The Middle East is a war-torn, unsettled region with a multitude of foreign alliances and proxy wars. Almost every country has been involved in armed conflict at some point in time. The stage is perennially set for conflict, and behind the scenes, lurk the two giants of the region—Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The term proxy war refers to indirect warfare-supporting terror outfits, rebel groups, governments, etc. Back in 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after WW1, several tribes conquered various parts of the empire, paving the way for the emergence of a number of countries including Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia became an oil-based economy soon after striking oil in 1938, backed by the United States. Iran followed a while later, when the United States helped stage a coup to overthrow the then Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. The invasion was a result of the rich oil reserves in Iran and the nationalist ideology of Mossadegh who had refused to share the oil reserves with other countries.
The newly instituted Iranian monarch modernised Iran, but failed to inspire love in his people owing to his oppressive policies. He was infamous for torturing and killing those who opposed him with the help of a secret police–the SAVAK. This led to a major dissent between the monarch’s supporters and the recusants, leading to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini led this prominent revolt and assumed power, declaring Iran a theocratic Islamic republic. This was a major turning point of events in the Middle East.
The Saudis panicked for a variety of reasons. To begin with, the Saudis wanted no one in the region to revolt against an autocratic government—for they feared that their own people might be enticed to do the same. There was also a religious threat associated with the revolution. Saudi Arabia had long been the Islamic hub because of pilgrim sites like Mecca and Medina, but with the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini declared Iran to be the Islamic capital, owing to the nature and context of the revolution. The religious divide itself is quite significant–Iran is predominantly Shi’a Muslim, while Saudi Arabia is primarily Sunni Muslim. These fears were not unfounded–CIA reports show that Iran had started to export its revolution to neighbouring states.
The stage for the first of the many proxy wars turned out to be Iraq. The Saudis were not the only ones who fretted over the Iranian Revolution. In 1980, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran, it was only to unleash the wrath of the superior Iranian forces on them. Feeling threatened again, the Saudis helped the Iraqis fight the Iranians by funding them and providing them with both military and civilian supplies. The war dragged on for eight long years before Iran agreed to a truce in 1988. Millions had died with no clear victor.
Fifteen years later, in 2003, the US invasion of Iraq destabilised the country and deserted it, without a leader or a government. This helped Shia and Sunni militias to spring up all across Iraq, and these outfits were quickly funded and trained by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively.
Proxy wars like these have been fought by Saudi Arabia and Iran all across the Middle East, including countries like Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Lebanon, and most notably, Syria. Many countries like Qatar are being dragged into this long unresolved mess and with every passing day, the chances of a peaceful resolution to this war get bleaker.
Explain like I’m a Syrian
Living in Syria is almost certain suicide–the chances of you being killed especially if you’re a civilian are massive; given that there are four different sides backed by a dozen different countries fighting it out for control. Syria was trapped in this situation a few years back, in 2011, with widespread, peaceful pro-democracy protests all across the Middle East, termed as the Arab Spring. The Syrian Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad didn’t take kindly to these protests and ordered the protesters to be fired upon. Soon, the protesters were firing back, backed by members of the Syrian Army who had defected and helped start a civil war.
Syria became a battleground for another Middle Eastern proxy war in the summer of 2012. Extremist groups flooded Syria in an attempt to join hands with the rebel groups,the notable one being Al-Qaeda’s offspring—Jabhat al-Nusra. Syrian Kurdish groups who long sought autonomy, split away in the north and took up arms against the Kurds. Iran and Saudi Arabia entered the picture when Iran started assisting Assad by providing arms and supplies, and also unleashed the Lebanese, Shi’a militia Hezbollah, who fought alongside Assad against the rebels. Saudi Arabia, as expected, started funding the other side of the civil war by providing arms and supplies to the rebels via Jordan and Turkey.
The Syrian civil war took a completely different turn in 2014, when a small group of terrorists in Iraq, originally a part of the Al Qaeda, broke away from them due to internal dispute and started claiming land across Iraq and Syria. They called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Plundering towns and villages, murdering and raping along the way, the ISIS became well known for publicised beheadings of foreign journalists. The ISIS didn’t fight Assad; instead they chose to fight rebels and Kurds. As a consequence, the US began bombing the ISIS. The US also started training rebels in Syria, only for the ISIS—an entity that had replaced Assad as the US’s main enemy in the Middle East.
The true infusion was set in 2015 with Turkey, originally part of the Gulf states funding the rebels fighting Assad, started bombing the Kurds in the North due to border issues. This is one of the underlying problems of the Middle East issue—the US thinks of ISIS as its arch enemy but the countries in the Middle East have their own priorities to think of. In the same year, Russia, under the pretext of bombing the ISIS, sent dozens of military aircrafts to a long-held base in Syria, but ended up bombing rebels and US-backed groups opposing Assad—the US and Russia, the two major global powers had taken up opposing sides in an already multi-dimensional war.
The next year, Assad won back Aleppo from the rebels, their last major stronghold. In 2017, Assad used chemical weapons for a second time after 2013, killing dozens. The US president, Donald Trump, who had initially promised to stay away from Syria, said this had effectively changed his mind and a week later, the US, for the first time, was bombing Assad’s regime with tomahawk missiles. This recent development added another dimension to a war that has spiraled out of control.
There is some respite though. In December 2017, the Iraqi government announced that the ISIS had been dismantled and torn apart for the most apart—Iraq had won back Mosul from the terrorists. According to latest reports, the ISIS now controls only 2% of its original territory and is all set to become extinct. However, a complete end to the Syrian war seems only a far-fetched possibility at this stage.
Explain like I’m an Aspiring First-World Militant
If you think that your life is hard, and you are misunderstood by others around you, take a moment to consider the decision you are about to make. The world is not as comfortable as the one you see before you, and the sugar-coated stories of glory and revolution professed by Middle Eastern militant propaganda are nothing but fallacies. If you are about to take the next flight to Afghanistan in the hopes of converting to Islam, joining ISIS and ‘finding yourself’ by fighting for some misplaced cause, think again. Almost every foreign teenager, who has had the glorious hopes of becoming revolutionaries, found out that these hopes are often nothing but illusions, as most of them end up becoming suicide bombers or sex slaves. If you decide to undertake the journey, remember that war only results in pointless bloodshed and traumatic memories, and maybe there is an easier path to finding oneself. Consider picking up a musical instrument rather than an AK-47.