Thursday, May 8, 2008

The War for the Soul of the Middle East

Gunbattles have broken out in Beirut over the past few days; pro-government Sunni and pro-Hezbollah Shiite militants and partisans have come to clash, and just today, Hezbollah fighters routed pro-Government forces and took over the capital, Beirut. Lebanon is spiraling into full-fledged civil war, with Hezbollah at the advantage, and Syria or Israel may try to intervene.

Sadr City has been through a slow, draining fight for weeks as US troops have been executing an Iraqi government crackdown on militants; despite former claims of peace and cooperation, Shiite Cleric Al-Sadr is refusing to lay down arms, and his troops have laced Sadr City with guards and roadside bombs.

Iran is blaming the United States and the United Kingdom for a bomb that exploded in a Mosque that killed 14 last month. Iran has further claimed that it refuses to negotiate in its right to nuclear power, regardless of the G5 offer for a deal.

Al-Qaeda has made a chilling comeback in Afghanistan, operating from a squishy home base in the northwest of a defiant and weak Pakistan.

In happier news, Syria and Israel have admitted to secret peace talks, possibly being mediated by Turkey--Israel may be returning the Golan heights, in hopes of Syria supporting Israel's right to exist with only slightly altered borders.

But conflict in the Middle East is growing ever-more complex. Relations are highly polarized along ethno-sectarian lines, along political-religious lines; the struggle between factions along skew axes for the future of the Middle East may mean conflict long beyond--and largely irrelevant to--large-scale US presence in the region.

Below, a religious distribution of the Middle East:

One of the primary axes on which rival factions in the Middle East see each other is religious; largely, whether they are Sunni or Shiite. Within Iraq, most of the carnage between 2005 and 2007 was caused by religious-sectarian warfare, in Lebanon, Shiites are rallying behind Hezbollah forces while the Sunnis continue to back the government. Iran's interest in Iraq lies largely in ensuring Shiite dominance in the country after the United States leaves--and perhaps finding a new ally.

But the factioning is certainly more complex than religious. There are ethnic divides--largely between Arabs and Kurds or Turks and Kurds in the region--but these disputes are surprisingly straight-forward. Religious extremist terrorists certainly make up one unified faction across the Middle East; but Iranian-American power politics complicates matters significantly.

Iranian Faction: Made up of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, many Shiite militias in Iraq, (in part) Oman, and (in part) Hamas. Strangely enough, Syria is a vast-majority Sunni country, and Hamas is almost entirely a Sunni party, but both have aligned with Iran due to power politics and security interests. Iranian weapons--including guided missiles--are prominent in the Hezbollah arsenal that it is unleashing upon government forces; Iran's continued funding of Shiite factions in both Lebanon and Iraq has the US administration convinced Iran will go to expensive and violent ends to keep pro-Western governments out of the region, and raise as many pro-Iranian ones as possible. I am inclined to agree. It should be noted that this faction makes up the vast majority of anti-Israeli forces, and Iran could try to coordinate disruption of Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas simultaneously.

US Faction: Made up of the United States, Israel, pro-government Lebanese and Iraqi forces (including the Kurds and Awakened Sunnis), (in part) Turkey, (in part) Saudi Arabia, (in part) Jordan, (in part) Kuwait, pro-government Afghani forces. While the US lacks combat partners in the Middle East, many of its Arab friends are willing to both host US forces for protracted warfare, and have recently boycotted the Arab League convention in Syria due to its interventions in neighboring countries. The United States continues to hope that its presence can not only stabilize the region, but create a preponderance of Western-leaning states to counter Iran's power and pressure Iran regionally into behaving (namely, disarming its nuclear arsenal and cutting off its terror funding). The US faction looked like it was making great gains in late 2007, but 2008 has been a series of setbacks, ending most recently with the collapse of Lebanese stability and rule of law.

Religious Extremists: Mostly Al-Qaeda and associated factions. While their presence is waning in Iraq, it remains strong in northwest Pakistan, and their ability to operate in Afghanistan is frustrating US efforts to create a stable state. Their goals are clear: total US withdrawal from the region, collapse of pro-Western governments in place of Sharia ones, the destruction of Israel, and the death of one Westerner for every Muslim killed (ever, really) by a Westerner, from the crusades to the Iraq War. While they may have silent approval to disrupt Iraq from Iran, no current Middle Eastern government wants Al-Qaeda style militants within their borders, regardless of what power faction they are on.

Al-Qaeda is unlikely to win this struggle, but it will make life extremely difficult for both factions. It may even unite rival groups to some degree (as it has the religious factions within Iraq) if for no other reason than to attack Al-Qaeda. But US opportunities to flex its muscles in Iraq are on a short timescale--after the 2008 elections, pressure to withdraw troops is likely to reach a breaking point. If the United States withdraws without creating a Middle East that can individually resist Iranian intervention, Iran is likely to make great gains. The United States leadership is likely to sacrifice political success (in the form of low death tolls) for progress in routing Shiite militias (as it has done for the past few weeks), in the hopes that it will not face new political pressure to withdraw until the end of the year, and that destruction of these militias will leave Iran much more impotent in Iraq.

Israel may take Hezbollah's hostile takeover of Beirut as an opportunity to settle a score that many analysts have predicted has been years in the making--since the Summer 2006 war. If Hezbollah becomes the government-by-coup of Lebanon, then Israel gains the legitimacy it needs to attack the country as a whole if Hezbollah forces attack its citizens. If it declares war on the government of Lebanon, it is not as likely to try and "hold back" as it did last time, but unleash the full fury of its forces for the first time since the 1970's.

For now, the war for the soul of the Middle East remains in stalemate.

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