For close to four centuries, both Iraq and Syria, and most other parts of the Middle East, were part of the Ottoman Empire. The breakup of the empire in the wake of the Ottoman defeat in the First World War opened up the region to direct European occupation in the form of 'Mandates' sanctioned by the League of Nations. The existing political boundaries in most countries of the region go back to this period, before which Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine had existed primarily as cultural and geographical zones with only amorphous boundaries.
Indeed, none of these countries had ever existed in their present form and shape, which were determined by the imperial needs of the twin Mandate powers, France and Britain. The cultural, religious, and ethnic identities of the people of the region were often ignored in this process. What has kept these countries united and has prevented their boundaries from being redrawn in the last seventy years or so is mainly the presence of authoritarian and militarized regimes backed largely by the United States and other western powers. The weakening of these regimes and the decline of American influence and interest in the region have emboldened various kinds of forces wanting to change the status quo.
It is clear in retrospect that the American invasion of Iraq leading to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the apparent establishment of a democratic regime was not only bad in international law and ethics, as was asserted by the critics of George W Bush, but also in geopolitics. The destabilization of the entire Middle East ultimately owes very substantially to this American intervention.
Democracy is often assumed to be a panacea for the myriad ills of societies. What is conveniently ignored is that in a society not prepared for it in terms of its historical evolution and the presence of suitable systems and institutions, democracy can easily descend into majoritarianism and fanaticism. In most countries of the Middle East, it is the non-democratic, repressive regimes that have been secular and had for long checked the rise and expansion of fundamentalism. Interestingly, the introduction of democracy, or the effort to do so, has helped the fundamentalist forces in Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Gaza and elsewhere. The choice in the Middle East as of now is not between democracy and authoritarianism, but between destabilizing Islamism and secular- authoritarian stability The ISIS is at once a product of the region's history as well as of more recent developments. In trying to establish a Caliphate straddling the Sunni-majority areas of both Iraq and Syria, it threatens to re-divide the region along sectarian lines. An offshoot of the Al Qaeda, it is far more ambitious in its objectives and brutal in its methods. The Syrian civil war whose ostensible aim was the overthrow of the Assad regime taps into the oldest divide within Islam, that of the Shias and Sunnis. The fight against Assad regime had sectarian colors almost from the beginning, and drew in the neighbouring countries in support or opposition.
Many Sunni powers of the region have given moral and material support to the rebels, and that has helped them sustain their fight for so long. The increasing influence of Wahabism in many of these countries has been a main factor behind the deepening sectarian divide in the region. Whereas the Caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is nothing more than a farce, the Shia-Sunni divide is real, and can easily get out of hand to the detriment of the region and the world.
The failure of the Nouri Al Maliki regime in Iraq to evolve as a democracy and to accommodate the Sunni minority which constitutes 20 percent of the population of the country has helped the ISIS gain ground in the Sunni- dominated areas of Iraq. It should be remembered, however, that the ISIS does not enjoy any large-scale sustainable support among the Sunnis of Iraq.
The ouster of Maliki should help the consolidation of Iraqi forces against the ISIS, which is a threat not only for peace and stability in the region, but also for the world in general and India in particular. There are disturbing reports of radicalized youth from many parts of the world, including India, fighting on the side of the ISIS. Though small in numbers, these zealots represent a trend that can easily assume threatening proportions.
While the long-term factors leading to violence and instability in the region can only be addressed over time, the defeat of the ISIS with its nefarious agenda must be a priority for all concerned. The Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia must realize that ISIS can easily become a double edged sword. They must actively condemn and oppose it in the larger interest of peace and stability in the region.
In so far as military intervention is concerned, a broader coalition effort may be required. The much -belated US airstrikes and American support for the Kurdish army in northern Iraq is simply not enough to defang ISIS. The world will have to realize that staying away from the current conflict in the Middle East and hoping for things to settle down on their own will not work. No less unrealistic is the hope to achieve results by half-hearted interventions. What is required is an unflinching commitment to defeat the ISIS.
Ravikant Mishra is a professional historian and long-time watcher of political developments in West Asia. He can be reached at email@example.com
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