The deserts of Iraq and Syria this week are alight with the flames of bloody sectarian war. Sunni and Shiite militias, armed to the teeth with the weapons of modern warfare, march to the beat of ancient religious quarrels, and while doing so have either defeated or faced down the professional armies of Iraq and Syria. What we are witnessing is the possible destruction of a large swath of the Middle East as we have known it since the end of World War I, almost 100 years ago. The potential for change is enormous, and nobody, not the U.S., not Iran, not Israel seems to know what to do. Rarely in our time has history unfolded so quickly and so dramatically, and all that we can be sure of is that we cannot safely predict the future.
How did it come to this pass? Some critics say the blame lies fundamentally with the British and the French, who covertly drew the boundaries of modern Syria and Iraq during World War I when both countries were still part of the Ottoman Empire. The boundaries ignored the fault lines of sectarian and tribal allegiances, thus laying the groundwork for future divisions. Other more partisan critics say the blame lies with President Barack Obama, who precipitously withdrew all American troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, thus paving the way for the lightning advance of the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.