The Middle East is a complicated place in some ways, but it is understandable. It's firstly about religion. Secondly, it's about power. Then it's about money. In that order. Often I hear people discuss the Middle East as if it was "all about oil", but that is very naive and simplistic. Then I hear people say "well they've been killing themselves since history began". Well, that may be true somewhat, but so have people in the rest of the world. Also, oil has only been a factor for 100 years. What about the rest of history?
The key to understanding the Middle East is realizing everything in the Middle East is anchored in religion. In the Arab sense that means either Shia or Sunni branches of Islam. From the same beginnings, but divided in history, and at war ever since. Throughout most of recent history, western powers of one kind or another have attempted to impose order on these divisions by imposing "countries" on them, with strong dictatorships to keep those two branches in some sort of working order. The cruelty necessary to do so was never at question, only the result. Order no matter what. That became increasingly necessary after oil was discovered.
The "deal" if you will was blown apart by George W. Bush in Desert Storm II when he invaded and conquered Iraq. Essentially, he let the genie out of the bottle. When his father forced Hussien out of Kuwait, he stopped the invasion before toppling Hussien. As an ex-director of the CIA, Bush senior knew that Hussien was all that held Iraq together, and giving the people there democracy was akin to lighting the house on fire. His son chose differently.
What happened in Iraq was as predictable as the sun rising and setting. The majority Shia won the elections. The minority Sunni, who had controlled Iraq via Hussien, turned on the Americans causing them 4000 plus deaths. The Shia hated the US even more than the Sunnis and happily watched and assisted as the US became embroiled. It wasn't until the US decided to buy off the Sunnis, literally, by paying insurgents a salary via "awakening" councils, that the heat went off them in Iraq. But, it never went out between the Sunnis and Shia. In fact, it opened the door for Shia Iran next door to gain vast influence in Iraq that it never had before.
The US invasion also had the affect of driving Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) into the fore front. Since that time, the two have been engaged in a not so covert war to dominate the region for their religious branch. Not for oil, but rather for the bragging rights that their half of the Muslim religion was righteous, and prevailed over the other... as was destined. Both countries have massively armed themselves. One fed by the US (Saudi) and the other by its own industry and Russia (Shia). Iran supported groups in the region that supported the Shia like Hezbollah, etc. Saudi supported the other side. Same goes for every "country" in the Middle East. I use quotations on country, because countries are a mainly European/Western imposition on the area. The Middle East is better described as Tribes. That is their nature, their history, and their loyalty - even today.
The US added some gas to the fire when it and NATO, by abusing the UN enforcement of a "no-fly zone" in Libya, toppled another dictator and opened the area to religious tribalism. The same can be said for the covert, not at the time overt, US involvement supporting anti-Assad rebels in Syria. Assad equals Shia (Iran) and the rebels including ISIS equal the Sunni (Saudi). What the US has been doing is undoing the system of order and control it either helped or unilaterally imposed on the religious tribes of the Middle East. In other words, it is hauling truckloads of the driest wood you can find, soaking it in petrol, and throwing the flame on top. A rather curious dance of creating the conditions for competing extremism, and then deeming itself to be at war with it.
The latest Middle East "country" to implode on the US is Yemen. Situated at the mouth of the Gulf, Yemen is very geo-politically important. The Houthis have taken power there after overthrowing, you guessed it, the Saudi (Sunni) dictatorship. The Houthis are of the Zaidi branch of, you guessed it, Shia. As I write this post, the United Nations security Council has been called to a meeting to discuss the Houthis takeover of Yemen. Simultaneously, the US has just announced it is sending 4000 plus troops to its base in Kuwait. Whatever happens, you can be sure that either Saudi Arabia, or the US, or both will invade Yemen at any time now. And so it goes.
What is at fault for all the chaos in the Middle East? That depends on how you rationalize it. However, there are some truths that remain so no matter the rationalization. The Middle east is a land of tribes that hold their religion, Shia, Sunni, or Jewish, more dear than any other thing. It is who they are, and it is the source for all they are - including politics. Values there are not based on democracy, or any kind of "free society". For them, in many ways, democracy and freedom are counter to what is expected of them by their religions. Human freedom, if followed to its logical conclusion, would go against the teachings of the Koran, and that is as offensive to them as watching people be decapitated is to us. But, the US and other Western nations never seem to learn that lesson. Our governments continue to try and impose the "white man's burden" on them. Even though it has no chance of ever succeeding. We stir the pot, and then cry foul that the pot never ceases to stop boiling.
Now, though, the US has raised the heat in the Middle East so drastically that the ominous tales of Armageddon come to mind. The bear vs the eagle. The great war in the Middle East that consumes millions. Scary stuff. Very scary stuff. But ask yourself: what is the logical conclusion to the fires burning in Syria, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Libya, Iraq, and now Yemen? It has to all be going somewhere - such is the nature of our human condition. So where? The Shia and the Sunni aren't going to happily toddle off to their particular corners and allow one side or the other to freely reign over them, The US, Russia, China, etc are not about to walk away and leave what they perceive to be their pawns toppled from the board. Where are all of these competing interests leading us? To one big explosion of violence or to one big reconciliation? If the US government wasn't the "power" on earth that they seem to be, I would say we have a chance of creating some sort of respectful co-existence in the Middle East. Whether that be by attrition or agreement. However, if the US remains free to dance in the china shop, well, let's just say people should start reading their Bibles' story of Armageddon. It's a story about lighting the Middle East on fire.
Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the
round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're
not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify
them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change
things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the
crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that
they can change the world, are the ones who do.
US computer engineer & industrialist (1955 - 2011)