Landon Shroder provides a lowdown on the modern Middle East.
The Middle East has exploded into an elaborate vortex of aerial campaigns, proxy wars and shifting alliances. Unless you are an expert on international affairs, it is almost impossible to get a balanced opinion on what is happening throughout the region — especially with the salvo of commentary coming from the media.
Nevertheless, as the spring months will contain an excess of cocktail parties and happy hours, it is incumbent upon us to speak intelligently about these things. Therefore, I give you the first-ever “Conversationalist Guide to the Modern Middle East.” A pithy collection of talking points, which will help you astonish your friends, colleagues and lovers at any social event where alcohol might be present.
Please feel free to claim any (or all) of these points as your own.
“I Drew This Gallant Head of War” — The State of Affairs in the Middle East
The Middle East is currently on fire, there is no disputing this. Years of foreign policy successes and failures are coming to fruition between ally and enemy alike, blurring the line between the two. While this might make the region appear desperately complex, it is also exposing the planning and strategies of each country involved. Remember, foreign policy is a game of strategic calculus, a contest of brinkmanship between nations where the outcome is sometimes entirely unpredictable — regardless of how logical things might initially appear.
And because of this unpredictability, some countries have now reached a point where threats, once thought existential, have moved into the realm of the very tangible. This is a dangerous state of affairs, especially in the modern Middle East where “perception is power” reigns supreme. The confluence of regional events is now forcing countries into confrontation with one another in ways once thought unthinkable, even six months ago.
“Hang Out Our Banners on the Outward Walls” — The Islamic State
It is hard to see how the Islamic State can be defeated militarily or ideologically, unless the sectarian landscape of the Middle East drastically transforms. A policy of containment, unfortunately, seems to be the most effective solution in the short- to medium-term. This is a hard fact to accept, especially for those living under the sadism of the Islamic State, but unless the region comes together, things are unlikely to change.
For the Islamic State to survive, however, it must continue to wage war. Once it is obliged to administer its own territories as a functional state, it will implode under the weight of its own brutality. The recent ban on mobile phone usage in Mosul, punishable by having a hand removed, probably confirms this even further.
While the territory of the Islamic State is being reduced due to various military interventions, its ideological gains are currently expanding. Social media has broadened access to the kinds of death-cult propaganda appealing to those who are susceptible to radicalization. There is an inverse relationship to this, though: As physical territory is lost, global terrorism with ideological links to the Islamic State will grow. Paris, Tunis, Sydney and Copenhagen are all symptomatic of this situation. Until there is an information campaign that can counter the kinds of propaganda perfected by the Islamic State, this will remain the new status quo.
“The Fire-Eyed Maid of Smoky War” — Iraq
Without the US invasion of Iraq, there would almost certainly be no Islamic State. The irony of this has not been lost on anyone, especially the Islamic State, since its leadership nucleus consists of former army officers dismissed by the US Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003.
Nonetheless, Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister, shares some if not an equal portion of the blame that led to the success of the Islamic State. His enfranchisement of Shiite interests, at the expense of Sunni interests, set the security conditions the Islamic State so easily exploited — leading to the collapse of the Iraqi army and losing the US government a sobering $25 billion military investment in the process.
Contrary to the popular belief, the only solution to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq is political. No amount of bombs, bullets and dead terrorists can remedy the circumstances that have fueled this insurgency.
However, almost one year after the takeover of Mosul, political solutions to empower marginalized communities remain in short supply. Iraq is now a society entirely mobilized for war with every sectarian demographic arming themselves in defense of their own communities. How can there be any confidence for long-term reconciliation when the ministers for interior and transportation also happen to be members of the largest Shiite militia in Iraq? Because of this, Iraq will inevitably federalize into three parts: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiite in the south.
“He That is Truly Dedicated to War” — Iran
It would be hard to find any astute practitioner of foreign policy that has not been somewhat impressed with the capabilities of Iran since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 — some more begrudgingly than others.
Iran has played a seriously clever long game, which has seen its influence become indispensable in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Yemen. This has only been strengthened by Iran’s tactical shrewdness in fighting the Islamic State. From a certain perspective, this has legitimized Iranian foreign policy and thrown regional geopolitics into a tailspin, which was clearly the objective all along.
Much to the dismay of Republican presidential candidates, it has also given Iran strategic depth to maneuver around the region and keep Saudi Arabia, its great opponent, on edge. And by drawing Saudi Arabia into a proxy conflict in Yemen, Iran has limited the scope of its foreign policy abroad, while at the same time provoking internal instability at home (seriously clever).
Then there is the nuclear deal — as if everyone in the United States somehow forgot there are also five other countries involved in the negotiations. The primary motivation for Iran to reduce its nuclear ambitions was not the threat of military force, but simple economics. As it became obvious in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria during the Arab Spring, countries that cannot meet the economic needs of their populations soon get the proverbial “boot.” With half the population under 35, the ruling mullahs in Iran probably recognized that crushing international sanctions are not in their long-term self-interest. And with the world’s third largest proven oil and gas reserves, Iran is on its way to becoming the next economic powerhouse of the Middle East.
“Sit Laurel Victory! And Smooth Success” — Yemen
Links between Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Iranians are almost certainly exaggerated. Some connections exist, but they have been overstated by the Saudis to justify their military adventurism. This is unfortunate, since there does not seem to be any real objective beyond dropping bombs against groups who do not seem overly impressed. Without shaping a political narrative for what might come after, the Saudis are about to commit strategic suicide. More so if the only goal is to restore disposed Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who lacks any real support at home.
Iran, for the most part, has been content to watch events unfold, limiting its response to the usual outrange that bounces around the rhetorical echo chamber. Yemen might be an added bonus, but Iran will not jeopardize its position in Iraq and Syria or the nuclear deal to support the Houthis.
More concerning is the growing influence of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Both groups thrive and metastasize in ungoverned spaces like Yemen. Just to add a sadly satirical twist, the Houthi rebels, who have traditionally fought against AQAP and the Islamic State, can no longer do so because of the Saudi-led aerial campaign against them. These terror networks will soon creep into the conflict, which will reduce any legitimate political concerns to mere factional and sectarian disputes, making the conflict intractable.
On a more somber note, it will not be long before the images of condemned men, clad in the orange jumpsuit used by the Islamic State, start appearing in videos from Yemen.
“The Other to Enjoy by Rage and War” — Republicans and Israel
Republicans seem to have only two viewpoints on the modern Middle East: undying support for Israel and hostility toward Iran (there might be more, but they will probably include something to do with war). Both of these things are obviously connected, although the reasons are less interesting than one might suspect.
The Obama administration has had some significant foreign policy failures: pulling out of Iraq in 2011 and not enforcing “red lines” in Syria. However, the administration has to be balanced against aggressive policies on drone strikes, fighting the Islamic State, expansion of the surveillance state and surging troops in Afghanistan. Most of these are positions taken by neoconservatives which, when co-opted by the president, leaves Republicans with almost no foreign policy of their own — except cantankerous bickering over Israel and Iran.
Israel, on the other hand, has refined the manipulation of US foreign policy into a science. Always playing on the customary fear of Muslims to gather support for positions clearly not in the best interests of the United States. The alarm created by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over the nuclear negotiations with Iran was a perfect example of this. This was not about the threat of some fiery nuclear apocalypse, but about drawing attention away from settlement expansion into Palestinian land and providing cover for economic discontent during an election year.
Israel is rapidly moving toward pariah status. The appalling treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, along with an inability to advance a two-state solution, has left the Israelis with few allies outside the US. And even now, that welcome is wearing thin. Despite this, the upcoming US presidential election in 2016 will likely be a total Israel love-fest.
“O War! Thou Son of Hell” — Syria
In all seriousness, the conflict in Syria remains the great tragedy of the international community. Syria has been ground zero for the disintegration of the colonial Middle East and the birth of the modern Middle East. Officially, there are close to 3 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced, which means there is an entire generation of people who are versed in the skills and realities of war.
This leaves almost no opportunity for conflict resolution, but it provides ample opportunity to reinforce the cycle of violence that has ripped Syria apart and defined the future of the modern Middle East. Reconciling the various factions, at this point, into some kind of power-sharing agreement will be next to impossible. The levels of violence have been too severe to build any kind of framework that might end hostilities in their current form.
Last but not least, there is still the Islamic State to contend with. A group that has no intention of negotiating with anyone, let alone a government it views as apostate. The border that used to separate Iraq and Syria remains almost nonexistent, with the territory reverting back to the pre-colonial boundaries of the early 20th century. Unless the world powers can implement a policy to address Syria and Iraq as one continuous battlefield, there is little hope that the Islamic State can be defeated militarily.
“Our Battle is More Full of Names Than Yours”
There you have it, the first-ever “Conversationalist Guide to the Modern Middle East.” Due to the pace of events in the region, I would encourage you to make use of these points as soon as possible. In all likelihood, everything will have changed by next week, rendering most of the points in this article null and void. Until that happens, enjoy and feel free to email me if you have any questions, comments or snide remarks.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.