It seems a nightmare: The centre of the crisis-ridden Middle East is seeing the formation of an Islamic entity which dilutes national borders and could potentially embroil the region in a war of radical militias. However, the West does not fear a reorganisation as much as it fears the impending disintegration.
The “end of Sykes-Picot” or “culmination of the 1400 year old Sunni-Shiite conflict” – there is no shortage of large-scale historical references in the news coverage of recent events in the Middle East. These are backed by fear – not so much fear of the reorganisation of the Middle Eastern state system, but fear of its disintegration.
New Construct Created
Particularly in the face of recent developments in Iraq, a discussion has arisen as to whether the triumphal advance of Islamist ISIS fighters is a sign of historical forces dispelling colonial borders. However, alone the name of the caliphate proclaimed by ISIS indicates that the objective is not a revival of a once existent territorial entity: “Islamic State in Syria and Iraq” evidences that there is no historical term for the region and that an entirely new construct would be created.
Moreover, the approach pursued by ISIS itself exhibits colonial traits: Wherever ISIS assumes power, it assigns political key positions to foreign fighters – not to local forces. Even though, at present, the area’s shape resembles a potato, it is dubbed the “Sunni crescent”, an image geared towards the media as it forms a counterpart to the “Shiite crescent” which was presumably forged by Iran in cooperation with Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Albeit strategical interests resonate in these images: the focus lies on the denominational reference.
However, the interpretation of the conflict as one predetermined by historical and religious influences is problematic in several respects. It allows the West to distance itself from its own responsibility, plays down the responsibility of political elites in the Middle East and even exaggerates the integrating function of despots like the Assads. It raises the question whether such a fundamental conflict can be resolved with political means in the first place. Furthermore, the confessional understanding alienates the conflict from the public in the West, which not least offers an explanation for the lacking solidarity with victims in the Middle East.
Not the Rebellion of Sunnis
The Syrian revolution did not commence as a rebellion of Sunni forces against a regent who was viewed as too western: Quite the contrary, their demands sounded much like the set of values inherent in western democracies: dignity, freedom and an end to corruption. Instead of searching for a political solution to political matters, Assad attempted to forcibly strike down the revolution and fuelled religious resentments.
He induced fear among the minorities – fear of what they might undergo if he lost his power through the majority of Sunnis in the population and fear of how he, as long as his power persisted, would especially prosecute dissidents from their ranks. By referring to a “foreign conspiracy”, an attack of terrorists on the stability and safety of Syria, he ensured himself the loyalty of those he depicted as victims.
In the meantime, ISIS attempts to consolidate its legitimacy through religious-historical references. This comes as no surprise: The more brutish militias act, the more they tend to invoke higher authorities and goals. Ultimately, ISIS and the Syrian regime are more alike than one would think: They live off intimidation, cause fissures in the population and buy themselves loyalty by awarding political and economic privileges.
Precisely in this respect, the capture of Mosul and the haul obtained thereby bestows unforeseen possibilities on ISIS to recruit fighters. How frail such power bases are – and how little they have to do with ideology – can in turn be observed in the Syrian case of Raqqa. The same clans who, at the beginning of the revolution, acted as an extended arm of Assad and defeated local protests and swore loyalty to Bashar al-Assad during his trip to Raqqa in November 2011, assured ISIS of their allegiance in a similar meeting only two years later.
ISIS primarily fights other rebels. Instead of collectively leading the fight against the regime with them, they concentrate on controlling the conduct of the population in every detail. Assad reciprocates it by not interfering with them to a large extent.
Interests of the protagonists
Whoever is in search of an answer to the conflict in Syria and Iraq must deal with the political and economic interests of the protagonists, instead of relying on a superficial glance at what they seem to stand for. As little as ISIS acts out of devoutness, Bashar al-Assad represents western values. The reign of terror of both is facilitated by a long period of a politics that neglect the interests of the population.
Meanwhile, Assad relies on the established perception of the conflict which he himself vigorously promotes: that it is a choice between him and the extremists, and that he will be in the better position. Anyone seeking to set an end to the enduring displacement of millions of people in the Middle East and to the deaths of hundreds every week will not achieve success with a narrow-minded agenda to combat ISIS.
This article by Bente Scheller was originally published on the website of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on July 4st, 2014. We have thus republished the article without any changes. Bente Scheller is a poitical scientist and the current director of the Middle East Bureau of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Beirut. She has just published “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy under the Assads” (Hurst).