There isn’t one war, the West versus Isis. Not even after last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris. There are layers of Middle Eastern conflicts, all linked to international intervention, of which the most intractable are heightened by the Sunni-Shia divide.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 established the world’s first officially Islamic regime, but being exclusively Shia, it resurrected memories of the age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia. On coming to power, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini demanded that the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina be managed collectively. In Saudi Arabia this demand was seen as an intolerable challenge. (A young Sunni jihadist, Khaled Kelkal, involved in bombings in France in 1995, said he thought “Shiism was invented by the Jews to divide Islam” (1).) Violence against Shia by Saudi Wahhabis is nothing new: in 1802 the sack of Karbala (now in Iraq) led to the destruction of Shia shrines and tombs including that of the Prophet’s son-in-law Hussein, and the killing of many of the city’s inhabitants.
This war of religion is now tearing apart Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. It surfaces sporadically in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In Malaysia, Shiism is officially banned. Around the world, indiscriminate bombings, some during pilgrimages, kill ten times as many Muslims as non-Muslims; the countries most affected are Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The umma (community of believers), which Salafist jihadis claim to defend, today covers a huge geographical area marked by numerous sectarian clashes. In this situation, it’s easy to see why Saudi Arabia is far quicker to use planes and ground troops to fight the Houthis in Yemen — whom they classify with the Shia — than to help the pro-Shia regime in Baghdad. It’s hard to see why the West should take sides, and how it can legitimise doing so.
The Kurds are at war to control their own destiny, especially in Turkey. The conflict began in the ruins of the Ottoman empire with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which divided Kurdistan among Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Rebellions in Turkish Kurdistan between 1925 and 1939 were crushed by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). Since the 1960s, all Kurdish uprisings in Turkey, Iraq and Iran have caused much bloodshed, to which the international community has appeared indifferent. Since 1984 this conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives in Turkey, where 3,000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed. The material damage is estimated at $84bn (2).
No one should be surprised that Turkey has allowed would-be jihadists to travel freely to join the main forces with which they identify — the Al-Nusra Front and so-called Islamic State (ISIS) — because these are fighting the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and the Syrian Kurds have very close links with Kurds in Turkey. The Turkish government considers the main threat to be the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classed as a terrorist group by the European Union and the US and so cannot receive western military aid. As the only NATO member in the region and the only country with the ability to change the military situation on the ground, Turkey has ended up joining the anti-ISIS coalition. But its resources are concentrated on renewed clashes with the PKK, and it disapproves of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds’ de facto independence.
A third conflict has divided rival Islamists since the Gulf war of 1990-1, and especially since the Arab uprisings of 2011. The best-known rivalry is between the Muslim Brotherhood (supported by Qatar) and the Salafists (supported by Saudi Arabia) in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. There is also a newer rivalry between Al-Qaida plus its franchises, and the followers of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the first months of 2014, ISIS overwhelmed the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, and 6,000 died (3). ISIS’s proclamation of a caliphate prompted many to rally to it, and the organisation now draws fighters from a hundred countries. By naming Al-Baghdadi as its principal enemy, the West has firmly steered would-be jihadists towards him.
Finally, Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad is fighting many opponents in a war that has killed 250,000 and created millions of refugees.
Shades of the colonial era
The battle the West is waging looks like a new episode in a much older war, which tries to justify itself historically in a way that is intolerable to people in the region. The conflict goes back to the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the division of the region between France and Britain after the fall of the Ottoman empire. It relates to the policies of Winston Churchill, who, as British secretary of state for war, had Kurdish towns and villages razed (and bombed with mustard gas) and two-thirds of the Kurdish inhabitants of Sulaymaniyah killed, and violently repressed Iraqi Shias between 1921 and 1925. It recalls the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-8, in which the West and the Soviet Union supported the attacker, Iraq, and imposed an embargo on the victim, Iran. Barack Obama is now the fourth US president to order airstrikes in Iraq, already wounded by 23 years of western military strikes. After the US-led invasion, between 2003 and 2011, nearly 120,000 civilians died (4). In 2006 the medical journal The Lancet estimated 655,000 deaths due to the war, with 500,000 caused by the international embargo between 1991 and 2002. Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright told CBS in 1996 the embargo had been “worth it”.
Is the West intervening against ISIS to defend humanist principles? This seems doubtful, given that Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, all part of the alliance, punish criminals with decapitation, stoning and amputation. Is it to defend freedom of religion? Nobody dares demand this from Saudi Arabia, where a court of appeal recently condemned a Palestinian poet to death for apostasy (5). Is it to prevent massacres? Arab public opinion does not believe this after 1,900 were killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza with little reaction from the West, while the beheading of three westerners decided the West to launch airstrikes on northern Iraq. A Salafist website commented: “A thousand dead in Gaza, and they do nothing; three westerners with their throats cut, and they send in the army.”
Is it about oil? Most of the region’s hydrocarbons go to Asian countries, none of them in the coalition. If it is to stop the flow of refugees, it cannot be right that the super-rich Gulf states do not take any. Is it to protect human rights by defending Saudi Arabia? The Riyadh regime has recently sentenced Ali al-Nimr, a young Shia demonstrator, to be beheaded and crucified, after which his body will be exposed publicly until it rots (6).
The military contradictions are even more obvious. So far, only western aircraft have bombed ISIS. The US has deployed nearly 400, France around 40 as part of Operation Chammal, involving its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (7). Saudi Arabia has around 400 combat jets but only 15 or so are engaged in Iraq, the same number as those from the Netherlands and Denmark together. In Yemen, nearly 100 Saudi planes are taking part in airstrikes by the coalition of 10 Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia against the (Shia) Houthis. Ten against the Shia in Yemen, and only five against ISIS is a strange imbalance. Saudi Arabia has mobilised all its forces against the Houthis, rather than against Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (of which Cherif Kouachi, author of the attack onCharlie Hebdo in Paris, claimed to be a member). Former CIA director David Petraeus called AQAP the most dangerous affiliate of Al-Qaida; it has taken control of Aden, Yemen’s second city.
ISIS has achieved three strategic aims. First, it appears as the defender of oppressed Sunnis in Syria and Iraq; 90% of its victims are Muslims and it claims that the victims of its bombing attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan are mainly Shia, followed by “bad Muslims” (particularly Sufis), representatives of Arab regimes and, finally, members of religious minorities or westerners.
Second, ISIS has managed to delegitimise Al-Qaida and its local branch in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front. Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has demanded that Al-Baghdadi should place himself under his authority, a symptom of impotence. The number of defectors from jihadist groups in 13 countries is an indication of the new dynamic created by ISIS.
Third, ISIS has managed to become number one enemy of the West, which has launched a campaign that the jihadi propagandists easily present as a crusade. US-led Operation Inherent Resolve involves 12 NATO members plus Australia, and the renewed alliance with Russia will further strengthen the “Christian front” character that Internet propaganda is so quick to exploit. According to an online petition signed by 53 Saudi clerics, Russian airstrikes have been chiefly aimed at “fighters in the holy war in Syria [...] defending the Muslim nation as a whole.” If those fighters are beaten, “the countries of Sunni Islam will all fall, one after another” (8).
Saudi Arabia’s military counter-strategy is unambiguously founded on the struggle against the Shia. Like other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, it cannot position ISIS as the principal threat without risking popular opposition at home. The Saudi military intervention in Bahrain in 2012 aimed to break the mainly Shia republican protest movement threatening the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy. In Yemen, Operation Decisive Storm, launched this March, aims to reinstate President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, who was ousted by the Houthi rebellion. Saudi Arabia is not about to use ground troops against ISIS when it has 150,000 deployed on the border with Yemen.
ISIS’s next goal should be to establish the religious legitimacy of its “caliph”, who gives himself the grand name of Ibrahim al-Muminim (commander of the faithful, a title from the Abbasid era) Abu Bakr (after Islam’s first caliph) al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi (after the Prophet’s tribe). This puts ISIS into direct competition with the other power that claims to head the umma and represent Islam — Saudi Arabia — and it’s likely that once the Shia zones have been captured, the “caliph” will set his sights on that country.
Yet more refugees
What will the consequences be for Europe? After Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians, it will soon see the arrival of Yemeni refugees. Yemen has a larger population than Syria and its nationals can’t flee to neighbouring countries, all members of the coalition bombing it. Since 2004 the war in Yemen has created 340,000 internally displaced persons, 15% of them living in camps, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Yemen also hosts 246,000 refugees from other countries, 95% of them Somali. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council did not accept Syrian refugees and are not likely to accept Yemenis, whose only remaining option will be Europe.
It is easier to understand why the alliance is conducting a war without a clear strategic objective. Each of the allies is fighting another member of the alliance. The interventions in Iraq, Syria, Mali and Afghanistan are like treating a spreading cancer — the Salafist cancer that originated in the Gulf states, which are protected by the western powers. Can ISIS now be destroyed without strengthening other jihadist movements, the Assad regime or Iran? The war will be long, and impossible to win, for no regional ally will be prepared to commit ground troops and risk its own interests.
The western strategy based on airstrikes and training local fighters has failed in Syria and Iraq, as it did in Afghanistan. This shows the exogenous character of European and US objectives in the internal crises of the Arab-Muslim world. The greater the military engagement, the greater the risk of terrorism before an inevitable, devastating confrontation between ISIS and Saudi Arabia. Is this really our war?
by Pierre Conesa