The Escalation Before War

Can the sectarian battles that are being fought in West Asia and Africa result in something bigger?—like a full blown World War?

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

By a rough estimate, more than 32,000 books and treatises have been written on the First World War—or the Great War, as it is known—since it erupted 100 years ago. This was a brutal conflict, in which more than 10 million people died in Europe, Africa and Asia. Empires were obliterated, societies crushed and borders redrawn. Nothing was left in the war-ravaged area after the hostilities ended. Nearly all books about this war address the central question of why it was ever fought. No one really has a real clue. Was it just the murder of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914? Or did it have to do with something as bizarre as the compelling logic of military mobilization, which means that once the top brass take a decision to move the troops and go to war it becomes difficult for them to back off? The latter, at least, is the way the European logic of war unpacked itself. Besides the usual centenaries that are observed for such events, interest in the First World War has galloped because of the simple fact that large areas whose borders were settled then are in the throes of unending violence. The question that is repeatedly popping up in academic articles and in columns is: Can the sectarian battles that are being fought in West Asia and Africa result in something bigger?—like a full blown World War? 

Even without being declared, there is a common theme that spans the violent turbulence that has besieged countries like Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. All these countries were either destabilized by West-inspired invasion or were collateral casualties of the same. The First World War struck a deathblow to the Ottoman Empire, believed then to be the Sunni Caliphate of the World. Borders were redrawn by British and French colonialists that were unmindful of social composition and history. Turkey lost status and land. Cities like Iraq’s Mosul—recently overrun by a motley group of Muslim warriors under the rubric of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) seeking to erase the arbitrary borders established by the Sykes-Picot agreement—have long been eyed by the Turks. The rise of socialism after the October revolution in 1917 in Russia may have de-legitimized the influence of religion in matters of the state, but it was not long before religion staged a violent comeback on the coattails of western powers apprehensive about the rise of socialism in the region. The Arab Spring, in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, revived religion-based movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which were previously brutally suppressed. First in Tunisia, and then in Egypt, the movement for democracy was shanghaied by the Islamists, who had little faith in that western conception. 

It was in Iraq and Syria that the desire for democratic change and better life mutated into nasty and bloody sectarian war—largely created and sponsored by the West and its lackey, Saudi Arabia, the world’s most obscurantist and fundamentalist state, fearful of the rise of Iran and its interpretation of Islamist democracy. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are trying to checkmate the Shia crescent, comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. There is a growing unanimous sense that all the bloodletting is sponsored by the Saudis, who cannot allow Iran to rise again. Their worry increased after the US began to negotiate with Iran on capping its nuclear programme. Saudis have joined hands with the Israelis to protect their interest, but the ground is shifting too rapidly to allow easy analysis. 

Using social media like Youtube, the ISIL fighters have aggravated and exaggerated the divide between the Shia and Sunni, which did not really exist in many societies before. Their success in controlling large parts of Iraq and the manner in which they have imposed their medieval version of Islam has sent shockwaves all around. Shias fear that their holy centre, Karbala, could come under threat. Iranians have sent in their volunteer force to save the resting place of Imam Hussain, who is revered by the Shias. Similarly, in other countries, too, there are Shias that have made public declarations that they will go and defend Karbala. In India, too, a few lakh have signed up to travel to Iraq. If that happens, then it will begin to look like a dirty World War—this time with a reason.