Blending battle-lines in the Middle-east chess board

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: April 19, 2018 20:46:48 | Updated: April 20, 2018 20:44:13


We have long heard of the Israel-Palestine chasm dragging on and on, without end in sight, for a century or so (recall how one of its springboards was the infamous 1917 Balfour Declaration). Peace agreements have been brokered, Nobel Peace prizes have been distributed, and even a Palestine Authority has been instituted for the very people whose eviction spawned that conflict. At this point in the 21st Century, however, antagonism between the protagonists run so deep that it only invites new layers of division.

Also very much on the forefront of turn-of-the-century news has hung the fate of the Kurds. Split, also a century or so ago, and by an equally infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, into such battle-hardened states as Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, those unflinching Kurds have faced perennial persecution from each one of its host states, so much so that the idea of a Kurd state would automatically convulse the region into an even bloodier battleground.

Identity-searches have reached desperate levels. Resorting to unthinkably inhuman instruments and condemning even secular sympathisers into reluctantly-adopted positions, the Kurd and Palestinian plights stand poised to worsen for horns being blown on yet other fronts.

Two Middle-East warfronts may help explain why. The first is Syria, where the Shi'ia Alawites (constituting only 12 per cent of the largely Sunni population), under the Baathist  al-Assad family from 1971, recently rebounded to uproot Islamic State before taking on the well-entrenched Kurds and other reform-minded groups (some even backed by the United States). One might recall how, in 2017, the Kurd Peshmergas won back Mosul, in collaboration with the Iraqi government, from Islamic State farther east of Syria. Simultaneously, US-backed Syrian Democratic Front (one of the reform groups comprising Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, and Turkmen, fighting to oust Bashar al-Assad government), took hold of Raqqa, made capital of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Against charges from Russia that 'barbaric' US bombing of the city had levelled it completely, the tussle is for the city's future control: Assad's or of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)? Russian support, in fact, proved pivotal for Assad's resurgence from almost certain defeat, much as it is compensating the fraying Turkey-US relationship within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Vladimir Putin was shrewd enough to induce Assad's very close friends in Tehran into a Russia-Syria-Turkey compact, so that, with Iran's Quds and Lebanon's Hezbollah, Russia could consolidate its stay in Baathist Syria. 

This is where hell loosens up, since a second war-front enters the picture, as if, by the back-door: Iraq. Former US President George W. Bush may be forgiven for frankly explaining why his country launched the 2003 attack on Iraq: Saddam Hussein "tried to kill my dad," a response so honest that it had to be erased from future references because his foreign-policy coaches, collectively known as the 'Vulcans' had other motives, drawn from as far back as 1990. These included: Condoleezza Rice, in whose hometown would meet Vice President Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defence Policy Board Advisory Committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell, US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz,  and so forth. Many were in high official positions when the first Iraq War (Desert Storm) was launched in 1990 under George H.W. Bush's presidency.

Cutting a long story short, Saddam Hussein's defeat plunged Iraq into civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ias directly, but during which the oil-gushing Kurd area benefited by default. Using its Shi'ite linkages to corner Sunnis, Iran quashed opposition in southern Iraq, then corralled the Kurds. With its own restive Kurd minority, Iran had no sympathy for Iraq's.

It was not that the Islamic State was founded, even funded, by Sa'udi Arabia to keep Iran and its Shi'ite die-hards at bay, though this has now become a survival Sa'udi task. Stemming from al-Qaeda of Iraq (AQI), Islamic State was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi inside Iraq in 2004 to fight US forces. When al-Zarqawi died, Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi formed a factional group from 2010 and created a 'Caliphate' four years later. Islamic State attracted enough lone-wolves from far too many European, Caucasian, and Asian countries, in that order, at least of importance, to be able to target a wide variety of groups, a gap further widened by the multiple non-Islamic and humanly depraved actions of its leaders and rank-and-file soldiers. When Iran-led Iraqi forces stormed into Mosul last year to evict Islamic State, Sa'udi Arabia quickly rallied behind the Kurds. The plot thickened.

One might blame this shift upon the rise of the hawkish Muhammad bin Salman as Crown Prince, the first son of a ruling king in that position in modern Sa'udi history. Certainly his relentless bombarding of Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels would support that thesis. Yet, if we look at how he is normalising relations with Israel, even at the expense of the Palestinians, then we know this Middle-East recalibration has broader, even dangerous reaches.

Iranian influences in Damascus have long served as a bridgehead for Shi'ite interests to proliferate in and around Beirut. As a backdrop, higher Shi'ite population growth-rates have helped the Shi'ias to displace Christians as the largest Lebanese group. Now with this long Shi'ite arc from Tehran to Beirut, Israel is very worried, so much so that Israel alone pulled the United States out of the 2015 P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran. Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini's dubbing of Israel and the United States as the 'Little Satan' and the 'Great Satan' set the tone of how Iranians and Israelis view each other. Although China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the United States (other members of the P5, with the +1 being Germany) strongly support the agreement and equally vociferously deny Iran is violating the agreement, the United States, under President Donald J. Trump, has been plucked back by Israel from restoring Iran.

Now that the pieces are in place, the emergent Middle-east battle-line pits Iran, Russia, Syria, and Turkey, on the one side, against Israel, Sa'udi Arabia, and the United States, on the other. Even though Russian diplomats have incensed many European countries by conducting espionage, European countries largely remain aloof of this stand-off, while China, the 21st Century's key game-changing country, plays both sides for contracts, though it boasts more cordial agreements with the first group than with the second.

All these dynamics doom the Kurds and Palestinians. A proud people, the Kurds have always stood up for their causes, and now equipped with a lot more armour, may be better positioned than ever before. But they are up against forces whose savagery during the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars suggests further persecution until and unless some international compact intervenes.

Palestinians have faced equally abominable circumstances under Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel, suggesting that, with one of their key paymasters, Sa'udi Arabia, retreating, they may have no choice but to drift towards Iran. The moment they do so, the harsher Israeli responses will follow. Already the Sa'udi king and his crown prince are at loggerheads over this issue.    All in all, the next Middle-east generation is poised to witness more blood spilt over identity than a long bitter past ever brought. Ultimately, the region's two foremost puzzles will remain as unresolved as ever.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

 

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