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?

July 31, 2013admin 16 Comments »
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16 Responses to this entry

  • Scharlach Says:

    One of the reasons it’s so difficult for Westerners, circa 2013, to comprehend the Middle East is that we simply cannot comprehend factions along religious/ethnic lines. The pangs in the Middle East must be something like the pangs of Reformation-era Europe—all those religious and ethnic schisms that no one bothers to understand in high school. Such divides are generally meaningless today (the Baptists and Catholics stopped killing each other a while ago), and so we can’t recognize their demarcations in this new Arabian context.

    In terms of “what’s next,” well, I’m mostly interested in what the realignments of power mean for East Asia, America, and Europe . . . Within the last decade, America has cut its energy imports from 60 to 45 percent, and it’s still declining.

    Other than the energy question, what else is the Middle East good for? If a trans-Arabic, fundamentalist Muslim power arises in the Middle East, what, other than energy supply, need we be worried about? Will this power take the offensive? I don’t imagine they would be that suicidal.


    Randy M Reply:

    “Other than the energy question, what else is the Middle East good for? ”
    It will remain a fertile source of diversity and vibrancy, surely.


    DojiStar Reply:

    Scharlach, it is very interesting you say that because it was my understanding there was a Cllinton-era paper on the possibility of nation-building liberal democracies (or at least moving toward that) in the Middle East. The answer came back that it was impossible since Middle Eastern Muslim civilization has not yet had the equivalent of the 30 Years’ War or other wars of the Reformation so they just _don’t get_ the point of a non-sectarian or secular government. Just as we Westerners _don’t get_ a religious government (except, perhaps, many of my fellow American Midwesterners who would be thrilled to live in a hardline Protestant equivalent of Iran or something like Cromwell’s government).

    So hopefully, many decades after an horrific all-out Sunni/Shia conflict, there will be more enlightened government in the Middle East for whomever survives and if there is anyone else outside the region who cares anymore, having had to find other ways to get energy in the meantime.


    admin Reply:

    That’s still to assume that Middle Eastern history is moving in the direction Westerners expect. The inverse seems more probable.


    John Hannon Reply:

    Well that martyrdom superstition of theirs has made them remarkably gung-ho about suicide so far.


    Posted on July 31st, 2013 at 9:17 pm Reply | Quote
  • Jason Says:

    Mark Hackard on the proxy war:


    Posted on July 31st, 2013 at 9:18 pm Reply | Quote
  • Chevalier de Johnstone Says:

    It will be interesting, if painful, to see whether the Mohammedan or the Protestant heresies will be the first to crumble. Both continue the medieval error of mixing religion and politics, later repudiated by the Church. Of course the Protestant sects do so at the extreme by mandating that nothing political be at all religious, which is of course an element of their religion. The Mohammedans at the extreme err by mandating that religion and politics are the same.

    It probably depends on what direction the Westphalian state, that creation of Protestant heresies, is going. A decline of the state, as Dr. Land seems to be suggesting in the Arab world, would favor the continuation of Islam and the decline of Protestantism. A resurgence of the state would support Protestant heresies (and “national” or pehaps “regional” churches, as seems to be occurring with the marriage of evangelicalism and nationalism in the U.S.) and a corresponding decline of Mohemmedanism, which is uniquely designed to bridge/destroy Arab national/tribal cultures to forge the Caliphate.

    (This is not to say the true Church doesn’t occasionally trend in one or the other direction. Of course heresies begin as orthodox questions and discussions and only become heresies when carried to the absurd extreme. Nor is it to say that any individual, or even most Protestants or Mohammedans hold these views or support these political agendas. As mentioned in a comment on Part 1, just because there is an obvious order to things doesn’t mean there is a grand master plan and planners giving and taking orders. Much is simple the natural social consequence of existing variable coefficients.)


    Posted on July 31st, 2013 at 9:37 pm Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    Don’t give up on Westphalianism quite yet. Isn’t orderly succession on a mass scale what we want? Look at the Sudan / South-Sudan model. Maybe Czechs and Slovaks too (jury’s out on the ex-Soviets and Yugoslavs, but I think they’re all happier away from each other. Cuius regio, eius religio or maybe eius gensio or even eius jurisdictio isn’t a bad basis for a new blossoming of genuinely independent regions.

    Then again, the Near East is nothing but a constantly spinning spiderweb of interferences and interventions and warring proxies. If only one of them had some competence in building giant, country-sized, fortress walls and could teach the others how to do so as well.


    Chevalier de Johnstone Reply:

    Westphalianism, the concept of “national” sovereignty over a territory, is already kaput. It’s not just the U.S. that has military bases in other countries, and to a true Westphalian foreign troops on national soil = invasion. Prior to Westphalianism, the European “nations” (not necessarily coinciding with territorial sovereignty) and princely (non-Westphalian) sovereign states shared the common values, for better or worse, of Christendom. Today they appear to share the common values of, I don’t know, shorting the euro, or product names with a lower-case “i” in them.

    If what you mean is, “Don’t count the Westphalian system as unhelpful yet,” I tend to agree, which is not to say that I am convinced it would work, but more that I don’t think it was ever given a realistic chance: it went rather quickly from the birthing pains of national church Protestantism (foreigners is all damned to hell) to the decay of imperial republican socialism (foreigners is all like us and if they aren’t, we’ll make them that way, at gunpoint in necessary.)

    I tend to agree with Chesterton’s explanation regarding the difference between “nationalism” and “patriotism”.


    admin Reply:

    The Westphalian order would be worth defending, but I have to agree with the Chevalier: the Cathedral has already gutted and abused it so profoundly that there’s nothing left to cling to.


    Orlandu84 Reply:

    @ Handle
    “Cuius regio, eius religio or maybe eius gensio or even eius jurisdictio isn’t a bad basis for a new blossoming of genuinely independent regions.”

    I would restate the above as “cuius forum, eius res publica”: “whose the market, his the state.” What is the defining characteristic of each side of the conflict? I would contend that there is no defining characteristic except for one: contract. The rebels in Syria are bound by nothing deeper than economy, and the same goes for Assad’s forces and allies. Irregulars fight on both sides with weapons that most did not create but received from others. Consider the following: a rebel Kurd using Saudi money to purchase American made weapons in order to fight an Alawite funded by Iran money using Russian made weapons.

    In a very real and important sense we are watching the first completely privatized war. Everything is outsourced and dispersed. There is no central command for either side but merely a market for violence. Whoever can dominate the market will win the conflict. Syria is no longer (and never was) about what the Syrian people want or need but about what organizations can provide the most timely and effective violence to bear upon the competition.


    Discipline Reply:

    “In a very real and important sense we are watching the first completely privatized war.”

    The ghosts of millions of mercenaries who died on the battlefields of history want to have a word with you.

    Neither these rebels nor Assad are terribly impressive as military organizations. Both could be annihilated nearly to the last man in (probably) less than eight hours by an unrestrained Western military organization, public or private.

    Gold alone doesn’t win wars. In any event, this civil war was unnecessary, the the material support for it is a symptom of insanity within the American foreign policy establishment, which has been incubating its particular brand of madness for over a century now.

    It’s also not taking the motivations behind both sides seriously. Do you think that Sunni jihadis care about money? They care about struggle, victory, and the establishment of their religious and political goals. Their typical footsoldier is an economic incompetent who has no potential at all to even be a marginally productive actor in the global economy. They’re bred and trained to kill and fight.


    Orlandu84 Reply:

    “Gold alone doesn’t win wars.”

    I will allow Cicero to provide my rejoinder, “The sinews of war are infinite money.”

    The overall point in my post, however, is not that the war is being fought for wealth but that the war cannot be properly described except by reference to economic transactions. Take for example the complete confusion of sides and interests. Each ‘side” of the conflict is connected to so many different other interests that it is almost impossible to map out all the possible interactions. The modern term for such a complex is a “market.”

    With whom you trade determines with whom you are allied in the Syrian conflict. My analysis takes for granted the point that the nation-state as a complex has disappeared in Syria. What is left is two competing market states: pro-Assad and anti-Assad. The pro-Assad state is that market that trades together to keep Assad in charge whereas the anti-Assad state is that market that trades together to remove Assad from power.

    My further claim that the Syrian conflict is completely privatized merely meant to convey this sense of economic interaction. Men have been mercenaries since the dawn of time, but their presence of mercenaries in Syria has little to do with my claim. May claim is that the employers of mercenaries being economized is novel. In a real sense the mercenaries and irregular forces are not being employed by particular nations but by competing market complexes that have emerged to determine whether Assad stays or goes.

    Posted on August 1st, 2013 at 12:00 am Reply | Quote
  • spandrell Says:

    I think I mentioned this once in person, but here’s the link talking about how the Shi’a in Iraq are the result of a recent conversion event.

    I still don’t see why any of this matters.


    admin Reply:

    It’s true that it won’t be washing up against the rural idylls of Japan any time soon. You can blame your adoptive country’s shockingly anti-vibrant immigration policy for that.

    (I’ll follow the gnxp link with avidity.)


    spandrell Reply:

    I don’t see either masses of downtrodden Arab peasants going to Shanghai anytime soon.

    Your point is that the collapse of nation states in the Middle East will send waves of refugees to Europe?
    They’re coming anyway.


    Posted on August 1st, 2013 at 6:58 am Reply | Quote

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