish state, and Turkey would back off.  Even more so if Iran (which showed in the Iran–Iraq War that it has no concrete fears of its own internal Kurdish uprisings) decides to support a Kurdish state.  Turkey has no problem shitting all over its own minority citizens, but it doesn’t have any stomach for fighting outside its borders, or for a showdown with Iran’s vast and sophisticated military.  Before Iraqi Kurdistan can declare independence, though, it need well defined borders, which it does not currently have.  There are large areas where Kurds and Sunni Arabs live in mixed communities (see the map below), and some of those areas have oil and are likely to be fought over.

Turkmens, too, hanker after the autonomy Kurds have enjoyed and would be perfectly willing to disrupt any attempts at Kurdish secession as a way of securing their own autonomy.  Turkmens have slivers of territory that would never make a viable state, but they have their pipe dream of an independent homeland named Türkmeneli covering much of Kurdistan.  The Assyrians, too, may make some trouble if a Kurdish state starts to gel in earnest.

But if Kurdistan can expect to hit some bumps on the road to statehood, it will be nothing compared to the bloodbath of a Sunni–Shi’a partition.  There, we could see a descent into civil war which could begin very soon and would differ significantly from the sectarian strife during the U.S. occupation.  For one thing, there would be no one to restrain Shiites from seeking direct or indirect help from Iran in fighting Sunnis, and here Iran would feel it had a greater stake than in the Kurdish question.  Iranian intervention would in turn prompt the Saudis to feel that they needed to step in to help contain Iran’s influence on their northern neighbor.  Iran, with its support for the now embattled minority Shiite regime in Syria and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, has long been suspected of angling to consolidate the various links in a Shiite belt that would stretch from Persia to the Levant.  (See my earlier blog post on how this dynamic may play out within Syria’s current civil war.)  And Saudi Arabia has long seen itself as a bulwark against such a spectre.  With so many of the conflicts of the 2011 Arab Spring—in Syria, in Bahrain, in Yemen, to say nothing of Lebanon’s decades-long conflicts—revolving around Sunni-vs.-Shi’a sectarianism, the Saudis and Iranians at times seem to be gearing up for a showdown for influence in the region.  Iraq is sadly positioned to be the front line in such a battle should it come to pass.

Moreover, refer to some of the maps above showing the distribution of groups within Iraq, and note the empty, white areas, or some of the southern areas marked as “Shia Arab / Sunni Arab.”  Those are parts of Iraq where virtually no one lives.  Like much of Saudi Arabia, these are uninhabitable wastes of sandy desert where communities cannot thrive, criss-crossed only by lonely highways, nomads, and oil workers.  That’s right, oil workers—for these no-man’s-lands are precisely the most potentially oil-rich areas of Iraq.  It is one thing to draw boundaries based on where Shiites and Sunnis live; it is another to decide which groups gets which chunks of oil-rich desert.  If the American war in Iraq and the recent sectarian strife have been chiefly in cities like Baghdad, Najaf, and Fallujah, a decisive war to divide Iraq into Shiite and Sunni states would be fought in the deserts, and the vast untapped oil reserves beneath would be the prize.  Saudi Arabia, with its sophisticated U.S.-equipped military and its familiarity with this type of terrain, would find it irresistible to push for an oil-rich Sunni state on its northern border—especially if a hostile Shiastan controlling all of current Iraq’s coastline would make a Sunni separatist state dependent on Saudi Arabia for bringing its oil to market via the sea.  One can imagine fierce battles for every mile of the currently undefinable border.

One of the saddest aspects of this is that there is currently no significant national identity among the populace as “Sunnistanis” or “Shiastanis.”  If Iraq is broken up this way, it would not be like Yugoslavia, where ancient fully-formed national and historical identities merely needed to be dusted off after the brief Communist interregnum.  If post-Iraq Arab sectarian national identities come into being, they will be fragile concoctions of European, Iranian, and Saudi power plays in the region.  Nor will they even have the stable identities of tiny post-Ottoman invented city-states like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Dubaii.  These will be quasi-nation-states, and their borders will be bloodily contested forever—or at least till the oil runs out.

But at this early stage, can we say that a secessionist civil war like this is where Iraq is actually headed?  Well, one ingredient of civil war—full-fledged sectarian militias—is well in place.  The U.S. had tried only half-heartedly before war’s end to dismantle a Ba’athist successor organization called the Sunni Awakening.  Part of the problem is that the Awakening’s leader, Sheikh Abu Ahmed Risha, had helped turn the tide in the civil war in 2006 by rallying ordinary Sunnis against al-Qaeda, eroding the influence of a pro-Qaeda Sunni separatist movement known as the Islamic State of Iraq.

A charming image from the Islamic State of Iraq’s website

The Awakening also provided a bulwark against Iranian influence.  This wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. had betrayed and abandoned an ally, but in fact the Awakening has been left largely active and in place, simply feeling more encircled and embittered.  Also, Shiite militias such as the Badr Brigades and the fanatical millennialist Mahdi Army have now become largely peaceful political organizations since the Shiites now run the country, but they never disbanded and if the Sunni Awakening and other Sunni militias reassert themselves, then these militias may take up arms again, and Maliki will surely not be able to control them.

The Mahdi Army always lends a festive air to Basra’s community events

The weeks and months ahead could take Iraq in any number of directions.  One thing is certain, however: the farther Iraq descends into chaos, the harder Obama will find it to portray the withdrawal from Iraq as a success as he runs for reelection, and a depressingly small number of American voters will be able to recall that it was the Republicans who started the mess in the first place.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Will the Euro Crisis Reunite Belgium While It Divides Europe?

While the European currency crisis has cast a pall over the world’s financial system and toppled governments in Greece, Italy, Slovakia, and elsewhere, Belgium may be the one place where financial instability is a catalyst for greater political stability.  After a world-record 535 days without a government, a coalition government in Belgium is set to be formed, ending, for the time being, speculation that the only way out of the crisis would be a partition of the country on linguistic lines.

The prime minister inaugurated today, Elio Di Rupo of the Socialist Party, is from the French-speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia.  Some look askance at his suitability as a uniter, since his proficiency in Flemish is considered sub-par—in a country where bilingualism is more or less a requirement for federal office.  Flemish is the first language of 60% of Belgium’s population.  The rest speak French, except for a minuscule German-speaking minority.  However, Di Rupo’s ancestry allows him to rise above Belgium’s divisions somewhat: he was raised in a Belgian orphanage, but his parents were Italian immigrants to Wallonia (his father died when he was one).  He is also, incidentally, one of the only openly gay world leaders—perhaps the only one other than Iceland’s new lesbian prime minister.  (Someone can tell me if there’s another one.)  Di Rupo seems determined to lead Belgium back to stability and prevent partition.

Belgians seem to have finally realized that, as the home of the European Union headquarters in Brussels—and, despite its small size, a significant mid-sized E.U. economy—it is hard for them to help lead the continent back to stability while their own government barely functions.  What remains to be seen is whether they have rushed too quickly into this new coalition and whether it can survive while excluding, as it does now, the country’s largest political party, the Flemish separatists.  Already, tens of thousands are marching in Belgium to protest austerity measures that the government will finally be functional enough to implement.

Belgium, like many European countries (think Italy, Switzerland, and Spain), includes disparate cultural and linguistic groups sharing a country mainly because of an accident of history.  For a decade or more, Belgium has appeared to be careening toward partition.  Electoral politics divide the country along sharp linguistic lines.  Walloons and Flemings already often feel that they are separate countries.  The Francophones, in this, have the most to lose: without their ties to Flemish-speakers, it will seem hard to find cultural or linguistic justifications for being a separate country at all and not being just part of France.  They will also be landlocked and cut off from their former capital.  Flemings, on the other hand, often regard their linguistic cousins in the Netherlands as speaking a different language, even though Dutch and Flemish are mutually intelligible.  That is to say, Flemish national feeling is stronger.  Many Flemings regard their history as a slow emergence from beneath a Francophone thumb (despite the fact that it’s the Germans who keep invading them).  Most of the centrifugal force is generated in Flanders.

One of the quandaries of Belgian separatism has been what to do with Brussels. Although technically Flemish, it is in a sense its own region and is nearly fully bilingual in practice.  It is a microcosm of the country as a whole and is a place where the two major groups mingle—in the manner of many capitals of countries whose ethnic balance is constitutionally maintained only with great pains, such as Sarajevo or Beirut.  Oops, maybe those aren’t the best examples.  In fact, Brussels is a bit of a sore spot for Belgians since French-speakers have gradually, over the decades, become the majority there (much of that has to do with the placement of the E.U. headquarters there), and this increases the Flemish feeling that their language has lower prestige and that their country is being Frenchified.  If Flanders and Wallonia ever separate, it seems possible that Brussels might become an independent city-state, like Monaco or Luxembourg, thus making Europe’s “capital” a special zone like the District of Columbia or the Australian Capital Territory.

In any case, we can fully expect an electoral backlash against the incoming left-wing coalition and its monolingual Mediterranean dandy of a prime minster (for, mark my words, that is how they will portray him)—if only because it is almost impossible for a politician to stay popular while presiding over an economic crisis.  So we can expect the Flemish separatists to regain their lost ground in the next round of elections, and if they get near the center of power they will probably try to move towards a split faster than ever.  Flemings tend to be more politically right-wing than Wallonia, and many Flemings stereotype Walloons as lazy and a burden on the state.  In this, Belgium is like a microcosm of Europe itself, where Germanic-speaking Protestants in places like Germany and the U.K. tut-tut over the inefficiency and dysfunctionality and dependency of Mediterranean and Romance-speaking nations along the continent’s southern rim, like Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece.

The irony is that if Belgium splits up, whether into two or three entities, there will actually be little change in the daily lives of residents of the two new countries.  They will still be fearing the economic effects of a currency crisis in the economic union they cohabit, and they will still enjoy the benefits of that union as well, with no controls on trade or immigration between the two nations.  The main difference will be that their governments can finally move forward, as some but not all other E.U. member states are doing, to confront the continent’s economic problems.  Heck, they may even coordinate their policy within the E.U. better after a split, like a divorced couple who finally achieve the easy and supportive friendship that they couldn’t manage while married.  Wallonia will be a slightly more left-leaning country than Flanders, but, by European standards, not by much.  Their differences have always been mainly symbolic and emotional.

Incidentally, it will be nice to see Belgium’s boring tricolor flag ...

... tossed on the dustbin of history to be replaced by the jaunty, eye-catching flags of Wallonia ...

... and Flanders.

The less said about Brussels’ flag the better, however.  To be honest, it looks like a fleur-de-lis that someone has stepped on:

And now let us close with this image.  Below is a photo of Belgian students in Ghent stripping down to streak earlier this year in honor of their country’s having reached 250 continuous days without a government, seizing the record from Iraq.  Yet another feather in the cap of the country that has already given the world René Magritte, Tintin, and the Smurfs.

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