BEIRUT — In 2014, it would have been difficult to overstate the anxiety and confusion in the Middle East, as Islamic militants hordes swept through Iraq and Syria.
Across the region, people were asking: Where did the Islamic State come from, and where would it stop? For a while, agitated talk of fading borders and new maps became standard. It was the only time my Lebanese father ever wavered in his stubborn attachment to our fragile and failing country. Perhaps, he mused, buying a refuge in Europe made more sense than renovating our old family house in northern Lebanon, close to places where Islamic State sympathizers might be waiting in hiding.
Today, as the Islamic State weakens, the sense of relief is unmistakable. The terrorist organization has not turned out to be the Godzilla many feared. Fears about Arab youth being seduced en masse have not materialized. The Iraqi state is in no worse shape than it was before (though that’s no reason for contentment). Jordan has remained largely immune, thanks to sustained international patronage and a mighty security apparatus. Lebanon’s Sunni mainstream and hardened Islamists both firmly rejected the Islamic State’s entreaties.
Yet, even as eyes are riveted on reports from Mosul, Iraq, and elsewhere, there is little optimism — and certainly no euphoria — to be found here. Everyone knows that the weakening of the Islamic State is accompanied by the resurfacing, often in more potent ways, of past fault lines. The hyped and simplistic Sunni-Shia divide obscures complex ethnic, intertribal, regional and political dynamics that have been catalyzed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and aggravated by state collapse.
Beyond the massive human and physical destruction, damage has been done in perverse, insidious and lasting ways. The Islamic State has embedded itself in the individual and collective Arab psyche. Many Shias, Christians and others now believe that there is a small dose of the Islamic State — vengefulness, takfirism and hegemonic ambitions — in almost every Sunni. And many Sunnis, having rationalized the rise of the Islamic State as essentially driven by legitimate grievances, either condemn their extreme expression or denounce the Islamic State as un-Islamic rather than question its very foundations.
In 2014, the Obama administration harbored hope that the fight against the Islamic State would rally all local governments and actors. After all, the group was the perfect villain: It was everyone’s enemy, and everyone was its enemy. Perhaps the common threat could get everyone to work together, or at least to pause their destructive competition. Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Syrian rebels and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were all targets of the organization: Cartesian logic demanded that they tone it down and redirect their firepower.
But that’s not how Middle Eastern politics function in this age of disorder. Unless the barbarians were at your gates, fighting the Islamic State was not necessarily the priority, especially if the United States was going to carry so much of the military burden; and when it became so (often thanks to Western pleading and pressure), it was motivated by other, more important calculations.
If anything, the fight has become a vehicle and a guise for all actors to pursue their competing interests. Instead of facing the reality of what their ambitions and rivalries produce, then rethink and compromise, governments and militias have raced to fill whatever space could be recaptured from the terrorist organization. Competition over grievances and for glory is as important: who collaborated with the Islamic State, who suffered more, who fought more, and ultimately who deserves more will be at the heart of the coming struggles.
Regional tensions and sectarian passions are considerably greater today than they were in 2014. Iran has adopted an ever-greater sectarian rhetoric to mobilize Shiite fighters even as it fights primarily non-Islamic State groups in its bid for regional power. Worried about its right flank, Saudi Arabia has needed to ‘out-Sunni’ the militants domestically and regionally to discredit its terrorist claims and rally Sunni constituencies. Its war in Yemen since 2015 was partly a response to the domestic perception that the kingdom endorsed in 2014 the campaign against a Sunni insurgency just as the loosely-defined Shiite Houthi militia overtook the capital Sanaa. This instrumentalization of sectarianism has a cumulative effect that sips into societies and feeds escalation: today, both countries question each other’s very legitimacy, polarizing the region and aggravating fears and conflicts.
Intra-Shia rivalries are set to worsen in Baghdad, as Iran-backed militias compete for glory and political power with the government and mainstream factions loyal to the traditional clerical establishment. Visitors to Iraqi Kurdistan are equally awed by Peshmerga dedication, inter-Kurdish dysfunctions and rivalries and distrust of Baghdad, its politicians and Shiite militias. Often overlooked is the internal retribution and political competition that risk battering the Sunni community even more. Mosul may be liberated in coming months, but political foresight, inclusiveness and magnanimity remain hard to be found.
Nowhere is the situation as dire as in northern Syria. Kurdish militias, Syrian rebels (some supported by Ankara, others by Washington), Turkey and the United States are competing to seize Islamic State territory before figuring out the right apportionment. Nearby, Russia and Assad are mounting a savage siege of eastern Aleppo, wondering if the Turkish-backed rebels will soon move south to relieve the city or if Turkey will satisfy itself with a zone of influence and restrain them.
Today, many Arabs instinctively understand the obvious: the Islamic State is the product of our societies’ enduring woes and of our governments’ failures as well as an enabler of further turmoil. It is a monster produced by the collective sleep of reason. Even so, that reality has not served us well. Save for the courageous Syrian demonstrators of 2011, the Iraqi anti-corruption movement of last year and brave Lebanese civil activists, talk of citizenship and good governance has faded. Most people seek refuge and purpose in their narrowest, most profound identities.
The scene is now set for multiple low- and high-intensity sub-conflicts. This won’t be the Islamic State’s promised apocalypse, but for the average Middle Easterner, it will be bad enough, just enough to allow the Islamic State’s next incarnation to lurk in the back.