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Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Hidden War In The Middle-East: Rise of Geopolitical Networks


Underneath the seemingly chaotic, ethno-sectarian conflicts raging on in MENA (Middle East and North Africa), lie powerful subterranean forces of regional powers contesting with the aim of establishing hegemony over the entire region. Of course, world powers are neither unaware nor uninvolved in this conflict but are not as proactive as they are when fighting with their own agenda. Arabian Peninsula ,Levant and North Africa now seem like a  huge board game littered with corpses and gunmen issuing whimsical orders. Since I cannot come up with a better term, I would call these forces geopolitical networks, comprising of nation-states as well as non-state-entities (including organised resistance such as Hezbollah and numerous small groups of militants) . In MENA, three such networks are active, each with eye on capturing the entire region. The first and most visible geopolitical network is Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah and other Shia militant outfits. Its main rival is the Sunni/Salafi network of Arab countries-Saudi Arabia-UAE-Bahrain- various Sunni militant groups and believe-it-or-not Israel .  The third network in this bizarre game of power comprises of Turkey-Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.


The factors leading to their formation are more than two, but the ones that immediately come to mind are - destabilization of Iraq and rise of Iran. The disastrous policy of GW Bush leading to invasion of Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussein without having a robust post-War plan related to administration of the country,threw the country in chaos . The sectarian tensions had been simmering for far too long, the majority Shia community, suppressed through brute force during Saddam's reign had the upper hand by virtue of numerical strength. US didn't really make effort to reconcile the warring groups at the lower level, instead it propped up leaders who had become as much foreigners to Iraq as they themselves were. Further, disbanding the Iraqi army was yet another blunder. It was like handing over a very large number of soldiers, including some covert Saddam loyalist to different insurgent groups . At the same time Iran's nuclear programme was going steady despite repeated warnings. While Israel's vehement opposition to Iranian nuclear project has been well known, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was especially vociferous. Arab-Iran rivalry dates further back in history.

The Arabs as a whole were more wary of Iran than of Israel, so when the Iraqi governance came into Shia hands, an informal alliance with Iran was inevitable. With Syria and Hezbollah along, the Shia network had become formidable. By the time Arab Spring reached Syria, the Sunni Arab countries had already been backing the Sunni rebel groups to oust Assad regime,with help from Western powers as the Shia network had considerable support of Russia.  The Sunni Arab network can also be termed as Salafi or Wahhabi network, Salafism is form of ultra-orthodox perspective of  Islam rejecting all four schools of  law (fiqh) of the Sunni creed (Hanafi,Shafi,Maliki and Hanbali schools) but ironically their laws bear much commonality with Hanbali School of Law (the state law of Saudi Arabia) and of course the teacher Muhammad Bin Abd Al-Wahhab (because of which they are called Wahhabi but some of them consider it derogatory and insist on being referred to as Salafis. ). The Salafis believe in  that all developments in Islamic thought,laws,society  and everything related to Islam has been corrupted over time and to discover true Islamic perspective Muslims need to go back to the 7th-8th century scholars for a true understanding of Islam. They also tend to prefer scholars with rather extreme points of view rather than the  moderates.

Many of the Jihadi groups like Al-Qaeda were founded by and draw cadre and financiers from more extremist Salafis also called Qutubists. One of the more dangerous part of their belief is that those who stray from Sharia ( i.e their version of Sharia) become apostates for which the punishment is death.  Within last few years, the extremist Salafi VNSEs (Violent non-State Entity) have begun to see Shias as a greater threat than the USA, Israel and the West.  Saudi Arabia, whose ideology is similar but less extreme has a number of differences with Iran starting from pre-Islamic Arab (Semitic) - Persia(Aryan) rivalry. Iran being a Shia country, ruled by the clergy and with a completely independent foreign policy (as opposed to KSA which is strategically allied with US), became a natural ally and leader of Shia minority populations in different Arab countries ( Arabs have 38% of global Shia population). In more than one way US has been responsible for promoting Salafi extremism

Further, Iran's alliance with Russia and China stands directly opposite to Saudi Arabia's alliance with US and the West. Now that Obama policy has largely been one of withdrawal and of non-interference in regional dispute unless US interests are adversely affected, and Russia and China are going aggressive KSA and other Arab countries have reasons to be worried.  Iran being on the nuclear threshold and US rapprochement instead of air strikes on nuclear installations, as recommended by KSA,UAE and Jordan led the latter states to form alliance with Israel,  which portrays the level of hostility among the two countries. The Iraq war and ouster of Saddam Hussein regime was the tipping point of not only Iraq but the middle-east as a whole. It created a vacuum into which all interested parties raced to fill up. Although US supported Shia leaders more and set up a government supposedly accommodating other stakeholders, Shia leaders exercised most of the power, alienating Sunnis. At the same time there were several Iran-trained Shia militant groups attacking both Sunnis as well as US forces. Sunni extremist militants in turn were financed and trained by Saudi Arabia and  Sunni Arab countries.

Several Sunni militias were supported by the Muslim Brotherhood which differed with Salafi on several points. The Muslim Brotherhood, though originated and remains entrenched in Egypt, its main backers continue  to be Turkey and Qatar. Apart from ideologies, Arab-Turk rivalry and Iranian-Turk rivalry goes back to several centuries. The Muslim Brotherhood can be described as a lesser extremist group. Hamas in Palestine is a major power of the resistance movement which prompted it to create a Hamas in Iraq.  This is the third network in Iraq comprising of Turkey, Qatar, Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots.I am inclined to include Free Syria Army in this geopolitical network but neither has such an association been reported nor does FSA follow the Brotherhood ideology, it claims to be secular. However, it does seem to have links with Turkey, but the most important fact is, accurate news reports from this region is extremely hard to come by. However, it isn't just a religious-sectarian war, Kurdish, though Sunni by belief  are fighting against all sides for their own homeland, their militias were trained by Israel which created further animosity. But it does add an ethnic tinge to the conflict which can also be seen in cadres of Salafi network, as clan and tribal identities have played part fragmenting groups.

The regional powers may not gained their ultimate objective but they have managed to inflict damage on rival networks. In Gaza Strip Hamas found itself isolated. As an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood but having been funded and armed by Iran-Shia network, the Arabs never viewed them sympathetically, but after KSA-Israel alliance and ouster of Brotherhood government in Egypt, the Arabs, which includes Egypt blocked access to and from Gaza Strip, effectively trapping the entire population of Gaza Strip and making them vulnerable to Israeli military offensive. It is not a coincidence that Israel attacked Gaza at a time it was completely cut off from the world and which was actually more focused on events in Iraq and Syria. Besides, for Arabs, this served a good opportunity to weaken the Brotherhood network, Hamas after all is one of Brotherhood's most successful front. The Gaza massacre in turn shifted global attention towards it while ISIS gained territories, monetary resources and latest weaponry and armoured vehicles that withdrawing Iraqi soldiers left behind.

However, the West and Arabs realized late, that by funding and arming Sunni militant groups fighting in Syria, they were riding a tiger which would devour its riders when stopped. Soon a collection of jihadist groups including many foreign fighters formed ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham)  which after capturing some parts of Syria took over territories in Iraq. It now threatens every nation-state in the middle-east. The claim of founding Caliphate implies that it wouldn't accept  national boundaries of surrounding Muslim states and should be assimilated within the Caliphate. It wouldn't be the first time middle-eastern states are facing threat from a VNSE but it is indeed the the first time that such a terrorist group has come into existence. ISIS's assets are valued at $2 billion with regular source of revenue such as oil and electricity plants it controls (ironically, it is believed ISIS sells oil and electricity back to Syrian government). Further, its corporate style of functioning and latest weapons and vehicles acquired from rival Syrian rebels and fleeing Iraqi soldiers (both had been armed by the US) make it a formidable force.

The kind of threat ISIS is posing, it is time the Arab,Iranian and Turkish networks take it seriously enough. But, then it would require supporting the Kurdish Peshmerga which is fighting ISIS on its border but both Iran and Turkey view some Kurdish militia as terrorists since the latter have been fighting to free part of their land from Turkish and Iranian occupation. The subterranean war of the three networks has each partly contributed to the rise of the first "terrorist state". Apart from thousands of civilians already killed, minority communities such as  Armenian Christians, Syriac Christians and Yezidis face extinction. Air strikes by the US air force is simply not enough, the middle eastern countries need to sit up and take a look at this organization which did not figure in their initial military strategies but which has nonetheless become the greatest adversary. Time is running out.

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