Putting match to tinder

By Alastair Crooke


A former head of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, Efraim Halevy, neatly encapsulated [in the New York Times, February 7] one primary aim of a war that has already been ignited in the Middle East: "The current standoff in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace … And ending Iran's presence in [in Syria] poses less of a risk to international commerce and security than harsher sanctions, or war [on Iran would pose]".

And it is real, hot war now: both in the microcosm of Syria and on the geostrategic plane. In the wake of its failure to bulldoze the United Nations Security Council into demanding President Bashar al-Assad's head, Saudi Arabia and Qatar vowed to intensify the bloody insurgency in Syria in order to bring down a fellow Arab head of state through violent insurrection.

If Syria were not currently such a hated object for the West and Israel, such actions would, in any other circumstances, be labeled terrorism. It would be obtuse to imagine either Saudi Arabia or Qatar were so outraged at the Security Council veto for reason of their deep commitment to popular democracy.

What is roiling the politics of the region, and fanning this hot proxy war into wider sectarian distrust and fear among religious minorities, is the sense that at play are several quite distinct "war projects". The bursting into flame of these multiple agendas touches on the most sensitive, the most elemental aspects of the sectarian divide in Islam.

The feeling is one of approaching an abyss, particularly as it is not clear what the true objectives to some of these wars are. That is to say, we all hear their ostensible aims of humanitarian concern, but for most these ring laughably false. Some projects may march in step, some may overlap to some extent but run counter in part, and some may simply have completely opposing ends to what is proclaimed.

We have the ubiquitous American "project", the Israeli "project" from which it in some respects differs, and which also contains the potential to run counter to the American project. We have too the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood "project" in the region to actualize political power, the Saudi-Salafist "project" to shore up conservative monarchical legitimacy, the Turkish aspirations to lead the Sunni community, the Qatari ambition to be America's regional "fixer", and the not insignificant jihadi-Salafist "project" to deconstruct "authority", to name but a few that have suddenly flared up; and of course there is the long established Iranian "resistance" project.

Additionally, there are the strategically important "projects" to seize influence over the region's energy supplies – in order to influence which of the competing gas pipeline projects will serve Europe's needs: either tilting European dependency towards, on the one hand, Russia and Iran; or alternatively, tying her to US proxies such as Qatar and Turkey. On such calculations will hinge too whether China's future energy needs will, or will not be, vulnerable to subsequent American squeeze as part of its containment of China policies.

And as no one really is sure what is the true extent of the designs behind these multiple projects, except that – since all have a claim to power and hegemony – suspicion and mistrust inevitably are mushrooming to the point at which tensions can easily spill over, at any point, into localized sectarian violence and then jump the firewall into the geostrategic conflict. This is what is meant by the "abyss".

Lost in all this is the "Awakening's" origins as a popular stirring: it has metamorphosed for now into a profound geostrategic and sectarian struggle over the future of the region. And though the popular impulse has been for the moment harnessed into other agendas, it nonetheless may yet surge again. The potential for this certainly is there: even to turn the political complexion of the region inside out.

Now, it is the West and Gulf states' "war" against Iran and Syria that predominates. But what exactly are the final aims of this war? It may seem obvious, but in fact on this very point, both America and Israel are internally conflicted. And of the US Arab allies in this project, Saudi Arabia's and Qatar's intentions clearly extend well beyond the mere destruction of Iranian political power to a much wider ambition not only to subvert real reform in the region, but to restore a Sunni conservative primacy throughout much of the Arab world as a bulwark against Iran and reformist Islamism.

This current ultimately is one of political autocracy, and of imposed civil and Islamic discipline. It is about a hugely wealthy elite staying on top.

United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in recent comments, has made clear that a direct military attack on Iran does not suit US interests, (or rather does not suit President Barack Obama's current electoral interests) – at least for now. Any attack at this early stage in the electoral process, simply would be too risky – it would allow too much time – after the television "spectacle" of the first "hit" gives Obama's ratings a lift – for some horrible, possibly traumatic consequences of military action to play out, not least economically – and much to the president's electoral disadvantage.

The US presidential race is about the economy, "stupid", quite evidently, but already Iran has been identified as the potential "wild card" that might upset such electoral calculations. And, although Obama uses tough language to inoculate himself from Republican accusations of being "too weak" on Iran, he knows that the person best placed to play that "wild card" and possibly endanger his presidential bid is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than the Republican candidates per se.

Netanyahu makes no secret of his strong Republican sympathies, or his hope that Obama will not be the next president. And it is in this latter context that Netanyahu's calculations on how to weaken Iran are likely to include a large element of US domestic electoral calculation, as much as any simple military cost/benefit analysis.

It is against this background that "regime change" in Syria becomes so important. Both in Israel and America, there are serious constituencies which argue that a direct military strike on Iran would provoke a terrible disaster. To answer this, the combination of financial siege on the Iranian people, in combination with the overthrow of Assad – in favor of an anti-Iranian, Sunni successor – is crafted precisely to assuage those hawks demanding military action.

It holds out the prospect to them, as Halevy notes, of an alternative: "of the Iranian people once again rising up against the regime which has brought them so much suffering" – of soft regime change, in place of the unpredictability and riskiness of war.

The question is: would such a plan see Obama safely pass through the re-election process, and thus sink Netanyahu and Likud hopes for a Republican win in 2012? That is the key issue on which the White House and Panetta must maneuver. Independent Israeli action could upset this calculus.

But collective "suffering" did not cause the people of Gaza to turn against Hamas, and there is no reason to think it more likely to work in Iran. Iranians do not react well to pressure; and if the US and its allies fail to depose Syria's leadership, as seems likely, for an anti-Iranian one, then the very "logic" of the Obama position, on its own terms, will ratchet his policy in the direction of the "final option" – with vociferous Iran hawks levering the war option along the ratchet.

Some in Washington, unable to see how power is shifting in the world today, firmly believe that Iran's destruction would put Israel and the US back at the top in the Middle East.

No wonder there was such affronted outrage from the administration when China and Russia vetoed the Syria "regime change" resolution at the Security Council: It killed the best option for assuaging Iran hawks, and risks Obama being painted into an unpredictable Gulf war.

That Obama has painted himself into such a corner is the direct result of his endorsement of Dennis Ross' "engagement with pressure" policy on Iran, which apart from raising the question of whether there ever was any meaningful engagement intended, cannot now possibly provide any negotiated solution – other than Iranian surrender – that would be not be spared a brutal savaging by the Republicans as Democrat "appeasement" and "weakness", in a campaign year.

But in pursuing this project of seeking to mollify Iran hawks through a hot, increasingly sectarian "war" in Syria, and by letting the Gulf monarchies fire up reactionary Salafist movements across the region – supposedly again to "contain" Shi'ite influence and further weaken Iran – the US and Europe are becoming increasingly witting, or unwitting partisans, in a Sunni sectarian "project" for the restoration of Sunni primacy which is piggy-backing on the US and European obsessive animosity towards Iran. This risks another type of war, just as dangerous – but to which Western powers seem oblivious.

One element of this Sunni project is seen in the electoral resurgence of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. But another Sunni primacy "project" actually pits itself against the Muslim Brotherhood initiative: The Saudi-Salafist "project" is intended to "contain" the Brotherhood's bid for power, and to seek for itself the hold over regional changes. This is being done in the interest of preserving pliant, conservative Islam, and Saudi absolutism.

And finally we have the quite separate jihadi-Salafist project to exploit regional tensions to deconstruct "authority" to establish regional footholds as sites for jihad – and the emergence of a very different type of authority. These projects, set afoot under cover of the US containment of Iran, are setting sect against sect, one generation against another and one class in society against another, and in pitting them one against another, may set the region on fire.

They are all pitted against the "resistance" project of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. And some in Tel Aviv, Washington and Paris will think this must be a good thing; but this limited perspective rather overlooks the fact that some of these movements being fired up – whilst they do indeed hate the Shi'ites – also hate moderate Sunnis, all heterodoxy, Israel and Western values too.

Not surprisingly, Russia and China see the disaster looming: They see the US-Gulf Cooperation Council project as threatening fitna (civil and religious strife), and risking sectarian war. It directly threatens their own security: Russia is not at risk in the Caucuses from Shi'ite Islam; but from fired-up Salafism: Iran in fact is all that stands geographically between the now quiescent Salafism in the Central Asian republics and the stoking of it happening in the Middle East.

It is not hard to imagine that Russians see that this current of Islam that historically has been the most violent could, in due course, be redirected by the US towards their Asian allies – just as it has been pointed towards Syria. Equally, China is just as sensitive about its own Muslim community. It can see too that the Western "project", were it to succeed, potentially would give the US huge leverage over China's growing energy requirements – and hence its economy.

What is extraordinary is that European states have not woken up to the fact that it is they who have most to lose in this "great game". They too have an alienated, disenchanted Muslim population, and are far from self-sufficient in energy – unlike the US. Their placing of the Israeli interest, refracted at them from the prism of essentially domestic American political needs, blindly followed, seems to repeat the history of the 2003 Gulf war: Another war "project" that fissured Europe, closed off policy options and brought terrorism to European streets.