Secularism in the Muslim world appears to be in terminal retreat. The two levels of struggle within that world are, first, Sunni versus Shiite, and second, complex, and interacting factions. The IS has taken on Al Qaeda’s ideology and is attempting to institutionalise it. The leading Western power (read USA) lacks the political will to pacify the Islamic world. Pacifying a billion people requires a gargantuan capability. The surrounding nations have limited options and a limited desire to collaborate. Other nations such as Russia and China, are alarmed by the IS’ spread among their own Muslim populations.
The term “Middle East” originated with the British Foreign Office in the 19th century when ‘Britannia ruled the waves’. The British demarcated the area into the Near East, the area closest to the United Kingdom and most of North Africa, the Far East, which was due East of British India and the Middle East, which was between British India and the Near East. It served as a useful model for organising the departments in the British Foreign Office, being important for the region as well, since the British defined not only the names of the region but also the States that emerged in the Near and Far East.
Today however, the term is loosely used to include Muslim-dominated countries from West of Afghanistan and along the North African shore. With the exception of Turkey and Iran, the region is mainly Arab and predominantly Muslim. On leaving the area, the British attempted to model the political systems of the nations of the Middle East based on European nation-states. While Turkey and Iran shaped themselves as secular states, the Arabian Peninsula which had a large tribal population, was formed into a complicated coalition as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt were sculpted into monarchies.
The only single unifying factor amongst all the diversities among the Muslim nations was the creation of Israel…
Any understanding of the Middle East hence, must begin with the creation of a new political geography after World War I and the partitions that had been created by the British. The first divide was between Islam and European secularism which was further accentuated when the Soviets involved themselves in the region during the Cold War. To explain it simply for laying the foundation of the assessment, suffice it to say that while one part of the region was secular, socialist and built around the military, the other was Islamist and traditionalist. In general, the former was pro-Soviet while the latter was pro-Western.
The second divide was between the new States that had been created and the fundamental actuality of the region. The States in Europe were based on the principle of nation-states as in the 20th century. However, the States created by the Europeans in the Middle East did not conform to that principle. There was some at a lower level and others at a higher level. At the lower level were the tribes, clans, and ethnic groups that not just made up the new States but also were divided by the borders. Those at higher level owed religious loyalty to Islam and to the major divisions of Islam, the Shia and Sunni movements which laid claims across borders on their allegiance. Added to these divisions was the pan-Arab movement initiated by the former Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who argued that all the Arab states should be united into a single entity.
While laying claims to their allegiance on the broader base of religion, the nations faced hurdles due to the many different social and political realities in managing their people and the relations between themselves. The only single unifying factor amongst all the diversities among the Muslim nations was the creation of Israel, though that too appeared more as a mirage. The secular, socialist States of Egypt and Syria, actively opposed Israel, while the more traditional ones felt threatened by the secular States and saw an ally of sorts in Israel. This situation continued until the end of the Cold War.
Any understanding of the Middle East must begin with the creation of a new political geography after World War I…:
Post Cold War Scenario
The power of the traditional royal families in the Middle East increased with the disintegration of the Soviet Union due to the consequent collapse of support for the secular socialist States. It was not that these States did not get enough monetary support for they did have the money; it was a question of values with the socialist secular movement losing its patronage and standing. With the diminishing Soviet support, fringe emerging groups based on Islamic ideology gained power, raising tremendous cross-currents in the process; some secular States, however, continued to survive.
The defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the hands of the mujahideen coupled with the loss of authority of the secular regimes, opened the door to sub-national groups, which now saw the existing regimes not as powerful, and illegitimate. In addition, the events in Afghanistan brought the idea of a pan-Islamic resurrection to the forefront. With the Sunni faction winning the war in Afghanistan, the enthusiasm of Shiite Iran, which had unilaterally taken the mantle of becoming the politico-military spokesperson for radical Islam, made the action plan clear.
The sub-national groups, to be successful in giving the necessary impetus to the pan-Islamic movement, planned a three-pronged strategy. First, for their thrust to be seen as doing well, they needed to give the movement a historical background. To achieve this, they went far back to the Crusades and the US became the natural enemy as a major Christian power. Second, the US had to be shown to the doubting Thomases, not just as an enemy but a vulnerable one at that. Lastly, the numerous groups of the many countries had to be united to achieve success, not just against the US, but also to overthrow regimes, in both the secular and traditional worlds, which were perceived to be morally corrupt. The result was the formation of Al-Qaeda which, through its actions, highlighted the vulnerability of its prime target, the US and compelled it to take action against the Islamic world at large and against Al-Qaeda, in particular.
The retaliation after the infamous 9/11 was massive but no major upheavals were seen in the Muslim world…
The retaliation after the infamous 9/11 was massive but no major upheavals were seen in the Muslim world. On the contrary, many Muslim nations cooperated with the US in its conflict against the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Did the US succeed? Yes, in the first phase, it did. However, in the second phase, when it wanted to transform the regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, it got involved in the internal squabbles of the sub-national groups, thus strengthening them in turn, without reshaping the countries as per its liking. The combine of the lack of effective governance and the newly empowered sub-national groups, made a forceful demand for trans-national Islam, to be governed under a single entity, the Caliphate.
The Islamic State and a New US Strategy
The factionalism amongst the sub-national groups and the domestic pressures on the US Government, forced it to shift approach and adopt a new strategy. Whether it was in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, the Americans were unable and unwilling to join the factionalised non-Islamic State forces on ground and turn them into a strategically effective force. As a result, the region between Lebanon and Iran became a whirlpool of competing forces. It also highlighted the fact that the sub-national forces were a reality and could not be wished away. It also emphasised the presence of the trans-national power of the Islamic State (IS) that had erased the Iraq-Syria border and had created the core element of the Caliphate.
The region has four major powers – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey. Each has its internal divisions yet has been able to keep its act together. Barring Iran, the other three have strategic relations with USA. Put differently, three of them are non-Arab powers and the one Arab power, Saudi Arabia, is perhaps the most concerned about internal threats. The US strategy therefore, became more complex and transformed in to an intricate variation of President Reagan’s Policy of the 1980s where it allowed the warring forces to war amongst themselves. The IS as the guardian of the Caliphate, has turned the fight into one against the Shia community and established nation States.
For the Israelis, the situation in the Middle East has been simultaneously wonderful and terrifying…
For Iran, the IS poses the threat that it could recreate an effective government in Baghdad that could once again threaten Iran. Thus, Tehran has maintained support for the Iraqi Shiites and for the Al Assad government in Syria, while trying to limit Al Assad’s power.
For Saudi Arabia, which has aligned with Sunni radical forces in the past, the IS represents a threat to its very existence. Its call for a transnational Islamic movement has the potential to resonate with Saudis from the local Wahhabi tradition. The Saudis, along with some other Gulf Cooperation Council members and Jordan, are apprehensive not only of the call for trans-nationalism but also of the rise of Shiite power in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia, hence, needs to contain the IS without conceding ground to the Shiites.
For Israel, the situation in the Middle East has been simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. It has been outstanding because it has pitted Israel’s enemies against each other. Al Assad’s government in Syria has in the past supported Hezbollah against Israel. So long as they fought amongst themselves, Israel’s security would be enhanced. The problem is that whosoever wins in Syria, may be more dangerous than the one before it, particularly if the IS ideology spreads to Palestine. The IS therefore, represents a long-term threat to Israel.
The current Turkish Government, which recently suffered a setback in the parliamentary elections, is proving to be the most difficult to understand. While it is hostile towards the Al Assad regime in Syria, it does not wish to involve itself in Syria, lest it affects its own political system. From its actions and statements, it appears to be less averse towards a victory of the IS. The US and its allies have not really been to comprehend Turkey’s strategy, unless the Turks feel that the IS, as a movement, would be defeated by the US forces and it shall be able to control the remnants.
The region between Lebanon and Iran became a whirlpool of competing forces…
Towards the end of March this year, a Sunni Arab nation coalition launched air strikes against Shia rebels in Yemen. Apart from the firepower, what was striking about this coalition was the absence of any US aircraft. The US did provide intelligence and other technical support, but stopped short of physically participating in the air campaign, thus giving credence to the new strategy discussed above. The US is shifting the burden of fighting to the regional powers while playing a support role. The regional powers such as Saudi Arabia have accumulated enough firepower over the years to undertake a ‘sophisticated’ campaign, against a fledgling nation like Yemen. The attacks also put the spotlight on the continuing war between the Shias and the Sunnis in the Middle East.
Where Does Iran Stand in this Conflict?
The world is well aware of the full-blown conflict that is raging in Iraq and Syria. The world is also aware of the long-standing differences between the Shias and the Sunnis, whether they are in the confines of a single nation or spread out in many nations. What many, however, may not be aware of is that there is tension not only between the Shiites and Sunnis but also within the Shiite and Sunni groups. Both in Iraq and Syria, the warring factions have a complicated mix of Shiite militias, Sunni Arab tribal groups, Sunni Kurdish groups and even a smattering of Christians on the one side and the Sunni dominated IS on the other. It is much more complex than a simple Shiite-Sunni war and has to be understood with the Sunni-Shiite component.
Iran’s ongoing nuclear agreement with the P5+1 nations has always been viewed with continuing suspicion by the other nations of the Middle East, as a move to gain major influence in the Arab world. This is nothing new, for Iran has always sought to regain its prominence in the Arabian Peninsula, ever since the overthrow of the Shah regime. More recently, it has struggled to create a sphere of influence stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. To achieve this, the survival of the Al Assad government in Syria and the success of a pro-Iranian government in Iraq are essential, for it would create that much-desired Iranian sphere of influence, given the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the ability of Al Assad’s Syria to project its power.
The US is shifting the burden of fighting to the regional powers while playing a support role…
The near collapse of the Al Assad government in 2012 and the creation of an Iraqi government that initially appeared to be relatively successful and was far from being an Iranian puppet, seemed to indicate a failure of Iran’s stratagem. Ironically however, the rise of the IS has bolstered Iranian power in the area. The IS propaganda with the horrific videos of killings and beheadings, is designed to show its power. The truth however, is different. While it may be militarily strong, the IS represents merely a fraction of Iraq’s Sunni minority community. The propaganda has also mobilised the Shiite community to resist it and accept Iranian advisers in the militias and to some extent, even in the Iraqi Army. It has also brought the US airpower to bear on the IS, in collaboration with the Iranian ground forces. The weakness of the IS has thus become a strength for Iran. A similar situation exists in Syria albeit with different demographics.
The Saudis have always been extremely sensitive to the rise of Shiite regimes in the Arabian Peninsula with close relations with the Iranians. The issue is simple for the Saudis. They represent the centre of gravity of the religious Sunni world. With the Iranian strategy of regaining prominence in the Arab world having got a boost from unexpected quarters, Saudi Arabia had to act to contain the rising Iranian and Shiite power in the region. Hence, the coalition attacks in Yemen.
The monarchies in the Middle East may possess the latest in armament courtesy USA, but in times of a conflict in the area, have looked towards Egypt and Pakistan for ‘technical’ expertise. The reasons are obvious; the tribal composition of the armies and less than optimal training, with little or no operational experience. It was for this reason that Pakistan was directly approached by Saudi Arabia for assistance as a part of the coalition.
The world is well aware of the full-blown conflict that is raging in Iraq and Syria…
The Pakistan Government did not readily jump into the fray and displayed reluctance. It then forwarded the request to its National Assembly, which, after much debate, declined to send its military forces to aid their long-term benefactor. Whether pragmatism had won over sentiments or the Army had prevailed over the decision, is not known, but with the refusal to provide ground troops and aircraft to help the Saudi-led coalition, Pakistan has definitely earned the ire of the entire Sunni Middle East. There is no doubt that the decision came as something of a surprise both for the Saudi King and for Nawaz Sharif.
It is too early to conclude the fallout of this decision on the part of Pakistan. Will this refusal be the beginning of a widening schism between the Arab monarchies and Pakistan? While the changes to their earlier relationship cannot be explicitly determined now, the fact is that Pakistan’s refusal will certainly influence future relationships. The UAE has already made this very clear, saying Pakistan would pay a heavy price for its betrayal of the Sunni cause. Saudi Arabia, in all likelihood, will bide its time and effect changes in the relationship only gradually, but change it will. Pakistan should be under no false pretence of guaranteed assistance in the future.
India’s rescue mission in Yemen was front page news. Media worldwide – television, newspapers, the internet – still carry stories of how the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, supported by Air India, evacuated from Yemen, more than 6,000 people belonging to more than 40 nationalities. Enough has been written, spoken and filmed about India’s Yemen operations and this piece is not intended to add to that. The Yemen evacuation however, does raise some pertinent questions and issues. First, the world at large and the close neighbours in particular are now aware of India’s strategic capabilities. Second, will this evacuation set the tone for India’s growing geopolitical influence? Third, why has India, over the years, been always fighting shy of exercising its true geopolitical influence?
Ironically, however, the rise of the IS has bolstered Iranian power in the area……
In this crucible of what is essentially an Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war, the Western nations found themselves handicapped and hence, unwelcome in Yemen. India, on the other hand, was allowed access in Yemen, a country with complex sectarian equations, due to its longstanding neutrality in the Middle East’s sectarian battles. No airlift or naval operations would have been possible without a combination of Indian military and civil aviation assets as well as goodwill for India on the ground among all combatants. The world media has taken note of this (in contrast to Indian media’s grudging and belated recognition of the huge rescue effort involved); so have global leaders taken note. This is the right time therefore, for initiating a fundamental shift in India’s geostrategic policy and strengthening its own diplomatic and strategic interests in the Gulf.
The IS represents a logical continuation of the Al Qaeda, which triggered a sense of Islamic power and shaped the United States into a threat to Islam. The IS however, does not behave like the Al Qaeda. It explicitly wants to create a Caliphate and that wish should not be ridiculed or summarily dismissed. At the very least, on the strategic level, it is operating with the kind of centralised command and control that makes it far more effective than other non-state forces the world has seen thus far.
Why has India, over the years, been always fighting shy of exercising its true geopolitical influence?
Secularism in the Muslim world appears to be in terminal retreat. The two levels of struggle within that world are, first, Sunni versus Shiite, and second, complex and interacting factions. The IS has taken on Al Qaeda’s ideology and is attempting to institutionalise it. The leading Western power (read USA) lacks the political will, to pacify the Islamic world. Pacifying a billion people requires a gargantuan capability. The surrounding nations have limited options and a limited desire to collaborate. Other nations such as Russia and China, are alarmed by the IS’ spread among their own Muslim populations.
It is interesting to note that the apparent defeat of Al Qaeda opened the door for its logical successor, the IS. The question at hand, then, is whether the four regional powers have the capabilities and desire to control it. The evolution of Turkey would be a critical step in the emergence of a regional balance of power, in which local powers, not the United Kingdom or the US, determine the outcome. It is extremely convoluted and not suited for a simple or an ideological analysis, for it represents the next generation of Middle Eastern dynamics.