With radical state and non-state actors, the Middle East is not only a key player in the global oil trade with its unmatched oil monopoly but it also shapes the international politics to a great extent. Issues and conflicts pertaining to this region range from ethnic to nationalist and religious to sectarian, all in the pursuit of power.
After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Middle East witnessed a number of conflicts among the Arab states, but after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Arab-Israeli conflict stole the limelight and shaped the entire regional politics with directly influencing international politics as well. Since 1948, there have been more wars and armed conflicts between Arabs and Israelis than among the Arab states. But after recent developments since the Arab Spring, Muslims have found more reasons to fight with each other as the regional politics has undergone a paradigm shift.
In the Arab spring – a series of uprisings which were instigated against dictatorships, monarchies and political corruption – protesters who demanded more political rights were tried to be quelled. The situation went out of control in some states in which the repressive rulers were either ousted or dragged on the streets of their own countries. For instance, leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen were deposed and in Libya, Gaddafi was killed by the rebellious masses. The uprisings in two states – Syria and Bahrain – radically altered the dynamics of regional politics. The uprisings, which were originally against the ruling elites, were molded into an all-out sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis. Particularly in Syria, this transformation took place when Iran and Saudi Arabia shadily and actively intervened to hijack the genuine revolt that was initially led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Hence, a proxy war has been initiated in which private militias and jihadi terrorist groups are still being heavily funded, and both states are pursuing and advancing their political interests at the cost of human lives. Outrage of western powers over the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad compelled him to surrender his weapon stockpile. Plus, gave an apparent reason to the western powers to back out from the Syrian crisis with a superficial victorious face.
Resultantly, militants flexed their muscles and this caused a spillover in Iraq as well. Also, internal differences and infighting led some jihadi groups to act independently. The most prime example is that of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). This group used to operate under the umbrella of al-Qaeda but not anymore, because the group leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rejected the orders of Ayman al-Zawahiri to operate only in Iraq and, currently, it continues to operate both in Iraq and Syria. The extremity of ISIS can be evaluated by the fact that after a power struggle between ISIS and al-Qaeda the latter had to dissociate itself from the former. Moreover, parts of northern Syria are already under the control of ISIS and, with the US troops withdrawn, weak Iraqi government and military, ISIS rebounded with robust force taking over Mosul, Tikrit, Falluja along with many other cities seizing massive caches of arms, ammunitions, large amount of money and laying siege to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. According to the sources, ISIS has now become the richest terrorist group in the world.
Such advancement has not only raised eyebrows in the Iraqi political circles, but in the White House as well. Iran has already expressed its will to assist Iraq while, on the other hand, the US is mulling options which includes airstrikes and support for the Iraqi military or Kurdistan’s army, the peshmerga. Moreover, clerics are also playing an active role in the conflict. In Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani issued a call to take up arms against ISIS militants whereas, in Syria, the Grand Mufti announced that voting for Assad was commanded by the Prophet. Since, ISIS’ militants are adherent of Sunni Islam, so once again the fight is being dubbed as a sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis. And, such statements by clerics will only add more fuel to the fire; let the political forces handle the crisis.
The ongoing crises in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, bears two lessons. First, for the West; peace cannot be attained just by replacing one political actor with the other as the problem lies deep within the minds. Afghanistan can be the next Iraq. Second, for the Muslims in general, separating religion from politics will save the former, before power politics, in the name of religion and sectarianism, destroy religion. Unfortunately, a region that only had one main conflict to deal with i.e. the Arab-Israel conflict, has now fallen into an abyss of its own homegrown conflicts.