The Middle East has confounded outsiders for years, so it is no surprise that another U.S.-led project with a straightforward goal — destroying a marauding organization of extremists — is bumping up against age-old rivalries and a nod-and-a-wink-style political culture.
U.S. secretary of state John Kerry has received backing for the principle of reversing the territorial gains of the Islamic State group in Iraq. But getting concrete assistance is another matter, and there is a whiff of lip service about the proceedings.
Much of the problem lies in the Muslim region's Sunni-Shiite divide, which outsiders tend to underestimate again and again — only to see it emerging as the dominant factor once more. Here's a look at the landscape:
SUNNIS AREN'T INCLINED TO HELP SHIITE REGIMES
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has come out against the Islamic State group and its acts of barbarism in Syria and Iraq. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi clearly reviles political Islam and its militant extension, the jihadis who are tearing up Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt's own Sinai Peninsula. Yet they still have reservations about making a direct move that would be seen as aligning with the Shiite leaderships in Baghdad and Damascus. The issue pops up everywhere: secular Sunnis in northern Iraq actually felt so alienated from the Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki and its anti-Sunni machinations that — at least for a time earlier this year — they genuinely supported the Islamic State group because it was Sunni. Iran factors into this equation as well: although its Persian majority is not ethnically Arab, it is a Shiite nation, and as such supports the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Several days of U.S. lobbying, and a new leader in Iraq more amenable to reaching out to non-Shiites, will not change this. Nor will the U.S. sway Turkey, another Sunni power that has not been pleased with the Islamic State group but is still eager to see the overthrow of its enemy, Syrian President Bashar Assad. The issue has no fix; what is needed is finesse.
U.S. CREDIBILITY HAS WANED
U.S. credibility has suffered in the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001, which doesn't help the recruitment effort. The arguments for invading Iraq have been discredited, and the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns — which went on years beyond the original plan — are not looking successful. Smaller fights against terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen seem destined to continue without end. The Obama administration's swift abandonment of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 shocked allies in the region, most of whom were hardly more democratic than the ousted Egyptian leader. U.S. attempts to work with Islamists, during the brief rule of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, left many concluding that American leadership was naive and its diplomacy inept. When the U.S. threatened Syria if it used chemical weapons, and then did not attack after their alleged use, it was seen as America flinching, even though Assad eventually gave up the arms. In an echo of colonial-era animosities, many in the region see Western leaders who are stirred to action by the beheading of a few Westerners — but not by hundreds of thousands of Arab deaths. Washington also has proven unable to influence its close ally Israel to slow down Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank — one of the few things that can unite virtually all Sunnis and Shiites in angry opposition.
POLITICAL ISLAM IS UNPOPULAR WITH THE GOVERNMENTS
Two years ago, it looked like political Islam was not only ascendant but destined to dominate. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies seemed to have an automatic majority in Egypt, did very well in elections in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and elsewhere, and were becoming dominant even in the Syrian opposition. But the tables have turned dramatically, largely because of the success of the Egyptian military in conflating the Muslim Brotherhood with jihadi radicalism, and by the horrifying actions of Islamic extremists who have harmed the Islamist project as a whole. Today, most governments in the region are working to undermine political Islam, leaving mainly Qatar, which supports the Brotherhood financially and has granted refuge to many of the group's leaders from Egypt as well as Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. Yet even Qatar, under pressure from other Gulf nations, appears to be backtracking, announcing this weekend that several key Brotherhood leaders would be leaving. All this aids the coalition-building effort and helps explain why Kerry is not shown the door.
DEMOCRACY IS NOT SO POPULAR, EITHER
A key slice of the regional elite — educated and globalized, but not starry-eyed — considers the Western obsession with free elections to be naive and destructive. The argument says that societies with high illiteracy, little democratic history or infrastructure, and tribal culture shot through with radical Islamic influences are simply not ready for the responsibility of majority rule. It is better, they reason, to enable a type of managed democracy — like in Egypt where the previously elected Islamist party has been outlawed and decapitated — or a lengthy transition or the kind that is offered by King Abdullah in Jordan. For the United States' current coalition project, this means getting into bed with less-than-democratic countries that, after the frustrations of the Arab Spring, do not welcome meddling in their political systems.
THE LEAST BAD OPTION
The jihadis are aiming for a form of utopia, from their perspective. But most people in the Middle East have grown accustomed to compromise — to accepting and even embracing the least bad option. In this way, secular Palestinians accept Hamas, preferring Islamist oppression to the corruption of secular rulers like Yasser Arafat. Many Libyans are surely nostalgic for their stability and reasonable prosperity under Moammar Gadhafi. There was no political freedom and even the hint of insanity at the top. But it could be seen as less bad than the current situation with two competing governments, neither in control, violent Islamist militias holding Tripoli and Benghazi, and foreign workers fleeing for their lives. Many Syrians are concluding that the Assad regime — secular and commercially competent, if capable of using chemical weapons on its own people — may be the least bad available option as well, if the likely replacement is a coalition of jihadis. Western leaders fret that hitting the Islamic State group in Syria may help Assad, but many in the region find that a palatable outcome, even if they won't say so publicly. Others hope for an optimal solution: Hit the jihadis, and also finally support in earnest the rapidly disintegrating Free Syrian Army — the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels who have almost been forgotten as so much of the region has gone up in flames.
Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s and currently leads AP's text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan