Middle East Crisis: Foreign Interference and an Orgy of Extremism


The threat of IS has caused the overwhelming majority of regional and global actors, including Russia, to realize that they have interests in common. Particularly dangerous is the growing number of extremist organizations in the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa joining the terrorist colossus.

The Middle East is one of the most turbulent regions in the world today, engulfed by a wave of conflict and violence that threatens international security. Fed by rapidly growing religious extremism in the Arab world, the wanton destruction that characterizes the recent violence adds a new dimension to the long-simmering Arab-Israeli conflict that periodically erupts in armed clashes. 

The blitzkrieg launched by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has adopted the simpler, if more ambitious, name of Islamic State, was as sudden as it was predictable. The current surge of jihad sentiment in this part of the world is rooted in the recent past, which began when the US and its allies invaded and occupied Iraq without UN sanction. 

The Americans committed several major mistakes in Iraq: they destroyed the state institutions that supported what had been a secular nationalist regime and created a power vacuum in and they contributed to a sectarian division. 

The surge of fanatical jihadi groups during the occupation of Iraq was fought back by the occupying forces and the new Iraqi government with the help of local tribes. But the jihadists had merely redeployed to the north to prepare for the capture of Mosul and neighboring towns. The most radical of all Islamic terrorist groups in the region, ISIL or IS, achieved just that in its lightning offensive earlier this year. 

As its name suggests, the extremists want to create an Islamic state in an area that includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. At first Western and local politicians and experts, who had overlooked the group’s rise, estimated that it had between seven and ten thousand fighters. Today they put that number closer to 40-50 thousand. These are extremely cruel and ruthless jihadists, hardened by the fighting in Iraq and Syria and superior to the enemies if only in their willingness to die for the cause. They are receiving generous financial support from sources based mostly in the Arabian Peninsula. 

Aside from barbarically torturing, maiming, beheading and shooting dissidents, IS has created a semblance of order, albeit circumscribed by their rigid ideology. They have created a large number of decent-paying jobs, reduced crime, and encouraged agriculture and trade. The local Sunnis, at least, are getting used to the new rules. There is fear but also stability. 

The Islamic State’s victories have inspired Islamic extremists around the world, raising the risk of terrorism and extremism spreading outside of the region. There is no doubt that IS recruits will eventually return to their countries of origin to carry out attacks. Now regimes that ignored the scale of this threat have joined the US-led coalition against IS. But within these countries, there are still doubts about the sincerity of the coalition members. 

One of the weaknesses of the coalition’s war against the Islamic State is that it is non-contact in nature. You cannot win a war solely through air strikes, which inevitably lead to civilian losses that only fan anti-American sentiments and damage the reputations of US partners. On the ground, the IS butchers are opposed only by the Syrian government forces and Kurdish militias. Another weakness is that the coalition lacks regional inclusiveness. It makes no sense to exclude Iran, Syria and several other non-state actors who are involved in the fight anyway and, moreover, are the chief targets for the terrorists. 

The threat of IS has caused the overwhelming majority of regional and global actors, including Russia, to realize that they have interests in common. Particularly dangerous is the growing number of extremist organizations in the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa joining the terrorist colossus. Given the crisis in relations between Russia and the West caused by the unjust sanctions war over Ukraine, it is unlikely that we will take joint actions to counter the jihadists. But our clear common interest in bolstering the resistance to this threat could lead to operations on parallel tracks, which would require a certain level of coordination. 

The Islamic State might be defeated in the end, if the international community, with the active participation of regional players, devises a comprehensive strategy for eliminating religious extremism in the broader region. But will it be possible to put the genie of bitter inter- and intra-faith hostility in the Middle East back into its bottle? There is a deadly feud not only between the Sunnis and the Shiites but also among the Sunnis themselves: Al-Qaeda and IS, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, etc. Isn’t it time for the Arab world to contemplate a broad reconciliation strategy, reject deadly internecine strife and policies of regime change, and join forces in the fight against jihadi extremism?

This article is based on Valdai Paper #3, prepared within the framework of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club research program.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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