As ISIS draws to an eventual defeat in both Syria and Iraq (Syraq), the question of what will happen next has gained a lot of importance, as has become the question of who will lead who and in what manner and capacity. Will the Iran-backed forces be allowed to manage territories they have liberated from ISIS? Will the Turkey-backed forces be able to retain control of the “safe zone” Turkey has carved out in Syria to prevent the probable coming into existence of Kurdistan? What roles will the US and Russian forces play in the region: will they collaborate to manage and sustain the victory or collapse into conflicting positions? All of these questions matter, but what matters the most and what concerns all the actors involved in “Syraq” is the question of managing the post-war situation in a manner that might not lead to revival of conditions and internal conflicts on ethnic and religious grounds that had triggered this war and given birth to ISIS in the first place. Locals in Iraq are already struggling with finding an answer to this question.
This is a very critical phase and demands prudence. Even slight mismanagement of the post-war “Syraq” would mean consolidation of Sunni and Shia zones in the region and revival of old rivalries, rivalries that have previously allowed states like the United States and Saudi Arabia to exploit to their advantage and use to weaken their rivals.
This is clearly on the cards due to the fact that meetings guided by sectarian concerns have already started to shape the post war discourses in Iraq. It was, as a matter of fact, only a few days ago that Iraqi’s Sunni leaders held a conference on July 15 in Baghdad to discuss the future of their community. While this conference was attended by a range of social actors, of particualr concern to note, however, was not just the absence of Shia force but the un-changed dividing lines in the Sunni world laying bare once again. It is a problem the roots of which certainly go back to the divisions existing within the larger Sunni world itself, divisions that have seen a marked politicization due to the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, and the divisions between the Sunni and Shia world.
This division, although marked by myriad internal differences, was also a remarkable show of concerns Iraq’s Sunni population has vis-à-vis the fact that a number of Sunni areas are now under the de facto control of Shai forces. While the local population hardly seems to be concerned by the geo-politics involved in such a situation, there is no gainsaying that external powers known for their advocacy of anti-Shia policies, can potentially find in this situations seeds of reviving the conflict that has taken years to slide-down, let alone die out completely.
And, the conflict may just not die out just because of the fact that Saudi Arabia, which claims leadership of the Muslim world, does not have any viable and practical system in its orbit to offer to the war-torn countries of Iraq and Syria. Already, its disastrous war in Yemen has exposed how ill-prepared and weak the kingdom actually is in terms of directly managing a situation. For most of its history, the kingdom has relied on the US, there is as such no way that it can provide, or even trusted with providing, a viable solution for the new-crisis knocking at the door of the “Syraq.”
On the other hand, given the fresh flames the kingdom has added to its ‘war on Iran’ through Qatar’s blockade, it is obvious that the Saudis will be itching to turn the “war on terror” into a “war for domination” and control to reverse the gains Iran and forces allied with it directly and indirectly have made in the last two years or so.
As far as the US position is concerned, it continues to move in-between co-ordination and confrontation with Russia on the one hand, and confrontation with Iran, Russia’s key ally, on the other. A number of reports in the American mainstream media, known as the mouthpiece of American defence establishment and security agencies such as the CIA, can clearly be seen advocating a “tough approach” to Iran to checkmate its increasing influence in the Middle East. For instance, in an editorial board report of The Washington Post, the paper argued that countering Russia and Iran in the post-war Syria would “require a broader strategy to create a security order in the region acceptable to the United States and its allies. To achieve that, the administration may need to raise the military or economic pressures on Iran, Russia and the Syrian government while pressing for negotiations on a new Syrian political order.”
Within the US’ official circles, there is considerable anti-Russia and anti-Iran feeling and this faction, which is particularly based in the US Congress, has hardened its approach to shrink the role Russia and Iran can play. Their obvious—and the quite well known—tool is yet again economic sanctions in the hope of putting economic pressure on them. Already the House and the Senate have reached a deal on a bill that would not only impose fresh sanctions but also prevent the US president from easing old sanctions imposed on Russia, thus indicating its intention to desist the executive branch from engaging in any positive co-operation with Russia over creating a stable political order in the Middle East.
The hope that such a policy will work to force Russia to succumb to the US demands is absolutely misplaced. What is even more important to recognize is the fact that the American policy makers perfectly know that this policy wouldn’t work in this regard. However, what they also know is that absence of co-operation between the US and Russia due to the US imposed sanctions will certainly prevent the establishment of peace and stable political and security order in Syria and Iraq, an order of a kind that may see a reduced US role in the regional geo-politics.
By keeping the region internally divided and deeply polarized on sectarian and ethnic basis and by putting unwarranted economic pressure on Russia and Iran, the US-Saudia nexus is clearly poised to preventing both Russia and Iran from creating peace out of chaos that the nexus has caused in last 6 years or so. For them, this is part of the strategy. The defeat of ISIS, therefore, doesn’t seem to translate into an era of peace. Such conditions are therefore being created whereby the social fabric remains damaged and polarized and ripe for the revival of old conflicts on non-jihadist ideological frameworks.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.