The chaos and violence gripping West Asia are not likely to evaporate even if the forces arrayed against the Islamic State militant group manage to crush the brutal army and its drive to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and beyond.
The national structures and boundaries created by European colonial powers after the Ottoman Empire was dismantled at the end of World War I are collapsing or already have disintegrated. That has unleashed powerful centrifugal forces that are melting the glue that was holding together increasingly antagonistic religious and ethnic populations.
The mix of Muslims — Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites — Christians and the big ethnic Kurdish populations in the north of both Syria and Iraq are a stew of ancient discontent, sectarian frustration and flagrant injustice.
Those social explosives were detonated by the upheaval unleashed by the US war in Iraq and the civil war in Syria.
“The level of damage that has been done by the United States in Iraq and the civil war in Syria is probably irreparable,” said Wayne Merry, senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein and his fellow Sunni Muslims — a minority in that country — ruled brutally over the majority Shiite Muslims. The United States removed Saddam and eradicated his Baath Party structures, most famously the army. Washington then oversaw the establishment of a new government that is fundamentally controlled by the Shias. That new structure subsequently disregarded the needs and rights of the Sunnis.
While the US military still controlled the country, radical Sunnis came together under the banner of al Qaeda in Iraq in a force arrayed against American forces, moderate Sunnis and the Shiites majority. Shiite militias formed to attack from the other side and a civil war erupted. That was only tamped down when Washington instituted the surge of more troops and began paying Sunni tribal leaders and their fighters to turn their guns on fellow Sunnis in al-Qaeda.
With the departure of US forces in 2011, al Qaeda regrouped in the Sunni regions of Iraq and became the Islamic State group, the terrorist organisation that also spread into the void created in neighboring Syria by the civil war there, now in its fifth year. Estimates have put IS control of territory as much as one third of both countries. Particularly important is the terror organization’s control over the cities like Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
For months, the United States has bombed IS positions with some success and now France and Russia have joined that effort. Russia turned its attention to IS after a bomb, claimed by the Islamic State group, brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt. The French reacted after the IS attacks in Paris.
Military and intelligence experts had said, before the airliner bombing, that Russia had primarily targeted opponents of Syrian leader Bashar Assad who are not allied with IS but deeply involved in the civil war, fighting to overthrow Assad. The Obama administration insists Assad must be removed. Russia and Iran say he must be part of a political solution, at least temporarily. Regional powers Saudi Arabia and Turkey want him gone.
Many analysts saw Russian involvement in Syria as an attempt to save the Assad regime. Syria was a last outpost of Russian influence in West Asia, home to Russia’s only Mediterranean port and a big customer for Russian weapons.
The appeal of IS in Syria grows from the same root as it does in Iraq. And that is the sense of Sunni disenfranchisement. In Syria, unlike Iraq, it is longstanding. Assad is an Alawite Muslim, a subset of Shiism. He and his father before him ruled brutally over the Sunni majority in Syria, much as Saddam killed and brutalized the Shiite majority in Iraq.
And none of that deals with the complication added to the chaos in both countries by the ethnic Kurdish drive for a homeland. The Kurds have big populations in northern Iraq, Syria and Iran. And they have periodically been at war with Turkey, where they live in huge numbers in the southeast of that country. The Kurds have been the strongest American partners in the fight against IS, battling — often with significant success — as a US-allied ground force against IS.
They also have created a virtually autonomous, self-governed region in Iraq and control significant Iraqi oil reserves. US backing for the Kurds puts the United States at odds both with NATO ally Turkey, which is also an enemy of Assad in Syria and the Shiite-dominated U.S.-backed Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Former defense secretary Chuck Hagel said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that a military victory over IS will not end the chaos in West Asia unless the United States, other countries in the region, Russia, Europe and Iran join together to create a “platform of political stability.”
But how can such a platform be created in a region that has been unable to overcome a 1,300-year schism in Islam, the Kurdish drive to create a country that the ethnic group has never had and the attendant complications mixed in by a plethora of other religious and ethnic minorities. The defeat of IS, if it happens, will not solve those deep and underlying divisions.
A final political solution likely will require the resettlement of large populations driven from their home territories by the Iraq war, the Syrian civil conflict and the expansion of IS. It will require compromises that haven’t been made for centuries. It is a huge mission that will take a long time to accomplish — if it ever can be.