Last week Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the tension between Arbil and Baghdad had the potential of turning into an Arab-Kurdish war and that he was more worried about that situation than the one in Syria. He is absolutely right. Sectarianism used to be the trendsetter in the region for a while. Now starts the reign of ethnic nationalism.
Tensions have been high between the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s deployment of the special Tigris Operations Command to northern Iraq last month, in particular, brought the “resident” Kurdish peshmargas and al-Maliki’s forces close to a clash. Ethnic nationalist tensions peaked with KRG President Masoud Barzani’s recent visit to the Kurdish-controlled areas of Kirkuk, a city long seen as the central point of Arab-Kurdish confrontation. The same scenario is being played out in Syria. Clashes between Kurdish militias and armed Syrian opposition groups have raised the likelihood of a possible Arab-Kurd war in Syria.
Sectarian tension used to dominate life in Iraq and the wider region. Domestically, Shiite Arabs and Shiite Turkmens in Iraq have been backing al-Maliki while Sunni Arabs used to oppose him due to his Shiite-promoting policies. And there’s no need to mention the Shiite axis of Iran-Iraq-Syria. Tehran has had far more influence over Baghdad than has Washington for the last five years. The same reason was behind al-Maliki’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Sectarian identity is, however, not determinant anymore. The fear of an independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq has united Shiite and Sunni Arabs against the Kurds. Sunni Arabs may still be critical of al-Maliki’s centralized power but, at the end of the day, they are Iraqi nationalists committed to assuring that Iraq remains unified and Arab. This is why they have started flirting with al-Maliki. The recent demonstration in support of Baghdad and the Tigris Operations Command in Sunni-dominated Hawija in Kirkuk province is a breakthrough in this sense. Arabness is coming to the fore. Ethnic identity is replacing sectarian identity.
Al-Maliki is also playing his cards according to these new facts on the ground. He is trying to appease Sunni Arabs in order to bring them into the fold. This may also reflect his preparations for a potential regime change in Syria. The Alawite al-Assad regime is likely to be replaced with one dominated by Sunni Arabs. This would not only make the regional Sunni influence reinforced by the “Arab Awakening” seep into Iraq, but also enhance the regional Sunni dominance. Sectarian segregation is losing altitude.
Greek historian Thucydides once said the mutual fear of a common enemy was the basis for an alliance. Ethnic nationalism will prevail until the next mutual fear comes to the fore in the region.
(Verda Ozer is a columnist at Hurriyet Daily News, where this article was published on Dec. 18, 2012)