Beyond the popular movement for freedom which started three years ago and spread all over the Middle East, the region is currently facing a much more serious situation. An extra-governmental, radical insurgent group, the ISIS, is gaining control over vast territories while capturing major cities and rich oil fields in Iraq. This marks one of the defining moments of the 21st century. A considerable portion of the Arab world is currently on the verge of breakdown under the weight of failed, non-functioning regimes. Regimes are losing their legitimacy one after another, while the post-WWI order and the associated borders that were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East are losing validity.
The collapse of the Middle East is not limited to its political and economic aspects. The Arab world is also in cultural and social descent. This is because Islam, as a religion, is losing its spirit together with its cultural essentials which are systematically attacked by Al-Qaeda’s affiliate groups such as Al Nusra and ISIL. By basing their doctrine on violence in the name of Islam, such deviant groups manipulate, oversimplify, and radicalize the historical teachings of a world religion in the most â€œprofaneâ€ sense possible.
Rivalries born out of sectarian differences lead to endless bloodshed. Alongside the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, sectarianism is further fuelled by administrative and governmental dysfunction, and by political Islam replacing pan-Arab nationalism spearheaded by the Ba’ath tradition. Sectarian warfare is thereby replacing class conflict, which marked the previous century. While nearly all Middle Eastern states are becoming utterly fragile and impotent, their foundations are being rendered meaningless. As bloodshed associated with sectarian warfare ravages the land, the scene is automatically set for the rise of radical doctrines incarnated by Al-Qaeda and the sort, ceaselessly destabilizing the whole region.
Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry
Beyond the sectarian rivalry, there is also a geopolitical race between Saudi Arabia and Iran for gaining influence and exercising power. It plays an important role in determining who will become the hegemon of a vast region extending from the Gulf countries to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and beyond. A bloody struggle shaped by the pursuit of political hegemony overshadows even the Palestinian conflict, putting an end to Christian Arabs’ historical role as a playmaker in Arab politics.
The Western World Gets Its Share
Instabilities and insecurities ignited by such a large-scale collapse will inevitably affect Europe, and even the US, through the large Muslim communities living there. Hundreds of radical youth, which enter the region with EU or American passports in order to join the â€œjihadâ€, already prove this. It is for certain that the only way to handle such a challenge is by defending modernity, prosperity, and democratic values, all of which are the common heritage of humanity. However, such an option is currently not viable due to the unconducive context surrounding the region. Currently, death and suffering is all around the Middle East; therefore, our priority should be finding out how to save the lives of hundreds of thousands, or maybe millions, of people at this juncture.
The Responsibility of the US and Saudi Arabia
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 upset the balance of sectarian influence and political power in the Middle East. It also catalyzed Kurds’ struggle for de facto independence. Furthermore, it radicalized the population of Iraq living mostly in the western parts of the country and caused a popular ideological shift from Ba’ath nationalism to â€œjihadismâ€. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia tried to wipe out moderate Sunni movements, such as â€œthe Ikhwanâ€, and it preferred to provide financing, political backing, and military aid to radical Sunni groups such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda.
ISIL does not have a national/political project resembling those of Hamas, Hezbollah, and radical Shiite groups. Volunteers who come from Europe and other parts of the world to join its ranks mostly do not even speak Arabic. ISIS has no social project either, aside from the references it commonly makes to Shariah. Even though it tries to localize and become permanent in the regions where it is active, it is still more of an armed militia rather than an influential social and political movement.
General opinion is that it owes its military victories to a political and military power vacuum present in a vast expanse of â€œno man’s landâ€. The ISIL easily instated itself in northwestern Iraq after gaining power in Syria because the region’s Sunni residents were alienated by the American invasion followed by political maladministration and misconduct by the Maliki regime in Baghdad. Eradicating ISIL from the lands that it captured in Syria and Iraq seems impossible without a US land operation. As repeatedly remarked by President Obama, a land operation by American troops remains out of the picture unless the crisis escalates to a level at which core American interests are directly and unexpectedly threatened. Therefore, it is highly possible for ISIL to remain intact in Syria and Iraq in the foreseeable future.
The conflict is already internationalized. This makes it only possible for the whole region to achieve peace and obtain stability once again through an international treaty.
Under such circumstances, Iran comes to the fore as a major country in the region which has gained prominence especially in the last couple of years. Iran has influence over both non-state actors in the Middle East, and the Iraqi government and Shiite people living there. In this respect, it can serve as a key country in finding a solution to the enduring chaos throughout the region. In consideration of its key role, it recently became the principal partner of the US and the EU in the region. Therefore, Iran’s rise in political power and prestige is certain and it owes much to Rouhani’s accession in Tehran.
That said, both Israel and the American Congress are strictly opposed to the idea of cooperation between Iran and the US. But Iran’s regional profile will inevitably keep rising as hot conflict in Syria and Iraq gradually spreads over the larger region, and as the regional as well as global threat posed by radical groups such as ISIL becomes more serious than ever. Thereby Iran will emerge as the main winner, the country which makes the largest gain through minimal effort, from the collapse of the post-WWI order in the Middle East.
Among other regional dynamics, one should pay particular attention to the gain of political currency by the Kurds. It is also certain that Turkmens, as an ethnic group, are the main losers of evolving regional dynamics. Even though Turkey certainly has a historical, political, and moral obligation to protect Turkmens, Ankara does not have the capacity to exercise power along its southern border. Indeed, ongoing events on the other side of its southern border deeply threaten Turkey. Kurds gaining the upper hand in the region bears significant repercussions for Turkey’s own security, mainly because Kurds are holding territories which can serve as a buffer zone between Turkey and a lawless, stateless, disorderly, and vast region that harbours rich reserves of oil and natural gas. Moreover, these regions are being ravaged by radical groups, sharing a taste for violence inspired partly by religion, and claiming de facto control over their strongholds.
The Arab world is mired in a dark age which will not satisfy deprived masses’ craving for freedom. However, it is impossible to forecast how and when the peoples of the region will pull through. The truth speaks for itself: things will never be the same again. Because nations which cannot resolve their problems either dissolve, plunge into a spiral of violence, or transform altogether.