there is no tunnel

Pity the peoples of the Middle East.

There is no end in sight for the barbaric turmoil that has engulfed their region since 2011.

The FP magazine recently ran a piece with the question that is on everyone’s mind :   What Comes After ISIS? Foreign policy experts and political scientists tried to outline various possible scenarios. All predicted more trouble ahead. And sadly, I think they are all right.

The imminent defeat of ISIS on the battlefield will not mean the end of its atavistic and nihilistic ideology. Daesh will most likely disperse or mutate, the hydra of Islamism may very well father yet some new monsters.

Not all the militants will be captured or killed. Far from it. Many will either flee to other lawless corners in Asia or Africa to set up another “mini-caliphate”, or lay low for a while before they mutate or re-join Al-Qaeda.

But that is not the only problem. The end of this bloody round will signal the start of a new chapter in the ongoing breaking and remaking of the Levant — by no means less unpredictable, violent or chaotic.

The reasons is simple : the war in Syria is several wars in one : national, regional and international. It’s political (in the narrow sense of the word), sectarian (Shia/Sunni) and ethnic (Turks/Kurd/Arabs). The international one transcends these and complicates them further.

It started as a conflict between the regime and its people, that quickly (and inevitably) became entangled in a regional power struggle, then morphed into ethnic and sectarian strife. It finally became an international crisis with the influx of Syrian refuges to Europe, and more so when both Russia and USA threw their weights behind rival factions.

For the time being all seemed to be on the same side of the barricade fighting Daesh : The Syrian regime, the Russians, the Turks, the Iranians, the Kurds and the American-led coalition. But that is about to come to an end as Daesh is being chased out of Iraq and eventually Syria.

But they fought to achieve different goals, as Robert Malley of the ICG wrote in the FP piece :

“For Turkey, what mattered was the fight against Kurds, and for Kurds a self-determination struggle; for Saudi Arabia and Iran, their regional contest took priority; within the Sunni Arab world, competition between the more Islamist (Qatar and Turkey) and the less so (Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) was viewed as existential; among Iraqis, a sectarian and ethnic race for post-conflict spoils had pride of place. The counter-Islamic State campaign always served as an imperfect cover for regional conflicts and contradictions. With the Islamic State increasingly in the rearview mirror, these will be laid bare.”

And they are already. A new fault line is emerging most probably in eastern Syria and along its border with Iraq. Once Daesh’s capital Raqqah has fallen, who will be the first to move in to fill the emerging vacuum. Neither Israel nor the US would want to see Iran and its Shia proxies extend its control over Syria.

The scramble has already started, with the US already trying to establish a stronger military presence there. Could this eventually lead to the much feared confrontation between Iran and Israel, which had said it will not stand idly by and watch Iran extend its military presence in Syria. Neither will the Saudis and their Gulf allies – the tiny rogue state of Qatar being the exception.

In Iraq, the old fault lines between the Shia dominated government and disenfranchised Sunnis are remerging amid growing fears that the circumstances that facilitated the birth of Daesh could fuel renewed conflict between Iraq’s components. Add to this the Kurds in the north are hell bent upon pursuing their own agenda of independence as they plan to hold a referendum later this year on that deeply divisive and controversial dream. The disputed city of Kirkuk (is it Kurdish or Arab or both, and the fate of Turkmen minority there is also at stake) could become the new flashpoint between the Arabs, the Kurds and the Turks.

And poor Egypt, with gargantuan security and economic problems of its own, is being sucked   into the sectarian conflict between Iran and its Gulf neighbours. And although it has sought to pursue a different foreign policy on Syria fearing the collapse of the Assad regime would empower the Muslim Brothers, but the Sisi regime wants to be seen on the side of the Saudis and their allies simply because it needs the financial backing of the Gulf states.

Not to forget its precarious political situation. Its new/old rulers, with a military man at the top, seem to have learnt little from the recent past –genuine consensus (not rubber stamp parliaments) and participatory politics is the best guarantee for stability and prosperity, not coercion, which will most likely backfire as it has done before.

Libya is the powderkeg it has been since the removal of Gaddafi six years ago. And like Syria it has become the focus of a larger power struggle. The Islamists – backed up by Turkey and Qatar –control Tripoli and its environs. The anti-Islamist half, which is backed up by Egypt and the UAE –is in control of some cities in the centre and the eastern half of the country, where the legitimate parliament is located. In reality, neither side is fully in control. The threat of Daesh-affiliated groups is never far off. International efforts to put the country back together have floundered.

No one can predict where and when this misery and mayhem will come to an end. No light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel. Rather than a distant shimmer somewhere on the horizon, at times the chaos and intractability of the conflicts eclipse the tunnel itself.

One thing is certain though, the misnomer of the “Arab spring” has exposed the societies of the region as woefully unequipped to resolve peacefully social and political conflict – that which we otherwise call democracy. That puts into question the wisdom of plunging societies deeply anchored in patriarchal and religious values,  with high levels of illiteracy and obscurantist religion (another name for deeply held superstitious beliefs) into ballot-ocracy – the result is inevitably catastrophic as the experience of Egypt has clearly shown, and Iraq is a living example of that disaster.

The past six years have underlined the failure of the post-colonial state in the ME. Despite more than half a century of independence the tribal or sectarian identity has trumped the power of the state. It’s modern institutions are at best fragile or tribalised and in most cases not fit for purpose.

Even Turkey which was once hailed as a model for the happy marriage between Islamic values and democracy has proven all the well-wishers wrong. Erdogan’s despotic ways should lay all these illusions to rest : there is no such a thing as moderate Islamism. Islamism inevitably lead to despotism in the name of Sharia and the Koran.

Overall, the only forces capable of effective action in the ME — mobilising, organising and getting anything done are either those of the oppressive state (or its proxies : the tribe, the kleptocracy, warlords) or its Islamist rivals who have unleashed enormous devastation on the region, with one basic difference:  the state operates within its own jurisdiction, the Islamists are vindictive and strike any where they think is a legitimate target. The emergence of the lone wolf terrorism is the best evidence of this madness, which we all – wherever we are in the world — have to fear.

Pity the peoples of the Middle East.

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Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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