Magazine article The Spectator

Armageddon Awaits

Magazine article The Spectator

Armageddon Awaits

Article excerpt

Syria has fallen apart. Major cities in Iraq have fallen to al-Qa'eda.

Egypt may have stabilised slightly after a counter-coup. But Lebanon is starting once again to fragment.

Beneath all these facts - beneath all the explosions, exhortations and blood - certain themes are emerging.

Some years ago, before the Arab 'Spring' ever sprung, I remember asking one top security official about the region. What, I wondered, was their single biggest fear? The answer was striking and precise: 'That the region will clarify.' That is a fear which now appears to be coming true.

The Middle East is not simply falling apart. It is taking a different shape, along very clear lines - far older ones than those the western powers rudely imposed on the region nearly a century ago. Across the whole continent those borders are in the process of cracking and breaking. But while that happens the region's two most ambitious centres of power - the house of Saud and the Ayatollahs in Iran - find themselves fighting each other not just for influence but even, perhaps, for survival.

The way in which what is going on in the Middle East has become a religious war has long been obvious. Just take this radio exchange, caught at the ground level earlier this month, between two foreign fighters in Syria, the first from al-Qa'eda's Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS], the second from the Free Syrian army [FSA]. 'You apostate infidels, ' says the first. 'We've declared you to be "apostates", you heretics. You don't know Allah or His Prophet, you creature. What kind of Islam do you follow?' To which the FSA fighter responds, 'Why did you come here? Go fight Israel, brother.' Only to be told, 'Fighting apostates like you people takes precedence over fighting the Jews and the Christians. All imams concur on that.'

The religious propulsion of many of the fighters who have flooded into Syria in the three years of its civil war - 400 or more from Britain alone - is beyond doubt. From the outset this has been a confrontation inflamed by religious sectarianism. In the first stages of the Syrian conflict the Shia militia of Hezbollah were sent by their masters in Iran to fight on the side of Iran's ally Bashar al-Assad.

But those of a different political and religious orientation made their own moves against this. Across Britain and Europe, not to mention the wider Middle East, many thousands of young men listened to the call of religious leaders like the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Asheik and Sheikh Yusuf alQaradawi, who last year declared that Hezbollah is in fact not the 'army of God', as its name almost suggests, but rather the 'army of Satan.' Sheikh Qaradawi declared that 'every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that [must] make himself available' for jihad in Syria.

It is perhaps inevitable that with the amount of regional influence at stake, and the quantity of natural resources, there would be numerous powers involved in trying to dictate the Syrian endgame. But as the country's civil war has ground on and the region as a whole has started to fall into a maelstrom, there is not a party or country that has not been shocked by one particular new reality.

That is the fact that what has hitherto been the most important global player has decided to take a back seat. When two major Iraqi cities fell to al-Qa'eda forces last week, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, expressed concern but stressed that for the Iraqi government this was now 'their fight'.

One of the cities was Fallujah, the site of the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war, where 10,000 British and American troops fought to depose the Islamists. It is now back under jihadi control, with the black flag of alQa'eda proudly flying - and the West does not want to know. Although there are Syrian cities also now under al-Qa'eda control, the US and its allies remain unmoved over acting in that country either.

To an extent, what is happening in the Middle East is what happens when America and the West suddenly lose interest. …

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