Cliff May

Almost a hundred years ago, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the last in a succession of Islamic caliphates stretching back more than a millennium, transformed the Middle East – first, into European protectorates, later into a collection of independent nation-states. A second historic transformation – not just the blossoming of a sunshiny “Arab Spring” – is now underway. That’s news, don’t you think?

Start with Syria which, as it enters the fourth year of a grueling civil war –140,000 killed and 9 million refugees to date -- has fractured into three de facto entities.

Bashar al Assad, backed by Iran’s Islamist regime, holds power in the west, his military bolstered by elite units of Iran’s own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as fighters from Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based foreign legion.

Sunni Jihadist groups, several closely tied to al Qaeda, are vying for control over much of eastern Syria.

Syria’s Kurds have so far successfully defended – from both Assad and the jihadist forces -- their territories in the northeast adjacent to Iraqi Kurdistan which, over the years since American forces toppled Saddam Hussein, has become independent in all but name.

Over the months and years ahead, any number of scenarios may unfold in Syria. The least likely: that it will again be a unified nation whose citizens identify primarily as Syrians.

Jihadist groups also operate in the west of neighboring Iraq whose government, since the departure of the American forces that once defeated al Qaeda in that space, has become increasingly – and predictably -- beholden to Iran. The Syrian conflict is spilling over into Lebanon, too, with Hezbollah itself targeted by Sunni terrorists.

The U.S. supported Sunni regime in Yemen fights against both an Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion, as well al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Across the Gulf of Aden is Somalia, a failed state, effectively divided into three weak entities with al Shabaab, another al Qaeda franchise, particularly active in the south.

Three years ago South Sudan broke off from the Republic of Sudan, which is Islamist and not a real republic. Rebellions continue in the north nonetheless: Last week, a court sentenced 18 rebel leaders to death, including the head of a delegation that was supposed to be negotiating with the government.

In Egypt, the Sunni military government that seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood is fighting Sunni jihadists, some AQ-linked, in the Sinai.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.