Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The vanishing of Islamic State

The conflict in Syria may end with the disappearance of the Islamic State group, which would by then have fulfilled its purpose of cementing regional sectarian strife, writes Fadi Elhusseini

When entangled elements make it hard to reach a sound analysis, conspiracy theories appear to be a good tool to explain the unexplained. This applies perfectly to the situation in the Middle East.

Many observers are not yet ready to cede their de facto approach, even though every single regional development shows the clear marks of a crucial role for foreign powers (either super or regional), not only in what has been taking place, but also in preparing for a debacle that has been brewing in the region for decades. Such indicators lead to a strong understanding that dramatic changes might be within striking distance.

For a start, the unity of the Arabs cannot be benign for foreign powers that have interests in the region. If the Arabs were united, they would be a power that would not let others use them or play out their imperialist dreams in such a geo-strategically important region of the world. Iran’s growing role in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is the starkest example of how division, failed-state scenarios and weak governments have been stepping stones for other powers to penetrate and then dominate the region.

This hypothesis is not limited to the old definition of powers in the form of states, since it also includes novel trans-border actors such as terrorist groups. That said, it should not have been surprising to see Al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State (IS) group appear and flourish in Iraq in the chaos resulting from the US-led invasion and occupation of the country. The same chaos and failed-state scenario applies to Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

History is a good starting point to show how the major powers have intervened in the region in order to secure their own strategic interests. The examples are numerous, but perhaps the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France was the most evident case of major powers agreeing to divide the Arab world into competing states. Although the Arabs have never lived in one single state, they have historically lived in large, interconnected regions such as the Levant, covering what are now Occupied Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and the kingdom of Egypt and Sudan, now divided into two states.

The foreign intervention in the region and the fragmentation of the Arabs took a sharper line with the US occupation of Iraq. This not only meant the fall of a state, a president and a dictatorship, or even an end to the Arab nationalism that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was one of the last Arab leaders to embrace, but it also meant a geopolitical earthquake in the whole regional order with a far-reaching change in the balance of power that prevailed in the Middle East at large.

Intriguingly, the collapse of Saddam’s regime meant that Iraq became prey to Iran. It also meant the stirring up of sectarian strife between the majority of Iraqis who are Shia and who had been living for decades under a Sunni ruler and the minority who are Sunnis and who were privileged under the Baath Party regime of Saddam. The collapse of the Saddam regime also ignited the separatist tendencies of the Kurds in the north of Iraq. The possible repercussions should have been given much more consideration before the US occupied and then withdrew from Iraq.

History aside, these developments take us to the emergence, or creation by certain powers, of a new regional actor known as IS. This so-called “Islamic State” presents a bizarre manifestation of an extremely radical interpretation of Sunni Islam. It is noteworthy in this context that IS did not exist before the US occupation of Iraq, and its roots can be traced to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, affiliated to Al-Qaeda, in 2004.

In response to the chasm of mistrust between the various sects in Iraq and the immense danger this group posed, non-Sunni sects in Iraq became anxious to protect themselves and at times to retaliate. As a result, the role of sectarian militias in Iraq increased, and to add insult to injury separatist tendencies have been more justified in the country than at any time in the past. The calls by Iraqi Kurds for independence have resonated in other countries and have encouraged the Kurds in Syria and Turkey to follow suit. We are likely to hear another call from the Kurds in Iran sooner or later.


FRAGMENTATION TODAY: Like their predecessors in the Sykes-Picot era, today’s superpowers have found that re-fragmenting and re-dividing the region further better serves their strategic interests.

The Kurdish element is critical in the Middle East regional equation, particularly because separatist tendencies by the Kurds in one country have led to others in neighbouring states. In a surprising move, Washington even recently put its strategic relationship with Turkey at risk, with the Trump administration striking a novel partnership deal with a number of Kurdish groups in Syria.

Walid Faris, who served as Middle East adviser to the Trump election campaign, told the newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat recently that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus fully acknowledged that the US administration would not allow it to move its forces to the east of Syria towards the town of Al-Hasaka or the anti-IS combat zones. This, according to Faris, explains why the US has dispatched additional US marines to northeast Syria. In other words, Washington is yearning to become the backbone of the forces that will advance and liberate the territory controlled by IS in Syria, areas over which Washington will not allow the Al-Assad regime to regain control.

Movements in the field lead to a similar conclusion. In fact, with the mounting presence of major powers in the Syrian conflict, these developments show that the role of other actors – militias like the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, IS and the Al-Nusra Front, or states like Iran and Turkey – will come to an end. In other words, such transformations, especially the growing role of Russian forces, may usher in the end of the Iranian presence in Syria. The departure of the other militias appears to be just around the corner, at least in the areas controlled by the Syrian regime. The deployment of the Russian forces near the Lebanese border is a case in point, where Hizbullah’s role has ended after achieving demographic change and consolidating a sectarian structure for the various regions inside Syria.

Similarly, the remarkable presence of the US and growing numbers of its troops on the ground has led to parallel scenarios within Sunni areas of Syria currently occupied by IS or Kurdish zones. It looks as if an agreement has been reached between the two major powers of the US and Russia to divide Syria into spheres of influence based on sectarian or ethnic parameters.

Although Syria was previously a Russian domain, the significant role and interests of Iran in the country were not always well-received in Moscow. Dividing Syria between Moscow and Washington and eliminating the role of other actors in it appears to be a win-win situation for the Americans and the Russians.

Lest there be any misunderstanding about this outcome, since the outbreak of the Arab revolts in 2011 Syria and Al-Assad himself have not been the sole cards held by Russia in the Middle East. Moscow has been developing strategic relations and forging broader interests with several other Middle East states, including Israel, Egypt and even Turkey. On the other hand, it is obvious that the new US administration has a clearer vision of what can be done in Syria, when compared to the former administration led by President Barack Obama.

In this context, Faris says that despite their political quarrels a meeting between Trump and his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin could happen soon. This could lead to a publicly agreed upon solution in Syria, namely the withdrawal of all foreign armed forces and militias, including Hizbullah, the Iraqi militias, Al-Basdaran, Al-Qaeda, IS, the Al-Nusra Front, and all of those who have reached Syria with the assistance of the Iranian regime. Faris adds that Washington and its NATO allies on the one hand and Russia and its international allies such as China on the other could agree to this solution.

Furthermore, all of these parties also agree that the first stage that could lead to a solution in Syria would begin with the “disappearance” of IS. Following this, a moderate Arab Sunni authority would assume power in the areas currently controlled by the militants. The logic behind such a step is that if IS is replaced by the Syrian regime, in the same way as it is being replaced by the Iraqi regime in Iraq, this could create a sectarian problem in these areas. Hence, according to Faris, the role of a number of moderate Sunni Arab countries would be important because there is a need for an alliance on the ground as the US is not ready for a major troop deployment.

We might argue that Syria is thus heading towards a tripartite division: A Russian sphere of influence occupied by the Syrian regime and its Alawi (Shia) Arab sect; a US sphere of influence containing the Sunni Arab opposition and its groups; and another US sphere of influence for the Kurds. Needless to say, we can easily see a mirror image of this arrangement in Iraq, which is mired in sectarian and ethnic traps and a horde of uncertainties, its divisions being clearer than ever before.

If this is the case, it would not be too outlandish to predict the end of the Syrian war soon and in a similar way the disappearance of IS, especially after it has almost fulfilled its sinister mandate and the purpose for which it was established – the cementing of regional sectarian strife. IS cannot have any future in the agreed-upon scenario, and thus its disappearance becomes inevitable.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa and an associate researcher at the Institute for Middle East Studies in Canada.

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