The only thing that could have further destroyed the already crumbling and turbulent mosaic of the Middle East was the return of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the heart of the political scene. Now, black clouds are increasingly gathering over the region.
To any fair-minded observer there is nothing strange about Iraqis rising up against the sectarian and malicious policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The same is true of the Syrian people, who have risen up against the sectarian dictatorship of the Assad family that has dominated Syria for more than four decades, during which it destroyed any sense of citizenship, trading in and bankrupting once-noble rallying cries.
Nor should we forget the Palestinians rising up against the confiscation of their land, the Judaization of the state, and the discounting of their most basic human rights.
Last but not least, it is similarly easy to understand the exasperation of the Lebanese people with the state of sectarian division that has been created in their “occupied” country by the armed factions on the ground calling for “resistance.” After all, they have always claimed their legitimacy from their objective of “liberating” Lebanon from “occupation.”
Sometimes, people find themselves caught between two bitter choices. In this case, the choice is death or humiliation. What the Fertile Crescent region—or, more precisely, Iraq and the Levant- has witnessed since 2003 in particular has been a general move towards the humiliation of Iraq’s Sunnis as a result of the conceit and arrogance of the country’s ruling pro-Iran, Shi’ite leadership.
Passion for revenge
As a result, Sunni extremists have been overcome with a passion for revenge for what they view as the historic injustices perpetrated against them.
This group has been present in Syria for years, fighting against the moderate rebels with the implicit blessing of the Assad regime and indirect assistance from the Maliki governmentEyad Abu Shakra
From a sectarian perspective, we have returned to the days of the Battle of Siffin, the main engagement of the First Fitna, or first Islamic civil war, between Ali Ibn Abi Taleb and what would become the Shiites on the one side and Muawiyah I and what would become the Sunnis on the other.
Iraq’s Shiites, as well other non-Shiite Iraqi citizens and neighboring countries, suffered from the injustices of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Meanwhile, in Syria the country’s Sunnis and other minority citizens, as well as the people of neighboring countries, suffered from the injustices of the Assads’ rule. Over the past decades, these Assad regimes, which trumpeted Arabism, secularism and “progressive” politics, abused everything they claimed to represent or believe in.
As for the international community, which has constantly been lecturing others on democracy and human rights, it turned a blind eye to the transgressions being committed by these two regimes as long as its own interests were safe. But as soon as these interests were threatened, we saw that their memory suddenly returned and their archives opened to produce statements and documents ready to justify a desire to seek revenge.
In essence, the Middle East crisis is one caused by denied rights and the decision to retreat back into the safety of religion in the face of political and social challenges. At this point, it is important to mention that the international community did not always oppose that “escape to religion,” as can be seen in its strong support for the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the 1980s.
The international community also used religion—whether we are talking about Islam, Christianity or any other religion—against several national liberation movements during the Cold War.
Following the Afghan experience, however, extremist organizations were disappointed by the realization that the West was only using them to weaken the Soviet Union. This resulted in a sense of bitterness towards the West and its principles.
After that, we saw the rise of al-Qaeda and several vaguely defined organizations that operated under its banner. The U.S. anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan and its occupation of Iraq on a flimsy pretext as part of its “war on terror” have served to create a new and dangerous political reality in the Arab Mashreq.
I suspect that Iranian hegemony over Iraq following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime came as no surprise to the U.S.. It is also unlikely that the specter of regional division along religious and sectarian lines did not cross the minds of those who have been proclaiming a new Middle East.
Arab and Islamic words
Sunnis make up more than 75 percent of both the Arab and Islamic worlds, and so the emergence of Sunni–Shi’ite tensions must be a natural consequence of Iranian bullying—and that is before we take into consideration the West’s decision to ignore Iran’s nuclear program and machinations in Iraq and Lebanon. All this must have certainly crossed the minds of Western thinkers and planners.
On the other hand, the West is well aware of the ideological objectives of extremist religious groups, including the so-called “jihadist” and “takfirist” groups that are claiming to be “Islamic.” They understand that there are two particularly dangerous sides to such groups.
First, such groups put forward an ultra-simplistic and exclusionary religious facade that does not attempt to understand how other people think, nor does it really care much about the issue. Such groups cannot recognize a balance of power that is not in the interests of Muslims, which means dragging them into confrontations where they are out-muscled.
In such a situation, it is easy to create such groups by ensuring conditions on the ground are favorable to their emergence and proliferation.
This would come as a prelude to involving them in political and security battles that will ultimately end in their defeat, followed by the implementation of an unfavorable strategic “arrangement” on the ground.
Obeying without question
Second, these groups are usually based on cells under the leadership of an “emir,” whose members obey without hesitation or question. This explains the ease with which such groups can be infiltrated by security agencies and then deflected from the original path set forth by the leadership—regardless of that leadership’s goodwill or astute tactics.
We are now three years into the Syrian uprising, which the international community has unscrupulously let down and even betrayed, as well as eight years of Maliki’s sectarian rule in Iraq. And yet, only now has the U.S. suddenly decided to wake up to the threat represented by ISIS in western Iraq.
This group has been present in Syria for years, fighting against the moderate rebels with the implicit blessing of the Assad regime and indirect assistance from the Maliki government. Perhaps the most portentous manifestation of this is that the militants who “escaped” from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2013 joined the fight in Syria under the ISIS banner.
In school, we learned Newton’s famous Third Law of Motion, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Today, we are witnessing the start of a campaign to incite and mobilize public opinion in Western states, which even sober media outlets are taking part in, promoting regional political and security cooperation with Iran on the pretext of confronting the ISIS specter.
On Tuesday, I anxiously listened to two British media figures who claimed to be Middle East “experts” as they discreetly sought to prepare the ground for the general public in Britain to accept the idea of cooperation with the mullah’s regime in Tehran against “jihadists” and “takfirists.”
Of course, this would mean strengthening the grips of Maliki, Assad and Hezbollah on the Fertile Crescent, which tomorrow may be transformed into a “Shi’ite crescent.” This would only incite greater frustration and despair among the region’s Sunnis, subsequently resulting in even more hatred and suicidal reprisals.
Injustice cannot be addressed by counter-injustice. This is the lesson everybody must understand before it is too late.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on June 19, 2014.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.