Ongoing turmoil in the Middle East has become a new Thirty Years' War

One hundred years ago Sunday, the "war to end all wars" broke out in Europe. Two years later, in 1916, anticipating the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France negotiated the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, dividing the Middle East into spheres of influence.

Sykes-Picot had two significant long-term consequences. First, cutting across centuries-old tribal, religious and cultural lines, it created artificial and unnatural states. Iraq, for example, was a composite of Shiite, Sunni and Kurds. Hashemite monarchs from Mecca, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, were imposed on Iraq and Jordan. Second, the treaty set into motion the Balfour Declaration of 1917, supporting the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, sowing the seeds of the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now, the states born of Sykes-Picot are starting to implode in what Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, labeled "the new Thirty Years' War," recalling the wars of religion that devastated 17th-century Europe and eventually gave rise to the modern, secular state system.

After centuries of relative harmony between the majority Sunni and minority Shiite branches of Islam, today across the Middle East, they are in conflict. A period of Sunni dominance began to collapse with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Iran's militantly religious government. With the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the ascendance of a Shiite government in Iraq, a Shiite revival was underway. Shiites across the Middle East now flex their political and military muscle.

The Shiite ascendency provoked a backlash from Sunni Arab states. The result is an alliance of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey against Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Using non-state actors such as Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State on the Sunni side and the Iraqi Shiite militias and Hezbollah on the Shiite side, these governments are engaged in a proxy war of interreligious bloodletting stretching from Basra in the Persian Gulf to Beirut on the Mediterranean.

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In its latest turn, the Shiite and Sunni alliances have grown muddled as the U.S. and Europeans have tried to stimulate regional cooperation in opposition to ISIS, with Iranian troops and the U.S. bombing ISIS targets and the Sunni monarchies perceiving the ISIS extremists as an enemy of their regimes. Further complicating the equation is a rivalry inside the Sunni camp between the traditional Sunni countries of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and the Islamist-leaning countries of Qatar, Sudan and Turkey.

Lebanese journalist and political commentator Hisham Melhem has labeled this confusing conflict "the Arab 'Spanish Civil War.' " For just as in Spain 80 years ago, it is hard to keep the sides and all their rivalries straight, and just as the Republicans and Falangists did back then in Spain, the Islamic State is attracting a multitude of volunteer foreign jihadists from Europe, Asia, North Africa and the United States.

For the past 100 years, Europe and the U.S. have paid lip service to Arab democracy while supporting dictators who completely suppressed any form of democratic growth, such as institution building, a free press, minority rights, free elections, and opposition parties.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confessed to as much in June 2005 at a speech at the American University in Cairo when she said, "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither." The result is that the political dynamic across the Middle East became a competition "between repressive dictatorships and illiberal opposition groups."

The Obama administration seems at long last to understand that the fight against religious extremism in the Middle East will be a long, twilight struggle. For now, it will not involve American boots on the ground. But it will be a difficult campaign to manage with so many cross-cutting rivalries among the regional allies.

But dampening the open conflict will only be the beginning. From the U.S. counterinsurgency policies in Iraq and Afghanistan to the collapse of the Arab Spring everywhere but Tunisia, what has become clear is that the region lacks the political infrastructure and civic culture for peaceful, democratic change to take root.

It is time to bring the political actors, scholars and religious leaders together to explore how to nourish that spirit from indigenous roots. This generationlong effort must end with free and open elections where every Arab citizen, male and female, and from any religious faith, has full and equal human and democratic rights.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]


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