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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK
When civil war spreads
Bombing
Car bombs have killed thousands in Baghdad

Iraq is in the midst of a civil war, but could the violence draw in the rest of the Middle East? Here, in a personal opinion, historian Niall Ferguson weighs the evidence.

As a consequence of a botched Anglo-American occupation, Iraq is now in the midst of a civil war - already one of the biggest in the world since 1945 - with the kind of escalating cycle of tit-for-tat killing and ethnic cleansing that can last for years, even decades.

Debate currently centres on how quickly the United States and the UK can wind down their involvement in Iraq and on whether or not neighbouring countries can be persuaded to help stabilise it.

Niall Ferguson
The really sobering lesson of the 20th Century is that some civil wars can grow into more than just regional wars
Niall Ferguson
But what if it's Iraq that destabilises its neighbours? It, after all, is not the only Middle Eastern state to have a mixed population of Sunnis Muslims, Shias Muslims and other religious groups.

There are substantial numbers of Shias in Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Yemen, to say nothing of Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. Even predominantly Shia Iran has its Sunnis, among them the persecuted Ahwazi Arabs who live in the strategically vital south-western province of Khuzestan.

So how likely is the scenario of a regional civil war, beginning in Iraq but eventually extending right across the greater Middle East?

Lessons from Rwanda

One obvious parallel is with Central Africa a decade ago. In 1994 extremists from the Hutu majority attempted to exterminate Rwanda's million or so Tutsis. In response, an army of Tutsi exiles invaded from Uganda and drove the Hutu killers - and many other Hutus - across the border into Congo and Tanzania. Soon nearly all of Congo's neighbours had become embroiled in a monstrous orgy of violence.

Rwandan soldier looks at remains of genocide victims
Millions lost their lives in the Central African war
Altogether, it has been estimated that up to three million people lost their lives in Central Africa's great war, the majority from starvation or disease as the entire region plunged into anarchy.

Not all civil wars spread in this way, admittedly. About the same time as the genocide in Rwanda, a war raged between Serbs, Croats and Muslims in a disintegrating Yugoslavia. But there was never much danger this war would spread throughout the Balkans.

This was not just because of Western military intervention. It was because Yugoslavia's neighbours - Italy, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania - were far less combustible than Yugoslavia. More or less ethnically homogeneous in each case, they never seemed remotely likely to go the way of Bosnia, the worst affected of the former Yugoslavian republics.

The Balkan War was much smaller than the Central African war. The most exhaustive database that has been compiled of all those killed and missing in Bosnia - including members of all ethnic groups - contains fewer than 100,000 names.

Seeds of war

Yet this can hardly be regarded as an encouraging story as far as Iraq is concerned. For it was no accident of history that Yugoslavia's neighbours were so ethnically homogeneous. It was a direct consequence of the prolonged and bloody wars of the mid-20th Century, which had already destroyed most of the ethnic diversity of Central and Eastern European countries.

Jewish prisoners in a German concentration camp
Germany tried to purge their country of Jews in the 1930s and 40s
Sixty years ago, Central and Eastern Europe was entering the final phase of a succession of wars and civil wars that originated with the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prior to 1914, the Habsburg lands had been characterised by high levels of ethnic heterogeneity. Consequently, the transition from empire to the nation states of the post-1918 era proved painful in the extreme.

Two minorities were especially ill-placed in the new order of the 1920s: the Germans and the Jews. The former fought back against their minority status in places like Czechoslovakia and Poland and, under the leadership of a messianic Austrian - Adolf Hitler - temporarily created a Greater German empire. The latter were among that bloodthirsty empire's principal victims.

Only with the expulsion of the Germans from Central and Eastern Europe and the creation of truly homogeneous - but Soviet-controlled nation states - was peace restored. It is no coincidence the one country that remained both heterogeneous and independent - Yugoslavia - was the scene of Europe's last great ethnic conflict in that century.

Empire breakers

The aftermath of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire (also dealt its death blow during World War One) has taken a different, more protracted course. The Turks did not submit to the break-up of their empire as readily as the Austrians.

Iraqi police cadets carry Iraqi flags in front of an American flag during their graduation ceremony
The power behind Iraq's still-fledging leaders
After the deaths of Armenian Christians under the Young Turk regime, they expelled the Orthodox Greeks from Asia Minor and consolidated their Turkish nation state (albeit with a few troublesome minorities like the Kurds remaining, to whom they granted minimal concessions).

But the rest of what had been the Ottoman Empire did not immediately adopt the model of the nation state. Unlike in Europe, the victors of the WWI established "mandates" (de facto colonies) in the losers' former possessions - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria.

Independence did not come to most of the Middle East until after 1945 and was seldom accompanied by democracy (Israel being the exception). Instead the multi-ethnic states of the region were ruled either by feudal monarchs or fascist strongmen.

And a new empire - which preferred to be known as a superpower - generally helped keep these rulers in place, and the region static, if only to keep another superpower at bay.

Only in our time, then, has the Middle East reached the stage that Central and Eastern Europe reached after the WWI. Only now are countries like Iraq and Lebanon experimenting with democracy.

Safety in numbers

The lesson of European history is that this experiment is a highly dangerous one, particularly at times of economic volatility and chronic insecurity, and particularly where tribes and peoples are mixed up geographically, both within and across borders.

Boy next to soldier
A boy plays war games in Iraq
The minorities fear - with good reason - the tyranny of the majorities. People vote on the basis of ethnicity, not class or ideology. And even before the votes are counted, the shooting begins.

What will the US do if ethnic conflict continues to escalate in Iraq and begins to spread across its borders? A cynical answer would be to leave the people of the Middle East to kill and displace one another until ethnic homogeneity has been established in the various states. That has essentially been US policy in Central Africa.

The trouble, of course, is that Iraq matters more than Rwanda, economically and strategically. Does anyone seriously believe that a regional conflagration would leave Israel and Saudi Arabia - the US's most important allies in the Middle East - unscathed?

Ask a different question. Did anyone serious believe that a war in Central and Eastern Europe in 1914 or 1939 would leave the UK and France unaffected?

The really sobering lesson of the 20th Century is that some civil wars can grow into more than just regional wars. If the stakes are high enough, they have the potential to become world wars too. 2007, Niall Ferguson


Below is a selection of your comments:

A problem is that divisions of ethnicity, tribe & religion are confused in many minds. It is clear that countries with great ethnic diversity where religion is not a bone of contention (eg Malaysia) can succeed, whereas regions of ethnic homogeneity (eg the Middle East) but religious conflict fail. Religion, which may be said also to include the quasi-religions of tribalism, fascism, communism, etc, would appear to be the cause of most of the conflict and "evil" in the world.
IH Patterson, Norwich, UK

I have to disagree with Mr Ferguson's analysis. The politics, relative sophistication and geography of the Middle East preclude a general or ethnic war. The US will not permit Iraq to become an Iranian satellite and will prop up the government there with utmost vigour. What is happening in the region is a series of proxy wars. Iran is fighting two of these against the US in Iraq and against Israel from Lebanon. We must not forget that this area is also a focus for the rivalry between Russia, the US and China, which explains the stalemate in the UN in 2002/3. Iran is essentially a proxy of an anti-US coalition on the Security Council. So we have a kind of Cold War stalemate. None of these applied in Rwanda.
Paul Horgan, Bracknell, UK

Pro-active policy of engagement, with all parties concerned, as in the current meeting on Iraq held in Egypt, is way better than letting events drift itself out of control like in Darfur. That is why leadership is so important. It makes war and also prevents wars, civil or international.
Sam Chow, Hong Kong

I find the idea that 'Iraq matters more than Rwanda' to be a horrifying statement especially in the context of this article. Surely no-one matters more just because their country is more or less strategically significant or has more valuable resources? These are people's lives, not bank balances, and to me, saving lives is far more important than saving their material wealth.
Heather, Wolverhampton

I agree, Heather - only an human scale every death is important. But we are talking politics here where there is indeed a sliding scale of such things. Compare and contrast the coverage of the deaths of 30 students on a campus in the USA with the daily carnage in Iraq and then say which "matters more" to Western politician and the media - one American or 100 Iraqis?

To the Western political elite (Blair, Bush, et al), power matters, resources matter, money matters. People don't. If Rwanda had had oil the genocide would probably never had happened.
John Birch, Letchworth, England

The article states that "Iraq matters more than Rwanda, economically and strategically" not that it matters more in terms of people. Read the article properly before commenting!
Matthew, London

The fact that Iraq is economically and strategically important is exactly why it matters more! The fact that is has the ability to destabilise the whole region and escalate, even possibly into a world war, the loss of human life is going to be much greater than Rwanda. This is not saying Rwandan life isn't important. This is about numbers... Rwanda never had such explosive potential as Iraq.
Jason, Southend-on-sea

Heather: I think Niall Ferguson's point was precisely that, Iraq doesn't matter more in some absolute moral sense than Rwanda, it's just that it matters more to the policy makers of the US and UK, and politics tends to follow the pragmatic path more than the ethical one.

I thought that was an excellent article, and probably depressingly accurate in the light of recent Saudi alignment with Sunni elements in Iraq combined with Iran's already predominant influence in the south. Of course the extra variable in the mix is the Kurds, with the upcoming referendum on the future of Kirkuk sure to be a flashpoint, especially with the current instability in Turkey due to the spread of Islamism. The only answer I can see is a global push for reconciliation between the warring factions, hopefully led by a new face in the White House next year.
Nick Johnston, London

The key point that is missing from this article is the fact that the current USA administration will not want to leave Iraq until it's strategic goals have been achieved. We're still being mis-sold the idea that 'democracy' was one of the key goals in invading Iraq. The last century is peppered with situations of the USA only engaging and withdrawing (e.g the San Francisco peace treaty of 1951) when it had achieved its strategic goals?
Keith, Aberdeen




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