The idea that “the world will be a better place” after the death of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a far-fetched one. Sure, Isis was dealt a major blow, but that hardly makes the Middle East a better-looking place. It makes it look like a pig wearing makeup.
Isis effectively took a wrecking ball to the Arab world. The group’s main aim was to blur existing national borders in favour of its “caliphate”. But its historic and dramatic rise left us struggling to recognise the wider Middle East’s descent into anarchy.
Both in its structure and in its lust for power, Isis was a reflection of what’s happened to the region – now nothing more than a decadent corpse, devastated not by Isis alone but by an unprecedented hike in the number of militias and armed groups.
Whether you call them militias, armies, rapid forces or whatever you’d prefer depends on where you stand. This belt of militias extends across Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is a complicated pattern of armed groups created to fight each other as part of an endless multi-layered cold war shaping the region’s future.
They are wreaking havoc within and beyond the borders of the post-independence Arab state as we know it, and threatening its very existence. Although they have conflicting ideological, ethnical, geographical and tribal agendas, they all share one motive: serving the interests of big regional players, many of whom helped create them in the first place.
Iran was the first to devise the idea of a militia more powerful than the state, a force to control the state from within as part of a regional sectarian project. In Lebanon, the creation of Hezbollah – which has increased its power and survived for decades – was a great success. It sent a wave of admiration throughout the whole region, especially (and ironically) among Iran’s rivals in the Gulf.
Even as Hezbollah and later its replicas in Iraq (Popular Mobilisation Forces) and Yemen (Houthis) created the biggest security threat in the Gulf countries’ history, those same Gulf states decided to mirror the same Iranian strategy in a bid to counter its increasing influence. The whole idea is to destroy Iran’s power using its own weapon.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar (who are at this very moment busy trying to undermine each other) have invested billions of dollars in trying to push Iran back. If they are serious about putting an end to Iranian intervention in the Arab sphere, this is the right thing to do.
But by copying and pasting their rival’s militia strategy, they ended up doing the right thing in a disastrous way. The idea of killing Iran with its own weapon simply backfired.
The fallout is all too apparent: millions of Arab refugees, the swift rise of religious extremism, and the creation of existential threats to fellow Arab states. And who benefits without lifting a finger? Iran, of course.
But this isn’t just about Iranian power. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and their allies (not to mention Qatar) are also inadvertently helping Turkey and Israel as they too try to gain ground. It is not surprising that the more effort the Gulf states put into pushing back the non-Arab powers, the more influence those same powers accrue.
The wealthy Arab states also got it wrong when they tried applying the same minority-empowerment strategy used by Iran to bolster the Shia community to solve the Sunni majority dilemma in the Arab world. Instead of empowering the state in in Syria, Libya and Yemen, they unintentionally ended up undermining its very existence.
In providing generous support for Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar’s National Army in his fight against the Qatari-backed militias in Tripoli, and in propping up Yemen’s southern separatists and General Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces in Sudan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are digging a big hole for themselves as they try to pursue some kind of “Arab project” in the face of Iran’s relentless efforts to undermine it.
The huge amount of cash pumped into this anarchy created a new class of warlords, who are now capable of controlling a large portion of these countries’ populations, guaranteeing their security and providing them with basic services where the state cannot.
As time passes, the militia system feeds on its own power, with various warlords establishing cross-border solidarity and others backing conflicting forces. It is reported that Hezbollah is providing Yemen’s Houthis with the technical know-how they need to target sensitive Saudi infrastructure with drones.
Sudanese General Hemedti, on the other hand, has taken a different side in the Yemen war, trying to prop-up president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s forces in his fight against the Houthis. This week, other reports suggested that Hemedti has sent troops to back General Haftar in Libya.
Meanwhile, Qatar, with the help of Turkey, is also doing its part by supporting the militias trying to thwart Haftar’s bid to recapture the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
This bleak and eccentric network has turned the Middle East into a region run, in effect, by warlords and militia commanders.
The only way out is for the Gulf states to change course. If they are to stop Iran’s rambling death train in its tracks, they must sign a reconciliation agreement that would put an end to their meaningless and protracted feuds. And they must accept that by deploying militias as power vehicles, they have helped lay waste to what remains of various Arab societies.
The time has come for the big Arab regional powers to instead invest in real institutions and support strong governments that can effectively run sovereign states. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar must stop serving Iran’s agenda – both intentionally and unintentionally – once and for all.