Articles and analysis


ISIS is on the asymmetric back foot, having lost it stranglehold on territory across Iraq and Syria. However the organisation should be understood as a persistent symptom of two inseparable and ongoing issues in the Middle East, writes Tom Spencer.


Post US led invasion, a vicious cycle of sectarianism has perpetuated virulent jihadism; recurrent militant insurrection will likely erupt at particular flash points stemming from Al Anbar province. With unsecured borders, vast geographic sparsity and historic Ba'athist Sunni support for Saddam Hussein centre in towns - Fallujah and Ramadi – Al Anbar has twice provided insurgents' freedom of movement to springboard jihad against Iraq's Shia led government.


Beyond Iraq, there is a transnational struggle for political-religious hegemony between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, fought via regional proxies; ISIS is merely one faction co-opted into the wider war. As the flash point amidst Iraq's jidhadist woes, it is no coincidence that Al Anbar province borders Syria, Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; the spectre of Iran lies to the east. Inversely to Saddam's Iraq regime, Syria's premiership, led ostensibly by President Bashar Al-Assad, relies upon an Alawite religious minority, a branch of Shia Islam, for support.

In Spring 2011, facing a popular and once secular revolt against Syria's government, it was unsurprising that Assad progressively invited Shia Iran and its regional paramilitary proxy Hezbollah, in situ Lebanon, to reinforce his ailing military. An indecisive West feared supporting a revolt that included Wahhabi Sunni extremists; private donors amongst Sunni Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, did not. Western indolence persisted as a loose 'Sunni' jidhadist coalition - Al-Nusura Front - grew in dominance as it pooled men and material from across the Gulf. Civil war engulfed Syria. Reaching stalemate with Assad's military prior to Iranian reinforcement, Islamists dismembered secular factions - once 'children of the revolution.'

In 2013, ISIS - a reconstituted Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) - also answered the call to arms of Al-Nusura Front. It later manoeuvred to assume group lead in order to draw more fighters, lay claim to a cross border caliphate and switched fire to exploit Iraq's sectarian resurgence. No longer undecided, a Western led coalition responded militarily in 2014 to ISIS's regional land grab.

Now beaten back, an account of the now widely-dubbed DAESH (ISIS)'s short lived yet rapid trajectory within this proxy war is vital to understanding how it will almost certainly persist. (Continued on next page)

The "Cold War" between Saudi Arabia and Iran has the potential to escalate into a "Hot War". Not since the 1979 Iranian Revolution have relations between the two countries been so strained, writes Joseph E Fallon.

The Iranian Revolution radically altered how Tehran and Riyadh perceived the other. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia now defined their respective identities in sectarian terms, Shia and Sunni, with each viewing the other as an existential threat.

For Tehran and Riyadh, the past became the present. The 1,400 year old battle of Karbala at which Hussein, son of Caliph Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammed, was killed, resulting in the schism of the Islamic community into Shia and Sunni, is being refought daily by Tehran and Riyadh. Through inflammatory rhetoric and proxy wars, each seeks to defeat the other, religiously and politically, to become the paramount power in the Middle East.

In the six years since the ousting of long time strongman ruler Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has fractured into pieces, mainly along tribal lines. In 2014, Libya had just a single government in Tripoli, the General National Congress (GNC), which was voted into power by popular election after the civil war ended. The GNC failed to hold elections before its term ended. Then his rival in the East, General Khalifa Hifter asked for its dismisal. The GNC persisted, and three months later, Hifter — backed by Egypt — launched what he called "Operation Dignity" to try to force it from power. The GNC then did hold elections, but turnout was low, and Islamists backed by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood were defeated. The low turnout led to claims that the elections lacked legitimacy. A coalition backed by Islamist militias and fighters from the powerful western city of Misrata formed "Dawn Movement", that dislodged the newly elected government — the House of Representatives— which fled to eastern Libya to ally with Hifter. The Misratan-Islamist coalition then restored the GNC's power in Tripoli, giving the country two governments.

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