What’s Going on and What’s Next in the Middle East?

Prof Bill Harris, University of Otago Politics Department, July 18, 2017

Despite a “massively unbalanced” PR spend by the ‘evet’ (yes) camp of Pres Erdogan, and a last-minute Electoral Commission decision to count unsealed (and therefore legally invalid) votes that predominantly were probably in the yes camp, Turkey’s president extended his powers in the recent “hyper presidency” referendum by a vote of just 51%.

Prof Harris, recently returned from observing the referendum, said Erdogan claimed his divided country needed a strong man to rule it. But Erdogan was himself in part responsible for inflaming the main rifts (opposition parties, Kurds, religious camps) that are causing the apparent divides.

Erdogan, former mayor of Istanbul, has been Turkey’s prime minister then president since March 2003. His power lies in the conservative, Imam-following, Anatolian hinterland. As his suspicion of Gulenists (scientific approach to Sunni Islam) and their infiltration of the military has increased, so has his grasp on power and control.

On the personal level of impact, Prof Harris said that the Turkish professor who spoke to Catalyst Trust a couple of years ago and who is now Provost at her University, daily sees the fear caused by Erdogan’s broad brush hunt for anyone who might be accused of association with the Gulenist ‘parallel state’, including academics.

Prof Harris drew together the disparate hostilities that divide and afflict Syria and Iraq – ISIS being pummelled by the US, Russia and others; Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria to split the Kurds; Syrian rebels challenging the regime in western Syria; Turkey wanting to do a deal with Russia but not be involved with the Iranians; Russia wanting to get out; intra-Kurd divisions; Trump trumpeting a possible peace deal in south-west Syria leading to a shaky ceasefire with conflicting objectives among the main parties, here including Israel and Jordan versus Iran…

How does society and the economy continue to function with the internal divisions and foreign meddling? Jeans made in the north-west corner of Syria still make their way across the country, just getting more expensive as a cut is taken at each checkpoint. Deals are made along smuggling routes across very porous borders. Local fiefdoms emerge to do deals with opposition groups when it suits. A lot of these areas have only half the population they used to have, so fewer to be supported.

There are around 25 million Kurds across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq but the chances of creating Kurdistan are still zero, apart from a possible small Kurdistan based on the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and Pershmerga forces. It is dubious that Iran and Turkey would accept even this, Prof Harris said. Nonetheless, KRG President Barzani is going ahead with an independence referendum in September. The ‘yes’ he will of course get will be only the beginning of the hard bargaining.

What does the future hold?

“ISIS is not over yet, but already you can see the contours of new future trouble, some quite different trouble. It’s hard to see anything else but continuation of the mess. Maybe some changes among those involved.”

Iraq has the capacity to clamp down on most of the country, especially with Iranian steerage among the Shi’a majority, but that will just mean that sometime in the future, the Sunni Arabs will rise up again. Comprising around 20% of the Iraqi population, Prof Harris says they don’t seem to be able to accept they are no longer the ruling sect.

The way ISIS was crushed in Mosul – and there was no choice except to root them out of the ground – may well lead to some type of resurgence down the track and the al-Asaad regime’s militaristic approach is not viable long-term. “I don’t see anything good in Syria at the moment”.