(photo credit: REUTERS)
About this time last year some bright journalistic spark decided to construct a chart to illustrate the complex – and far from logical ¬network of friendships and enmities that make up the political pattern of the Middle East. The result resembled a web spun by a demented spider. A year is an eternity in politics, and even if that chart had been decipherable, subsequent events have rendered much of it obsolete. One new player on the scene is the self-styled Islamic State (IS), formally established in June 2014 and based on the organization known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Led by a man of boundless ambition and undoubted military talent – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now dubs himself the caliph and head of Muslims the world over – the IS swept across Syria and northern Iraq, carrying all before it. In the areas it conquered, inspired by an utterly ruthless religious zeal, the army of the IS set about a brutal and pitiless slaughter of all who would not subscribe to its own version of extreme Islamism. Tens of thousands fled before it and are now refugees from their own country.The Islamic State is no-one’s friend but its own. Rooted in Sunni Islam, its caliph now disdainfully rejects established Sunni authority, declaring to the Muslim world at large: “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas, Support your state, which grows every day.'' This time last year Syria’s President Assad thought it appropriate to provide under-cover support for the then-ISIS, which was at odds with the rest of the Sunni jihadists, including al-Qaida, battling it out in Syria. That “Machiavellian strategy”, in the words of journalist Itzhak Benhorin, has clearly backfired, and Assad has turned on the IS. Now the Islamic State is in opposition not only to the Shi'ite alliance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah – and, by extension, Russia –- but also with most of the Sunni Middle East. The alarming speed of its inroad into Iraq from the north, and the humanitarian crisis it unleashed among the Christian and other communities it overran, finally led to a stiffening of resolve, within both the Iraqi government and the western world. Humanitarian and military assistance began to be provided by a number of western governments, including the US and the UK, to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces opposing the IS, and its apparent unstoppable advance was checked.