Armageddon in the Middle East
The recent developments in Iraq have once again called the state borders of the Middle East into question. In reality, the initial signs for change came with the end of the Cold War, accelerated with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and took a decisive turn with the extension of the Arab Spring into Syria. Every instance since the end of the Cold War has altered the precious Cold War-era balance of power in the region.
The fuse for the latest upsurge in Iraq was lit during the U.S. occupation with its earlier decision of excluding all Baathist-related (thus most of the Sunni) personnel from the civilian and military bureaucracy in new Iraq. As a result, the U.S. had to work more closely with the Shiite Arabs and Kurds in establishing the new state apparatus, which led, in the long run, to the alienation of Sunnis and thus radicalization and frequent uprisings. The last widespread uprising of radical Sunni groups in 2006 was only suppressed by the U.S. “surge” policy, under which 21,500 additional American troops were deployed to Iraq.
The Arab Spring and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 have prepared the ground for recent sectarian killings. The power vacuum left behind by the U.S. withdrawal and the sectarian policies of the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq further alienated Sunni tribes and militant groups, allowing them to edge closer toward extremist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The absence of a powerful central government and the emergence of a power vacuum in neighboring Syria will help these organizations flourish.
The Syrian civil war has provided both a safe-haven and wider connection for ISIL to strengthen itself. By focusing on Syria for the last two years, it received financial and military support from various regional countries, while its unsavory tactics and senseless executions resulted in a break with al-Qaeda in February 2014.
As the situation in Syria gravitated towards a stalemate, ISIL refocused on Iraq and took control of Ramadi and Fallujah, an hour drive from Baghdad, in January 2014. The group recently took control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and Tikrit last week. They are now pushing toward Baghdad. Both the sudden collapse of the Iraqi army, which left Mosul defenseless and the massacre of hundreds of Shia soldiers spread fear among Iraqi Shiites. It also paved the way for the Kurdish peshmerga to take control over the long disputed city of Kirkuk, which in the words of Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), might enable Kurds to reach their long-desired objective of declaring independence.
Although ISIL are in the headlines due to their brutality, what makes this latest uprising more important is that this time, most of the other Sunni groups and tribes have aligned themselves with these militias. As a result, al-Maliki has lost most of his legitimacy. It is also complicated by the clear unwillingness of the U.S. to send ground troops once again to Iraq to prop up the regime, which ignored its advice to avoid sectarian and autocratic policies and to construct a national identity.
The crisis in Iraq is likely to pose a serious threat for both regional and international actors. Pandora’s Box is open once again with jihadists all around the world, including from Europe, rushing to Iraq to join into the fray, leaving Iraq, yet again, on the edge of being divided into three parts. This eventuality would not be the end of the problems in the region, rather a mid-point that would undoubtedly come afterwards: More flame to sectarian divisions and hatred, resulting in more killings and utter chaos engulfing several countries in addition to Iraq and Syria.