The declaration by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq should not go unremarked. Such a development should not be considered in terms of the presence, or lack thereof, of the elements necessary for the establishment of such a caliphate, or the timing of this, but rather in light of the general circumstances surrounding this announcement.
To start with, even those who are monitoring the affairs of the region and regional jihadism are not clear about ISIS’s real weight, and whether this is sufficient to allow it to even make such a declaration. Even when ISIS launched its ongoing assault on western and northern parts of Iraq, claiming responsibility for all military operations there, tribal and Sunni voices warned that some quarters were deliberately seeking to discredit and incite against the popular uprising against Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki—by portraying it as ISIS-led in an obvious bid to crush it.
Tehran’s ambitions in the Arab Gulf are longstanding; however, the way in which it is now dealing with the 'Fertile Crescent' entities is unprecedented.Eyad Abu Shakra
A bloody conflict between ISIS and other ideologically similar groups, such as the Syrian-based Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, is raging already in the region. This is not to mention the major differences between ISIS and less-extremist Islamist groups, which are also seeking power via different routes.
In addition to this, there are some exceptional, geopolitical elements that are currently casting their shadows on the Middle East as a whole. Tehran’s ambitions in the Arab Gulf are longstanding; however, the way in which it is now dealing with the “Fertile Crescent” entities is unprecedented. Tehran is, in practice, ruling Iraq, Syria and Lebanon by proxy. Tehran is indeed controlling armed groups that had essentially transcended the borders set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement before ISIS declared an Islamic caliphate. It also has active hands in the Arabian Peninsula and strategic alliances in the Gulf, Yemen and North Africa.
Maliki’s call for support
At this point we should consider Washington’s speedy reaction to Maliki’s call for help and support compared to its “timid”—or even “conspiratorial”—position on the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for more than three years during which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more displaced. This perhaps highlights the true US strategic perspective on the region, which cannot be concealed anymore by misguided and sugar-coated words.
We should remember that US Vice President Joe Biden had previously suggested, when still a Senator in 2006, the partition of Iraq. Biden was of the view that Iraq should be partitioned into three entities: Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish. Before Biden, the Republic “neocons” who dominated US foreign policy in the Middle East during the era of former US President George W. Bush incessantly talked about their plans for a “New Middle East.” Despite the ambiguous nature of the “New Middle East,” at least for Arabs, nobody can deny that the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, the eradication of Iraq’s state institutions, including the police force and military, and the complete disregard of the sectarian, religious and ethnic conflicts boiling in the country paved the way for an “alternative Iraq” that is completely different from the pre-2003 incarnation of the country. This new state of affairs in Iraq, in the minds of US policymakers, complements a new regional system whose features are becoming increasingly clear. In this new system the Assad regime played the role assigned to it, namely, the creation and exploitation of Sunni fundamentalists, both inside and outside Syria.
The Assad regime was tasked with recruiting extremist fighters and sending them to fight in Iraq in a bid to unsettle US invading forces, thus forcing an early military pullout from the region. Among those the Damascus regime used to do this recruiting was Mahmoud Qul-Aghassi aka Abu Al-Qaqaa. This is exactly what Tehran had planned. After pushing the US to do their “dirty job” for them—i.e. getting rid of Saddam and Sunni dominance—the smart Iranians were keen to avoid direct confrontation with the US forces and the high cost of shedding American blood. Sure enough, Tehran’s plan proved a resounding success as the US administration eventually became convinced that the price of remaining in Iraq was unbearable. However, when Washington hurriedly pulled out of Iraq, it left the country under a de facto Iranian political and security control, with Sunni-majority areas left to the mercy of extremist jihadists. This remained the case until Sunni tribes could no longer put up with it, launched the Sahawat(Awakening) movements and succeeded in driving the jihadists out.
End Sunni dominance
In Lebanon the aim was to end the Sunni dominance represented by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, by far the country’s leading Sunni politician. However, those entrusted with planning and executing his assassination miscalculated the ensuing public reaction. Despite this, the Tehran–Damascus axis soon retook the initiative and began working to eliminate Hariri’s legacy, which is Lebanon’s moderate Sunni leadership—a leadership that has been acceptable to both the Arab world and the wider international community. To achieve this, the Iran–Syria alliance resorted to creating extremist Sunni figureheads who strived to undermine the credibility of Hariri’s populist and service-oriented Future Movement which, in my view, has always lacked political “instinct” as well as firm ideological foundations. In effect the Iran–Syria alliance was trying to pull the rug from under the Future Movement by means of inventing firebrand competitors, and promoting their radical ultra-populist slogans.
Facilitating the access of Fatah Al-Islam to the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli in northern Lebanon—a Sunni stronghold—was just the tip of the iceberg. The scenario of Iraq’s Awakening movements was repeated in Nahr Al-Bared where Fatah Al-Islam’s attempts to overtake the camp were thwarted by the mostly Sunni martyrs from the Lebanese army.
Iranian and Syrian leaders also tried to destroy from within the Future Movement-led March 14 Alliance, which was formed on the back of the anti-Tehran public momentum. They embraced Michel Aoun—an extremist Maronite leader— and went on to “rehabilitate” and use him as a means to drive a wedge between the ranks of the democratic, liberal and progressive forces in Lebanon. Aoun has thus far carried out his assignment to the last detail. Also—in coordination and mutual understanding with Hezbollah—Aoun has repeatedly blocked the election of a new president for Lebanon, and has recently proposed an initiative to electorally divide the country along sectarian lines in stark violation of the constitution and showing total disregard to the dangers of potential political and security vacuums, while Hezbollah is happily strengthening its position as a state within a state, capitalizing on the present political vacuum in Lebanon.
Last but by no means least, we can all see what Assad has done to Syria, redrawing the country’s geographical map through bloodshed and displacement and partitioning the country along sectarian and ethnic lines. Like Iraq, Syria today is different from Syria in early 2011.
The region faces the threat of being partitioned and parceled out in the name of containing ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate, which, had it not been announced, would have been fabricated to create just such a response.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on July 3, 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.