In 2014, the Muslim scholar, Rami Khauri, wrote that the traumas in Syria, Iraq, and Libya exemplify the “Arabs' own 100-Years War for stable, legitimate statehood.”
This reference provides a sober reminder of the two ruinous wars wherein this issue was resolved in the West. In the Hundred-Years War (1337-1453) between England and France, language took root as the organizing principle for state boundaries and national identity. This was followed by the even more destructive Thirty-Years War (1618-1648) in Germany that sought to destroy the Protestant Reformation. It failed because Catholic France went over to the Protestant side to preserve its national sovereignty against the Holy Roman Empire of the pope. The concluding Treaty of Westphalia (1648) established the modern international system that vests sovereign authority in the diplomacy among states, rather than in the religious directives of the pope.
In today’s Middle East, the issues of statehood and sovereignty are being confronted simultaneously; and, as Mr. Khauri reminds us, their resolution is likely to go on for as long as it did in the West. Two over-arching factors account for the protraction to this struggle.
First, the search for a foundational political organizing principle in the Middle East has proven to be elusive. The Arab language did not work as a basis for a merger of Egypt, Syria and Iraq that failed in the 1960s. The ethnicities and tribal cobwebs that swirl across the region have not formed themselves into the plural national communities of the West. Twenty million Kurds unsettle the states of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. And 5 million Palestinians still live without a state roof over their heads. The secular ideology of Baathism (a form of Arab socialism) that captured the regimes in Iraq and Syria has descended into ruthless tyrannies and civil wars. The Arab Spring that erupted in 2010 tapped a wellspring of hope for democratic societies and governments. Unfortunately, the only parliamentary democracy that has emerged from this outpouring has been in Tunisia.
Second, the vesting of sovereignty in a system of nation-states has yet to occur in the Middle East. The Muslim religion that is dominant in the region allows for no separation of politics from religion. The traditional politics of the region today is akin to the politics of the Middle Ages of Europe. Indeed, ISIS seeks to impose the Medieval Islamic Caliphate over the entire Muslim world. But Islam itself is in the paralyzing grip of a two-way split.
The first is between its two principle sects: the Sunnis versus the Shiites. The Shiites hold sway in Iran and Lebanon, and are central players in the wars in Iraq and Syria. The rest of the Middle East is largely Sunni. Sunnis regard the Shiites as heretics, just as Catholics viewed Protestants in the Thirty Years War. The second is a split over the question of Western modernity between moderates who have accommodated to its system of trade and diplomacy versus radical jihadists bent on capturing the moderate governments as booty for the follow-on crusade to destroy the moral, political and economic evil of the West. In this Holy War, the current use of terror is but a holding strategy until they marshal the strength for a final frontal assault on Western citadels.
Though this is a crisis within the Islamic world, the West and the United States cannot afford the luxury of standing by the sidelines, since a moderate victory is not just a preference but a prerequisite for avoiding a global cataclysm. In this regard, it is noteworthy that every president since Harry Truman in the 1940s has made securing peace in the Middle East a primary objective of U.S. foreign policy. In this long campaign, Washington has made more than a few mistakes, and the results have always been mixed at best. Nevertheless, the U. S. with its economic engagement, firm military presence, and active diplomacy has been vital to the achievement of whatever stability that exists. Presently, there are actually grounds for optimism. The ISIS strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria are falling to U.S. supported forces — as the dream of a grand Islamic Caliphate is being ground to dust. These looming defeats are triggering large defections of foreign fighters from the jihadi ranks. Finally, the prospect for a mitigation of the intense suffering of the Syrian people may come to fruition in an American/Russian/Turkish creation of safe zones. With this jihadi fading, though terror we still will have,the launch pad for any larger attack on the West has been decimated. In any case, the U.S. has more than enough military forces in the region to block any Islamic break-out, as it gears up for the greatest of all global dangers in Asia.