Whither The West Asia?
It is difficult to predict what shape the West Asian strategic scenario will take in future but ISIL has already declared that it wants to create an Islamic Emirate mostly consisting of Syria and Iraq on the line of the bygone Caliphate. In doing so it wants to undo the secret drawing of boundaries in 1916 by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George Picot, two representatives of imperial Britain and France
John Berthelsen, the former Asian Wall Street Journal and the Newsweek correspondent, has recently told a hilarious story which can certainly act as a pointer to the root cause of the current crisis in the West Asia. Writing for the Asia Sentinel Berthelsen has exposed the unbelievable ignorance of the former US President George Bush which has contributed to a great extent to the growth of Islamic terrorism over the debris of a devastated Iraq. While his father Geroge Bush (the senior) was prudent enough so as not to allow his victorious army to pursue the vanquished Iraqis right up to Baghdad in the wake of the Kuwait war in the early 1990s, his son was not farsighted enough to appreciate his father’s policy. The senior Bush realised that the fall of Saddam Hussiain would result in fragmented territorial supremacy of numerous tribal chiefs, but his son, according to Berthelsen, did not even know that the Muslims had two major divisions—the Shias and the Sunnis. While briefed about the Shias and the Sunnis by three experts of Arab politics and society on the eve of the US invasion against Saddam Hussain, the junior George Bush exclaimed: “I thought they (the Iraqis) were Muslims.”
Saddam Hussain might be turning in his grave and rejoicing at the American folly and even perhaps praising himself for the ruthlessness he had shown in keeping Iraq together in the face of fissiparous tribalism. Saddam’s shadow over happenings in the West Asia cannot be denied for had he been around, the spectacular march of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might not have been possible. Surely the shabby handling that Saddam Hussain had received at the hands of the US had so much infuriated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of the ISIL, that he had even found the response of Al-Qaeda timid and felt the necessity to break away from it. Baghdadi is now 43 years old and joined a jihadi organisation after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2010 he became a leader and started attracting large sections of al-Qaeda cadres away from Aiman al Zawahiri. The reason is simple—Baghdadi is a field commander and tactician while Zawahiri is just an Islamic theologian. This has made his appeal more powerful to the al-Qaeda functionaries. About 80 per cent of Islamic fighters in Syria coming from several western countries like England, France, Germany and other European countries have joined the ISIL under Baghdadi’s leadership.
It is difficult to predict what shape the West Asian strategic scenario will take in future but ISIL has already declared that it wants to create an Islamic Emirate mostly consisting of Syria and Iraq on the line of the bygone Caliphate. In doing so it wants to undo the secret drawing of boundaries in 1916 by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George Picot, two representatives of imperial Bitain and France. The position of the ISIL in Syria is now somewhat untenable but concentration of Sunni Muslim population in northern and central Iraq and support from Baathist members of the former Iraqi army have made it extremely powerful on Iraqi soil.
It will perhaps be almost impossible for the ISIL to move into the Shia- dominated southern Iraq which enjoys backing from Iran also but its sweep and penetration in northern and central Iraq—important cities like Raqqa in Syria and then one after another Iraqi city like Fallujah, Ramadi, and finally Mosul have fell into its hands—has left enough indication that politics in the West Asia is now poised for a change. As no central authority now exists in Iraq, Turkey has already struck deep understandings with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional government and has arranged, through its ports, shipment of petroleum coming from the oil fields now under Kurds’ occupation. Ankara has its own calculations. Not that it is very much comfortable with any Kurdish victorious march. But it has a substantial number of Kurd population along the border and does not want to see any trouble there.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister, is helpless as he is too dependent on the ‘Peshmerga’, the Kurdish militia which can easily be called the best disciplined and the most capable army in the region, for the defence of northern Iraq. Al-Maliki, due to his high handedness, has alienated so many contending players including even those Sunni militia chiefs who are opposed to the ISIL due to the latter’s unbelievable brutality, that he cannot do anything to stymie the Kurd’s will for independence. For the present the rulers at Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan Autonomous Region, are content with their capture of Kirkuk which virtually floats on oil.
ISIL’s success in Iraq may have interesting fallout in Syria. The Syrian regime of Basr Al Assad is heavily dependent on various Shiite militias, the Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers from Iran for its existence. Now there are information that a significant number of these forces have made for Iraq to ensure safety for several holy cities like Karbala, Najaf and Samaara. Although the Hezbollah is unlikely to cut down its forces in Syria to any significant extent, its attention will now be divided. Some experts are of the opinion that the spectacular success of the ISIL in Iraq might come as a boon to the Syrian President Basr Al-Assad as the former could eke out territorial possessions in Syria only at the cost of other groups of rebel forces. Now ISIL’s increased strength will further increase its bloody confrontation with other militias. This happened in areas where the government had only nominal presence.
Now the ISILs’ ability to capture enemy’s arms and ammunitions as has been witnessed in Iraq, has forced the US and its western allies to go slow on arming the rebel groups in Syria as the Western bloc apprehends that those may fall in the hands of the ISIL. Throughout the last year bloody clashes took place between the ISIL and other rebel militias in Syria which resulted in large number of casualties. It is widely believed that this was the result of a ego clash between Aiman al-Zawahiri, the supreme leader of the Al-Qaeda and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of the ISIL. At an initial stage Baghdadi was willing to merge his ISIL with Jabat- al- Nusra, the official front of the Al-Qaeda in Syria. But he was snubbed by Zawahiri who wanted the ISIL to concentrate on Iraq and leave the Syrian field to al-Nusra. ISIL rejected and sectarian clashes ensued.
The capture of Mosul by only 1200 fighters of the ISIS reveal that they had received active support from Sunni tribes of the northern and central Iraq who, in turn, receive active support from Saudi Arabia and other countries like Kuwait. There is now a competition between Riyadh and Tehran for leadership in the region and Saudi Arabia is particularly anxious about the growing understanding between the US and other Gulf countries on the one hand and Iran on the other. But there is little it can do to scuttle this process. As soon as the Nouri al Maliki led Shia coalition had taken charge in Baghdad, Iran had publicly expressed its resolve to back this dispensation.
Till now no direct talk has taken place between the US and Iran on the Iraq crisis but there are information that such an eventuality cannot be ruled out. Iran is certainly on a vantage ground. Obama, the US President, is faced with difficult weathers at home and he is in no position to drive hard bargain with Al-Maliki. Tehran has already reinforced its position in northern Iraq, particularly along the border with Turkey. Since there is practically now no border between Iraq and Syria, Iran backed Shiite militias are frequently crossing over to Syria and then coming back to Iraq, carrying out operations in either of the two countries according to their plan. Particular mention may be made of Asaibahl al-Haq and Muktadaal-Sadr’s Peace Brigade, the two strongest of them. Moreover Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top most Shiite cleric in Iraq, has also issued a fatwa against the ISIL.
Will the Islamic fundamentalists be able to draw up a new territorial map for the Middle-East? Right at this moment it may be premature to answer this queation. But Barack Obama, the US President, has made the possibility of such an eventuality wide open by his rash decision of totally withdrawing the US army from Iraq. There are apprehensions that Jordan may be the next target of the ISIL and in order to thwart it the Hashemite kingdom has greatly increased the number of its troops along its boder with Syria. So far as the West Asia politics is concerned Iran has certainly emerged as a key figure. But Saudi Arabia is also playing an underhand game.The ISIL is not the only organization fighting in Iraq. Other Sunni groups like the Naqshabandiyya Way, the Jaish al-Mujahideen and the Jaish Ansar al Sunnah have pulled their resources together. These organisations and other Sunni tribesmen are maintaining contact with the ISIL through the Majlis Thuwar al Anbar which in turn is guided by the Saudi intelligence organisation.
By Amitava Mukherjee