The ongoing violence across the Middle East region, as well as the threat posed by the religious ideology represented by ISIS, should come as no surprise. The precursors to this aggressive unrest were weak, corrupt Arab governments that lacked stability and integration. In Iraq, the early signs of violence post 2003 were soon ignited into a full-fledged civil war, accompanied by consistent terrorist attacks and resulting in a vulnerable state and a regional proxy for foreign and neighboring countries. One of the major mistakes the United States made in Iraq was dissolving the Iraqi army. There was no way to know that this action was going to bring about disastrous outcomes, such as the current state of Iraq, where militias and other non-state actors have taken over the country. Instead of capitalizing on and making the best out of the U.S. presence in Iraq, al-Maliki’s Iranian-oriented policy was to rush the U.S. Army out of Iraq sooner than later. This quick removal enabled him to enjoy schmoozing with his Iranian partners, who were soon to assume ownership of the Iraqi government.
The fall of Mosul and Tikrit under ISIS control last year was a simple test of the Iraqi Army’s capabilities and leadership, proving that it is mired in mismanagement and corruption. Shortly after former Prime Minister al-Maliki lost the office to Haidar al-Abadi, investigators found 50,000 “ghost soldiers” on payroll. This explains why the Iraqi Army suddenly disappeared 48 hours after ISIS invaded Mosul in June 2014. Relying heavily on Iranian militias and leadership supported by the so-called “popular crowd,” the battles against ISIS took the form of guerrilla war, where the actual Iraqi Army had no role or authority over these groups. The former head of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, In a March 2015 interview, General David Petraeus told The Washington Post that Iran and Shiite-backed militias pose a greater threat to Iraq than the self-described Islamic State. He stated, “Longer term, Iranian-backed Shia militia could emerge as the pre-eminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran.”
Gen. Petraeus was correct. After the militia groups entered Tikrit to fight ISIS last month, they began its retaliatory actions—looting, burning, and bombing residential and commercial areas in the city. Similar incidents were reported in Baghdad and Diyala, showing that elements of the Iranian militia exchanged fire with Iraqi police, trying to practice full power in the streets of Baghdad and the southern provinces. It should come as no surprise when we see these militias and the popular crowd attempting to take over the Green Zone and topple the government of Baghdad, which has now become imminent with the increasing number of local and regional militias.
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Proxy Wars
Since 2003, Iraq has been a proxy for regional countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Likewise, the violence in Yemen—which quickly escalated into a new war enacted by Iran and Saudi Arabia and the participation of Arab Gulf states like Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Pakistan—is unprecedented. It is very possible that Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are leading the offensive in Yemen, may well play out the same proxy war in Syria, but with a different outcome. The irony is that while Iran and Saudi Arabia are both considered United States allies (although Iran is a restive one), they use the same war tactic of convincing ordinary people in these proxy countries that the United States is the “Biggest Satan,” meaning the most significant enemy. Ali Yonsei, adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rohani stated, “Iran today has become an empire like it used to be through history, and its capital is now Baghdad. … and we are here to protect the region from the Wahhabis, the Neo-Ottomans and the atheists.” With Iran, Turkey and Russia each dreaming of reestablishing their empires and wanting to relive those times through proxy, they must therefore use the most vulnerable states—Iraq, Syria and Yemen—to further advance their aspirations.
Arab States: Union or Division
The Arab dream of unity that existed in the 1970s and the romantic Pan-Arabism speeches by Gamal Abdul Nasser can now only be viewed as history. These troubled states have been so haunted by violence, corruption and injustice during both colonial and independent times, that uniting them has become a naïve and unreasonable thought. Perhaps what accounts for the failure of such a union is the misconception and misuse of powers; unity for Arabs means communism and the denial of political diversity. This is in particular why the United Arab Republic (UAR), the political union between Egypt and Syria (1958-61) was shortly lived. In order to prove effective, any attempted union must count and honor the minorities and other nations who have their own identities and dreams. There are the Kurds, Berbers, Christians, Yazidis, Druze and many others who share the same land but not the same beliefs or language recognized by the majority. All of these groups need to be included in such national projects to ensure that the entire population is represented. Now that the unification of 22 Arab states has become something that is totally out of reach, we are faced with the more unnerving situation of putting the cracked pieces of each state back together.
Most recently, the U.S. Senate has proposed a defense bill that would authorize funding the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Sunni tribal fighters to combat ISIS in Iraq. The proposal has spawned a sense of division and raised questions about the future of Iraq as an integrated state. This divided sensation is stirring mixed feelings among Iraqis, yet it may eventually be the only reliable solution that can put a short-term end to the Shiite-Sunni animosity. If carried out, this “Iraqi model” will certainly be applied to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and even Gulf states in the future. This model will bring out more changes and divisions within these states, a visible change that could take Arabs back to tribal establishment and the armament of tribesmen.