In 1958 when a military coup overthrew the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq, many felt that a new Arab republic would join Egypt and Syria as part of the United Arab Republic. However, Iraq’s first republican leader Abd al-Karim Qasim decided against the wishes of his Nasserist advisers and never formalised any agreement to join the United Arab Republic – a political unit which itself separated after 1961 when Syrian officers decided to break off their direct union with Egypt.
The 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria which effectively froze the conflict between Damascus and Tel Aviv in the occupied Golan Heights created tensions with Baghdad where officials were angered by what they saw as a Syrian capitulation. This atmosphere of suspicion was itself an outgrowth of the 1966 split between the Syrian and Iraqi branches of a previously united Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party that remained in power in both Arab states.
In spite of this, by 1978 both Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr begun to engage in intense talks which would have prepared for the unification of Iraq and Syria in-line with the revolutionary Arab Nationalist ideal. However, Iraq’s Deputy leader Saddam Hussein was staunchly opposed to unifying with Syria and later arrested members of his own Ba’athist circle who stood accused of plotting a pro-Syrian conspiracy.
Today, Iraq and Syria are once again allies but both states have been weakened by years of foreign funded proxy war. In Iraq’s case the situation has been all the more devastating not only because of the US and allied occupation of the country which began in 2003, but because unlike in Syria where pre-war political structures remain intact, Iraq is now faced with a governmental structure that remains weakened compared to the pre-2003 status quo.
Even while Iraq and its partners have largely defeated the Daesh terror group on Iraqi soil, governmental incompetence continues to wreak havoc. While much of northern Iraq is without basic infrastructure in the aftermath of the war against Daesh, southern Iraq which was spared the worst of the terror group’s onslaught has recently seen mass protests over wide ranging issues of discontent. Protesters have taken to the streets of Basra to voice their grievances regarding disruptions to electricity and water supplies, unemployment, economic stagnation and political corruption. At least one person has been killed in clashes with riot police.
In order to break the cycle of public discontent which allows for the horrific germination and fomentation of sectarianism and terrorism, both Iraq and Syria should urgently re-examine the possibility of unification in a post-Daesh world.
Demographic problem solving
Iraq is necessarily a deeply divided society. Iraq is a majority Shi’a nation – a unique feature in the Arab world, but most of Iraq’s Shi’a Muslims live in the country’s south in the former Ottoman Vilayet of Basra. The country’s centre, the former Ottoman Vilayet of Baghdad is more mixed while in northern Iraq, the former Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul is primarily home to Sunni Arabs but with a sizeable Kurdish population too.
In a population thought to currently be around 37 million (accurate demography information has been made difficult due to years of war), 65% of Iraqis are Shi’a Muslims while 20% are Sunni Muslims. While prior to 2003, Iraq had a healthy Christian minority, today less than 3% of all Iraqi Christians still live in Iraq. Others were slaughtered by terrorists in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion while many fled to neighbouring states, primarily Syria.
In today’s Syria, 74% of a population of 18 million are Sunni Muslims while 13% are various forms of Shi’a Islam. For the purposes of this demographic count Alawites are classed as Shi’a. While Syrian Christians have been targeted by terrorists since 2011, because of the government’s ability to secure major population centres with the help of its international partners including Russia, Syria’s Christian minority remains generally stable at 10% of the population.
If Syria and Iraq were to combine one would see a country with an overall population of 55 million. Within this population 26 million people would be Shi’a Muslims, 20 million would be Sunni, while 9 million would be Christian.
After unification, the new state would remain overwhelmingly Arab with a moderately sizeable Kurdish minority that would be rounded out by smaller ethnic minorities.
The significance of the demography
The recent strategy of Washington and Tel Aviv in their historic agenda of preventing unity in the Arab world has been to exacerbate once latent tensions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. In Iraq, this narrative was successfully spun because Iraq’s last Ba’athist President Saddam Hussein was a Sunni who ruled over a majority Shi’a population. In spite of this, Saddam’s cabinet was multi-confessional although some argue that he persecuted the large Shi’a population in the south without justification. Others however maintain that while Saddam was known for his heavy hand, that he was attempting to quash pro-Iranian elements within Iraq during and in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war.
Syria’s sectarian problems have been much less severe than those in Iraq. However, beginning in 2011, NATO and Israel continued to purvey the narrative that the country’s problems were due to an Alawite President (with a Sunni wife) ruling over a majority Sunni population.
The ability of the Arab world’s enemies to ignite latent sectarian fires would be dramatically reduced if Iraq and Syria united. While such a united state would have a Shi’a Muslim majority, the gap would still be low enough to be considered generally balanced. Furthermore, because of a narrow gap in the numbers of Sunni and Shi’a individuals in such a united Arab state, a non-sectarian government (as opposed to a theocracy) would be the most logical and indeed the only reasonable means of governing such a state.
Strength in numbers
One of the reasons that the United States has not (yet) done to Iran what it did to a broken Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Syria is due to its size. The fact remains that small nations with small armed forces remain a much easier target even for a US military machine that is stronger than that of any Middle Eastern nation.
By uniting to form a large Arab Republic, the people of today’s Syria and Iraq would be far more able to assert their position on the world’s stage while also gaining the ability to form a formidable military in the heart of the Arab world. Based on the available statistics, a united Syria and Iraq would in fact be the second largest Arab state in terms of population after Egypt.
Strength in Arab Nationalism
Arab states whose borders were drawn in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France have proved to be inadequate in times of crisis. The legacy of the Sykes-Picot borders which remain written on the map of much of the Arab world to this day have left small and medium sized Arab states vulnerable to both internal sectarianism and external provocations. Likewise, the rise in religious extremism in much of the Arab world since the 1980s has led not to increased peace and prosperity but outside of the Gulfi Arab states, it has led to economic stagnation or collapse.
By contrast, the anti-sectarian Arab Nationalist ideology which accounts for the civic rights of non-Arab minorities who have nevertheless been shaped by centuries of living in a shared Arab civilisational space, has been vindicated as the most constructive political platform from which to re-build the Arab world in the 21st century. Ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it has been Arab Nationalism which more than any other political programme brought prosperity and diplomatic strength to an Arab world devastated by European, American and Israeli attacks.
Much of the Arab world continues to live in extreme denial over the feasibility of unity. However, the reality dictates that it is the disunity among Arab nations that has caused all of the major problems that have tarnished the Arab socio-political state of existence for much of the last century.
In learning the lessons from the similar wars which have plagued both Iraq and Syria, reaching any other conclusion but one which champions political unity would be a naive and self-defeating betrayal of the hope for peace and prosperity that the Arab world desperately needs and deserves.