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The Shifting Sands Of The Middle East

31/03/2015 8:02 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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HAIDAR HAMDANI via Getty Images
Iraqi fighters from the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), a group formed by Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, wave their weapons as they leave the holy city of Najaf in a convoy with Iraqi government forces to head to the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit to continue the offensive against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists to retake to city on March 20, 2015. The offensive to push back IS militants from Tikrit began on March 2, and Iraqi forces have only recently reached the city limits where they have been stalled by bombs and entrenched fighters. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)

The new developments in Yemen have either been met with hackneyed old stereotypes or by absolute ignorance. The usually level headed LA Times published an Op-Ed which started by ascribing 'the battle for dominance in the Middle East' to 'an ancient enmity between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam.' Thomas Friedman some days ago in the New York Times wrote that ISIS may be the 'last bulwark' of Sunni Islam. Many analysts insist on reducing the Houthis to 'an Iranian backed rebel group' and on an entirely related but unrelated note Pat Robertson, a Christian tele-evangelist, has helpfully allayed everyone's fears about white people going bonkers by suggesting that the German co-pilot was actually a Moose-lem. Thank God no one has noticed that the Kurds also jump over fires during their New Year celebrations which is suspiciously similar to what the Iranians do around Nowrooz.

To be fair the situation on the ground is all rather confusing. The Iranian and American governments are chatting in Europe about nuclear plants while Israel and some American politicians announced that to even talk to Iran is heretical and they have intelligence to prove Iran's malefides. Perhaps the GOP senators have forgotten that receiving foreign intelligence, and not just disseminating it, is a crime in America. But then they did need Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, to explain international law to them. Now John Bolton, a former US ambassador, has helpfully suggested that to stop Iran, bomb Iran. How marvellously simple! As we have learned over the course of the last century, war solves everything.

"[T]o stop Iran, bomb Iran. How marvellously simple! As we have learned over the course of the last century, war solves everything."

The efficacy of sending messages through bombs can be seen in Iraq where 'Euro-Muslim/Arab'-backed ISIS is being pushed back by Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'as with the encouragement of the United States. There is the small matter of intra-Shi'a differences. The Iraqi Shi'as are not just Iranis with the letter 'Q' replaced. They are actually quite critical of their neighbours but lets not complicate this with the fact that Sistani has the largest following amongst Shias across the world not Khamenei. Let us also not mention the Iraqi Sunnis who have joined their Shia compatriots in the fight against ISIS because Thomas Friedman says so. Overall, Iran is revelling in the fact that without doing much they are seen as being behind everything.

In Syria, at the cost of the daily suffering of civilians, everyone is confused about how to distinguish between ISIS and the real opposition to Assad. Of course, this kind of stalemate is advantageous for Iran which also likes to use the presence of ISIS and related organisations to unfairly dismiss the entire opposition as uncredible. In Lebanon 'Iranian backed' Hezbollah are fighting against 'Saudi-Qatar-Turkey' backed ISIS, actually lets just say non-Iranian backed ISIS. To the south in Israel, 'Iranian/ Qatari' backed Sunni Hamas is one reason that some Israelis, relying on linguistic gymnastics, conflate Islamic State with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In his speech in Congress Netanyahu said the enemy of your enemy is your enemy. Then surely Saudi Arabia, which is Iran's enemy, which in turn is Israel's enemy should also be Israel's enemy and not ally?

"Overall, Iran is revelling in the fact that without doing much they are seen as being behind everything."

Meanwhile in Yemen, a country with more factions than can be counted, Saudi Arabia has started an air campaign against 'Iranian-backed' Houthi rebels which will likely give a carte blanche to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Unlike US support for Iranian troops in Iraq, in Yemen the US is giving the Saudis logistical and intelligence support. It would be too much, perhaps, to trouble readers with the names of the Marib Tribes, AnsarAllah, the tribal confederation of Hadramaut, the Baida tribes, the Herak fighters, Pro-Hadi militias and other Yemeni political actors.

Furthermore, in using the fashionable and sole prism of analysis for the region- 'Sunni-Shi'a enmity'- the very particular and local context of the Houthis is completely ignored. For the past few centuries Zaidism, the 8th century religious tradition to which most Houthis belong, has been influenced by Sunnism. With the formation of the independent republic in 1962, Zaidis were heavily persecuted by the Yemeni State and their current battle for political rights is being subsumed in narratives of perennial sectarian warfare.

Then just when things were appearing to make sense Pakistan threw in the gauntlet and said it might aid Saudi Arabia's campaign in Yemen as if they don't have enough on their plate fighting the Afghan and Pakistani chapters of the Taliban. But then perhaps this was why Saudi Arabia gave $1.5 billion to the Pakistanis last year. To the south of Yemen the Egyptians have helpfully tried to block off the Red Sea entrance of Bab al-Mendeb to prevent Iranians taking it over, although how a country with no naval base in sight would do this is perhaps the wrong question to ask. Now Egypt is also eager to send some soldiers over to Yemen, Hezbollah's Hasan Nasrallah has condemned Saudi intervention in Yemen and instead has invited them to ally with him against Israel and the Palestinian Authority's chief religious advisor has invited Saudi Arabia to bomb Gaza because he views Hamas as an illegitimate government.

There are currently four all-out wars in the Middle East in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen with blowback of this in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Sudan amongst other places. The contexts of each of these situations is different and perhaps the one and only feature that states across the region share is that for various reasons most countries have denied their citizens the opportunity to form democratic civil society movements that participate in government and governance.

"To the south of Yemen the Egyptians have helpfully tried to block off the Red Sea entrance of Bab al-Mendeb to prevent Iranians taking it over, although how a country with no naval base in sight would do this is perhaps the wrong question to ask."

Even after the end of colonialism, many of these kingdoms, dictatorships and republics have, for various reasons, enjoyed the patronage and support of America and Europe. Today, Yemen is a striking example of this whereby national political issues are being deliberately ignored so that the fight can be presented to the world as one that is not different from what is happening in Libya, Iraq and Syria. The Arab Foreign Minister's decision in Cairo to make a joint military force also reflects this growing unease with any situation that could potentially challenge their hegemony.

The rulers of Kuwait have become so jumpy that they detained satirist Muhammad al-Ajmy for making fun of neighbouring Saudi Arabia's monarch on twitter. Saudi Arabia, not one to be bested, prevented Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Warlström, from speaking at a meeting of the Arab league a few weeks ago because previously she criticised their human rights record. However, there are no cries of Je Suis Margot, even in Sweden, where the establishment is more worried about their exports worth $1.3 billion to Saudi Arabia than about inconvenient principles. Its so much more appealing to see a problem in two-dimensional black and white isn't it?

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