That optimism unfortunately appears to have been an illusion, judging by recent events. Sunni Muslim militants, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), have been running roughshod over huge areas of the country and sending the large, well-equipped, U.S. trained Iraqi army reeling backwards in almost every major engagement. A series of demoralizing defeats at the hands of the insurgents over the past two weeks seems to have seriously weakened the position of the ruling government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Al-Qaeda breakaway group, ISIS, now controls much of northern and western Iraq and is threatening to undue in days, weeks and months what took the U.S.-led coalition of occupying forces years to achieve in Iraq — not to mention boatloads of U.S. cash. The developing conflict is now threatening to dissect the country along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The failure of Iraq’s supposedly highly-trained and equipped military to turn back the ISIS tide has sapped public confidence in the institution’s ability to even hold its ground, let alone win back territory currently under ISIS occupation.
All of which probably makes for some less than peaceful days ahead for the country of 36 million that straddles the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, considered by many to be the very cradle of Western civilization. But Iraq is not the 6th century B.C. Mesopotamia of the past. In fact, the nation itself was a creation of the Allied powers as they carved up the old Ottoman Empire at the bargaining table during the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. The Ottomans had made the serious mistake of throwing their military forces into WWI on the side of the Central Powers. Defeat — like Germany and Austria-Hungary — cost them their empire. Out of this cauldron of imperial bluff and bluster Iraq’s modern borders were carved onto the face of the Middle East with little regard to ethnic or sectarian divisions, and following mostly the arbitrary lines drawn by victorious imperial diplomats bent on exacting their pound of flesh from a defeated enemy.
Nations created at the bargaining table by the dissolution of previous empires didn’t have the best track record in the 20th century. At the conclusion of WWI nations like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were viewed as the new dawning of national self-determination. They would, in time, instead become a pawn in the opening act of a global conflict, or deteriorate into a bloody civil war after decades of Communist dictatorship. And these are only two examples.
These nations are often refered to as the “bastard children of Versailles”, in reference to the peace treaty that ended WWI. More often than not, nations created by the pens of peacemakers have proven to be utter failures that have eventually bred violence and hatred, even genocide. Not unlike the carving up of Africa by the imperial powers a generation before, creation of a number of these countries post-WWI lumped traditional ethnic and religious enemies into one nation bounded by arbitrary borders. Much of the tribalism that still plagues nations in Africa today can be traced directly back to the borders drawn by greedy imperialists at the Berlin Conference in 1885. The Serbian conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s can trace many of its roots directly back to Versailles.
And it might not have been that way, had President Woodrow Wilson had his way with the hard-nosed imperial negotiators of Britain and France at Versailles in 1919, who wanted to blame Germany for the war, exact massive reparations, and secure as much territory for their expansive empires at the expense of their enemies as was possible. Wilson spoke the doctrine of national self-determination — nations and people able to choose their own ethnic and territorial destinies — that didn’t sit well with the imperialists to whom victory still meant conquest. For the imperialists, national self-determination was fine when applied to some of the former territory encompassed by their enemies — as long as they got what they wanted of it first.
Wilson’s ideas were dangerous to empires attempting to control vast numbers of people across the globe, of every ethnicity and religious persuation. If the European countries were entitled to national self-determination, then what about India? What about France’s North African possessions, or her hold over Indochina? The seeds of many future conflicts were sown prolifically at Versailles, the most prominent of which is probably WWII. Had the victorious Allies taken a less vindictive approach with Germany in 1918, the Nazis might have found much less fertile territory to promote their own brand of political hatemongering in the early 1930’s, which led directly to their ascension to power in 1933.
In the end, decisions made at Versailles (and the lesser-known Treaty of Sevres, which dealt with the Ottoman Empire’s possessions) cast a long shadow over the 20th century. Even in the 21st century we are still witnessing just how long that shadow may prove to be. The civil war still raging in Syria now appears to be spilling over the mutual border between Iraq and that nation, as there are definite links between ISIS and the escalation of the Syrian conflict, as well as Iraq’s present difficulties with the insurgents. Modern Syria is notably another Middle Eastern country created at the conclusion of WWI, and the recent events has shown the nation has hardly been a bastion of peace in an often bloody part of the world. French occupation post-WWI was eventually followed by a long series of brutal dictators. The present civil conflict in that nation can trace at least some of its roots back to the bargaining table post-WWI.
Ironically, the very thing the American-led coalition was attempting to achieve in Iraq with an invasion in 2003 — regime change — in many ways has spawned the present conflict. The period of virtual civil war that followed the American occupation was in many ways the direct result of eliminating a dictatorship that held disparate ethnic and sectarian groups together in one nation under the iron fist of Saddam Hussein. The vacuum that was created by the removal of the authoritarian power structure and the implementation of democratic freedom gave long-repressed ethnic and sectarian groups the opportunity they needed to attempt to achieve their own vision for the nation, democratic or otherwise.
For now, the Iraqi military seems to be putting the shoe on the other foot. Recent counter-attacks towards Tikrit appear to be having a measure of success in driving back the Sunni-backed ISIS insurgents. But if the Iraqi government are expecting the Americans to step in with a huge military contingent to drive back the enemy, at least at this juncture they will be sadly disappointed.
Although President Barack Obama is sending financial aid, as well as a smattering of special forces for training and other covert operations, he has stated publicly that America has no desire to get involved in another civil war in the Middle East. A Democrat president embroiling American forces back in Iraq — the same president who effectively brought an end to the conflict — would likely see the forces of his party take a significant nose-dive heading into a new election.
All of which means the Iraqis will probably be on their own. And if the world thought it had it bad under Saddam Hussein’s military adventurism, a potential government rallied around radical ISIS insurgents would likely be no slouch in the arena of presenting a significant threat to world peace.