The march of extremist Islamist fighters on Baghdad and the tearing down of border posts between Iraq and Syria surprise us with their speed. We are not used to seeing such changes on the map, as the years after World War II were devoted to avoiding any change of borders. But after Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, while fighting rages between separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine, after Kosovo was recognized as independent by a large number of countries, it is clear that the world is in a phase of great change. It is urgent that we look at how our country will chart its course.
In Iraq, if government forces do not take control of the lost territory, it is likely that the latest events will confirm the dismemberment of the country that began with the Kurds declaring an autonomous region. Theirs is the most stable and most prosperous part of Iraq and the swift surge of Kurdish fighters into Kirkuk when government forces abandoned the city will strengthen their position; the Kurds consider oil-rich Kirkuk an integral part of their homeland and were involved in a bitter dispute with the government over it. They will not leave easily. The Baghdad government, which is widely seen to represent the country’s Shiite majority, will not find it easy to take back territory from the Sunni rebels, if we can judge by the fact that Fallujah in western Iraq has been under rebel control for the past six months. Without a government that can inspire confidence in all parts of the population, without credible institutions, in a region that has been in turmoil for years, it is quite possible that the new divisions in Iraq, Syria and further afield may become permanent.
Perhaps the changes on the map of the Middle East may correct borders drawn by European colonial powers a century ago amid the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. It is more likely, though, that they will be the start of widespread chaos, as a great crescent through the region’s heart, on the borders of Turkey, in the neighborhood of Cyprus and Greece, will be under the control of extremists, continually exporting violence and refugees. The danger cannot be dealt with by solitary countries, it demands collective action. The United States, though, appraising the ruins of their policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, with an eye on growing dangers in the Far East, will not want to enter the Mideast fray again. The United Nations will not take drastic decisions leading to military action. The European Union is caught up in dangerous navel-gazing, questioning all that it has achieved.
The field is open for those who are most determined to achieve their aims. The division between Greece’s political forces, the lack of an active pursuit of regional alliances, means that we are even more exposed to every danger.