They say politics makes strange bedfellows, and it is being made even stranger every day by the recent manoeuvrings of Russia in the Middle East. During the 1970s, if America was considered evil by Muslims, the Soviet Union would have been considered as Hell. The USSR, with its communist ideology, was atheist and was considered the arch enemy of religion. The Sykes Picot agreement of 1928 made between the powerful European nations to carve up the Middle East, which was formerly under the Ottoman Empire, was a landgrab that defied cultural ties throughout the region. Those cultural issues are now playing out at the centre of current conflicts.
The Middle East is the host of four layers of civil war, which are conflated in the latest dilemma to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. There is the Shia-Sunni conflict dating back to the 1st century of the Prophet; there is the ideological split caused by the rise of the extreme ultra-orthodox (Salafi); then the overarching ideological argument between historical religious practices and modernity, cultural assimilation and plurality. Those are all ideological issues for Muslim persons all over the world.
The last and fourth rift is the regional struggle of self-determination from a century of hegemony by Western powers.
The drama really exerts when we hear of Iranian involvement in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. What is not understood is that Iranians are Shia and also the majority of the population of Iraq is Shia, as well as Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria, and a sizeable portion of Yemen’s population.
The United States, through the 1928 agreement, has a legal and diplomatic relationship with “Sunni” Saudi Arabia and supported and imposed on the minority population the former dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, over the majority Shia.
The Americans could care less about the underlying cultural issues; it is the real estate, the geography that concerns them. Therefore, by circumstance, the US, in fighting Iran for territorial control, are in a proxy war fighting for Sunni Islamists against the Shia.
At the global level, in the fight against jihadist terrorism, the vernacular “radical Islam” has further obscured the identity of 1.5 billion persons who have grappled with the broader argument of what contemporary Islam means in the 21st century and beyond. The issue of plurality and assimilation of values that are intrinsic to the faith and essentially no different from the core values of all faiths are challenged by the false and limited description radical Islam.
With the collapse of the US as a global influence and its further erosion of intended role expressed by the new president, Donald Trump, there should be no surprise that Russia through Vladimir Putin is filling that void and values the same real estate coming under its influence. It is very conceivable that within a decade the geopolitics of the region can switch with the powerful support from Putin. The question of whether Russian influence is better for the region remains to be seen. Putin does not appear to be ideological and more driven by economic imperatives.
A new world with a different order from present is emerging and it may take a decade or more to realise its new form. In the near future, war and its effects will dominate the world, as people flee and are forced to resettle from catastrophes visited upon them by a series of conflicts. Populations all over the world have and will continue to be affected, as they are caused to respond to waves of asylum seekers and the demand for humanitarian relief.
The hidden benefit is that the world will have become more diverse, as cultures are thrust together in waves that are historically unprecedented. We shall all be forced to embrace or deny the humanitarian call, and it will reflect in local politics all over the world.