Reading Tom Holland’s stupendous (if controversial) history of the foundations of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, I was struck by how current events in the Middle East can find distant parallels in the political and religious convulsions of the sixth and seventh centuries. In particular the rise and spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now simply the Islamic State (IS), echoes in some ways the part-legendary growth of Islam amongst the disparate peoples of the Arabian peninsula and the manner in which several Islamic states filled the void left by former powers in the region, from the Sasanian Empire to its Byzantium rival. I’m sure those parallels are not lost on history-conscious Arabs of the Moslem faith.
The emergence of IS is every bit as dramatic as some tabloids would have it. It is history in the making as the old, Western-imposed borders of the Middle East are rubbed out or redrawn. Like the Late Antiquity period it also makes for some interesting and unlikely allies. The Islamic State is currently fighting in Iraq against the central, Shia-majority government, while allied with a disparate set of partners, from Saddam-era Baathists to a rag-bag collection of (Sunni and some Shia) militias from local communities (I won’t use the term “tribe” to describe such communities with all its pejorative baggage that we know from anglocentric Irish history). Individual alliances are fluid, as often made as unmade, and there seems little trust anywhere. Meanwhile it is also combating the military forces of the recognised, autonomous Kurdish region in north-east of Iraq and the self-declared but de facto autonomous Kurdish region in the north-east of Syria. Of course the Syrian Kurds are also fighting some Syrian Opposition groups in their own country. Groups who are also fighting IS. And this while all three are battling against the Syrian government (though in some places the Islamic State and the Assad dictatorship in Damascus seem to have agreed some ceasefires in order to secure local territories or face down rival groupings).
The internecine conflict in Syria is slowly spilling over into Lebanon where IS also has a presence. And Lebanon, at least in the form of the state-within-a-state that is Hezbollah, is supplying the cutting edge of Assad’s fight back against the disunited rebel opposition. Islamic State fighters and Lebanese soldiers have been battling each other in recent weeks on the northern border, though IS seems on the back foot (for the moment). Sooner or later the Islamic State will subsume or suppress all of the anti-Assad groups in Syria. Until then they continue their complex game of fight/no-fight with the Syrian military. Of course when IS becomes the Syrian Opposition it will also gain more of the arms and munitions taken from the donations bequeathed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to their favoured “rebels”.
So we will witness more Islamic militants armed with former Yugoslavian arms from Croatian stockpiles shipped by Jordan and paid for by Saudi Arabia in a deal negotiated by the United States. Which of course will be used, if possible, against all of the above (well, maybe not the Croatians, unless you want to include Bosnia-Herzegovina in the approaching Gotterdammerung). Meanwhile Russian jets, flown by Iranian pilots, are dropping American bombs on Islamic State convoys in the name of the Iraqi Air Force to support troops from Kurdish militias that both the Iraqi and Iranian governments regard as enemies but which the Americans regard as close allies.
Good luck to the historian who has to make sense of all this five hundred years from now.