Over the past few months speculation has been rife that the events in Ukraine could trigger the next World War. Numerous articles have proclaimed that to be the most likely scenario.
But is it?
The actions of the Islamic militant group calling itself " The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" - or ISIS – has created a new situation on the ground which has a far greater potential for setting off a world conflict than Ukraine could ever have.
Despite all the world posturing and tut-tutting about the Crimea, it is, after all, simply a piece of land whose ownership is disputed. Viewed objectively, given the demographic structure of the area, the Russians have at least an arguable case to justify its annexation. Whether the fears of the local Russian speaking population were real or imagined, it's now a fait-accompli, and no one is going to do anything to change the situation any time soon.
Even that the expansion of Russian interests in other parts of Ukraine have similar elements of justification, which might keep the diplomats busy for a few months, but are unlikely to include any significant military dimension.
But the situation in the Middle East is completely different. It is far more volatile and dangerous because it is not really a question of land. What the world is witnessing, not for the first time – and certainly not for the last – is a clash of ideologies within Islam.
Some may feel that while they are busy butchering and beheading each other at least they are not a threat to the rest of the world.
That is mistaken and shortsighted thinking.
With every passing year, the theories of Samuel P. Huntington that people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world, gain even more credence.
Huntington's concept, which he aptly termed "The Clash of Civilizations" was first proposed in 1992. Since then, the world has witnessed with growing horror the expansion of ever increasingly radical Islamic groups in almost every corner of the globe. Islamic militant groups are active in Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, Kenya, Lebanon, The Palestinian territories, and Gaza, just to list a few.
Although Russia nominally crushed the Islamists of Chechnya, remnants of them still manage the odd bombing atrocity in Russia. Islamic activity in China also appears to have been suppressed, but facts from there are almost impossible to verify.
But Islamic extremism and terrorism is not confined to countries with mainly Muslim populations. From the attack on the Twin Towers in New York to the London bus bombings to the Madrid train bombings, Islam carried its war to the rest of the world.
And the world cleaned up the sites, mourned – and moved on. Some might argue that the U.S., and one or two other countries, tried to do something about those atrocities by invading Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and (eventually) killing their leader, Osama bin-Laden. History will judge whether those tactics succeeded or not; currently, the legacy is not looking too good.
Why could the actions of ISIS trigger a third world war?
It all depends on which group, or groups, the major powers ally themselves with and support diplomatically, financially, or militarily. We are today witnessing the truth of the adage that adversity makes strange bedfellows. Even a week ago, who could have envisaged a scenario in which the U.S. and Iran could share a mutual interest, and possibly support each other in actions against ISIS?
Apart from the fact that Russia, and sometimes China, have an almost knee-jerk reaction against any direction the U.S. might take in the international arena, Israel is the wild card in the pack. If it senses that – for whatever reason – the U.S. and Iran will find themselves allies, it will understand that the U.S. will be constrained in taking further action against Iran regarding its efforts to manufacture a nuclear bomb.
Facing such a situation, The Israeli government may feel that he window of opportunity to take military action against Iran is rapidly closing. Although, until now, the prevailing belief has been that Israel could not act alone – and succeed – it could be, and probably is the fact, that Israel will be left with no alternative. Diplomatic efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program have palpably failed.
The danger of such a course of action is that it would almost certainly result in the Islamist factions stopping their mutual bloodletting in order to confront their joint enemy, Israel. From that point, it does not require too much imagination to project what will be the effect of world and regional governments aligning themselves with one side or the other.
World War 3 starting in the Middle East as an indirect result of the actions of ISIS is not such a fanciful prediction!