It would be easy to believe that the Islamic State is all but vanquished but that rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will lead to World War III. There’s always been a temptation to extrapolate the best or, more commonly, the worst scenarios from given international situations. In these uneasy times, that tendency has increased.
Islamic State (IS) is struggling to hold its two major cities and is soon likely to be ended as a conventional military force. It is, however, not likely to be disappear.
Similarly, tensions over the realignment of alliances have more sharply demarcated competing interests in the Middle East. But these interests are fighting by proxy in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq, and they will likely retain that approach.
IS has been steadily losing ground over the last year following its “barbarians at the gates” successes in 2014. Its quick and brutal successes shocked and demoralised the militaries of Iraq and Syria, and its capture of weapons, funds and oil fields allowed it to display many of the organisational qualities of a proto-state.
However, referring to much earlier wars in that region, despite what war historian Max Boot described as “grotesque displays designed to frighten adversaries into acquiescence”, it faced two conventional states and their allies. Add to this a resurgent Kurdish proto-state, IS’ prospects were always limited.
Fighting continues, but it appears that Mosul will soon fall to the Iraqi Armed Forces and their Shia militia and Kurdish Peshmerga allies. The battle for IS ‘capital’ of Raqqa in northern Syria is slower, but is similarly drawing to what appears to be a conclusion. There, Kurdish YPG fighters lead the Free Syrian Army battle, with the Assad regime’s force excluded from that fight.
In both cases, IS’s capacity to hold territory is ending, but its capacity for extended guerrilla warfare will continue. Importantly, the alienated Sunni Muslims of Syria and especially Iraq who supported IS will continue to seek defence from Sunni persecution. For many Sunnis, IS represented that defence.
As it has done in the past, IS may morph. But their original tactics of IEDs, suicide bombers and hit and run attacks can be expected to remain.
On the Arabian Peninsula, Sunni Saudi Arabia has long been at odds with Shia Iran and, by way of asserting regional authority, has sought to dominate the foreign policy and strategic alliances of its immediate neighbors. Qatar and Yemen have been the principle hold-outs.
In Yemen, the country is riven between northerners and southerners, Shia and Sunni Muslims, opposing tribal groups, between “democrats” and militant Islamists and along more conventional modernist left-right ideological lines. Saudi Arabia wishes to ensure that compliant Sunnis remain in power and, to date, have been relatively successful in stemming Shia, if less so Sunni Islamist, militants.
Qatar, however, is more problematic. This small, hydrocarbon-rich sultanate openly supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which, while Islamist in outlook, has primarily sought to achieve political power via elections in Egypt and in Gaza. Saudi Arabia’s ally, Egypt, has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia is also deeply opposed to this trans-national organisation.
Qatar also has diplomatic relations with Iran, if no formal alliance. It does, however, have a military alliance with Turkey, which, as a Sunni and increasingly Islamist and potentially expansionist state, is similarly supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and also retains diplomatic relations with Iran.
Qatar also owns global news network Al Jazeera, which is the closest thing to a free media in that part of the world, and its English-language service is arguably the highest quality provider of international news among television networks. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and not a few others hate it with a passion reserved for that type of journalism when shooting the messenger, as it were, is the most appealing response.
Further complicating matters, the US has military bases in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. US President Donald Trump appears, however, to be veering towards supporting Saudi Arabia over Qatar.
Beyond breaking diplomatic relations with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and its allies will remain reluctant to press its smaller neighbor militarily. Saudi Arabia is itself vulnerable to its own Salafi militants, who want to oust their indulgent ruling royal family. Starting a difficult war with a pious neighbor could inspire a fifth column within Saudi Arabia.
Such a war would also involve Turkey, possibly Iran, and would diminish Saudi Arabia’s interests in Syria. It might also not be as winnable as the sizes of the respective states might indicate. In short, a cost/benefit analysis of such a war would indicate against it.
The Middle East is, therefore, no more on the verge of being saved or plunging the world into war than it has been for some past years. But it does remain strategically unstable and, potentially, volatile beyond its own boundaries.
IS will evolve, as it has done in the past, and there could be a re-alignment of geographic control in Iraq and Syria and of regional alliances. But the Middle East can reasonably be expected to continue with, more or less, business as bloody usual.
*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s professor of international politics