The activities of the Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State (IS), which is its most recent avatar, have brought into sharp focus the schisms in the Islamic world. The most apparent aspect of the fault line in this is the fresh resurgence of the Shia-Sunni divide, with the Sunni militant IS seeking to undermine the Shia influence in both Iraq and Syria by professing a markedly anti- Shia agenda. As a corollary, the territorial ambitions of the IS, those of setting up a Caliphate in these countries, puts this organization in conflict with the traditional monarchies of the Arab Gulf, since the principles of the IS question the legitimacy and legality of these monarchies.
US-trained and equipped militants are in effect, therefore, operating counter to US regional interests.
Paradoxically the initial funding of the IS has come from these very Sheikhdoms, notably from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, countries which have a decidedly dual role in the United States’ (US) war on “terrorist” and fundamentalist organizations of the Middle East. Wealthy individuals from these countries, (supposedly US’s close allies in the Gulf) have, in the initial years of the IS, been major donors to the organization. The funding, at times, was with the tacit acquiescence of the regimes in these countries and on occasion, due to the weak money laundering checks in the sheikhdoms.
Individual donors in these Sheikhdoms, according to information available on the internet, have extended financial support to the ISIL and to its former faction In Syria, the al-Nusra Foundation, which is now reputed to be the Syrian chapter of al Qaeda. It is very much part of the fractured politics of the Middle East and a supreme irony that US allies in the region are, at the individual level at least, backing an arm of al Qaeda, currently one of America’s deadliest enemies.
The US, in an effort to ring in regime change in Syria (which opposes and is the biggest stumbling block to US-inspired efforts at reaching a satisfactory conclusion to the Middle East Peace Process-MEPP), has backed the formation of the Syrian Free Army, by way of training, funding and equipping, to oppose the Bashar al Assad regime. Elements of the Syrian Free Army, which include a significant element of foreign mercenaries, are of late reputed to have defected to join the IS. US-trained and equipped militants are in effect, therefore, operating counter to US regional interests. In addition, the IS has been acquiring American warlike stores abandoned by the US equipped Iraqi army, as well as getting money from looting banks in areas which they capture in fighting in Iraq.
The US has the specific aim of ringing in regime change in the Middle East…
The US has the specific aim of ringing in regime change in the Middle East, in an effort to realise the establishment of regimes which favour the strengthening of US foreign policy and national security objectives. A US State Department document of October 2010 vintage, entitled “Middle East Partnership Review: an Overview”, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Orient Advisory Group, a Washington based research and risk assessment company, makes it clear that the US had a regional programme known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), aimed at empowering citizens of the Middle East and North Africa to develop “more pluralistic, participatory and prosperous societies”.
The programme was originally conceived in 2002, with the aim of extending ‘direct support to civil society that mainstreams that support into the daily business of US Government policy’. The programme has evolved subsequently into an effective means of the US extending support to all countries of North East Africa where US AID offices exist, which interact with MEPI, to ensure a coordinated regional programme. The aim of the programme has been to “build a network of reformers to learn from and support one another and to catalyse progressive change in the region”.
The deliberate initiation and existence of programmes under the MEPI give rationality to the “spontaneity” of the much heralded “Arab Spring” a decade later.
Under significant US pressure on the one hand and the ISIL challenging the legitimacy of the traditional monarchies of the Arab Gulf on the other, these monarchies had, perhaps, little option but cracking down on individual funding to Sunni extremist groups. At the same time the Gulf sheikhdoms face domestic pressure to back the Sunni elements in the largely inevitable and unavoidable Shia-Sunni regional war, which is becoming more acute as time passes. The IS and to some extent, al-Nusra, are seen as part of the Sunni forces fighting opposing Shia forces, represented by both the Assad and the Maliki (now Abadi) regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, diligently backed by Iran.
The Shia-Sunni confrontation makes it unavoidable for Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina, to feel it has a rightful place as leader of the Muslim world.
The Shia-Sunni confrontation makes it unavoidable for Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina, to feel it has a rightful place as leader of the Muslim world. In such circumstances, support for the Sunni Forces fighting the Shia point of view, represented by Iraq and Syria, even if some of these forces question the legitimacy of existing monarchies in the Arab World, is inevitable. This also puts Riyadh on a cleft stick, balancing its own position as leader of the (Sunni) Islamic world, with the pressure applied by the US to be more proactive in fighting forces like the IS.
A driving force for the Saudis and the other Gulf monarchies in this conflict is their common desire to see Shia Iran cut to size. A degradation of Iranian power and influence in the region would be an attractive proposition: to this end they tend to support the regional efforts of the IS. Their joining the US coalition is, however, largely meaningless; they would be, at best, unreliable partners in the coalition. A force Saudi Arabia helped create (the IS) now threatens its very existence; it is, from Riyadh’s point of view, politically expedient to side with big brother US to ensure that the threat from the IS to the existing system does not become more serious and real, threatening the continued reign of the House of Saud,
This conundrum is further complicated by the fact that the threat to Shia interests inevitably has brought Riyadh’s rival for leadership of the Islamic world, Tehran, into the equation. Also, since an armed conflict is under way in the region in which Shia interests are specifically targeted, the entry into the melee of necessary pro-Shia military muscle in the shape of the Lebanon-based militant group, Hezbollah, is also totally foreseeable.
In this scenario, there are the Shi’ite forces, comprising pro Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad elements, supported by the Hezbollah, confronting the anti-Shia agenda of the IS. The efforts of the IS are also ‘opposed’, if the word can be used, by Government forces in Iraq and the Syrian Free Army on the ground. In addition there is also the coalition cobbled together by the US, comprising roughly 60 European, Balkan and Sunni Arab States, notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan (it must not be forgotten that the original threat of the ISIL was to the Jordanian monarch), responsible for the air campaign against the IS.
The role of the US “allies” in the current campaign against the IS is obscure, very limited and undefined…
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Shia militia in Iraq has checked the depredations of the IS against the state more effectively than the US trained Iraq Army which, in the face of determined military action by the IS, has proved to be more like Matthew Arnold’s description of the poet Shelley, a ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel’, than a modern fighting force. The Iraq Government has relied more on the Shia militia to successfully counter the IS that they did on their own army. Ironically therefore, the coalition forces and the Shia militia have a common agenda of opposing the IS in Iraq.
The role of the US “allies” in the current campaign against the IS is obscure, very limited and undefined: the US seems to be doing the lion’s share of the work in the air strikes in Syria. It is not entirely a coincidence that the consequent degrading in the military ability of the Assad regime is serving the interest of the US in securing regime change in Syria. The US goal, after having forced regime change in Iraq, is to undermine Bashar Assad in Syria and ultimately depose him, hopefully replacing him with a more ‘pliable’ government, before attempting to effect similar destabilising against America’s main rival in the region, Iran. Iran has never been forgiven by the US for the takeover of their embassy in Tehran, way back in 1979.
The military successes of the IS against the US trained and equipped Iraqi army led to the rapid disintegration of the latter force, which promptly abandoned large quantities of weapons, generously supplied by Uncle Sam. Consequently, the IS benefitted by gaining access these modern weapons. The collapse of the Iraqi Army and the professed anti-Shia agenda of the IS also caused the emergence of the Shi’ite militia in Iraq to confront the IS and to prevent the entire country being overrun by the IS.
This force is increasing in strength and its ferocity and brutality matches that of its rival force, the IS. For the time being, the Iraqi government requires this Shia militia to contain the IS and the militia, which seems to enjoy local support, have effectively checkmated the IS for the time being. At the same time, the military successes of the IS in its campaign against the Syrians gave the former access to the spoils of war, considerable Chinese and Russian weaponry, sold by these countries to the Syrian Government earlier.