It must be possible to make sense of the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East. It starts out straightforward enough – on one side you have the Alawite Assad regime desperately trying to cling to power in Syria (the Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam). Supported by his Shia allies in Tehran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia deployed in southern Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad faces opposition from an estimated 1,200 diverse radical Sunni groups headed by the Free Syrian Army and the jihadist military group, Islamic State (IS), whose cells are dispersed throughout both Syria and Iraq. It’s not exactly black-and-white, but you’re with me so far, right?
Meanwhile, many states have intervened to a greater or lesser extent in the ongoing civil war in Syria (and also in Iraq). While Assad’s counter-insurgency strategy has been benefiting enormously from Iranian funding and military expertise, American foreign policy in Syria has descended into confusion and contradictions, not to say outright farce. Back in 2011, President Obama called for Assad to step down. But even while he was gradually providing support for the armed rebellion, it soon became clear that he was keen to divide and conquer the opposition and scupper al-Qaeda’s rise in Syria. In June 2014, he assembled a coalition of partner countries to combat IS in Iraq and began a large-scale air campaign over the region a couple of months later. meanwhile, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar have also pitched in to support one side or the other. Anyone getting a headache yet?
And then there’s Turkey. After initially describing Assad as his friend, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aligned himself with Sunni opposition forces in Syria and, when the country fell into civil war, was the first state leader to urge Assad to hand over power. Indeed, the Turks trained and armed certain factions of the Free Syrian Army. The Turkish government’s policy, however, is complicated by its hostility towards Kurdish identity, specifically towards the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group intent on creating an independent Kurdistan. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organisation. This seriously muddies the waters because the majority of Kurds are seen as vital allies of the West. Backed by American air strikes, the Kurds fought valiantly to reclaim the key Syrian border town of Kobani after it had been captured by IS fighters last year. Kurdish forces now draw support from both Syria and the West.
When evidence suggested that Islamic State militants were responsible for a suicide bomb attack against the Turkish border town of Suruc earlier this summer, Mr Erdogan’s government, accused of turning a blind eye to IS on many previous occasions, finally accepted that IS poses a significant threat to Turkey’s security. Currently, Turkish planes are engaged in bombing missions against IS and Kurdish positions in Syria. Nevertheless, the Turks’ hostility towards the Kurds precludes them from being reliable western allies. NATO has urged Erdogan to show restraint against the Kurds in the far south-east. As James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, remarked during a recent briefing to Congress, Turkey has “other priorities and other interests” as far as the Syrian conflict is concerned. Bearing in mind that Turkey and the US are NATO partners, it’s bewildering that Turkey is launching strikes against Kurdish militants while the US is backing those very same militants in their struggles against IS.
Baffled yet? Well, just to make matters even more bewildering in this chaotic part of the world, hostility between Iran and the West has been subsiding recently, raising the possibility of Shiite forces gaining a stronger footing in the Middle East.
There isn’t even a facade of order. The situation is almost too tangled to be understood, let alone resolved. It seems like the chaos in the Middle East is accelerating towards…. what? (And I haven’t even mentioned Israel and Palestine!)