Who should we back in this Sunni-Shia war?
December 11, 2012
In Sept. 1, 2012 photo, Waleed Abdul-Wahid, left, and his family participate in an interview in Baghdad, Iraq, after his family`s return from Syria. Abdul-Wahid and his family decided to return to Iraq when masked gunmen broke into the small apartment on the Syrian capital`s outskirts where the family had lived peacefully for nearly three years. The gunmen shouted, “Are you Sunni or Shiite?” (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
Syria is not a struggle between tyranny and freedom but a fight for dominance between two visions of Islam
It is always illuminating to look at things through different eyes.
An intelligent and worldly-wise Muslim friend said to me of Iraq recently: “The chief effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein was to advance the frontier of Iran 400 miles to the west.” With the current Shia-dominated Baghdad Government doing more and more of Tehran`s bidding, he could easily have been talking politics. But I suspect he was also talking religion.
The dominant struggle in the Middle East is not for control of Syria; it is the wider confrontation of which Syria should be seen as a part — the contest between the Sunni and Shia visions of Islam.
The history of Western policy in the Islamic world is rich in examples where we act on what we hope is happening, rather than what actually is. In the 1980s we hoped we were throwing the Soviet invaders out of Afghanistan, but ended up unwittingly funding and arming a deadly Islamic global insurgency. In Iraq during the 1980s we first helped secular Saddam Hussein against the Shia mullahs of Iran, then we removed him as a brutal dictator. Now we discover that we have enabled the expansion of Tehran`s influence in ways we wouldn`t have wanted.
We hoped that the Arab Spring would lead to a new secular enlightenment, but what we are seeing instead is the rapid growth of Sunni Salafism, spreading extremist Islam from Mali in Africa through Libya and Egypt to the increasingly radicalised and factionalised rebel groups fighting in Syria. And this extremist counter- revolution that we hate is being funded and promoted by wealthy private donors in Arab states that we regard as friends in the struggle against President Assad, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf monarchies.
Are we being played again? Probably.
Something curious and potentially very menacing is going on in the world of Sunni Islam. At first the Arab Spring looked as though it might lead to a broadly heterogeneous, democratic “secular” Islam, best epitomised by Turkey. Governments elected in the early plebiscites of the Arab Spring — even in Egypt — seemed in their first flushes, to support this. Islamic pragmatists by nature, broadly pluralist and tolerant in their approach and above all democratic, these were the West`s greatest hope.
But they are, for the same reasons, regarded by some in the Saudi and Gulf monarchies as the greatest threat. So, quietly and largely unremarked, a counter-revolution is now under way. In war-torn northern Mali, until now the home of the gentle doctrine of the Sufi, the Salafists are increasingly the dominant force. In Libya they run many of the armed gangs beyond the Government`s control. In Egypt the widening ripples of Salafist influence are dramatically revealed in a recent poll that showed 61 per cent of Egyptians would now support a Saudi-style (monarchist) government. In Syria, the rise of radical jihadism among the rebels is already bleeding instability into neighbouring Turkey. In Jordan there is a substantial and growing Salafist opposition to a king seen as far too Western.
But it would be a mistake to see the motivation behind this as simply anti-Western. Where it appears so, it is a secondary, not a primary, consequence. The days when Wahhabist Sunnis defined themselves by their attitude to the West are largely over. After Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the myth of Western omnipotence we are just not that important in the Middle East any longer.
Nowadays this Sunni world does not define itself, as Osama bin Laden did, in relation to the “Great Satan” in the US, but to the “Great Heresy” of Shia. That is the conflict they are now preparing for. And we again are helping them, albeit again unwittingly.
To us in the West the struggle in Syria is the struggle in which we can never resist intervening — the compelling, simple contest between freedom and tyranny. In reality it is much, much more complex than that. To the growing Salafist counter-revolution it is nothing to do with democracy and little to do with tyranny. It is the cockpit from which to control the worldwide Sunni community and prosecute the wider struggle against the Shia enemy.
Last weekend The Sunday Times reported that the US is providing covert arms and funds to the rebels. Probably America is. Probably the French are too. Probably, so far, Britain is not. But London is providing encouragement to the fighters and tacit support for their funders. We need to be much more clear-eyed about the dangers of a regional conflict here and much more active in persuading our friends in the Arab monarchies that the best reaction to the Arab Spring is to reform to meet its challenge and not allow some in their states to undermine it.
We hope for a peace in Syria. But even if Assad were to fall soon, there is one very big reason why a wider peace is unlikely. Syria itself is not the conflict; it is only the front line in something much bigger — a widening, long-term struggle between Sunni and Shia to define the future Middle East.
The Russians understand this very well. Their support for Assad rests not just on him being “their man” and the only one they have left in the region. It is far more about their fear of the Salafist contagion now also sweeping up into their own Islamic republics of Dagestan and Chechnya. The Chinese too worry about the radicalisation of their Sunni Uighurs.
If, as seems more than possible, the turmoils of the Maghreb and the Eastern Mediterranean dissolve into a wider Sunni-Shia conflict, then, unless we are much more cautious about who we back and why, the scene will be set for the West to be suckered into supporting one side, while the Russians are drawn into the other.
Mao Zedong used to call the First and Second World Wars “the European civil wars”. It is always illuminating to look at things through different eyes — especially if this reminds us that, as in Europe in the last century, so in the Middle East today, a regional war can have global consequences.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is former leader of the Liberal Democrats
© 2012 Times Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved
Leading From Behind Qatar; Deferring to those who arm Islamists in Libya and Syria
The Wall Street Journal Online
December 12, 2012
One problem with the Obama Administration`s policy of leading from behind is that the countries it chooses to follow often don`t share American interests. Take the case of Qatar, which the U.S. has let take the lead in Libya and Syria and has been busy arming Islamist radicals.
These columns pointed out the danger of deferring to Qatar in Libya a year ago (“MIA on the Shores of Tripoli,” Dec. 24, 2011), and last week the New York Times reported that the U.S. is now “alarmed” that the Sunni fundamentalists who run Qatar have been favoring hard-core Islamists when it passes out weapons.
The Gulf-supplied arms have strengthened extremist groups who have hijacked efforts to stabilize Libya. Some of the weapons from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have also found their way to northern Mali, now under the control of an al Qaeda offshoot. The Times found no evidence that arms from our friends the Qataris went to Ansar al-Shariah, the group behind the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans. But no one should be surprised if they did. When the U.S. chooses not to lead, others fill the vacuum.
A similar pattern is unfolding in Syria, where the Administration has once again refused to arm the rebels fighting Bashar Assad. President Obama on Tuesday at last recognized the rebels, following France and other countries. But the White House has refused to impose a humanitarian corridor or a no-fly zone, and it has deferred again to the Gulf states to provide money and weapons to the opposition.
And as in Libya, there are now worrying reports of the growing power of Islamist militias and the radicalization of the Syrian population. If the rebels do oust Mr. Assad, they will have little reason to thank or listen to American officials.
Order is unraveling across the Middle East, and a major reason is the growing belief that the U.S. is retreating from the region. Such are the fruits of leading from behind Qatar.
© Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Arab Winter may leave US out in the cold
December 13, 2012
A man looks up at the sky as residents walk outside after a strike in a residential area in the village of Kafranbel in Idlib October 28, 2012. Syrian jets bombarded Sunni Muslim regions in Damascus and across the country on Sunday, activists said, as President Bashar al-Assad kept up air strikes against rebels despite a U.N.-brokered truce that now appears to be in tatters. REUTERS
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi`s attempt to grab power raises many questions not only about Egypt`s future but also about the Middle East and US foreign policy, despite Morsi having scrapped the decree under the pressure of massive protests.
As the Arab Spring turns into an Arab Winter, what are its contradictions and consequences?
Two years ago, as Egypt entered a phase of powerful public demands for more democratic conditions, skeptics warned against the Muslim Brotherhood. They said that this semi-clandestine organization had no interest in democracy but only in gaining power in order to erect an Islamic “caliphate.”
In the past, Egypt had capable leaders seeking modernization such as Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) and khedive Ismail Pasha (1830-95). Foreign intrigue and imperialism, however, interrupted Egypt`s progress in the 19th century. Pasha, a friend of the US, was deposed in 1879 by the British Empire which then undertook to control Egypt.
The Egyptian military liberated the country from foreign domination in the revolution of 1952. Soon after, the great Arab nationalist leader, Gamal Adbel Nasser, emerged as president.
The US position was mixed. At first, it sought to work with Nasser. Former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower staunchly defended Egypt against Israel, the UK, and France during the Suez Crisis of 1956. But then the Cold War and Zionism placed Washington and Cairo at odds.
After Anwar Sadat (1918-81) became Egyptian president in 1970 and later became friendly, Washington moved to work with Egypt as a way to reduce Soviet influence in the Middle East and to protect Israel.
Sadat`s pro-Western move and 1979 peace treaty with Israel, however, angered the Arab and Muslim world. Consequently, Egypt lost prestige and influence regionally. Notwithstanding this loss, Hosni Mubarak continued the foreign policy line established by Sadat.
Today, Egypt under President Morsi, has significant contradictions in internal and external policy. Internally, the Arab Spring should have brought more democratic conditions but it has not.
What has happened to Cairo`s foreign policy? Egypt, while increasing its regional role, is following a policy in line with Washington`s requirements: peace with Israel and regime change in Syria.
Morsi`s policy to uphold the peace treaty with Israel and other understandings supports Washington`s policy. Washington`s Egypt policy is, in fact, subsidiary to Washington`s defense of Israel and Zionism. As long as Egypt supports this policy, such as under Sadat, Mubarak and now Morsi, US-Egyptian relations will remain on track despite a lack of progress on internal democratization.
Washington calculates that it can manage its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore its branches in Palestine, Syria, and Jordan. During the Cold War, the West behind the scenes worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia to blunt Soviet influence in the region. Washington today believes it can play a similar game to obtain regional objectives.
In the present regional game, Washington sides with the Muslim Brotherhood which has support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This policy goes back to the George W. Bush administration and to former vice president Dick Cheney`s regional strategy to align Israel with the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia to oppose Iran, a Shi`a state and Hezbollah, a Shi`a resistance movement in Lebanon.
Washington is working with Riyadh, Doha, and Cairo to ensure regime change in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood Syria branch has had a long-term strategy to take power and to change secular Syria into an Islamist “sharia state.” The US supports this because it calculates that this is the best way to protect Israel by eliminating a regime allied to Iran and by neutralizing Hizbullah.
The Palestinian resistance movement Hamas altered its policy in line with Washington`s regional objectives. Hamas has now linked to Qatar although this has produced sharp differences within the movement. Egypt`s role in the cease-fire was facilitated by Cairo`s linkages to Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Hamas` policy change to a new patron in Doha.
While the US may think that its regional strategy, diplomacy, and covert action will result in success, this remains to be seen. For the broad mass of the population in the region, the US is perceived negatively. For not a few analysts, Washington`s policy is not only reckless and destabilizing but has led to the Arab Winter.
The author is an educator and former senior professional staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
© Copyright 2012. Global Times. All rights reserved.
Turkish paper views “Sunni revival” in Middle East
BBC Monitoring European
December 07, 2012
Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian President Morsi supporters chant slogans during a funeral of three victims who were killed during Wednesday`s clashes outside Al Azhar mosque, the highest Islamic Sunni institution, Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. During the funeral, thousands Islamist mourners chanted, “with blood and soul, we redeem Islam,” pumping their fists in the air. “Egypt is Islamic, it will not be secular, it will not be liberal,” they chanted as they walked in a funeral procession that filled streets around Al-Azhar mosque. Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets after Friday midday prayers in rival rallies and marches across Cairo, as the standoff deepened over what opponents call the Islamist president`s power grab, raising the specter of more violence. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Column by Umit Enginsoy: “The Sunni revival”
It was 2006 when the American scholar Vali Nasr, of Iranian origin, wrote his masterpiece “The Shia Revival.” It was on former president George W. Bush`s inadvertent act to invade the mostly Shi`i-dominated Iraq, which gave the country as a gift to the United States` worst enemy, Iran, without firing a shot. It was also on the divergence between two great Islamic sects, the Shi`i and the Sunni, which happens to be worse than between Catholicism and Protestantism.
And the big prize of this conflict is now Syria, which has not been solved yet.
Several years later, it is time for another book in the wake of the Arab Spring, on effectively “The Sunni Revival,” which is replacing the Shi`i revival. The United States` role in the origins of the Arab Spring is debatable, but the fact that Sunni Islam is on the rise is not. The United States, under the rule of President Barack Obama, has greatly benefited from the Sunni Arab Spring.
First, consider where Turkey was two or three years ago when and how it, in a collaboration with Brazil, worked hard inside the United Nations Security Council, as a non-permanent member, against new sanctions on Iran because of its unclear nuclear aspirations. Now the same Turkey has allowed a NATO X-band radar system on its soil in Kurecik to spy against the nuclear ambitions of the same Iran.
As has been repeatedly warned by Iran, Kurecik has been under constant threat. Now a few predictions: Republican People`s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is right to declare that the deployment of German and Dutch Patriot air defence systems in southern Turkey, agreed to under US permission within NATO, are due to be placed somewhere that will definitely guard Kurecik against a missile attack.
See how a Turkey, which once protected Iran within the United Nations, has transformed. Now, did you think Turkey would act like it did a few years ago? This is a huge failure for Iran, and a huge success for the US
Turkey also acted solidly with the Sunni Arab states of Egypt and Qatar in trying to find a truce a couple of weeks ago between the Palestinians in Gaza, under the rule of Hamas, and Israel, despite its own difficulties with that country. The effort was ultimately successful. I am not among the Turkish analysts who thought that Israel was ready to attack Gaza from the land throughout the process. Israel is most effective when it hits from the air and the sea. In the war against helpless Gaza in 2009, it can be said it was a draw. But when it started the land warfare against the Hezbollah in 2006, it was a clear defeat.
This is because in modern warfare, all modern armies, including the American and Russian armies, suffer heavy casualties against more primitive militaries on land. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan (twice).
Because on land you have almost equal chances or you are more vulnerable to losses. So it took me just a few hours to guess that the Israeli offensive would not be expanded to the land.
If we come to Egypt, the Arab Spring was seen by many as a largely secular movement aimed at establishing constitutional democracy. But actually, it was not certain that the secular constitutionalists would win it. And in practice, they lost it. President Mohamed Morsi is an Islamist, and his intention was to strengthen the role of Islam in Egypt and he is doing that now. The move on the judiciary signalled his intent to begin consolidating power. Now, do you want another prediction? He will win it against the liberals, because as an Islamist, fighting the remnants of the Hosni Mubarak regime, he is on the right side of the history.
And yet another prediction? Despite his recent victory against Israel and the United States at the United Nations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the Fatah movement, fighting against the more radical Hamas, is doomed to lose, probably in a few months to be replaced by a Hamas member. Because he is on the wrong side of history, and Hamas is on the right side.
Source: Hurriyet website, Istanbul, in English 7 Dec 12
© 2012 The British Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.