CAIRO — Fallout from the conflict in Iraq has spread to the deserts of North Africa and the shores of the Persian Gulf amid fears of a widening arc of sectarian strife, emboldened Islamist extremist movements and a burgeoning exodus of refugees.
The Sunni Muslim extremists who in recent days seized large swaths of Iraqi territory, moving to within striking distance of Baghdad, have starkly exposed the fault lines that spider-web through the Middle East and beyond. Chief among those is the centuries-old schism of the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam, though other divisive factors have come to the fore in a week of stunning gains for the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Syria’s 3-year-old civil war had long since devolved into a battle between a mainly Sunni armed opposition and the Shiite-linked government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. With the spillover of the conflict into the Iraqi heartland, that proxy battle expands onto the doorsteps of patrons on opposite sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide: Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively.
The Syrian conflict has already had a harsh effect on its immediate neighbors, particularly vulnerable Lebanon and Jordan, which are swamped by desperate refugees and menaced by hardened extremists back from the battleground. But the rapid erosion of central authority in Iraq could force the hands of important players across a greatly expanded sphere as they struggle to protect their own interests, analysts say.
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Many of the same forces that threaten to tear Iraq apart less than three years after the departure of the last U.S. troops have echoes elsewhere in the region. Islamic extremist movements, to varying degrees, pose a threat to governments from Algeria to Yemen, and the apparent ease with which ISIS fighters rolled across northern Iraq is likely to send a powerful message to the ranks of extremists. Many would be happy to emulate the group’s success in cultivating affluent donors, seizing valuable assets such as oil fields and the contents of a bank, and acquiring military-grade weaponry.
“This could engulf the entire area,” said Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University. “The stakes are very high.”
Some countries being pulled into the Iraq whirlpool have a strong claim on Western support, including NATO member Turkey. The Ankara government has a hostage crisis on its hands: Dozens of its diplomats are being held by ISIS extremists who raided the Turkish Consulate last week while capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul. Turkey opposes the Assad government in Syria and has aided some rebel factions there but has shunned the most extreme of them.
Turkey, which has long battled separatist sentiment among its Kurdish minority, also must regard with some anxiety the somewhat accidental windfall ISIS handed to Iraq’s Kurds. Citing the need for self-defense, Kurdish forces in their semiautonomous northern enclave seized control of the long-coveted city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army retreated.
The fighters of ISIS, with a well-documented propensity for cruelty and a medieval vision of Islam, hardly represent the interests of mainstream Sunnis across the region, just as Iraq’s hapless Shiite-led government falls short as a standard-bearer for coreligionists elsewhere. Yet the confrontation between the two threatens to enmesh sectarian partisans responding to what they see as an existential threat.
Iran already has signaled that its elite Revolutionary Guard may come to the aid of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government has marginalized Sunnis, just as Iraq’s majority Shiites were once downtrodden by the Sunni establishment. A call by spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for the Shiite faithful to protect their holy shrines is already galvanizing volunteers to battle the extremists.
The Iraq tangle poses a dilemma for Saudi Arabia, which regards itself as the main bulwark against Iranian and Shiite influence in the region but has no love for the extremists of ISIS. That feeling is mutual; the fighters scorn the Persian Gulf monarchies, although the group is thought to have been bankrolled by wealthy private patrons among those kingdoms’ citizenries.
“While they are all Sunni, ISIS is certainly attacking fellow Sunni actors who they do not feel are following their ideology,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corp.
In Egypt, which has staged a broad crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 11 months since the deposing of President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, commentators unleashed a chorus of praise for strongman tactics expected to continue under newly inaugurated President Abdel Fattah Sisi.
“The presence of a unified strong national army in Egypt is a matter of life and death,” talk-show host Emad El Din Adib wrote in an editorial titled, “Do we want the ISIS model in Egypt?”
At the same time, Egypt’s leadership might well weigh the perils of politically excluding a sizable minority, as al-Maliki tried to do with Iraq’s Sunnis and Egypt is doing with supporters of the Brotherhood.
In some quarters, the collapse of Iraq’s American-trained and -equipped military represented yet another dent in the battered U.S. prestige in the region. Saudi Arabia had already clashed with Washington over what it regarded as insufficient U.S. support for anti-Assad rebels, and Egypt openly courted Russia after the United States last year suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid as punishment for perceived human-rights abuses.
While ISIS has folk-hero status in the region only in the eyes of the most radical, the group’s demonstrated contempt for colonial-era borders strikes a chord with many who remain resentful of Western powers’ seemingly arbitrary cobbling-together of Mideast frontiers a century ago. Widely viewed video posted online by ISIS purported to show its fighters gleefully obliterating a berm marking the border between Syria and Iraq, symbolizing its claim to a “caliphate” that spans large chunks of both countries.
Secular and moderate Sunnis in Iraq and Syria have little wish to embrace the extremists’ austere brand of Islam, but the impulse toward separatism based on tribalism, sectarian loyalties or ethnicity has demonstrated enduring appeal in countries across the region. A disintegration of the Iraqi state could spur destabilization in all corners of the region, analysts said.
“Iraq is polarizing and polarized, and it’s going to have a knock-on effect in terms of escalation elsewhere,” said Hayder al-Khoei, an Iraq analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “Of course, this is a vicious cycle.”