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“end of Sykes-Picot” or “culmination of the 1400 year old Sunni-Shiite conflict” – there is no shortage of large-scale historical references in the news coverage of recent events in the Middle East.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 reorganization 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, the very name of the caliphate proclaimed by ISIS indicates that the objective is not to revive of a previously existing territorial entity: “Islamic State in Syria and Iraq” reflects 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 key political positions to foreign fighters – not to local forces. Even though the area’s shape currently resembles a potato, it is referred to with the media-attracting label “Sunni crescent,” an image meant to represent a counterpart to the “Shiite crescent” that was presumably forged by Iran in cooperation with Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Even if strategic interests are in play, the sectarian element stands in the foreground.
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, minimizes the influence of political elites in the Middle East, and even exaggerates the integrating role of despots like the Assads. It raises the question as to whether such a fundamental conflict can even be resolved with political means. Furthermore, the sectarian presentation alienates the Western public from the conflict, which is at least one reason for the lack of 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 to the Sunni majority, and fear of how he would persecute dissidents from their ranks as long as his power persisted. By framing the rebellion as a “foreign conspiracy” by terrorists to undermine the stability and safety of Syria, he ensured himself the loyalty of those he depicted as victims.
ISIS is meanwhile attempting to consolidate its legitimacy through religious-historical references. This comes as no surprise: the more brutal militias act, the more they tend to invoke higher calling and authority. 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.
In this respect, the capture of Mosul and its spoils create give ISIS unforeseen potential to recruit fighters. The frailty of such power bases– and how little they have to do with ideology – can 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, 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 collaborating with them to fight against the regime, they concentrate on controlling the conduct of the population in every detail. In return, Assad largely does not interfere with them.
Interests of the protagonists
Whoever is in search of an answer to the conflict in Syria and Iraq must examine the political and economic interests of the primary actors, rather than rely on a superficial depiction of what they stand for. Bashar al-Assad represents western values as little as ISIS acts out of devoutness. The reign of terror of both has been enabled by a long period of politics that neglect the interests of the population.
Meanwhile, Assad relies on the established perception of the conflict that he himself vigorously promotes: that it is a choice between him and the extremists, and that he remains the better option. Anyone seeking an end to the enduring displacement of millions of people in the Middle East, and stop the hundreds of deaths every week, will not succeed with a narrow agenda to combat ISIS.
This article was originally published in German at heute.de on June 29, 2014.