Iraqi soldiers fire towards Islamic State (IS) group positions in the Garma district of Anbar province west of the Iraqi capital Baghdad. AFP
In September 2002, the then Arab League Secretary General, Amr Moussa, warned the then United States President, George W. Bush, that an invasion of Iraq would open the gates of hell. Today, one big hell fire in the form of a sectarian conflict has engulfed the region – with the epicentre being Iraq and Syria.
With each passing day, the conflict intensifies and spreads, as though Islam, the region’s dominant religion in whose name the violence is perpetrated, is an ideology of war and the Muslims are warmongers. The latest country to be dragged into sectarian conflict is Yemen.
Nowhere is this sectarian violence more horrific than in Iraq, where every month more than 1000 people are killed in clashes between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. With this week’s military success by Sunni extremists led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS, the crisis in Iraq has taken a dangerous turn. With the capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar, ISIS has emerged the most powerful Sunni fighting force, pushing even the notorious al-Qaeda into oblivion. Its victory in Ramadi this week was followed by more successes in Syria. ISIS, known for its brutality and barbarism, is now in control of Syria’s international heritage city, Palmyra, where it is feared the fanatics would destroy 2000-year-old artefacts just as they did in areas under their control in Iraq.
In Iraq, where the government troops retreated in the face of ISIS’ advance towards Ramadi, the Haider al-Abadi government is relying once again on Shiite militia, mainly the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, to fight the ISIS. The Shiite paramilitary forces are being accused of persecuting Sunni civilians in liberated areas and their atrocities are pushing the Sunnis to embrace ISIS as saviours.
The Sunni-Shiite divide has crossed the Rubicon and there is little chance for reconciliation. With the oil rich Sunni states of the Arabian Gulf region pumping billions of dollars into the sectarian hellhole, the canker is spreading to other Muslim states where once the Sunnis and the Shiites lived in harmony.
Although the ISIS is not openly backed by the Sunni Gulf countries, their objectives are the same. The ISIS, just as Saudi Arabia and most of its Gulf allies, would like to see Iran militarily weakened and Shiite Islam wiped off from the face of the earth. Also in this anti-Iran informal coalition is Israel.
The ISIS wants to carve out a new Sunni state incorporating parts of Syria and Iraq’s Sunni areas. The creation of a Sunni state out of Iraq and Syria will serve the interest of the Saudis also because the new state will break up the contiguity in the so-called Shiite crescent which extends from Iran to Hezbollah dominated southern Lebanon. Israel also supports the Balkanisation of Iraq. This is because, once the supply line to Hezbollah is cut, Iran’s ability to strike back through its Lebanese militia group wil be curtailed in the event Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Israeli officials and military commanders have openly stated that they prefer the Sunni extremists to the pro-Iranian Assad government and even opposed the US-led coalition’s attacks on ISIS targets.
Michael Oren, a close adviser to Israeli’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an interview with Jerusalem Post said: “The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Teheran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc. We always wanted Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.”
On another occasion, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State, saying “from Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail.”
Iraqi and Syrian officials allege that Israel maintains a corridor on the Israeli-Syrian border to provide medical and military aid to ISIS. Underscoring this link further is the emergence of an ISIS-affiliated group in the Gaza Strip to fight Hamas, Israel’s number one enemy in the Palestinian territory.
Amid these developments, a big question arises as to why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have ceased or scaled down their participation in the US-led attacks on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq.
In Saudi Arabia’s case, its hatred towards Shiite Iran is not so much religious as it is political. Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, Saudi Arabia was one of the closest allies of Iran, which was then ruled by the pro-US Shah. The relations between the two countries soured only after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the chief architect of the Iranian revolution, vowed to take the revolution to neighbouring Arab countries. Ever since, the Gulf despots have been looking at Iran as a venomous snake that should be killed. Just as they feared Iran’s people’s power revolution, the Arab despots also feared the Arab Spring in 2011. Democracy is an anathema to them. That was why Saudi Arabia spent billions to oust the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and installed a military dictator.
As part of this cold war with Iran, the Sunni regimes in the Middle East got imams to issue fatwas to the effect that the Shiites are Kafirs or infidels. Unexpectedly, the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein following the US military invasion of Iraq in 2003 dealt a serious blow to the Sunni regimes because it brought about a Shiite dominated government that is friendly towards Iran. The US invasion also pushed Iraq deeper into the hellhole of sectarianism, which was unheard of in the region since the Ottoman days or even before that.
The US and British intelligence units fomented sectarian tension in Iraq as part of their divide-and-rule policy. But the Sunni Arab regimes seized the opportunity to turn this development to their advantage. As the sectarian conflict took root, the Iraqi government came to be seen as favouring the Shiites. In this milieu, al-Qaeda led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged as the defender of Iraq’s Sunnis. In battles with the US forces, Zarqawi was killed and with his death al-Qaeda in Iraq disappeared. But from its ashes rose ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, once a prisoner in US custody.
The sectarian conflict reminds one of the 17th century war between the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe. The Thirty Year War, regarded as the most destructive sectarian conflict, ended with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. But the sectarian clashes within the house of Islam seem to outdo the Holy Roman Empire’s war in terms of ferocity and duration. As the Sunnis and the Shiites go for each other’s jugular, neither side feels there is space for negotiations. The world’s big powers are seen to be adopting largely a hands-off or a limited-response approach though more than one million people have been killed and tens of millions rendered homeless due to the violence in the region in the past decade.