The forgotten conflicts

Rubble in Aleppo, Syria Image copyright Getty Images

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a significant proportion of all the fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars in the Middle East.

By far the most numerous victims of violence in these conflicts were Muslims.

Another study looking at six conflicts worldwide in 2012 - in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen - found that the majority of armed/insurgent groups involved had a jihadist ideology.

While the world as a whole is arguably becoming less violent, certain regions, in particular the Middle East, are going in the opposite direction.

It is in that context that Tunisia's declaration of a state of emergency - a week after the mass killings in Sousse - takes on added meaning.

Tunisia's leader blamed the poor security in neighbouring Libya for the country's problems. He also took aim at the international community for what he claimed was a lack of resolve in tackling the so-called Islamic State.

He said Tunisia was a target because it had a functioning, secular democracy and that terrorists posed an existential threat to the nation.

It is recognition of the scale of the radical jihadist threat in countries, big and small, throughout the region.

The scale of the long bloody war in Syria, the ongoing battle for control of parts of Iraq, and the collapse of Libya have inadvertently taken attention away from the growing threat to stability and security elsewhere in the region.

Other countries affected

Tunisia is not alone. Algeria is another country that continues to face sporadic violence. Serving as the gateway between Africa and Europe, it has been torn by conflict over the last half-century.

Although political violence has declined since the 1990s, the country has been shaken by a campaign of bombings by a group calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Similar but separate jihadist groups have emerged in recent years throughout the Sahara region, reinforced by weapons obtained through militias operating in neighbouring Libya.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption French troops intervened in Mali in January 2013 but Islamist militants have continued to launch attacks

In Mali, jihadist insurgency continues. Earlier this year, militants attacked the northern town of Nampala, killing five people. The militants have been fighting the Malian army for a number of years.

The latest phase of the insurgency began after a French-led military intervention in 2013, aimed at driving out jihadist militants from towns they had seized in northern Mali and declared to be an "Islamic state". The French military action dispersed but did not destroy the extremists, and sporadic attacks have continued.

Egypt under President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former military chief, is cracking down hard on internal threats, perceived or real.

The Muslim Brotherhood is outlawed and its leading lights face execution. Yet the regime faces a growing jihadist insurgency in Sinai. The most lethal insurgent group seems to be Sinai Province, and was previously called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.

It is an affiliate of IS, and has operated there since 2011. The group has launched frequent attacks against security forces and military infrastructure, and seems to have adopted some of the techniques used by IS in terms of recruiting new members using online propaganda.

Libya is a failed state, overrun by militias and with no real functioning government. Increasingly though, the country is posing even bigger problems for its neighbours, serving as a pathway for weapons and Islamists intent on exporting terror further afield.

Concern for Jordan

Jordan remains perched on a delicate precipice. It lacks wealth or natural resources but has been a dependable strategic ally for America and others in the Middle East. But militant groups have established a growing presence on Jordan's borders with Syria and Iraq.

The country has a long history of trouble with extremist groups. IS carried out the killing of a captured Jordanian pilot earlier this year. Some 2,000 or so Jordanian nationals are believed to have joined jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. King Abdullah is in the sights of the extremists, in part for joining the international coalition against IS.

The conflict in Syria shows no sign of an early resolution and highlights yet again how conflict within one country can ignite much wider repercussions.

From week to week the apparent winners and losers change form. It's increasingly hard for outside observers to know who is fighting who.

This is because Syria has become a proxy war between regional powers -Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran - as much as a fight between the Assad regime and its various opponents, of which the jihadists - split into at least two groups - are but one.

Some observers speak now not so much of a generational Sunni-Shia conflict but more of a Cold War between Sunni power Saudi Arabia and Shia rival Iran.

Iran's influence

To understand what's going on in the Middle East, they say, requires us to look at everything through this prism.

In this analysis, Iran has emerged as a stronger power in the wake of the 2003 Iraq war. It now has a wide influence throughout the region, in particular over Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The Saudis, according to this thesis, have belatedly woken up to the Iranian threat. They are fighting back by supporting Iran's enemies in Syria and Iraq and more recently anti-Iranian factions in Yemen.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Smoke from attack by the Saudi-led coalition on a weapons depot at a Yemen military airport

The conflict in Yemen - bloody and in danger of being forgotten by the wider world - can also be seen through this prism, although a temporary ceasefire has just been put in place.

The Saudis are determined to persist with their military action in Yemen, bombing the Shia Houthi rebels in that country, to ensure that Yemen does not fall under the influence of Iran (although the stated aim is to restore the government)

The Saudis accuse Iran of arming the Houthis, something which the Houthis and Iran deny.

Same too for the uneasy peace in Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, and a small but important battleground for bigger regional forces.

It too potentially lies at the heart of a tussle between Iran and the Saudis. The country's Sunni monarchy, backed by the Saudis, rules over a restive Shia majority population, many of whom look to Iran.

Here too, say some observers, a Sunni-Shia conflict might just as plainly be stated as a Saudi-Iranian stand-off.

All in all, the populations of the Middle East find themselves victims to spreading conflict within and beyond their borders.

The very meaning of nationhood, say some, is under threat from the resurgence of sectarian and ethnic identities.

The extremists are filling the vacuum.

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