What we see now in the Middle East is the gathering of all the necessary conditions of a perfect storm. The conflicting wills of multiple regional players has reached a level of antagonism that threatens to inflame the heavily charged atmosphere. Attempts to impose this or that party’s will through the use of asymmetric warfare is reaching a stalemate and hence, is threatening to move suddenly from the current state of quantitative escalation to a higher level. The lack of any serious attempt on the horizon to reconcile the conflicting agendas could start this fireball careening downhill.
Until now, asymmetric warfare was the preferred weapon. Al Quds brigades rushed to Syria and Iraq to confront Arab assisted groups or revolting Sunnis. Hezbollah sent troops to Syria and fought armed Sunni organizations in Lebanon. Iraq’s Shias sent militias to confront ISIL and punish Arab Sunnis who may have supported it. Yemen looks to be on the edge of disaster while Libya has already fallen over it sometime ago. The Turks are stunned by the continuous rise of the Kurds and are trying to figure out the impact of the rise of ISIL.
In all the scenes of this bloody picture, we detect scattered manifestations of a region disintegrating and up for grabs. This is the main organizing principle for thinking about what is really happening in the Middle East: up for grabs. And that implies that regional powers are the natural invitees to the party, and minor national players will be categorized according to their regional loyalties.
The rise of Shia-Sunni rift must be understood in that context. After all, there have always been Shia and Sunni in the Middle East. Why the sectarian hatred erupted only now?
Each of the regional powers is trying to use every possible means at its disposal. It is a waste of time to try to examine the “legitimacy” of every claim echoed in the rubble. Sunnis in Syria were subjected to brutal vengeance by the regime of Bashar Al Assad. But Al Assad was going to be as brutal if the revolt was Alawi. Only Nouri Al Maliki in Iraq behaved in a conscious sectarian manner. But even that has its political reasons: the fear of the return of the Baath party and the claim by Sunnis of the presidential palace.
Yet, that does not change anything in the actual descent into regional war. If the collapse of the national immune systems in several countries in the region invited regional powers to fill the gap, the current course of events points to one fact: the stalemate in the proxy war invites an escalation, and the next stop in this escalation is regular war.
And the region is generous in providing candidates to be the potential sparks for this process. The Israeli-Lebanese front. Iran sending forces to Iraq or escalating its support to Al Assad. The Huthis blocking the Bab Al Mandab strait or perceived to be threatening to do so. Explosions in Saudi Arabia attributed to Iraqi Shia militias regardless of the authenticity of the claim. The Turks entering Northern Syria and claiming it has always been Ottoman territory. Skirmishes on Egyptian-Libyan borders, or Saudi-Yemeni borders, or any borders remaining. Terrorist attacks in North Africa or on oil routs in the Gulf.
We have learned that when the forest is too dry we are likely to see a fire. It does not matter much what or who will cause it. But the writing is on all the walls in the Middle East.
What to do? The historical accumulation of factors that can trigger decomposition is mind-boggling indeed. It is as if we are all challenged by history to try to sort out this impossible mess. Well, it is too complex to be sorted out and too big to be allowed to fall. The only remaining path is to try to arrest the deterioration, to stabilize the situation, and to get the level of this “crisis–like–no—other” to a manageable one. All regional parties should understand that further escalation will bring about the wrath of the international community and that there is a horizon for settling the confrontation peacefully through international efforts. This understanding must be followed by a real international balanced initiative that targets opening a dialogue between the regional powers and some of the national players.
Those who will volunteer recommendations such as, “it is not our mess,” “it does not affect the international community,” “let them fight it out,” “it has nothing to do with our interests,” should save us this rubbish. And those who think in terms of old ties and micro issues should also step aside. Things will change. And if left alone, they will change for the worst by far, though it is difficult to imagine there is something even worse than what we see. War in the Middle East is getting closer by the day. It will just take a sparkle to ignite this mess. Something should be done to stop this madness before it is too late.