Did you know the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the victory of Muslim holy warriors in Afghanistan helped to bring about the rise of the Islamic State? It put the secular Arab governments in the Middle East under great pressure, according to Stratfor’s George Friedman in a June 9, 2015, article called, “A Net Assessment of the Middle East.”
While the Soviet Union still existed, it supported secular regimes in the Middle East, as did the U.S. With the collapse of the USSR, we see the rise of Islam as a replacement for secularism.
Additionally, the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France during World War I had created nation-states like Syria and Iraq, founded not on similar cultures but instead upon political expediency in dividing up the Ottoman Empire by the two colonial powers. Now, nearly 100 years later, two of these artificial nations have dissolved into their tribal and religious groups. The rise of the Islamic State crosses borders between Iraq and Syria, ending the nearly century-old division of the Ottoman Empire.
According to Friedman, with the Sunni Muslim victory against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden wanted to create a pan-Islamic state. To do this he needed to provoke the United States into launching a new crusade against Islam. The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., did exactly this as the U.S. first attacked Afghanistan and then Iraq.
It was a no-win situation for the U.S. If it did nothing, it would show the U.S. as weak and vulnerable. If the U.S. invaded, then it would be viewed as the new crusader nation, bent on destroying Islam. The secular Arab nations linked to the United States would see infuriated Muslims rise up against them and overthrow these corrupt regimes.
At first, after the 9/11 attack, this strategy did not appear to work. But as the U.S. got involved in nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, it got caught up in dealing with the tribal and religious rivalries: between Sunni and Shia, between Kurds and Shias and between Iranians and Saudis.
In trying to destroy al-Qaeda, according to Friedman, the U.S. released these sub-national groups, pushing Sunni Muslims under the al-Qaeda derived I.S. to set up a caliphate (a Muslim nation led by a caliph), part of what Bin Laden had hoped and planned for nearly 15 years.
Because of these events, the U.S. had to change its strategy by pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama’s new strategy is to not interfere with the various factions fighting each other. Instead, the U.S. government aids its allies, the Kurds and the Iraqi Government, to fight I.S.
The four major regional powers – Saudis, Iranians, Turks and Israelis – are involved in this caldron of conflict. Each has its own agenda and concerns.
The Saudis see I.S. as an existential threat, but they also are rivals with Shia Iran. The Saudis quietly cooperate with the Israelis.
Iran doesn’t want the Sunni Islamic State to continue because it threatens Iranian dominance in the region, but Iran would also like to topple its chief rival, Saudi Arabia, another World War I-created nation.
The Turks want to become the dominant regional power. This country has been more willing to allow for I.S. than for the continuation of al-Assad’s continued rule in Syria. The Turks and Israelis are repairing their alliance in the midst of this chaos.
The Israelis are both elated and terrified. They are elated because Shia Hezbollah is diverted fighting in Syria as an ally of al-Assad and Iran, but they are terrified at the possibility that I.S. might take control of Syria, a much worse outcome than al-Assad’s regime.
Dealing with geopolitics of the Middle East is a tricky and dangerous game. Which of the four major regional powers will emerge as dominant in this caldron remains to be seen.
Getting the best outcome becomes a difficult problem for the one superpower, the U.S., requiring humility since the U.S. doesn’t have the power to bring peace to the region, and thought, knowing how to manage the different factions and sects. The collapse of the USSR solved one major problem and created the maelstrom we see today in the Middle East.