Framing the Middle East: A Policy Wish List for a Complex Regional System

Faisal L Kadri


Re-assigning spheres of influence over the Middle East is old practice for world powers since Sykes-Picot and before. However, the division of spheres of the US and Russia/USSR over Iraq and Syria respectively seems to hold firm for well over half a century; events since 2003 seem to confirm that the division is respected to a significant degree by the international players (the US and Russia), while the regional players (Turkey and Iran) enjoy major influence across each other over the local players (Iraq and Syria).


The negotiation of spheres of influence over the territories of the Middle East is an old practice, before the well known agreement of Sykes-Picot in 1916(1). At the time the territory known today as Iraq was assigned to the UK while Syria was assigned to France by mutual agreement. Later, British influence over Iraq was formalized by a mandate in 1921(2) and French mandate over Syria in 1923(3).

British influence continued after the mandate and was formally ended in 1932. However, the influence continued through the authority of the Iraqi politician Nouri Said(4). Said leaned to the side of the UK until the US replaced the UK as the power of influence in the Baghdad pact(6). The US celebrated the shift of position of Iraq and Nouri Said to its side by staging an official visit of the Iraqi Monarch and Prince Regent in 1957, and in mediating between Iraq and Saudi Arabia with a blessing by President Eisenhower (18). The picture of Nouri Said was on the cover of Time Magazine (19) and his rise in favor from a British puppet to the status of a national hero such as Chiang Kai Shek and Syngman Rhee was noted by a well known contemporary British journalist (6). After the 1958 coup in Iraq several military juntas came with leftist leanings and willingness to seek friendship with Russia/USSR. The rule of the juntas ended with the 2003 invasion by the US, where the political influence over Iraqi politics was shared between the US and Iran, with Iran gaining the upper hand due to US policy indecision.

The French mandate over Syria was officially ended in 1946 (5), then its influence gradually eroded until 1956 when Russia began to have significant influence with the sizable supply of military equipment and economic aid (13). The USSR established naval facilities in Tartus, Syria in 1971, then continuously expanded its presence in Syria since 2009(13).

Events in the Middle East since 2003 leave little doubt that the US and Russia respect each others sphere of influence in the region. The complex model suggested here is simplified by the assumption of exclusivity of spheres of influence. The next section will describe the author’s personal framing of political event in the Middle East, then the model of influence is drawn, suggesting that the element accepting the most influence is the emerging territory of Kurdistan, therefore it has the most potential in stabilizing the region. The remaining section will discuss wishful scenarios of implementing a path for peace.

Framing the Middle East Events: Personal Reflections

In 1974 there was a summit meeting in Vladivostok between president Gerald Ford of the Unit- ed States and general secretary of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev, it was known as the “Vladivostok Summit Meeting on Arms Control” (10). The meeting lasted only two days, the second day was devoted to discussions on the Middle East. Although President Ford admitted that there were no major breakthroughs that day, an Iraqi diplomat stationed in London told me that there was an undeclared accord between Henry Kissinger and Andrei Gromyko to define the spheres of influence in the Middle East, the purpose was to reduce the likelihood of direct confrontation in the volatile Middle East. The accord recognizes Syria to be in the Soviet sphere while Iraq is to remain in the U.S. sphere. The mutual benefits of the accord offered both parties what they wanted; it provided Russia with undisputed access to a naval port in the warm waters of the Mediterranean while the US got unchallenged influence over the vast oil resources of Iraq. The Iraqi diplomat lamented that the accord was not to the benefit of Iraq and Syria because it robbed them of the political choice of positive neutrality. Positive neutrality was the policy of choice for non-aligned nations in the 1950’s, where a small or underdeveloped neutral nation at the time such as Egypt, India or Indonesia basically played the influence of east and west against each other in order to get the best economic and military deals for their countries.

There is a relevant concept from the field of cybernetics: Requisite variety(17) describes the relationship between the variety of choice of behaviours (policy alternatives) and environmental challenges to an organism (or an organization), and stipulates that the variety of behaviours must be more than the environmental challenges for survival. Therefore, limiting policy alternatives reduces the ability of the receiving players to regulate their environment, and defining exclusive spheres of influence reduces the ability of local players to regulate and makes them more dependent on their sponsors. It may be tempting for international players to conclude that dividing spheres of influence is a privilege or an exercise of superpower without cost or responsibility, the reality is that local regulation is usually more efficient, less costly and faster than remote control as exercised by international over local players. Therefore the existence of exclusive spheres of influence reduces the self control ability of local players and places more burden on international players.

Previously, in 1972 the Soviet Union under Andrei Kosygin signed an official treaty of friendship and cooperation with Iraq(9), therefore the Vladivostok secret accord may have presented a reversal for US Middle East policy. Historically, Iraq continued leaning toward Russia and to purchase lower priced Russian rather than overpriced US made military hardware during Saddam Hussein’s rule and until 2003 (8). The US influence did not play out in a large way until 2003, perhaps because of the independent minded personality of Saddam Hussein.

The exclusivity of spheres of influence provides ample framing for the events in Iraq and Syria since 2003. The framing leads to simplifying the complexity of the proposed Middle East model of influence. Lets consider the history of crisscrossing attempts of influence; Russia’s influence over Iraq’s event and the US over Syria’s. 
The Iraq invasion led by the US forces with nominal participation from close allies, the political will behind the invasion was driven almost exclusively by the US president. Russia did not substantially challenge the invasion and did not support the Iraqi regime like it did in past confrontations(20). However, in 2003 France Germany and Russia offered the US to downgrade its control in favor of UN control over civil institutions and the elections, but the US secretary of state at the time, Colin Powell, “ridiculed the idea of giving up power” (21). This indicates that the US considered itself indeed the exclusive influencer over Iraq.

The Russian influence in Syria has been consistent and growing since the start of its facilities in Tartus in 1971 and until 2017, when Syria signed a treaty allowing Russia to use and enjoy sovereign jurisdiction over its naval base for 49 years free of charge (13). Whereas the relationship of the US with Syria were “currently nonexistent” (14) and from the highlights of Obama’s loss of credibility when he did not enforce his well known “red line”(15) on the use of chemical weapons to Trump’s surprise withdrawal plan, the US seems to consistently back off from influence over Syria.

Modeling Regional Influence

As a complex system the division between US and Russian streams of influence leads to model simplification from one where all players are connected to each other. Figure 1 shows that there are two somewhat independent streams of influence flowing down from the international sponsors to Iraq and Syria. The regional sponsors (Turkey and Iran) who receive influence from the US and Russia, cross over influences to the local players (Iraq and Syria). Regional and local players co-influence on the territory of Kurdistan, where all regional and local players possess territories with Kurdish majority.

Figure 1 Suggested diagram of major international influence flow in the Middle East.

Notice the imbalance of regional influence over local players; Iran over Syria is not mirrored by political influence of Turkey over Iraq (the existence of substantial Turkish economic benefit does not constitute political influence over Iraq). Also, the US enjoys major influence over Kurdistan while Russia does not. Notice the absence of Israel as a high influence player; “Israel became the first state to endorse an independent Kurdistan”(16) yet the US backed the Iraqi military’s successful takeover of Kirkuk after the Kurdistan independence referendum of 2017 (16), signifying that Israel’s backing is not sufficient to assure the independence of Kurdistan.

The cybernetic explanation of the model of influence is similar to Ross-Ashby’s Homeostat, where a system made of 4 servo motors coupled to each other is investigated and the boundaries of stability are defined (17). Here, the element with the highest coupling is the emergent Kurdistan, which suggests that regional stability should start from a design for Kurdistan borders that is acceptable to all local and regional powers. Two paths for stability are suggested, the first involves the full participation, support and agreement of both the US and Russia, the other excludes Russia and Iran, since the perception of victory by both will make it unlikely to cooperate in the creation of new Kurdistan.

The Three Elements of Stability

1- Stable boundary: Defining the boundary of the emergent Kurdistan should serve the purpose of enhancing regional stability as well as realizing the aspirations of the Kurdish people, so that all parties realize everybody’s goals will not be totally met. Ideally, the international players, the biggest sharks in the pond, should have initial agreement over the future boundaries of independent Kurdistan, then follow the flow of influence and consult with regional then local players before reaching the Kurds for final agreement. In reality, there are several factors that make a two side agreement unlikely and a single side likely, perhaps the most important is the security of the emergent Kurdistan: Kurdistan is a landlocked territory, highly vulnerable by its neighbors, its defense has to depend on external international sponsors. It can exist only as a member of NATO or in the sphere of Russia’s influence. Since Iraqi Kurdistan is already in the Iraq US sphere, it is likely to stay under US influence, unless US foreign policy commits another policy foolishness! Kurdistan will not be the only country in the Middle East that depends on international (implied) guarantees, Lebanon and Israel are examples. However, it should be understood that the guarantees mean limitations on the emergent country’s policies.

2- Valid popular representation: Fraud and misrepresentation fraught elections in the region in general and in Iraq after 2003 in particular, where there is strong US influence. My personal contribution in support of a fraud-free representation was a petition for UN run Census and Elections in Iraq (12). The petition received limited popular support and the endorsement of only one socialist Canadian party (NDP). The Iraqi popular awareness of fraud contributed in popular boycotting the 2018 elections(23). However, the position of the US government under republican and democratic administrations was the same: To overlook fraud and to form government by consensus no matter how widespread is fraud. It seemed to me that no one in the US cared, but recently, I found that Dr. Henry Kissinger supported international supervision of the Iraqi elections, I quote from his interview: “it was right to overthrow Saddam, but the democratization of Iraq should have been a multi- lateral international effort, if undertaken at all. It should not have remained an exclusively American undertaking” (15). This was surprising from a well know right wing politician and proves that international supervision of the elections is not an expression of liberalism or conservatism, it is a realistic requirement for establishing the validity of popular representation in Iraq or in Kurdistan.

3- Fair distribution of water: Linking the creation of the emergent Kurdish state with the ratification of a water treaty is vital to its success, without it there is no compensation for loss of territory for the local players, both of which are located downstream. Recent climate conditions (excessive rain and floods) indicate that the problem may not be in long term drought but in controlling extreme transients. A treaty that regulates the distribution of water in times of calm and in crises is economically and politically sensible, and an insurance policy against large migrations across borders of small nations due to natural disasters.

What’s in it for Me? The Cybernetics of Politics

Second Order Cybernetics (SOC) is the current philosophy of choice for cyberneticians, it is often described as: observing the observer, where reality is constructed from internal concepts within the observer rather that from assumed external objective reality. The cybernetics angle may be described as a kind of political empathy, where reality is relative in the eye of the political observer/player. The task of the cybernetician is to personify the players and investigate their motivation and sense of reality, emphasizing the differences. Knowing the motivation and sense of reality of each player should help in customizing messages for action. The following are glimpses of what may be the cybernetics of Middle East politics.

  • The USA: Probably sees the Middle East at present as an oil well surrounded by sink holes for funds and dangerous traps for its military! The US has lost influence in Iraq, rendered itself almost irrelevant in Syria, has tenuous relationship with Turkey its NATO ally, boycotted Iran and left the initiative for action in the region to Russia. Since the US still has influence over Iraqi Kurds, creating a smaller Kurdistan is one of very few areas where the US could take the initiative and achieve long-lasting effect on stability.
  • Russia: Has invested enormously in Syria and sees the war as already won, but peace could be more costly and dangerous than war as the events in post 2003 Iraq have shown. Russia created total dependency for the Assad dynasty, in the long run Syria will also be dependent on Russian economic assistance! There is probably no short term motivation compelling Russia to negotiate over the Middle East, but Russia may be better than the US in seeing middle and long term benefits.
  • Turkey: Turkey’s position has always been to deny Kurdish independence, but it has a lot to benefit from a smaller independent Kurdistan. All Kurdish extremists and perceived terrorists could be offered Kurdish citizenship and allowed to travel legally to a friendly Kurdish neighbor. The water treaty and an independent Kurdistan may balance each other vis-a-vis regional players; a withholding of downstream water share could trigger unfriendly destabilizing response from the local players or Kurdistan.
  • Iran: Is another player who sees itself currently as a winner in regional struggle, therefore unlikely to yield in negotiations with the US, specially while under US sanctions. Iran has strong political influence over Iraq and over a section of Iraqi Kurdistan, the creation of an independent Kurdistan could be a significant positive development for Iran. If done in cooperation, so that Iran will allow part of its territory to be under independent Kurdish control and will sign a water treaty with Iraq and Kurdistan, then the development will be stabilizing for Iran. If on the other hand Iran selects confrontation then Kurdistan will need powerful guarantees by international players for its security against possible existential Iranian threats.
  • Iraq: Is poised to lose a large piece of its territory for an independent Kurdistan, this is particularly hard accept by traditional Middle Eastern politicians. The territorial loss has to be offset by retaining oil income from Kerkuk and by ratifying a regional water treaty that retains free flow of the Tigris and Euphrates. A water treaty is an essential part of the compensation and constitutes a high priority necessity for Iraq’s development and stability.
  • Syria: With or without the Assad dynasty, Syria is deeply indebted to Russia and therefore will accept its influence. The Kurds constitute lower percentage in Syria than in Iraq and are distributed over two disconnected territories. It seems unlikely that Turkey and the government of Syria will buckle to the wishes of the Syrian Kurds for a contiguous nation from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean. However, Syria’s inclusion in a water treaty will be necessary for regional stability and security.
  • Emergent Kurdistan: The Iraqi Kurdish leaders’ sense of reality is marred by overblown ambitions and shortsighted strategy of conquest of “disputed territories” in Iraq. Like any divorce, a separation is a compromise between two parties, not dictations by the less powerful party! Iraqi Kurdistan is a landlocked mountainous territory, this geopolitical condition constitutes undeniable long term disadvantage in economic and military standing vis-a-vis its much larger neighbors. A national Kurdish foreign policy other than declared dependence on external resources may not be tenable, which will necessarily lead to the loss of policy choice alternatives. Kurdish population across host countries contains many political parties(24), perhaps the most media present are three: Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by the Barzani dynasty in Irbil, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with the fragile leadership of the Talbani dynasty, then there is the left wing Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, identified by its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan. The political cohesion between these and many other parties is not strong; there are many undemocratic practices between self described Democratic parties! If we add this factor to the inevitability of neighbors threats then we would probably conclude that military dictatorship is the most likely long term form of government.

Elections and referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2003 were coerced by the ruling parties (cf. 22). UN run processes are necessary for legitimate results. Mixed affiliation data may be substantial without coercion and fraud, and the accommodation for dual and multiple citizenship requests should be possible in today’s climate.


An overview of the major international influences in the Middle East led to a simplified model of influence with two somewhat independent paths, the paths meet in the element which represents Kurdistan, a player in waiting for a definition of borders and supporting treaties. Since Kurdistan receives significant influence from most players in the region, it shows potential to act as a stabilizer and a moderator of all influences.

The creation of a new sovereign state in the middle of antagonistic neighbors is not a simple matter, if only left to the result of a referendum run by Iraqi Kurdish authorities then the new state will probably have closed borders on all sides and a status similar to Berlin after the Second World War. I suggest that the size and borders of the new Kurdistan is a major factor in formulating its foreign policies and its status in the region. A larger Kurdistan, commensurate with the highest ambitions of its leaders, could lead to internationally neutral but regionally provocative policies, while a smaller Kurdistan will have to depend on international guarantees for its sovereignty.

However, three significant factors make the emergence of larger Kurdistan from two sides agreement improbable:

  • The regional players view their own nationalist Kurds as essentially terrorists, a larger Kurdistan means heavy concessions by the regional players to what they perceive as terrorists.
  • The observed pattern of exclusive spheres of influence leads to the expectation that a single side solution is more likely to succeed than an accommodation between the international players.
  • Russia and Iran have a sense of victory in Syria, thus unlikely to accept concessions regarding Syria’s Kurdistan.

A likely one-side solution is not without cautionary warnings, here is a wish list with major risks:

  • A UN mandate for a plebiscite on the future of Iraq. A process led by the US without UN approval may cause polarization of Iraqi public opinion against it.
  • Negotiating borders, financial independence, dual citizenship and Turkish participation subject to plebiscite data. Without UN validated data the Kurdistan government referendum be- comes the cornerstone of the negotiation.
  • Negotiating a water treaty between Turkey, Iraq and Kurdistan. The water treaty moderates confrontations and limits policy extremism.
  • Scheduling time table for transfer of territorial control, foreign representation and other sharing of resources. Otherwise, open ended postponements through creation of committees serves corruption and leads to instability.

Negotiating international guarantees for Kurdistan. Without guarantees and policy oversight Iraqi Kurdistan will probably succumb to regional threats and fragment into conflicting entities in Irbil and Sulaimania, falling eventually under the hegemony of Turkey and Iran.

Finally I would like to compare side-by-side two positions of US politicians: Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger; the first refused UN supervision over Iraqi elections, the second called for international supervision. The first is a military leader, the second is a political genius. The comparison makes it so clear that US policy in the Middle East depends on military rather than political vision, and the decision maker in Iraq was and still is the Pentagon, which goes a long way to explain its failure. I believe the independence of Kurdistan should be reached by political rather than military vision as seen by the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, and if they insist on their short sighted military vision then they will only repeat US failures as before.


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