The rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in vast swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq, and the US-led military response to it, have introduced another complex dimension to an oil-rich but already very volatile Middle East. The old correlation of forces in support of maintaining the status quo, especially following the Iranian revolution more than 35 years ago, has been changing.
A set of new alignments and realignments along multiple regional fault-lines, including sectarian divisions and geopolitical rivalries at different levels, has come to redefine the region and possibly change its traditional political and territorial contours. IS has confronted all the regional states, from the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a common enemy. Yet, it is the United States and its Western allies that have taken the lead in launching a military intervention to ‘degrade and eliminate’ IS, despite lacking a laudable past record in this respect.
This raises a number of questions. Should the problem of IS have been left to the regional actors to handle? Whilst IS may be containable, can it be defeated? Even if IS is eliminated, what guarantee is there that another extremist group won’t replace it? Can IS become a franchise, as al-Qaeda has? What is the possible best way to deal with religious extremism in the Middle East? What can be expected of the on-going air campaign against IS in terms of its consequences for the region, and the US and its allies?
This conversation looks at these questions in an attempt to unpack the nature of the mess that is the Middle East – a region so turbulent and yet so rich from which the world cannot simply disentangle itself.
Amin Saikal AM, FASSA is Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (Middle East and Central Asia) at ANU.