The Islamic Vortex (Part 2)
The central contention advanced by part 1 in this series is that the basic trend manifested in the Middle East today – most evidently across its northern arc — is the disintegration of the modern state system (and with it all the questions of political progress that have been incrementally globalized since the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century). To continue to discuss this process in terms of ‘Lebanon’, ‘Syria’, and ‘Iraq’ is becoming increasingly quaint. Within this region, in particular, states no longer conform to contiguous territories, but rather to hubs, characterized by the inheritance of a comparatively organized security apparatus, a vestigial international status (also inherited, from the dissolving state system), and specifically a recognized Westphalian-era territorial sovereignty, stripped of domestic credibility. A realistic political geography of the emerging northern Middle East begins from this point.
Because the names of nation states can only suggest (Westphalian) contiguous jig-saw pieces, it is essential to understanding that we start elsewhere. The Crescent, stretching from western Iran, through Iraq, and Syria, to the Lebanese Levant, spilling – no doubt – into south-eastern Turkey to the north, and down into the northern Gulf states and Jordan to the south, can be considered an exaggerated Fertile Crescent, a (Sunni-paranoiac) Shia Crescent, a Crescent of Disintegration, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that the state apparatuses (and international political sovereigns) existing in this area occupy it in the manner of islands, populating or inhabiting it — among other collective bodies of strategic consequence — rather than dividing it effectively among themselves.
If the Crescent is maximally extended to the eastern borders of Iran (and perhaps further into the Hazara areas of Afghanistan, and Quetta in Pakistan), northwards into Azerbaijan and blurrily into the areas of Anatolian Alevi ethnicity, and south along the western Gulf coast, encompassing Bahrain (but stretched further along the Saudi Gulf coast and beyond, into Yemen), it incorporates the entirety of Shia Islam as a strategically potent entity. Beyond this area, the Shia exist only as pogrom-fodder among overwhelmingly dominant Sunni populations. Constituting something over 15% of Moslems worldwide, but over a third of those in the Middle East, the Shia either prevail in the Crescent, or go under. (For our purposes here Alawites / Alevi are Shia by strategic affiliation and adoption.)
The Crescent is the site of fitna, Islam’s unsettled business, and the time of settlement is now due. How does the balance of forces appear?
Almost dead center in the Crescent, are spread the – characteristically stateless – Kurds, divided between Iran, Turkey, ‘Iraq’, and ‘Syria’, and numbering perhaps 30 million (compared to a world Shia population of roughly 200 million). Although predominantly Sunni by confession, Kurdish nationalist aspiration dominates over sectarian identity. It comes as relief to our cognitive overload that they are playing a long game. We can bracket them for the moment
To the north lies Turkey, a powerful, comparatively competent Sunni state, marginalized by its non-Arab ethnicity. The pursuit of neo-Ottoman ambitions at this point would draw Turkey into a snake-pit of unimaginable pain. I think we can assume defensive hedging from Turkey in the immediate future. If we can bracket the Kurds – who are central to Turkey’s interests and calculations — we can cautiously bracket Turkey as well.
To the east lies Iran, another capable state, as territorially secure as anyone gets to be in this environment, and the wellspring of global Shia power. Iran is already heavily invested in the Crescent War, but it has the luxury of involvement from without, as a firm ally of Hizbollah, a major stakeholder in the Iraqi Shia regime, and the local ‘superpower’ ally of Assad’s Alawite rump state. (We shall get to examine Iran more closely when examining the nuclear proliferation aspect of this story, further down the road.)
To the south things get very complicated. Jordan, an extremely fragile Sunni state, is almost certainly doomed, but its collapse will widen the Crescent War into a far more multidimensional conflict. If we ignore it now it is less because we can ignore it, than because we simply have to ignore it. The limits of our processing capacity are exceeded. Similarly, to the east, where the tentacles of fitna snake down along the Gulf coast, through rich, demographically fragile micro-states, tightly woven into the US-dominated international system by hydrocarbon production. This is the royal road to world war. It’s too much to deal with right now. (Free-ranging commentary is, of course, welcome.)
Despite the transparent arbitrariness with which we have cropped the Crescent down to something like a manageable zone of attention, the core that remains has a number of coherent features. Most obviously, it is already a battlefield, in which the return to a pre-Westphalian ‘order’ is substantially accomplished. On the Mediterranean coast, a tenuous hybrid Sunni-Christian Levantine statelet coexists with a Hizbollah (Shia) para-state, awaiting the resumption of hell. No one is under time-pressure to decide things there very soon. It is
in throughout the twin Sykes-Picot Frankenstein ‘nations’ of ‘Syria and Iraq‘ that the unraveling begins.
This Crescent Core is occupied by two rump states, one clearly reduced to a compressed fiefdom (under Assad), the other still able to pretend to national authority. Each is an apparatus of Shia power, and thus a target for a Sunni-Jihadist onslaught of international scope, in which Al Qaeda realizes its world historic mission. The local Sunni-Arab population engaged in escalating holy war against these states is not meaningfully differentiated by (Sykes-Picot) national identity. Humpty-Dumpty is broken, irreparably.
For the international Sunni-Jihadi movement, the destruction of these rump states is now a matter of eschatological significance. Their defense is of no less importance to their Shia supporters, for whom the Crescent Core war is a zone of existential decision. The entire history of Islam, on both of its dominant branches, is fully engaged in this conflict, whose meaning, for the entire (split) Ummah is unsurpassable. It is impossible to over-estimate the stakes, as Islam itself perceives them, and the wider world has not yet seriously begun to apprehend what is happening. (Palestine or Afghanistan mean nothing in comparison — as the revealed pattern of practical Jihad makes clear.)
Does anybody seriously think they’re going to end this, with a recognizable world order in place? If not … what’s next?