The Editorial from December 1st, 2017: The downfall of the Islamic State might lead to yet another power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
For the past months, we have been following the demise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with a feeling of relief. The loss of key strongholds such as Mosul and Raqqa meant that the Islamic State began to lose major territories and with that, key sources of income. Hopes have risen that the 6-year long civil war is coming to its end and the peaceful rebuilding of Syria can begin. The conflict cost almost half a million lives, displaced millions and created a dramatic refugee crisis in both the Middle East and in Europe.
However, even with the fall of the Islamic State there will still remain plenty to worry about. The Islamic State losing its base in Iraq and Syria will most likely result in its fighters migrating to other failed or weak states and regions to carry out attacks or inspire other local radical groups to do so. The attack that took place in Egypt just a couple of days ago is a sad example of this tendency. 25-30 armed men, waving the flag of the Islamic State entered a Sufi mosque in Bir al-Abed on the Sinai Peninsula and massacred over 300 worshippers. The Sinai Peninsula, especially its northern part has long been neglected by Egyptian security forces, creating a security vacuum and a perfect place for the Islamic State to establish one of its footholds.
And there are plenty of similar regions scattered around the Middle East. Even though the rebuilding of Iraq has long started and its military has been successfully taking back territories from the Islamic State, the country is far from being either stable or secure. Iran-backed Shia militias are gaining momentum, having taken Kirkuk, one of the main cities of northern Iraq, in October. This happened just a month after the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum on their independence that addressed territorial claims, including Kirkuk. The city has been controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga since 2014 and is seen as one of the strongholds of the Kurds. With the threat of the Islamic State gone in Iraq, who is to tell what the country will look like? What role will the Iraqi government and security forces, the Shia militias, the Sunni minority, the returning foreign fighters and the independence-seeking Kurds play in settling the future of the country?
The Iraqi militias are not the only sign of Iran’s growing influence in the region. From its support of Assad’s government in the Syrian civil war to its training of Hezbollah’s forces in Lebanon, Iran is leaving its footprint all over the Middle East. The United States’ policy in Syria remains blurry while Russia already announced its withdrawal from the conflict, paving the way for a reinforced Iranian role in the country and probably the wider region. A little more south, in Yemen the Iranian presence can already be felt. Teheran managed to get involved in an indirect confrontation with Saudi Arabia, its biggest competitor in the Middle East, by supporting Shia Houthi rebels. The two country’s proxy war plunged Yemen into a deadly civil war and humanitarian crisis, lasting over two years now.
Becoming the region’s political, economic and religious leader has long been one of Saudi Arabia’s goals. The kingdom is currently undergoing major economic and political changes, and the rise of the young crown-prince Mohammed bin Salman as a major political figure in Riyadh has raised eyebrows both within and outside the country.
At least with the fight against the Islamic State, all countries of the region were united. Despite the feeling of relief over the demise of the Caliphate, we may now be witnessing yet another conflict in the region, opposing Saudi Arabia and Iran.