The recent military setbacks suffered by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the beginning of attacks by local forces to retake Fallujah, Iraq and Manbij City, Syria, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes, coupled with the steep decline in the number of foreign fighters flowing to Join ISIS, portends the eventual defeat of the Caliphate as a significant military threat maybe as early as 2017. But given the trajectory of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts in recent years, the corrosive role of most outside powers, and the frightening human toll of identity politics, the defeat of the monstrous Caliphate could turn to a resounding pyrrhic victory.
Since the Second World War, the United States has had a poor record in translating its military victories into political successes. It is very likely that the two longest wars in American history will end with political forces that are either hostile or unfriendly to the United States controlling both Afghanistan and Iraq. The real challenge for the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and in Syria was never military in nature, but rather political. After the eventual military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria the perennial question of “what’s next politically?” will be asked just as it was asked after the liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet occupation in 1989, the defeat of Iraqi forces in Kuwait in 1991, and after the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011.
The victory of identity politics
Ironically, the defeat of ISIS, a positive development in and of itself, in the absence of acceptable political scaffoldings to begin healing these societies, could presage the victory of foreign powers like Iran and Russia, a genocidal regime in Damascus and a sectarian corrupt regime in Baghdad both of which are beholding to Tehran. More importantly in the long run, the defeat of ISIS if it is not accompanied or followed by the eventual demise of the Assad regime in the context of an overall political resolution that guarantees the civil and political rights of all Syrian communities, and in checking Iran’s destructive influence in Iraq, will result in the overwhelming victory of “identity politics”.
The fights for Fallujah and Manbij City are raising serious fears not only of massive civilian casualties, but of deepening sectarian and ethnic cleavages leading to more death by identity and the creation of more refugees. The United States is currently providing air power to support the Iraqi government forces attacking ISIS forces in Fallujah, but these conventional forces are augmented by Shiite militias backed and trained by Iran and led by Iraqis who are very loyal to Iran. These largely Shiite militias make up the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Sha’bi),were created in response to ISIS’ occupation of Mosul in June 2014. These militias engaged in widespread abuse in Sunni cities liberated from ISIS in recent months.
The fights for Fallujah and Manbij City are raising serious fears not only of massive civilian casualties, but of deepening sectarian and ethnic cleavages leading to more death by identity and the creation of more refugeesHisham Melhem
Following the eviction of ISIS from Tikrit last year Human Rights Watch documented the “Ruinous Aftermath” in the city thus: “in the aftermath of the fighting, militia forces looted, torched, and blew up hundreds of civilian houses and buildings in Tikrit and the neighboring towns..” While it is true that the U.S. in the past criticized the sectarian practices of these militias and asked the Iraqi government not to allow them to participate in liberating Sunni cities from ISIS, a request that was ignored by Baghdad, there are ample signs now that Washington has lessened its opposition to some of these militias. In fact last spring US Consul General Steve Walker expressed sympathy with some of the wounded members of the Popular Mobilization Forces during a visit to a hospital in Basra.
Deepening sectarian and ethnic divides
Just as the city of Ramadi was essentially destroyed in order to be “saved” from ISIS, a similar fate could befall Fallujah. There are credible concerns that the decision to attack Fallujah which came after a short notice to the U.S. is in part a political maneuver by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deflect attention from his domestic travails following a series of deadly bombings in Baghdad, and growing social unrest against corruption and calls for reforms that almost paralyzed his government. Iran, the hidden hand behind major Iraqi decisions, was on display recently when the ubiquitous Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani showed up in photos taken at an operations room outside Fallujah, discussing maps of military operations with senior militia commanders. The absence of a unified countervailing moderate Arab Sunni force to ISIS in Iraq and Syria will guarantee that the defeat of ISIS, will likely lead to the birth of a new form of Sunni radicalism in years to come.
The fight for Manbij City, which is a prelude for a major attack on ISIS controlled Raqqa is raising concerns about potential ethnic conflicts between Kurds and Arabs. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed coalition of armed groups led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), has been with U.S. logistical support mobilizing thousands of fighters in the countryside north of Raqqa to isolate the city. American Special Forces in Syria have been training and advising and possibly fighting along with YPG fighters. In fact U.S. military personnel have been “embedded” with YPG fighters, as seen in recent photos showing U.S. soldiers wearing emblems of the YPG on their shoulders.
But while the Kurds of Syria have legitimate political and cultural grievances and demands that should be fairly addressed in a post-Assad Syria, nonetheless the YPG which represent the most powerful Syrian Kurdish group has been accused by human rights organizations of engaging in ethnic cleansings and forcing Arabs and Turkmens from their areas and demolishing their homes in areas under YPG control. It is ironic that the YPG, which came into existence with the help of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) of Turkey a group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group, is also receiving help from the Russians in Syria. If the YPG leads the fight to retake Raqqa and its environ, a region inhabited by mostly Syrian Arabs, the outcome will likely result in new tensions and possibly violence between Arabs and Kurds.
The disintegration of states
In recent years we have witnessed the destructive triumph of identity politics during the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the Sudan or between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings five years ago, we have witnessed the collapse of the state system in a number of Arab countries. Many a historian and analyst have had their chance in recent weeks to ponder the legacy or legacies of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the other treaties and arrangements that led to the birth of the modern State system in the Middle East after the First World War. One clear conclusion is that many of those societies failed to develop modern state institutions, good and efficient governance based on fair representations of the components of those societies, a failure that led to the calamitous present in Syria, and Iraq ( the same can be said about Yemen and Libya)..When the uprisings failed to create alternative political structures, the brittle regimes in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen collapsed into chaos or civil wars. (a similar situation occurred in Iraq, with the failure of the invading power to create a functioning and fair governance). With the fears and uncertainties spawned by the collapse of order, particularly in heterogeneous societies, people fell back on their bedrock certainties and identities. When people are threatened as members of a community (a religious sect or an ethnic group) they tend to develop a strong sense of solidarity with other members of the group as a form of self-defense. The identity of the group is almost always exaggerated, and the threat is invariably described as existential. That is one reason why civil wars are the most passionate of wars. It is so because the combatants know each other, and because they have irreconcilable views and visions about their way of life, their future and their very own identity. Extreme identity politics reduce us to mere members of a large tribe.
The region is going through a historic convulsion that will last for years, maybe decades. But the raging sectarian wars and mounting ethnic tensions are recent and the product of power struggles, political decisions and events and not the result of “ancient hatreds”. The Sunni-Shiite wars are unprecedented because they are the product of the last few decades. The 1979 revolution in Iran was a milestone in modern Shi’a assertiveness. Sunni political Islam after suffering crushing blows by the Arab Nationalists in the 1950’s and 60’s began to reassert itself after the Arab defeat in the war with Israel in 1967 by claiming that the return to true Islam is the solution. The disastrous Iraqi decision to invade Iran was a huge blow to Sunni-Shiite coexistence, and it revived Arab-Persian enmity. In Syria, the ascendency of the Alawite minority (an offshoot of Shi’ism) to power and their control of the army and the security agencies deepened the rift with the Sunni majority. This situation led to a low intensity civil war beginning in 1978 and culminating in the massacre of Sunni rebels in the city of Hama in 1982. Finally the American invasion of Iraq, which empowered the Shiites who have been marginalized in the modern state of Iraq and oppressed as a community by the regime of Saddam Hussein, led to the most sectarian bloodletting between the two sects in modern times. The U.S. cannot mediate the Sunni-Shiite divide, but at least it should not pursue policies in Syria and Iraq that will make it irretrievably worse.
In the last fifty years, many groups in the region engaged in crass expressions of identity politics, and outright discourse of exclusion; this is true of Arabs and Jews, Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites and Christians and Muslims. Identity politics and practices have become the norms, even in cities like Alexandria, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad that were once cosmopolitan. Dissent against the prevailing orthodoxy of the tribe became prohibitive, particularly under autocratic regimes, where the state is unable or unwilling in most cases to help those who dare to challenge the discourse of identity politics. There are few dissenting Shiite and Sunni voices in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and other states were these two sects live, who would oppose publicly the course of the tribe.
Ironically, the digital age which allows the peoples of the region, particularly the youth tremendous opportunities to look beyond the confines of the tribe, to be informed instantly of events and trends, to be exposed to practical and theoretical knowledge, is in fact contributing to the atomization of the region and deepening the attachment to identity politics. Death by identity need not be the future of the region, but until the various tribes are exhausted, and until new uprisings emerge against the sins of both the in-group and the out-group, the scourge of extreme identity politics will continue to devour the region.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem