Dogs that bite

In Middle East on 26. July 2014 at 01:31

The region known as Levant and Mesopotamia i.e. Jordan, Israel-Palestine, Syria and Iraq, has historically been the battle-zone for powers residing in east and west. Be it Persians against Romans, Arabs against Persians or latter against Turks, this field – the Fertile Crescent – has witnessed much bloodshed.

This area has also been the administrative centre of many a great cultures and empires, from the Mesopotamian culture with its birth between the two mighty rivers, to the ancient Babylonian, Sumerian, Judean and Assyrian empires. Later on, the Arab empires would make its relevance even greater with strongholds as Damascus and Bagdad.

Periods of stability with prosperity has succeeded periods of instability and bloodshed. As is evident, the current political setup – a legacy of colonial rule – has built up enough grievance, with the help of local powers seeking influence, to make this region again a bloody mess.

There are many analyses on this current scenario, and one cannot blame only one culprit to this. Moreover, many stakeholders have invested too much in this setup. However, the fight for power has become so messy, that in the end, the same fighting powers are compelled to cooperate to solve this menace.

So, who is into this mess, how is the bricks lined up now with this new self-designed Caliphate, and how can one get a solution to all this human suffering?

Game with proxies

There is in this region, three great powers, who try through proxies, to win influence among people and states. To acquire this, both religion and economy is used through diplomacy ranging from political pressure or indirect warfare. Pitting up or supporting one side against the other is a favourite weapon. Involving others, from outside region is another aspect, and finding others to blame for own shortcomings becomes a favourite activity.

Post-WWII, Egypt, Persia/Iran and Saudi Arabia has fought for influence in Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Egypt through its Nasserist pan-Arabism came a long way with Baathist coups in Iraq and Syria, while Saudi Arabia saw it as a threat to its monarchy and sought support among other monarchies as Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Emirates and Jordan – involving USA and UK, as Nasserists were on good terms with Soviet Union. Egypt has since lost its relevance, on where Turkey has taken the pin to be a new contender.

Turkey had a different agenda as it sought closer cooperation with Europe and US. Its authoritarian secularist governments had good relations to Israel but found it a duty to cry for pan-Turk feelings. In this process, it supported the Shia majority ethnic Turk Azerbaijan against Shia dominated Persian Iran. However, Turkey also fought Kurds and supported to a great degree Syrian and Iraqi dictators to quell Kurdish nationalistic movements. Even aiding jihadist groupings to fend off the secular Kurd nationalism.

Turkey of then and Turkey of now is quite different, the Davotoglu doctrine of zero problems with neighbours hinted of a new challenger to Saudi and Iranian fight for influence. Erdogan’s AKP sought alliances with dictators but also Islamist movements. With the Arab Spring sweeping all corners of this area, former Syrian ally Turkey became an ideal state for others to follow. It was as Islamists claimed a manifestation that democracy and Islam can work together. This became just a big challenge to Saudi interests as Nasser was in his days.

The most regressive power, Saudi Arabia, which holds to authoritarian monarchy, seeks influence and authority over region and Muslims in general through its custodianship of the holy sites of Islam. Saudi Arabia’s modus operandi has always been to spread its political power through spreading what it believes to be the correct and pure version of Islam. In this scenario, Shia Muslims are excluded as heretics. Thus, Saudi supported Saddam’s Iraq against Iran, but found Saddam to be too much when he attacked Kuwait, a fellow authoritarian monarchy. Priority is clear, support Islamic states, but foremost Arab-states, and even then Arab monarchies.

Saudi Arabia has fought the Nasserist pan-Arabism to that a degree it even sought Israeli help in Yemen against Egyptian allies. Its anti-Shia and anti-Iran agenda has placed Saudi and Israeli interests on the same page. It supported democratic protests in Syria (Iran allied) and Libya (anti-Saudi) while opposing it in Egypt (due to Ikhwan) and Bahrain (Shia majority). Its own treatment of Shia Muslims is beyond horrendous, and the way ISIS created its powerbase, is the same way Saudi clan created its own kingdom.

Iran has been a challenge to Saudi influence during both Shah’s era and even more with the so-called Islamic revolution. Being an inspiration to Islamist movements, it led Saudi Arabia to cut ties to Ikhwan al-Muslimeen. Brotherhoods branch in Palestine. Hamas movement had also friends in Assad’s Syria even when Hafez Al-Assad had history of butchering the Syrian branch to pieces. Iran has with such influence made a new paradigm where Qatar now has found a common ground with Islamists and Turkey. Saudi Arabia is left out with unstable kingdoms with popular Islamist movements seeking political power.

Iran with US invasion of Iraq found much influence (though with resistance from Iraqi Shia clerics) in post-Saddam Iraq. It has stood up for democratic reforms in Bahrain, but supported brutality by Assad regime in Syria. Iran also supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, where a battle between Saudi supported and Iran supported parties is fought in assemblies and on street-level. However, what irks Tehran the most is what scares Riyadh the same – a popular uprising that can gather a critical mass.

All of them, even after their brutality against civilians, have tried to capture the ownership of Palestinian resistance. While these states does not care for civilian Palestinians, they find it convenient to put the blame on Israel for own shortcomings or diverting criticism. These powers has also divided Palestinian leadership where some segments are financially dependent on Gulf-states as Fatah, while others until recently been dependent on Iran as Hamas, while others again still cling to Assad, as PFLP-GC.


Saudi Arabia has always found stability in dictatorial regimes, thus it finds no qualms in supporting the dictatorship of General Sisi in Egypt, or until it was useful, the Saddam-regime. Popular uprisings against monarchies and dictatorships is therefore against Saudi interests. In the post-Arab spring scenario Saudi state finds itself on a defensive front, trying to scramble what it has, and regain what it lost.

Its prime objectives is to fight democratic movements in Arab countries, which is challenged by Islamist movements and which Saudi believes is funded by Iran. Saudi Arabia has sought increased membership in its regional alliance GCC, but have received rifts with Qatar.

Saudi Arabia has though supported uprising in Syria, and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. By supporting radical Salafis, it has split the Syrian resistance, and thereby strengthening Assad-regimes survival chances. The side effect has been the strengthening of ISIS which annihilated other Saudi supported Salafist movements and is now challenging all regional states, even Riyadh. The previously so dear Salafi jihadis, now bite back – but it should be no surprise, they bit back after the Saudi-Pakistani-US funded jihad against Soviet union as well.

In the same period, Iran has found its influence extended, not through its own efforts, but with help of Bush-administration. With the toppling of Saddam, Iran found a likeminded Government in Bagdad, and a direct route to its ally Syria and thereby to Lebanon where its proxy Hezbollah fights for power against Saudi allied political groupings. With the Shia Houti rebels in Yemen, Saudis feel entrapped from all sides.

Iran has also found friends in Islamist movements which have had Khomeini’s revolution as an ideal. Ikhwan al-Muslimeen is not an Iranian ally, rather a popular genuine movement that works for representation from the grassroots, though it also seeks to form a state according to its version of Islam, and finds Iran’s way of working around democracy a handy tool. Sectarian differences set aside, there has been mutual learning between Shia Islamists and Sunni Islamists since the end of WWI.

But Islamists are indeed aligned with Qatar and Turkey, and with the help of these and local grievance, Islamists find increased representation in parliaments and popularity among citizens in monarchies. This is for the good of the small steps needed for democracy. It also weakens Saudi influence, and thus benefits Iran’s interests.

Iranian supported militias in Iraq has also paved forward intra sectarian conflicts. These militias fight off Sunni jihadi groups, but do also have intra sectarian conflicts. The sectarian alignment is perhaps a unifying factor when sects fights among each other’s, but the ethnic element makes Iraqi Shias distinct and independent from Persian Shias, thus creating a new default line. As is evident, the Shia Amal and Hezbollah movements also used to fight each other’s, and that so despite them being ethnic Arab.

Strange bedfellows

The winner between Iran and Saudi is clear. The current cornered Saudi State is fighting for its survival and at the same time taking brunt for its policies. ISIS poses a challenge, which forces Gulf-states to cooperate with Iran. Moreover, Syria poses a cost, which forces Tehran to cooperate with Riyadh. Recently Saudi Arabia appointed its first ever Shia minister, and promised financial means to Bagdad to cope with ISIS. It has moved forces to Iraqi border to face any challenge. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has also said it would start its own nuclear programme if Iran is not stopped. This duality tells of a dilemma the kingdom has.

On the other hand, Turkey has gains in all this, especially among Sunni Islamists throughout the region. Such an influence is handy if a new round of demonstrations topples regimes. Turks are even at good terms with Iraqi Kurds, and the key to their independence is in the hands of Ankara. This can be done because oil and gas recourses triumphs everything else.

To materialise the spoils of this round of conflict, all need to unite against ISIS, which seems to be the case. Turkey has for far too long had its border open for jihadists to infiltrate, the dog will bite back, as others have experienced. However, without an active Turkish military involvement alongside Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Army (supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia) and the Syrian rebels, this menace will not fade away. If Syrian opposition is quelled then Assad has won, despite the regimes brutal onslaught of people it is supposed to protect.

United States has through the last decade reduced its energy dependency from Gulf-states, it is not risking its soldiers for something which is not worth that much anymore. It will support a initiative which will stabilise a situation going out of hand. Even engaging in diplomacy with Iran on both nuclear issue and regarding instability in Iraq. The human cost is unbearable, and it cannot be ignored, despite how much world tries, in one way or other, it will come back at us.

The region has several democratic movements, it be from Islamist or secular fronts. Supporting these is a necessity, but being blind to the same movements lack of democratic spirit is injustice. Movements with the broadest inclusion as social democrats should learn from past mistakes and turn towards democratic means. In the end, if the international community and local powers do not support democratic ideals in region, then coups will happen, as in Egypt, states will destabilise, as in Libya, and blood will continue to flow, as in Syria. Most of all, monsters as ISIS will continue to appear to wreak havoc with civilians.


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