Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
The Sectarian War at Hand: Redrawing the
Middle East Again
By Ramzy Baroud
CCUN, October 28, 2013
The warm waters of the Gulf look quiet from where I am sitting,
but such tranquility hardly reflects the conflicts this region continues to
generate. The euphoria of the so-called Arab Spring is long gone, but what
remains is a region that is rich with resources and burdened with easily
manipulated history that is in a state of reckless transition. No one can
see what the future will look like, but the possibilities are ample, and
In my many visits to the region, I have never
encountered such a lack of clarity regarding the future, despite the fact
that battle lines have been drawn like never before. Governments,
intellectuals, sects and whole communities are lining up at both sides of
many divides. This is taking place to various degrees everywhere in the
Middle East, depending on the location of the conflict.
countries are directly engulfed in bloody and defining conflicts -
revolutions gone stray, as in Egypt, or uprisings turned into
most-destructive civil wars as in Syria. Conversely, those who are for now
spared the agony of war, are very much involved in funding various war
parties, transporting weapons, training fighters and leading media campaigns
in support of one party against another. No such elusive concept as media
objectivity exists anymore, not even in relative terms.
Yet in some
instances, the lines are not drawn with any degree of certainty either.
Within the ranks of Syria’s opposition to the Ba’ath regime in Damascus, the
groups are too many to count, and their own alliances shift in ways that few
in the media seem to notice or care to report. We arbitrarily write of an
‘opposition', but in reality there are no truly unifying political or
military platforms, whether it be the Supreme Military Council, the Syria
National Council or the Syrian National Coalition. In an interactive map,
formulated by Al Jazeera mostly on what seems like wholesale conclusions,
the military council “claims it commands about 900 groups and a total of at
least 300,000 fighters.” The claim of actual control over these groups can
be easily contended, and there are numerous other groups that operate based
on their own agendas, or unified under different military platforms with no
allegiance to any political structure, not those in Istanbul or elsewhere.
It is easy however to associate perpetual conflict with the supposedly
inherently violent Middle East. For nearly two decades, many warned that
American military intervention in Iraq would eventually ‘destabilize’ the
entire region. The term ‘destabilize’ was of course a relevant one, since
Israel has done more than its fair share to destabilize several countries,
occupy some and destroy others. But the prospects of political
destabilization were much more ominous when the world’s most powerful
country invested much of its might and financial resources to do the job.
In 1990-91, then again in 2003, and once more in 2006, Iraq was used as
a giant field of experimentation for war, ‘state building’ and US-provoked
civil war. The region had never experienced such division to accommodate
sectarian lines as it did then. The discourse that adjoined the US war was
brazenly sectarian of the Shia-majority oppressed by the Sunni-minority.
They rearranged one of the most complex political landscapes in the world
within a few weeks, based on a blueprint imagined by Washington-based
‘experts’ with little real life experience. Not only was Iraq torn into
shreds, but it was remade repeatedly to accommodate America’s inept
understanding of history.
Iraq continues to suffer, even after the
US purportedly withdrew its military. Thousands have perished in Iraq in
recent months, with victims labeled as members of one sect or another. But
the Iraqi ailment has now become a regional condition. And like the US when
it invades sovereign countries and rearranges political borders, groups like
the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) operate wherever they find
their calling with no respect for geographical borders. Formed in Iraq in
2006 as a platform for various Jihadi groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS has
been a powerful component of the savage war underway in Syria. Despite its
bad reputation, it seems to have little problem finding access and
resources. Worse, in parts of Syria it actually operates a somewhat stable
economy that gives it greater privilege than homegrown Syrian groups.
Such groups would have never existed in Iraq, or move with relative ease to
other countries, if it had not been for the US invasion. They operate like
private armies, divided into smaller bands of battle-hardened fighters that
are capable of navigating their way through borders and taking control over
entire communities. Al-Qaeda, once a barely known group 12-years-ago, has
now become a stakeholder in the future of entire Middle Eastern countries.
For countries that are not undergoing the type of upheaval being
experienced in Syria and Iraq, they however understand that it is too late
to play the role of the spectator. It is an all-out war in the making, and
there is no time for neutrality. Worrying predictions of the changing
physical landscape of the region are well underway and few countries seem to
Robin Wright’s recent piece in the New York Times,
“Imagining a Remapped Middle East” is a typical speculation made by American
political and media elites about the Middle East. They applied it in earnest
before and after the US invasion of Iraq, where they carved the Arab country
into whatever amalgamation that suited US interests, in a typical divide and
rule formula. This time however, the prospects are frighteningly serious and
real. All the major players, even if ostensibly opposing one another, are in
fact contributing to the plausible division. According to Wright, not only
could countries become a few smaller ones, some of the carved territories
could tie into the cut pieces of neighboring countries.
“city-states - oases of multiple identities like Baghdad, well-armed
enclaves like Misurata, Libya’s third largest city, or homogeneous zones
like Jabal al-Druze in southern Syria - might make a comeback, even if
technically inside countries,” he wrote. The accompanying info-graphic was
entitled: “How 5 Countries Could Become 14.”
Whether such events
will ever actualize, the prediction is itself telling of the undeniably
shifting nature of conflict in the Middle East, where countries are now
embroiled in war. The new battle lines are now sectarian, carrying symptoms
of Iraq’s relentless civil war. In fact, the players are more or less the
same, except that the ‘game’ has now been spread to exceed Iraq’s porous
borders into much wider spaces where militants have the upper hand.
From here, the warm waters of the Gulf look quiet, but deceptively so.
- Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net)
is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press).