Middle East in the vortex of sectarianism
Lysander made an apt comment on the US strategy in Middle East. He stated: “US imperialism has been the principal instigator of sectarianism in the region, from its divide-and-conquer strategy in the war and occupation in Iraq, to the fomenting of sectarian civil war to topple Assad regime in Syria. Its cynical support for Sunni Islamist insurgents in Syria, while backing a Shiite sectarian regime across the border in Iraq to suppress these very same forces, has brought the entire Middle East to what a United Nations panel on Syria warned Tuesday was the “cusp of a regional war.”
In order to ensure undisturbed supply of oil from the oil-rich Middle East, the US controlled the strategically important region by propping up pro-US authoritarian regimes, toppling Mosadak regime in Iran and installing Reza Shah Pahlavi as its strategic ally. In addition, Israel created in 1948 was economically and militarily bolstered to bully the Arab States. Schemes were hatched to keep the Arab world disunited and dependent upon the west. Arab world was bracketed into two camps of moderates (pro-western) and radicals (anti-western).
While the US succeeded in neutralizing Egypt through Camp David Accord in 1979, it lost Iran in March 1979 after Imam Khomeini took over power. Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon in 1982 to break the nexus between Syria and Lebanon, but it gave birth to Hezbollah and paved the way for Hezbollah-Syria-Iran nexus. Israel however saw Iraq as a bigger threat to its ambition of becoming an unchallenged regional power. Iraq was therefore weakened through 8-year war with Iran, First Gulf War in 1991 and imposition of harsh sanctions.
When these incapacitating acts failed to bring down Saddam, the US under George W. Bush led neo-cons and Jews decided to implement the grand plan of 1990s to change the boundaries of the Middle East and harness Arab oil resources. The plan envisaged piecemeal annexation of Arab States and dividing them into small quasi States. After George Bush defined ‘axis of evil’, Iraq was invaded and annexed in 2003 on false charges, but was abandoned in 2011 without achieving any of the stated goals, leaving behind simmering embers of sectarianism.
With the emergence of Islamic State of Iraq & Levant (ISIL), which was declared as Islamic State (Caliphate) on June 29, 2014, Iraq has reached closer to getting fragmented into three States on ethnic/sectarian lines. The US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are most worried over the new threat. Although Iran has been asked by USA to confront the threat, Iran is more worried about security of holy Shia shrines than integrity of Iraq. There is a popular school of thought that the Arab Spring was fomented by CIA to affect regime changes where necessary and to create conditions for splitting of listed Arab States. After the ouster of Zain el Abedine in Tunisia in January 2011, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was the next to go in February.
However, election results in June 2012 went against the script. Much to the surprise of the plotters, Muhammad Morsi, leader of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) decisively won the elections and formed a government. In July 2013, he was booted out by the military under Gen Fatteh al-Sisi. A massive crackdown was launched against Morsi’s supporters. Well over 1400 activists of MB died, 15000 were jailed, dozens given death penalty and secularism was re-introduced. After his retirement from Army, Sisi won a comprehensive victory in the controversial presidential election held on May 29, 2014. He is the fifth president from the military starting Col Gamal Abdul Nasser’s takeover in 1952. The US, EU and Saudi led Gulf States support the military regime both diplomatically and financially. However, unrest in Egypt continues. Taking advantage of the Arab Spring, insurgency was fomented by CIA in Libya in 2011 to bring down Qaddafi regime. British and French forces led the assault and within months Libya was destroyed, the regime toppled and Qaddafi brutally murdered. Chaos in Libya was premeditated because Libya was a stable African society in North Africa and Qaddafi had made it into a real welfare State. In order to solidify African Union, Qaddafi wanted to build an African Monetary Fund, an African Central Bank, and an African common currency. Common currency for Africa would have been a threat to Western Europe and North America and a real danger to Euro as well as to the US dollar. To save euro/dollar and to capture Libyan oil, Qaddafi had to be removed. Although Libyan oil is now being controlled by the US/western companies, political and security situation is highly unstable. CIA fomented Syrian crisis in early 2011 by backing Syrian Sunni rebels. EU, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Gulf States also supported them in order to bring down Bashar al Asad’s Alawite regime. However, unlike isolated Libya, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah stood behind Asad. Making a chemical weapons attack on a Syrian town in mid 2013 an excuse, the US ordered NATO to strike Syrian defence infrastructure with cruise missiles. At the 11th hour, Obama backtracked in the wake of Putin’s offer to dismantle Syrian chemical stockpiles by June 30, 2014. Obama’s U turn watered down the warmth in Saudi-US relations. In protest, Riyadh declined to accept a seat as non-member in UNSC and derided the UN. This change in attitude of Riyadh was probably one of the reasons which impelled Obama to veer towards Iran. Saudi-Qatar relations also cooled down because of latter’s refusal to stop supporting MB in Egypt.
While the western threat against Asad regime receded, Syria got engulfed in a new crisis in which the Islamic militias of various hues started fighting among each other. Free Syria Army, Al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front and ISIL were the main competitors. Aleppo Province became the contesting ground between them from 2012 onwards. ISIL, an offshoot of al-Qaeda emerged as the strongest group which has a strong presence in parts of Aleppo, Ar-Raqqa, Idlib and Ezzor. ISIL has about 5000 fighters in Syria including about 3-4000 foreigners, and up to 6000 fighters in Iraq. Bulk of Jihadists from abroad has come from Europe and Chechnya and most have joined ISIL. Fires of sectarianism have spilled into Lebanon. Hamas and Hezbollah, threatening the two flanks of Israel, are not on one page in Syria, the former supporting Sunnis and the latter aiding Alawite regime.
After its rapid gains in Syria, the ISIL fighters re-entered Iraq in June 2014 and within weeks captured major parts of five provinces of Iraq in the northwest and west including the second largest city of Mosul, Kirkuk and largest oil refinery near Baghdad. These gains have put ISIL on the centre stage and pushed al-Qaeda under al-Zawahiri and Al-Nusra Front under Abu M. al-Jawlani in Syria in the background. One of the branches of Al-Nusra in al-Bukamai town pledged allegiance to ISIL. Pumped up by easy victories, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared himself as the caliph and named the Caliphate as Islamic State on June 29, 2014.
Heightening sectarianism and violence in the Middle East has serious consequences for the entire Muslim world. Ongoing crisis suit Israel the most since possible disintegration of Iraq and Syria into several smaller States would help Israel in achieving its age-old dream of creating Greater Israel. It is, however, ironic that the Organization of Islamic Co-operation and other Muslim bodies have so far played no role in removing differences and in extinguishing the embers of sectarianism which is tearing apart the fabric of Ummah. Saudi Arabia and Iran rather than stoking fires of sectarianism should jointly devise a strategy how to stem the ever-deepening sectarian divide in the Muslim world and restore peace and harmony in the Middle East.
The writer is a retired Brig, defence analyst/columnist/historian, member Executive Council PESS, Director MESAIC Research Centre, Director Board of Governors Thinkers Forum Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org