by Major Chad M. Pillai. Major Chad M. Pillai is an Army Strategist in the U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). He recently served as a Special Assistant to the Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the 38th Army Chief of Staff. Major Chad Pillai received his Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2009. He recently published the “Return of Great Power Politics” at War on the Rocks.
Since the start of the “Arab Spring” in December 2010, there was hope real transformation would occur and the region would democratize for the betterment of the people, region, and the world. However, the promise of the “Arab Spring” has devolved into numerous conflicts with regional and global implications. The ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and now Gaza, where the ideals of self-determination, ethnic and cultural identities, and demands for greater economic and political freedoms will redraw the map of the region akin to Europe transitioning from its medieval feudal system to the rise of the Westphalian nation-state system. With the rise of ISIS in Syria-Iraq and Iran’s meddling in the region, the question for the United States is whether to become directly involved or allow the wild fire to burn out naturally by containing any potential spill-over.
Islam’s impressive early rise and expansion ushered in an era of scientific, cultural, artistic, and medical advancements. Islamic scholars preserved much of our knowledge of the ancient Greco-Roman world while Europe descended into the “Dark Ages” where the majority of academic literacy was reserved for the clergy. At its peak, the Islamic world stretched from Spain to modern-day India and its only real equal on the world stage were the Chinese. The Islamic world fostered an early age of globalization by serving as the global trading middlemen between Europe and the spice/silk trade from China and India. As the book “Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants” by Stephen Glain states, “a thousand years ago, the Arab Empire pioneered new technologies, sciences, art, and culture. Arab traders and Arab currencies dominated the global economy in ways Western Multinationals and the dollar due today. A thousand years later, Arab states are in decay.” The rise of the European nation-states and the “Age of Sail” initially led by Portugal and Spain, allowed Europe to bypass the overland trade routes from the West to the East which eventually led to the Islamic world’s economic and political decline. As the Islamic world declined, radicalism took root.
The Islamic world fractured as competition for the spirit of the Islamic World split among regional dynasties to include the Ottoman Empire, the Persians, and the Mughals of India. As the Islamic World fractured and the Chinese isolated themselves, Europe grew stronger as it began to colonize the “New World” and continued seeking new markets in Asia. By the end of World War I, the Islamic World had been conquered with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. The aftermath was the creation of artificial states whose boundaries overlapped tribal, ethnic, and linguist identities. After World War II, the decolonization of the region led to totalitarian regimes led by either monarchs or strongmen who gained loyalty through the barrel of the gun or bribes from oil profits. The rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt gave rise to the belief in a return of a unifying “Arab Identity”; however, as my late SAIS professor, Fouad Ajami, so eloquently taught, this optimism gave way to pessimism as the realization of the true characters of such national figures as Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, the al-Assad family, and the Saudi Dynasties revealed themselves. Strongmen and dynasties who have squandered the greatest natural resource on earth – oil – without adequate investment in their people to join the 21st Century global economy.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq served as an earthquake to the region as the centuries old Sunni rule was upended and replaced by a Shiite dominated government. Additionally, it gave rise to self-determination as groups like the Kurds demanded greater autonomy and recognition. The two benefactors of the earthquake were the Iranians (Persians) and the radical Sunni Islamist. Within the Sunni world, a civil war has emerged by what Fouad Ajami describes as “the fault line […] between secularist, who want to keep faith at bay, and Islamist, who have stepped forth in recent decades to assert the hegemony of the sacred over the political.” (Fouad Ajami, “The Struggle in the Fertile Crescent“, Hoover Digest, Summer 2014, No. 3). Mixed with the millennium conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis, the Islamic world is now experiencing its “Thirty Years’ War” waged between Protestants and Catholics for mastery of Europe which led to the Westphalian system.Unfortunately for the people of the region, the Islamic World needs to undergo this violent transformation. This fire needs to burn itself out until a single victor emerges or a recognition that an Islamic Westphalian peace needs to be attained. For the United States and the West, it provides an opportunity to contain the fire by not directly intervening between the warring parties unless genocidal violence is about to occur, or if one of the warring factions becomes a direct threat. Despite the rise of ISIS and its desire for the reestablishment of a Caliphate, which is as unlikely as the Vatican reestablishing the Holy Roman Empire, it will be opposed by Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. Likewise, Iran finds itself surrounded by hostile Sunni Islamists in Syria-Iraq on its western front and eastern front if the Taliban returns to power in Afghanistan. Groups such as ISIS and Hezbollah, while independent minded, act as proxies between the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia and Shiites led by Iran. At the same time, Turkey is attempting to reestablish its former Ottoman influence in the region as a counterweight to Iran while the Kurds attempt to break free from both camps as they attempt to forge their own independent national identity. The most likely result will be the recognition such as Thirty-Years War between Sunni Islamist and Iranians will weaken them until there is recognition for a lasting peace. A peace established that rejuvenates the Islamic World with new national borders drawn as new nations-states form around their unique tribal and ethnic identities. The current crisis in the Middle East is their means to settle their millennium old debate between Sunnis and Shiites, and undo the artificiality of their borders created by European conquerors. For the U.S., the best bet is to lead the efforts to contain and the peace that follows.
Stephen M. Walt, “Do No (More) Harm“, Foreign Policy, 07.08.2014.