The Middle East Balancing Act

MADRID – The recent gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) confirms that, more than a decade after the war in Iraq began, stability in the Middle East remains on a knife’s edge. ISIS – with its transnational commitment to a caliphate that encompasses vast swaths of territory from western Syria to central Iraq – exemplifies the interrelated nature of the challenges facing the region, and the threat it poses highlights the urgent need for a new framework for action in the Middle East.

ISIS began as an affiliate of Al Qaeda, following America’s invasion of Iraq. Though it was expelled from Al Qaeda last February for, of all things, its excessively violent tactics, it has thrived, finding fertile ground for expansion in a civil-war-ravaged Syria and among Iraq’s Sunni population, which is increasingly alienated from the country’s Shia-led government.

Iraq’s location on a major fault line between Sunnis and Shia – whose sectarian rivalry has become the main axis of confrontation in the region – has been a source of instability in the country for decades. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime led to a surge in sectarian violence, except in the northern region of Kurdistan, which enjoys considerable autonomy vis-à-vis the central government in Baghdad.

But Iraq’s current travails are the direct result of the war in neighboring Syria, where ISIS has claimed thousands of lives. Moreover, the rise of ISIS will have repercussions far beyond Iraq’s borders, as the organization competes with Al Qaeda to lead the global jihad – a competition that will undoubtedly involve violent efforts by both sides to demonstrate their anti-Western bona fides.