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Middle East after Obama: 13 semi-states instead of 4 states

When Barack Obama became U.S. President in 2009, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen were unified states with centralized regimes. Today, when Obama’s presidency is over, those nations are divided into 14 semi-states. In his farewell speech, Obama expressed no regrets but it is he who has changed the map of the Middle East.

Libya. Six years after Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow, that country is divided into for territories. The smallest ones are controlled by tribes and ISIL, the biggest ones are ruled by the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (Tripoli) and the Libyan National Army, commanded by Khalifa Haftar (Tobruk). None of them has the upper hand and none of them is going to give in. The legitimate Tripoli-based government is not as strong as it has been before: just a week ago, a group of Islamists attempted to seize the ministries of defense, justice and economy.

Yemen. In that country, the Arab Spring resulted in a revolt and the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. His successor, Mansur Hadi, ruled for just three years. In early 2015, the Houthis, who controlled the south of the country, broke into Sanaa. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. Shortly afterwards, the Saudis formed a coalition and invaded Yemen. But their operation has failed as the Houthis are still in Sanaa. That conflict gave Al Qaida a chance to capture a small territory in the center of Yemen. So, now there are three semi-states in that country.

Syria. After six years of war, that country is divided into four territories. The biggest ones are controlled by the government (the west) and ISIL (the east), the north is controlled by the Syrian Kurds, with the “moderate opposition” (mostly Islamists, including Al Qaeda fighters) having small territories in the north, center and south.

Iraq. The operation to liberate Mosul has shown that ISIL is not easy to beat. In the meantime, the confrontation among the three major forces – the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shias – is growing. Iraqi Kurdistan is no longer just an autonomy and keeps threatening Baghdad with an independence referendum. The Sunni-Shia confrontation is also a serious threat to Iraq’s unity. It was that conflict that helped ISIL to gain a foothold in the north: the Americans were already gone, while the Iraqi army was not strong enough to stop the Caliphate.

The common thing about Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria is that the Americans have no direct hand in the local conflicts. Instead, they are applying the tactics of “hybrid war”: they are not using their own troops but they are training, sponsoring and arming local fighters. On the one hand, such tactics will spare the lives of U.S. soldiers but, on the other, it has caused chaos in the Middle East. Historical and religious contradictions in those four countries have prevailed over their wish to be U.S.-type democratic. As a result, all of them have turned into hotbeds of Islamic extremists, who are now controlling big territories and are not going to give in.

In other counties, things are no better. Formerly, the Americans acted directly and they were able to adjust themselves to their plans but now they are being used as executors of those plans. The Gulf monarchies and Turkey have taken this as a chance to push their own interests and to resist the Shia Iran’s activities in Iraq and Yemen. This has made things even more complicated in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Syria has become the brightest example of Shia-Sunni confrontation: Shias from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan are fighting for the Syrian government, while the Saudis and the Qataris are sponsoring the “moderate opposition.”

The confrontation of regional players has made the conflicts turning into religious clashes (apart from Lybia). Even if ISIL is physically destroyed, they will continue dividing previously united nations. It seems that Obama has given start to processes that Trump will not be able to stop.

In the early 20th century, France and Great Britain divided the Middle East on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and left it to authoritarian local rulers. The Americans overthrew them and gave a whole number of religious and political players a chance to change the status quo. But today those players are much stronger and are less willing to obey to their patron. In the meantime, millions of Libyans, Yemenis, Iraqis and Syrians have been forced either to flee or to face new demarcating lines in their own territories. Under their former authoritarian regimes, they were relatively happy. Now those still alive can only long for those times. In Syria alone, the conflict has claimed as many as 300,000-500,000 lives.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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