The speed with which the conflagration in Syria has spread to Iraq in the last two weeks has stunned the whole Middle East and caused consternation in capitals virtually everywhere. The insurgent army known as Isis – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – has behaved with total ruthlessness in the swathes of Iraqi territory it has seized since it launched its attack, with reports that hundreds of Iraqi prisoners of war had been massacred without mercy and civilians terrorised into submission. And a new term has been added to the vocabulary of Islamic extremism – Takfiri. Indeed, this extremism is worse even than its militant forerunner al-Qaeda could stomach.
Takfiri demands the summary execution of anyone deemed an apostate or infidel, according to the strictest possible definition of Sunni Islamic orthodoxy as practised by the Salafis. That includes anyone belonging to any Muslim group that is deemed heretical, and threatens therefore the entire Shia and the Kurdish populations as well as moderate Sunnis. What they are facing is little short of genocide, or a religious version of it.
Isis is wealthy, well organised and equipped, disciplined and battle-hardened from its participation in the bloody Syrian civil war. It has also recruited from the still active rump of Saddam Hussein’s old Baathist party.
Its goal is the establishment of a Caliphate – a unified Islamic theocracy under strict sharia law, which is likely to be in a state of permanent war with its neighbours. It is a threat to the peace and stability of several Gulf states and of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and it makes Iran’s deeper involvement in Iraqi affairs almost inevitable. Iran claims the right to protect Shia interests – people and property – wherever they are in peril, and they are gravely threatened by Isis now.
This has had the paradoxical effect of putting Iran on the same side as the West, and its old enemy the United States especially. The paradox is even greater in comparison with Syria, where Isis has been at war with the Iran-backed Assad regime alongside the non-Salafist Free Syrian Army, which hitherto the West has supported.
On the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, the West could find itself in bed with Assad after all, or at least wishing that his army could extinguish Isis bases on Syrian territory.
What complicates matters in Iraq itself is the fact that the Government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad has alienated many Sunnis and Kurds by favouring members of his own clan, the Shia minority. But the Sunnis may rue the day they saw Isis as liberators, once they experience the terrifying oppression it brings in its wake. Because it is so extreme, Isis may even be self-limiting, as human nature itself revolts against its excesses.
Nevertheless for all its power and might, the West may not be able to save Iraq. The country may be doomed to split into three components, with an Isis-dominated Sunni region confronting self-governing regimes for the Shias and Kurds.
Mass movements of population and a huge refugee problem are likely, with suffering on a scale that dwarfs anything seen in Syria. This is a grave humanitarian catastrophe in the making. There seems nothing the West can do to stop it, and very little it can do to alleviate it.
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