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    “At the heart of the dilemmas presented by the evolving situation is the kind of Middle East major regional and world powers want to see. More importantly, where will the present series of conflicts take the region, with the escalating Shia-Sunni conflict and the dislocation of millions, either internally displaced or living as refugees in neighboring countries?” the author wonders

    Behind the frenzied diplomacy over the future of Iraq are new assumptions taking shape. First, is the division of the country among its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish areas a matter of time? Second, how far will the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (and its variant the Levant), collectively known as the ISIS, spread from its present swathe in Syria and Iraq? What is being debated is the future shape of the Middle East some hundred years after the French-British division of the spoils of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire.

    There are no clear answers because of the variety of regional and world powers pursuing differing policies. Of the regional actors, the most important are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. Here is a conflict not only between Sunni and Shia countries but the very different inflections of the two Sunni powers and Shia Iran’s interest in seeking the destruction of the ISIS as it protects its influence in Iraq, now being governed by the majority Shias.

    The United States has an obvious interest in seeking to check the onslaught of the ISIS and to save a scrap of investment in all that it put into Iraq starting with its invasion in 2003.

    But the ISIS represents a danger also to its vital interest in Israel’s security, with the present ruling dispensation there bent on colonizing the land of Palestine in perpetuity.

    The dilemma for President Barack Obama is that having won his election and reelection on the strength of ending America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been forced to re-introduce American military power in the shape of 300 military advisers and the threat of air strikes. Washington cannot allow a terrorist outfit of the shape of the ISIS to hold sway over Iraq.

    Here Iranian and U.S. interests coincide, despite their backing of opposite sides in neighbouring Syria. At the heart of the dilemmas presented by the evolving situation is the kind of Middle East major regional and world powers want to see.

    More importantly, where will the present series of conflicts take the region, with the escalating Shia-Sunni conflict and the dislocation of millions, either internally displaced or living as refugees in neighbouring countries? A few pointers can be tabulated. If the present crisis in Iraq continues to take its toll, what is being described as the soft partition of its three main regions is inevitable.

    Second, the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia will draw closer even as they have been disheartened by the hesitation shown by President Obama over effectively dealing with the Syrian crisis. It remains to be seen whether the vast differences that separate Iran and the US over resolving the Iranian nuclear portfolio can be bridged in the near future.

    But Tehran has been signaling for some time under the Presidency of Mr. Hassan Rouhani that it wants to play a constructive role in the region and beyond it. Future steps taken by President Obama and Iran, among others, will decide the shape of the region. Egypt, the traditional regional heavyweight, is too involved in its domestic transition and economic woes to be of much assistance in the immediate crisis facing the region.

    Indeed, we are entering a new phase in the affairs of the region and the Arab world. The days of the Arab Spring are but a distinct memory although the hopes of a better world will not die down for ever.

    The problem for the liberals and secular reformers is that they are in a minority and religion-based politics and the destructive uses of religion in its distorted forms have taken their toll. Basically, the peoples of much of the region are conservative and God-fearing in their outlook even as the younger generation, vast sections of whom are unemployed, are looking for work and the goodies promised in a television – and internet-generated age.

    Besides, it would be imprudent to forget after the Arab romanticism introduced by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, the dream was snuffed out and disillusionment set in, accentuated by the Arabs’ humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel.

    Even as the Palestinians are seeking to recover some of their land and dignity, Israel shows no sign of obliging, enjoying as it does uncritical American support, thanks to the powerful American Jewish lobby. For the most part, the Arab world has been ruled by absolute monarchies or, as in Egypt’s case, by armed forces officers donning the lounge suit, as in the case of three decades of Hosni Mubarak rule, until his overthrow.

    Tunisia, the originator of the Arab Spring, is the only country that is trying to make a success of the spirit of the original revolution. Indeed, the prospects for the Arab world look gloomy but, as the old adage has it, time does not wait for people and countries and the question before the world is where the currents of history are taking the region. In installing another armed forces man in the shape of ex-Field Marshal Abdel el-Sisi as the new President, Egypt offers no solution.

    Nor can President Bashar al-Assad of Syria fighting a vicious civil war to safeguard his office and the rule of his minority Alawite rule offer a solution. In Algeria, an incapacitated President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has won yet another show election. If the region’s leadership does not provide the answer, where will the peoples and the world look for answers?

    For one thing, the ISIS has helped concentrate minds because this is one thing neither the majority in the region nor outside powers want. The threeyear savagery of the Syrian civil war first gave rise to it even as President Assad interested outside powers to help the fight for, or against, him. In Iraq, the rapidity of the ISIS’s advance was determined in part by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s marginalization of Sunnis and the disaffection of Kurds. But the question remains: Where does the Middle East go from here? (Courtesy The Tribune)

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