is the international affairs editor of the Financial Times
(FT). He joined the FT in 1978 and has worked mainly as a foreign correspondent and writer on international affairs. In 2003 he won the David Watt political journalism prize for his writing on the Arab world. He is the aut...
The new war for the Middle East
David Gardner, 4 February 2015
The would-be new caliphs of ISIS proclaim their intention to unite what were generally known as Greater Syria and Mesopotamia, tearing up the Levantine canvas designed by European imperialists and bulldozing its frontiers. But unity of any sort looks forlorn in this deeply troubled region. ISIS, entrenched in a cross-border “jihadistan” in the Euphrates valley, with lines stretching from Raqqa in north-east Syria to the western approaches to Baghdad, has really stepped opportunistically into a sort of three-dimensional vacuum, characterised principally by an absence of the state, a loss of a shared national narrative and the feeble leverage of big powers. In Syria and Iraq, state institutions have collapsed, throwing citizens back into the arms of sect and militia, clan and tribe.
The present situation is the result of the ideological collapse of pan-Arab nationalism, which some people had seen as a sort of secular proxy for modern caliphism, but which long ago became an alibi for dictatorship, masking the will to power of ambitious, usually army-linked local elites.
Shattered mosaic countries such as Syria and Iraq – but some others too – are going to need a new institutional architecture. This will somehow have to combine a high degree of devolved local power with credible federal or even looser confederal institutions. Elements of such a settlement would need to include such things as local policing; a fair share-out of national resources; or, for example, a bicameral legislature with an upper house representing the territorial interests of the devolved powers and a lower house representing the interests of all citizens.