We should all be extremely concerned. Since Israel’s Independence in 1948, the Middle East has been engulfed by five Arab/Israeli wars when the Jewish nation fought against various combinations and coalitions of Arab nations, including the Palestinians. But today, it is not only Israel under siege. Anarchy threatens all Arabia, an unravelling which could engulf the entire world, even if President Obama refuses to see it coming.
As a consequence of the US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring revolts that dismantled autocracies in the region, there is now an intense struggle for power in the Middle East as centuries- old sectarian rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims grip the area. This conflict originated in the 7th century after the death of Prophet Muhammad when the majority faction, Sunnis, wanted Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr to assume leadership , whilst Shiites wanted Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. Today Shiites are just 15 per cent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, but constitute majorities in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan and a very significant percentage in Lebanon. Without fundamental theological differences, Sunnis and Shiites have had a largely harmonious coexistence in modern times with intermarriage and political alliances.
But fissures remained and opened in Iraq under the misrule of Nouri Al Maliki, a Shiite, who abused and marginalised the Sunnis. In the wider region, an intensified conflict developed between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia as these two powers compete for regional hegemony. In the Syrian civil war, for example, Iran provides support to Bashar Al Assad of the Shiite Alawite sect, whilst Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Gulf states aid the Syrian Sunni rebels. There is even the possibility of a nuclear arms race between the two. We also have intra-Sunni rivalry as ‘cold war conditions’ fluctuate among Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Sunni nations.
And now there is a new phenomenon. Out of the Syrian conflict, emerged the rampaging ISIS, now the ‘Islamic State’, consolidating its grip on territories spanning the Syrian-Iraqi border. It has developed a fearsome reputation for extreme brutality and a puritanical, intolerant brand of Sunni Islam, executing Shiites and destroying their mosques. Its goal is a caliphate, and in its present trajectory, as part of the battle between autocracies and Islamists, it is headed for collision with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The ‘Islamic State’ has instituted strict Sharia law over its territory, mandating circumcision for females between the ages of 11 and 46; ordering Christians to either convert or leave, burning churches and seizing monasteries. Religious and ethnic minorities have been killed, abducted and displaced. Over 600,000 Iraqis were driven from their homes in June. Virtually all Turkmen and Shabaks—tens of thousands of families—have fled their communities near Mosul as a result of ISIS raids.
Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war rages, with 170,000 already killed; whilst Iraq fractures and falls apart, with more than 5,500 civilians killed in the first six months of this year. And compounding the carnage, we now have Israel’s invasion of Gaza in response to persistent rocket attacks from Hamas. Over one thousand Palestinians have already been killed and thousands more wounded as Israel seeks to defang Hamas and destroy the tunnels that provide access to its territory. Ominously, not only is a third intifada in the making, but peace seems almost impossible, for Israel is resolved to finally crush an enemy that wants it obliterated from the face of the earth.
We shouldn’t see the present Israeli/ Palestinian conflict as separate from the rest of the middle eastern turmoil. Unlike 1948, 1967 and 1973, there is no direct threat to Israel from any Arab Nation. Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel; and Saudi Arabia accepts the existence of the Jewish state, even without diplomatic relations. Today both Iraq and Syria are internally convulsed and Lebanon has neither the will nor the military power. The battle against Zionism is now being carried by Hamas and Hezbollah.
But these are symptomatic of the growing Islamic militancy threatening all Arab governments from within and which could grow and become more radicalised with Israel’s invasion of Gaza and the spread of the ‘Islamic State’. Extremism is on the march in the Arab world and could topple every present government. Israel could eventually be surrounded by more threats to its existence that at any time since 1948. Not even Obama could then prevent America and the West from being drawn in.
Will Armageddon come from anarchy in Arabia?