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The Middle East: In the Shadow of the Gunmen

In Iraq, the  country is today separated into three areas, a Kurdish north, an area in the center controlled by Sunni jihadis and a Shia area in the south.  Again, the Shia south, which is still seen in the west as the "legitimate" government of Iraq, is in fact an area in which Shia militias are the key element, operating freely and acting according to their own will.  Often, this will is the product of the desires of the Qods Force, and its commander General Qassem Suleimani.

In Lebanon, in a notably different process,  an Iran-created militia, Hizballah, acquired the dominant role in the area once ruled by the state, because the state was a hollow construct long competed over by rival sectarian militias, and because Iranian and Syrian support enabled Hizballah to acquire a level of strength which no other homegrown political-military force could match.  It may well be that this is now changing, as al-Qaeda associated Sunni militias enter the arena.

In Yemen, where the state and central government was also weak, the Iranian supported militia Ansar Allah (the "Houthis") seized the capital in January.  Sunni elements in the south, including one of the strongest franchises of al-Qaeda, are fighting against them.  A mobilization of Arab air and sea power is underway to prevent Iran’s proxies from seizing the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. Control of this vital waterway, between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, would tilt the regional balance yet further in Iran’s favor.

Finally, in Libya, the western destruction of the Gadaffi regime has led to the splitting of the country between two rival governments -- one supported by the Egyptians in Tobruk, another backed by Islamist militias in Tripoli.

Five Arab states, effectively no longer in existence.  In all, militia power has replaced ordered government.

What does all this mean for the region?  It means that a huge chunk of the long misgoverned Middle East has exchanged an age of despotic torpor for an age of chaos.  The Iranians, because of their matchless IRGC, are best equipped to make gains from this.

But nowhere (with the partial exception of tiny Lebanon) have the Iranians yet succeeded in keeping a country united under the control of their local proxy.  This is not a story of an unstoppable Iranian advance, like a juggernaut, across the region.  Their successes are notable, but partial in each area of operation.  Sunni and Kurdish forces prevent their complete victory and are likely to continue to do so.

Where will all this end -- what will the landscape look like when the storm passes?  Impossible to say.

But it may be said with certainty that the shadow of the gunmen is today hanging over the Middle East, all the way from the Iraq–Iran border to the Mediterranean coast and from the Gulf of Aden to Libya.