Structural shifts in West Asia | HT editorial
The fate of the Kurds is a parable for the future of West Asian geopolitics. The Kurds used the collapse of central authority in Syria and Iraq to carve out semi-autonomous regions for themselves. Baghdad has since reasserted its authority. In Syria, the Kurds leveraged the United States to maintain their independence from Damascus and shield themselves from a hostile Turkey. With US President Donald Trump suddenly deciding the Kurds were expendable, first Turkey and now Syria have begun eating away at the enclave. The crudity of the Turkish attack has earned Ankara international opprobrium while the Syrians have arrived as saviours. Both governments, however, seek the Kurdish enclave’s disappearance.
Ethnic armies like the Kurds, terror networks like the Islamic State, and various militia used the chaos in the Levant and Mesopotamia to carve out fiefdoms. Some, like the Kurds, played a traditional game of seeking an external patron to balance against powerful regional players. Some regional players, for example, Turkey and Iran, saw an opportunity to establish themselves as local hegemons.
Three geopolitical trends now seem evident. One, the chaos that gave birth to the Kurds enclave is retreating. This return to normal borders is likely to be bloody and messy. Two, external players will play a shrinking role in determining West Asia’s future. Three, West Asian politics will be about the interplay of its regional powers. Unfortunately, most believe power comes from the barrel of a gun, sometimes a gun bought via a barrel of crude. Today’s Kurdish tragedy can be expected to be reprised in the coming years.