By Vincent J. Truglia
We are on the precipice of a complete breakdown of the post-colonial order in the Middle East. The French and British laid out modern Middle East boundaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was little thought as to the ethnic and/or sectarian composition of these new nation states, with the possible exception of Lebanon. Lebanon was deliberately created to provide a majority-Christian state. In the end, even that failed, as demographics eventually turned the tide. We are reaping the rewards of those artificial boundaries today.
As I have discussed in past blogs, we are witnessing the on-going battle between Sunnis and Shias dating back over a millennium. Although Sunnis far-out outnumber Shiites around the world, most Shiites are located in the heart of the Middle East, going in an arc from the Iranian plateau into Southern Iraq, the birthplace of Shiism. With a little help from Iranian clerics in the 1980s, Alawites (Assad’s sect of Islam), who had suffered centuries of persecution as heretics, were suddenly divined to be orthodox Shiites. As a result, now large swaths of Syria are considered Shiite, with the arc continuing into Southern Lebanon.
No End To Violence
I see no end in sight for the violence. If anything, I expect the violence to escalate, as more Middle East states are brought into the fight. The Middle East is a minefield for any non-Middle East country attempting to solve the disputes. The problem is that all sides have valid grievances against the other going back centuries. Given that the divide is based on not just ethnic and cultural differences, but genuine religious differences, bridging the divide is all the more difficult.
Here is how I see the Middle East today. Egypt is back to having an authoritarian secular government, which is probably the best one can expect there. Fortunately, for the moment at least, the Muslim Brotherhood has been pushed back into the shadows. No good came of the Muslim Brotherhood leading the country. However, I expect on-going battles between the present military-backed government and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Lebanon, which was historically considered part of Syria, not a separate country, is now on the verge of a complete breakdown in its civil society. Hezbollah, a Shiite group concentrated in the Southern Lebanon, supports the Assad regime in Syria. The Sunnis living in Lebanon support the anti-Assad forces. Besides religious connections, the Assad regime is an important facilitator of weapons going from Iran to Hezbollah, Israel’s most dangerous enemy on its border.
As I wrote in my blog on several occasions, the Syrian civil war will only end when either all sides are exhausted, or more likely from today’s vantage point, for Assad to retake most of the country, and once again rule with an iron fist. It is a shame, because prior to the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring,” Assad was actually loosening his grip on power, by slowly introducing needed economic and political reforms. He is not likely to try that approach anytime soon. Fortunately, the US has stayed out of that political disaster.
Iraq is on the verge of political collapse. Once again, both sides in the fight have valid grievances. As we all know, Saddam Hussein was a Sunni, but more importantly, he was a Baathist. For decades that meant he was more an Arab nationalist, and secularist, rather than a religious oriented leader. Nonetheless, since Iraq is still tribal in many ways, Saddam clamped down on the Shiites, which make up a majority of the country’s population.
It wasn’t so long ago, when Iraq fought a savage war with Iran. Although there are disputes about the actual number of casualties, it is clear that at a minimum, hundreds of thousands died or were severely injured.
With the US intervention in Iraq, which in retrospect was a dumb move, the Shiites came to power. However, since the religious and ethnic divide is quite clear territorially, Iraq gradually splintered into three regions. The Sunni Arabs have been protesting and then eventually fighting, what they see as an authoritarian Shiite regime in Baghdad. We have to keep in mind that the recent growth of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) was preceded for years by Sunni tribal leaders, including more moderate Sunni politicians, attempting to moderate Maliki’s more extreme policies. When their protests fell on deaf ears, it is not surprising that many turned to violence. Even those who would prefer a more peaceful approach in dealing with the Maliki government are now probably convinced that the Shiite led government in Baghdad will only respond to a military confrontation. As one political commentator recently said, Maliki, Iraq’s leader, is now simply a Shiite Saddam Hussein.
The situation becomes even more complicated by the fact that the Kurdish north of Iraq increasingly resembles a sovereign state. The problem this poses is that such a sovereign state has the potential, over time, to destabilize Turkey, with its large Kurdish minority in the eastern part of Turkey. Given that Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister, has become evermore authoritarian himself, Kurds living in Turkey may prefer to be allied with their more secular brethren in the present-day Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in present-day Iraq.
Iran and Saudi Arabia
If all this wasn’t bad enough, we have the two dominant powers in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia, on opposite sides of the religious divide. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the font of Sunni religious tradition, albeit far more conservatively interpreted than in most other Sunni dominated countries. Iran, although not the original heartland of Shiism, represents by far the largest Shiite country, along with a tradition of dominating the Middle East, going back to ancient times well before Islam. As we all know, even the ancient Greeks were constantly at war with Persia (Iran).
My fear is that the United States and other Western powers may be lulled into a false sense of security regarding Iran because they may find Iran’s help in stabilizing Iraq useful, at least in the near-term. However, Iran will likely use this cooperation as a way to continue its efforts to build atomic weapons. The US must not allow that to happen, no matter how much the US may be grateful for Iranian intervention in Iraq. A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous to the Middle East’s stability than all the petty, yet violent fights underway on the ground at present.
The fighting across the heart of the Middle East will continue and possibly get worse. There is little the outside world can do to rectify the situation. The most important goal, however, should be to insure that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. That outstrips all other concerns because that would threaten worldwide global political stability.
As always, Clear and Candid.