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Thirty Years' War?

Alexander Kudascheff / glb
June 15, 2014

The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is in the process of starting a religious war in the Middle East, one that could go on for a very long time, writes DW's editor-in-chief, Alexander Kudascheff.

Image: DW

The situation is downright alarming: an army of crusaders has brought the Middle East to its knees. Ten thousand fighters who belong to the Islamist, fundamentalist and murderous group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) are headed for Baghdad with aims of seizing Iraq's capital city and deposing the country's leaders - all in a bid to bring down Iraq's Shiite rule.

Their objective includes bringing about a reversal of postwar order in the Middle East: an end to nation states, the founding of a new Muslim community, or ummah, and a caliphate, within which Sharia is to be the code of conduct. ISIS members have already displayed political and religious readiness for a violent conflict, evocative of jihad, one of the early tenets of Islam that calls believers to martyrdom.

These Sunni jihadists led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - whose name calls to mind the first of all caliphates, the "descendents" of the Islamic prophet Muhammad - are looking to oust not only Prime Minister Maliki and the Shiites from Baghdad, however. They have ignited the entire region. Iran has pledged support to stand by Iraqi Shiites and is even considering, as contradictory to traditional political alliances as this may seem, to join sides with Washington. US President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has yet to announce plans for how he intends to support Maliki.

Shiite axis

For Tehran, the pledging of support to Iraq's Shiites is a matter of course, just as it supported President Assad - an Alawite - with the help of Shiite Hezbollah militias in the Syrian civil war.

Iran has a strategic regional interest in upholding the Shiite axis in the Middle East, which comprises Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq and itself: It is a way of securing its influence. But it is also more. It would be unthinkable for Iran's ayatollahs and mullahs, who see themselves in the tradition of Ayatollah Khomeini, to ignore any neighboring Shiites in a time of need. This is grounds for jihad - a holy war.

There has been civil war in Syria for a long time now, between Assad and the opposition, but also within the opposition itself - between ISIS and the proponents of the secular democracy movement. Almost 200,000 people have died and millions have been displaced, and yet, Assad remains in power: a never-ending blood bath.

And surrounding Syria stand the other Middle East actors. The Kurds have established themselves in North Iraq and have no fear of ISIS. Their military strength and newly acquired political identity pose a challenge to Turkey, which has had its share of troubles with the chaotic situation on both sides of the border to Syria. Jordan - for years, a state burdened by Palestinian refugees - has had to deal with the second highest influx of Syrian refugees, behind Lebanon. And nobody knows how secure the Jordanian kingdom really is.

Visions of power

And then there's Saudi Arabia: Iran's great adversary on the Persian Gulf, its great rival in the struggle for intellectual and spiritual dominance in the Middle East - the keeper of the "holy cities" of Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia follows the ultraconservative teachings of Wahhabism, and is thus a religious state - with a lot of money. It has often been a key supporter of Islamic pursuits abroad, and also played a role in setting up Islamist groups. A kingdom with a double standard: it fears jihadism and fosters it at the same time, in the hope that it's never directed towards the Saudi dynasty.

However, the insane vision of an ISIS caliphate would incorporate not only Syria and Iraq; it would also involve Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's name alone seems to indicate the all-inclusive power this terrorist is after.

Even if al-Baghdadi were stopped in his attempted conquest, jihadism wouldn't be stopped. It would be merely put on hold. This war in Iraq, the battle of Baghdad, is the beginning of an all-out religious war between Shiites and Sunnis. And with it, the Middle East now faces a conflict akin to the Thirty Years' War. Israel's existence has never been this uncertain. And the West won't be able to watch for long.

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