Earlier this month, ANU academic and Head of the Arab and Islamic Studies, Professor Amin Saikal AM FASSA, joined ABC News anchor Virginia Haussegger for a discussion on the rise and influence of the “Islamic State” (IS). The event, hosted by the College of Arts and Social Sciences, provided a narrative of the Middle East that attempted to unpack the multi-faceted issues of the region, starting with the Iranian Revolution almost 35 years ago, to the present day.

An examination of the underlying stories revealed new pressing concerns to an area of the world that has been volatile for some time. Professor Saikal contended that a changing dynamic in the status quo between actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, coupled with long existing sectarian and geo-political alignments, was a principal reason for the surge in prosperity for the IS. In particular, he noted that the IS, a proponent of the larger “Sunni” Muslim sect, benefitted actors like Saudi Arabia when measured against the smaller Shia sects, the majority of whom are in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. He acknowledged, however that the political contouring of the region is too nuanced to summarize in just a few sentences.     

The event was aptly timed as it came just days before what could be called the most polarizing incident in IS history: their media packet release showcasing the barbaric murder and burning of a captured Jordanian pilot. Speaking with Woroni on the foreign response, Professor Saikal noted how increased military support from the US, as well as similar promises from Britain and France, has facilitated the launching of a major ground operation in Mosul, a choke-point city in Iraq. 

However, Professor Saikal expressed his uncertainty  with respect to the regional implications of the operation. The vested interests of each State, as well as the possibility for aggravation of local conflicts rather than facilitation of a resolution to the violence, were cited as reasons to doubt the effectiveness of the program.

“[The capture of the Jordanian pilot] has galvanized public opinion against [the IS]; not only in the Arab world, but across the Muslim domain. Whether this will result in more enhanced collective operations on the part of the Arab countries remains to be seen.

While solutions to the territorial conflict plaguing the Middle East cannot be assessed with any degree of clarity, Professor Saikal was certain that “the conflict is set to be prolonged and bloody for some time to come”.