Permanent crisis in West Asia

Permanent crisis in West Asia   — Stanly Johny

“What is beyond debate is that Iraq today is less violent, more
democratic and more prosperous than at any time in recent history,” 
Antony Blinken, then deputy assistant to President Barack Obama, said in a speech on
March 16, 2012. Blinken, who later became the President’s deputy national
security adviser, was echoing the White House’s optimism about the prospects of
Iraq after most US troops withdrew from that country— an optimism that did not
last long.

Less than two years later, today’s Iraq is as violent and sectarian as
it had ever been under Saddam Hussein, the dictator overthrown by the American
invasion over a decade ago. The current government of Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki is struggling to fight off a new wave of trans-border Sunni
militancy. Recently, the al Qaeda group, 
Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), took control of two Iraqi cities – Fallujah and Ramadi.
Suicide attacks are a daily affair. According to the UN, more than 8,000 Iraqis
were killed in terror attacks in 2013, the highest number since

In the neighbouring Syria,
where a bloody civil war is raging for the past three years, radical Islamists,
including ISIS, are becoming increasingly
powerful. In Syria’s
neighbour Lebanon,
al Qaeda-linked militants are stepping up their operations. In November, the
local al Qaeda affiliate conducted a suicide bombing at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. In Libya,
the North African country “liberated” from the dictatorship of Moammer Gadhafi
by NATO troops, militia gangs are ruling from the streets. To put it
differently, more than a decade after the US
invaded Iraq in the name of
making the world “safer”, radical Islamists are on the rise not only in Iraq,
but in a wider region. 

Mother of all Instability
Saddam Hussein called the first Iraq war “the mother of all
battles”. But his description would suit better for the second Iraq
war of 2003. US
president George W. Bush’s invasion changed the overall balance of power and
destabilised many countries in the region. After the fall of Hussein’s Ba’athist
regime, the Americans were unable to fill up the vacuum it created. The Shias,
who make up majority of Iraqi population but were subjected to large-scale
oppression under Hussein’s rule, were the natural benefactors of the situation.
Shia-dominated political parties emerged victorious in the late 2005
parliamentary elections.

But for a country torn by a war, continuing foreign occupation and
increasing sectarian tensions, elections were hardly a solution to the multiple
problems it was facing. Several Sunni outfits, which were already fighting the
American occupation, were suspicious of the rise of the Shias, and the support
they got from neighbouring Iran,
a Shia theocratic state whose regional ambitions are hardly a secret. In no
time, the sectarian tension in Iraq
turned into a civil war-like situation in which innocent people from both
communities were targeted.

At the regional level, the formation of a Shia-dominated Government in Baghdad emboldened Iran’s position in the region. But
this has upset Saudi Arabia.
When Iran extended its
influence in Iraq
through the Maliki government, its Sunni rivals did the same through their
proxies in the country. The result was unprecedented sectarian bloodshed, which
bred militant groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq.      

Syrian Theatre
If the Iraq war set
the stage for a new phase of Iran-Saudi rivalry, the crisis in Syria
intensified it. Syria has
long been an ally of Iran.
Its ruling elite are from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
When protests erupted against the Syrian government in 2011, the Sunni Gulf
countries immediately sensed an opportunity. They spent billions in shoring up
the Sunni opposition in Syria.
Protests soon turned into an armed rebellion.

Iran strongly backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia-cum-political movement, sent troops
across the border to fight alongside Assad’s troops. On the other side, Saudi Arabia, Qatar,
Jordan and Turkey all backed different rebel
factions. The US, France and the UK also sent both lethal and
non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Though these countries extended support
for the rebels in the name of Syrian people, the move had underlying
geopolitical calculations. Both the West and the Arab countries expected Iran
to weaken once Assad is gone.  

But who actually gained from the Syrian mess is the radical Islamists.
With support flowing in from wealthy Arab monarchies and the government at Damascus weakened by the
civil war, extremists in the region found a new cause and opportunity to
regroup themselves. According to 
Sarah Birke, the Middle East correspondent of The Economist, Abu Bakr
al-Baghdadi, the leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq,
sent foot soldiers in January 2012 to Syria to found Jabhat al-Nusra with
the aim of creating a new transnational Islamic state.

Over the following year, al-Nusra steadily gained strength. Gulf
countries, mainly Saudi
Arabia, are reportedly supporting these
extremists. While the other opposition groups, incoherent and corrupt, failed
to build a credible fighting force against Assad’s troops, al-Nusra presented
themselves to the youth of Syria’s
war-torn regions as the Islamist alternative to Assad’s regime. Translational
jihadis, mainly travelled into Syria
through the porous borders it shares with Iraq
and Turkey,
joined hands with them, strengthening radical bloc among the Syrian rebels.
After gathering momentum for his brand of politics, in April 2013, Baghdadi regrouped
al Qaeda in Iraq as the
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,
coordinating operations in both countries. The ISIS quickly turned to a potent
force in the region, much like the Taliban rose in Afghanistan during the mujahidin
days. ISIS now wants to erase the border
between the two countries and crave out a territory to run their jihadi

Wars that Never End
As Adam Shatz wrote in London Review Books recently, the Iraq
war “never really ended”. It just spilled into Syria.
The forces unleashed by George W. Bush’s disastrous war were beyond even the
imperial clutches of the US. The Obama
administration added to the chaos by invading Libya
and siding with the rebels in Syria. 

Look at today’s West Asia. The
Americans are backing the Shia-dominated government in Iraq,
which is supporting the Assad government in Syria.
The US wants Assad gone, a goal it shares with
the radical Islamists in Syria. Iran is backing Assad, but is negotiating a nuclear deal
with the Americans. Saudi Arabia doesn’t like
the Iran deal, but is the strongest Arab ally
of the US. The militants America
loathes are getting support from its Gulf allies. It’s a complex interplay of
multiple factors, which are at war with each other. In other words, it’s
permanent crisis in the West Asia.

Dr Stanly Johny is the Assistant Editor in The Hindu Business Line