العدد 17 - MIDDLE EAST: FALLING TO PIECES
Middle East: Falling to pieces
The surge of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group known as Isis, poses a threat to all countries in the Middle East as well as to western interests. The Sunni jihadi group, whose rapid takeover of swaths of northwestern Iraq could lead to all-out civil war, considers not only Shia Muslims as its enemy. Isis’s aim is to dismantle existing borders among Sunni states and demolish prevailing power structures. If left unchecked and with territory under its control, its agenda might well expand to include global violent jihad.

In the twisted world of Isis, no one wins – not the Shia clerical regime in Tehran nor the Sunni theocracy in Saudi Arabia. Both have an interest in ridding the region of the new wave of jihadi extremism. But, this being the Middle East, having a common enemy is not sufficient to establish unity of purpose.

It was in Iraq just over a decade ago that the balance of power in the region was radically altered. The shift unleashed a power struggle that has taken on Sunni-Shia sectarian overtones and has been played out across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq removed a Sunni-dominated regime that was, through elections, replaced with a government led by the Shia majority.

Since then, Iraq has been a battleground for regional score-settling, with Gulf monarchies supporting Sunni tribes and parties and Iran bolstering Shia groups. The power struggle has shifted to Syria over the past three years with Iran and the Gulf powers backing opposing sides of a civil war.

But while attention was focused on Syria, tensions were simmering in Iraq. Since the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has pursued policies that have further alienated the Sunni minority, fuelling widespread resentment of the central government and its military institutions that has facilitated the Isis offensive.

Former Ba’athists who never came to terms with the new political order in Iraq have been staging a comeback, fighting alongside Isis.
Interactive map
Isis’ advance through Iraq and Syria

Chart the progress of the jihadi militants as they attempt to gain more ground
Ironically, perhaps, Iran and the US, estranged since the Islamic revolution in 1979, have good reason to co-operate in Iraq today. But co-operation is not without risks. The US is reluctant to hand any leverage to Iran during the critical negotiations under way over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

The US objective of a more balanced power- sharing agreement in Iraq is also at odds with the Iranian interest for Shia dominance. US-Iranian co-operation on Iraq is also certain to inflame Saudi passions and confirm to a suspicious Riyadh that Washington is on the way to abandoning its traditional Gulf allies.
In Riyadh and other Gulf capitals, concern about Isis is mitigated by the prospect of dealing a rare setback to the Shia-led government in Baghdad, and by extension Iran. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become fixated on checking Iranian influence in the Arab world.
In this page, the Financial Times attempts to explain, through maps and graphics, the regional dynamics that complicate efforts to preserve Iraq as a united nation. More than at any time in the past decade, Iraq confronts the danger of dismemberment into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish entities, a prospect that would have huge ramifications across the Middle East.

? Iran, the leading Shia power, is probably the most important player in Iraq. It wants a stable Iraq with the Shia majority as the dominant political power. Iran is keen to co-operate with the US against Isis in Iraq and has the influence to secure an unstated US goal: a new government that would no longer be led by Nouri al-Maliki.
The US and Iran, however, back opposite sides in Syria. The same security forces that assist Iran’s Shia groups have been bolstering Bashar al-Assad, while the US has supported moderate rebels.
The US is also concerned Iran could use their co-operation as a bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations and that even the appearance of working with Iran will heighten tensions with Sunni Gulf Arab regimes.

? Saudi Arabia is the big Sunni power in the Middle East. But the Iraq conflict has broken out at a time when its long-established strategic alliance with the US is under strain. For Saudi Arabia, Iraq is a battleground for its cold war with Iran. In recent years, the Saudis have ignored repeated US pleas to help stabilise Iraq by launching a dialogue with Mr Maliki. They have shunned the prime minister and sought to prop up Iraq’s Sunni tribes and political parties.
The jihadi networks that fund Isis are assumed to include private Saudi donors. Riyadh has also been a big backer of Syria’s rebels, some of whom might have joined Isis. The Sunni Gulf monarchies appear to be taking some pleasure in Mr Maliki’s predicament today, even if Isis’s expansion could pose a threat to their own rule.

? Syria’s conflict is closely intertwined with the Iraq crisis. Isis has been the most ferocious of the disparate groups in the largely Sunni rebel movement that has been trying to unseat Mr Assad. It is now in control of parts of the north and east of Syria.
While Isis is designated as a terrorist organisation in the US, the more moderate anti-Assad rebels are backed by Washington. Mr Assad and the US therefore appear to be on the same side when it comes to Isis.
But not completely. Complicating the issue are the suspicious ties between Mr Assad and Isis. The jihadi group is believed by western intelligence to be infiltrated by the Assad regime, whose objective is to portray the rebels as Sunni extremists determined to oust a minority Alawite regime.

? Turkey has much at stake in Iraq, including growing commercial interests, particularly in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north. It shares with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies the concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme. And it has co-operated with the monarchies and the US in Syria, where it has been a leading opponent of Mr Assad.
But Turkey has been accused of turning a blind eye to the flood of foreign fighters crossing into Syria to join the rebellion, including jihadi groups such as Isis.

Ankara’s paramount concern is the fate of Iraq’s Kurds, who have been trying to carve out self-government areas in Syria as well. Turkey’s worry is that separatist sentiment could spread to its own Kurdish minority.