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The Middle East’s New Winners and Losers

BERLIN – “War,” said the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, is the “father of all things.” In view of the bloody – indeed barbaric – events in the Middle East (and in Iraq and Syria in particular), one might be tempted to agree, even though such ideas no longer seem to have a place in the postmodern worldview of today’s Europe.

The Islamic State’s military triumphs in Iraq and Syria are not only fueling a humanitarian catastrophe; they are also throwing the region’s existing alliances into disarray and even calling into question national borders. A new Middle East is emerging, one that already differs from the old order in two significant ways: an enhanced role for the Kurds and Iran, and diminished influence for the region’s Sunni powers.

The Middle East is not just facing the possible triumph of a force that seeks to achieve its strategic goals by mass murder and enslavement (for example, of Yazidi women and girls). What is also becoming apparent is the collapse of the region’s old order, which had existed more or less unchanged since the end of World War I, and with it, the decline of the region’s traditional stabilizing powers.

The political weakness of those powers – whether global actors like the United States or regional players like Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – has led to a remarkable role reversal in the region’s power dynamic. Although the US and the European Union still classify the pro-independence Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization (whose founder, Abdullah Öcalan, has been in prison in Turkey since 1999), only the PKK’s fighters, it seems, are willing and able to stop the Islamic State’s further advance. As a result, the Kurds’ fate has become a burning question in Turkey.