Why you should care
Because from the biggest messes come the newest maps.
The author was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000–2004 and currently teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Never in modern times has the Middle East been so chaotic. Many of us who have worked in the region have been comparing it — frighteningly — to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), during which many nations and groups battled each other over everything from territory to religion and commerce. When it was over, the European map had been completely redrawn and the rough outline of the state system we know today came into view.
A more modern analogy is the multidimensional complexity of solving a Rubik’s Cube. Or, perhaps, it’s most like a barroom brawl: it’s hard to be sure who started the fight, who is allied with whom, exactly what is at issue, who just changed sides, who is fighting vs. who is just observing, where your leverage is, and how to break it up.
Just to review the bidding, the Islamic State has established a nominal “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and Iraq, effectively erasing the border between the two countries established in WWI; Saudi Arabia and Iran both oppose the Islamic State, but other issues have them at each others’ throats via proxy wars in both Syria and Yemen. Wait, it continues: In Yemen, the Saudi-supported government has fallen to Iranian-backed rebels. On top of it all, Egypt is striking back militarily against extremists in Libya and has joined up with Saudi Arabia in Yemen against those Iranian rebels.
And that’s just the nation-states. Within the terrorist movement, nothing is certain; the complex offspring of al-Qaida are also jockeying for territory in both Syria and Yemen.
But it’s the entrée of Iran and Saudi Arabia — each of these two geopolitical behemoths facing off on opposing sides — that is the newest wrinkle. And when these countries, the leaders of the two religious factions — Shia and Sunni, respectively — are battling each other, the risk of escalation grows exponentially. All this is adding up to a conflict with five dimensions, at least: Arabs vs. Persians, terrorists vs. regimes, terrorists vs. each other, Sunnis vs. Shias, democracy vs. authoritarian. Not to mention Russia, the United States, China and Europe, often pursuing conflicting aims.
Anyone who confidently says they know where all of this ends is delusional. But here are a few tentative signposts:
Iraq will be — already is — broken. Haider al-Abadi’s government has tried valiantly to reunite Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, but to little avail, as Sunnis witness the growing influence of Shiite militia groups and Iran, as the Islamic State hangs on, and as the Kurds take on more of the fighting burden. It is very hard to imagine Iraq ever being whole again.
The U.S. will not be in control. The problem is now too large and complex to be resolved by some big negotiation that settles all the conflicts and brings the region into some new alignment. What we now see is what we can expect — shifting and odd alliances of convenience geared to specific interests. So get used to odd couplings like the U.S. having a shared goal with Iran — that of destroying the Islamic State; this shared interest stands alongside continued disagreements, as the U.S. will continue to oppose Iran in Yemen and Syria and, of course, persist in negotiating nuclear matters. These seeming contradictions are the realities of the “new normal.”
The nitty-gritty matters. Because the U.S. cannot exert broad control, we will need a strategy. A tentative list for such a plan should include: first and foremost, the destruction of the Islamic State, which almost certainly will require a greater commitment of U.S. “boots on the ground”; the security of Israel; the preservation of progressive monarchies such as Jordan; the stability of Saudi Arabia, still the region’s largest oil producer and home of Islam’s most holy sites; and a strong push for democracy as regimes shift.
We are not alone. Other major powers have strong Middle East interests, and we should be searching for common purpose with them. China gets 55 percent of its energy from the Middle East and has growing commercial interests; Russia has critical leverage with Syria, fears Islamic extremism, and has important trade relations with Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Algeria; Europe worries about extremist fighters returning home from the Islamic State, needs the region’s energy and has cultural ties dating to the colonial era. This may be the silver lining to the conflict’s complexity: a chance to leverage the many interests and voices at play.
Surely this diverse array of countries can agree on, at least, the need to discourage further escalation between the region’s major Shia power, Iran, and its major Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia. So far, their forces have not faced each other directly, but Saudi Arabia’s bombing in Yemen of facilities Iran uses to supply its Houthi clients is pushing the two nearer to such a confrontation.
Given the artificial nature of the Middle Eastern boundaries the British and French redrew in 1916, it was probably inevitable that pressures would build and eventually set off some conflagration. Greater order can, ironically, sometimes result exactly from such clashes between state and non-state actors, as it did in the Thirty Years’ War. That messy series of battles did produce a settlement bringing religious peace to Europe and establishing the principle of state sovereignty — the basis for today’s nation-state system.
But it did take 30 years.