June 20, 2014 7:48 pm
It was in Iraq just over a decade ago that the balance of power in the region was radically altered. The shift unleashed a power struggle that has taken on Sunni-Shia sectarian overtones and has been played out across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq removed a Sunni-dominated regime that was, through elections, replaced with a government led by the Shia majority.
Since then, Iraq has been a battleground for regional score-settling, with Gulf monarchies supporting Sunni tribes and parties and Iran bolstering Shia groups. The power struggle has shifted to Syria over the past three years with Iran and the Gulf powers backing opposing sides of a civil war.
Interactive mapIsis’ advance through Iraq and Syria
Ironically, perhaps, Iran and the US, estranged since the Islamic revolution in 1979, have good reason to co-operate in Iraq today. But co-operation is not without risks. The US is reluctant to hand any leverage to Iran during the critical negotiations under way over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
In this page, the Financial Times attempts to explain, through maps and graphics, the regional dynamics that complicate efforts to preserve Iraq as a united nation. More than at any time in the past decade, Iraq confronts the danger of dismemberment into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish entities, a prospect that would have huge ramifications across the Middle East.
The US and Iran, however, back opposite sides in Syria. The same security forces that assist Iran’s Shia groups have been bolstering Bashar al-Assad, while the US has supported moderate rebels.
The US is also concerned Iran could use their co-operation as a bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations and that even the appearance of working with Iran will heighten tensions with Sunni Gulf Arab regimes.
● Saudi Arabia is the big Sunni power in the Middle East. But the Iraq conflict has broken out at a time when its long-established strategic alliance with the US is under strain. For Saudi Arabia, Iraq is a battleground for its cold war with Iran. In recent years, the Saudis have ignored repeated US pleas to help stabilise Iraq by launching a dialogue with Mr Maliki. They have shunned the prime minister and sought to prop up Iraq’s Sunni tribes and political parties.
Donors. Riyadh has also been a big backer of Syria’s rebels, some of whom might have joined Isis. The Sunni Gulf monarchies appear to be taking some pleasure in Mr Maliki’s predicament today, even if Isis’s expansion could pose a threat to their own rule.
● Syria’s conflict is closely intertwined with the Iraq crisis. Isis has been the most ferocious of the disparate groups in the largely Sunni rebel movement that has been trying to unseat Mr Assad. It is now in control of parts of the north and east of Syria.
While Isis is designated as a terrorist organisation in the US, the more moderate anti-Assad rebels are backed by Washington. Mr Assad and the US therefore appear to be on the same side when it comes to Isis.
But not completely. Complicating the issue are the suspicious ties between Mr Assad and Isis. The jihadi group is believed by western intelligence to be infiltrated by the Assad regime, whose objective is to portray the rebels as Sunni extremists determined to oust a minority Alawite regime.
Ankara’s paramount concern is the fate of Iraq’s Kurds, who have been trying to carve out self-government areas in Syria as well. Turkey’s worry is that separatist sentiment could spread to its own Kurdish minority.
The jihadi networks that fund Isis are assumed to include private Saudi.