How Islamic State is redrawing Mideast rivalries...
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Dec 06, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

How Islamic State is redrawing Mideast rivalries and allegiances

Unlikely new friends and enemies are being created in the Mideast as the Islamic State insurgency deepens, blurring the line between uncertainty and hostility


Last month, Iran and the United States shook hands and agreed to disagree on the long-contentious issue of containing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, for now. But their willingness to keep calm and carry on seeking a deal after the seven-country talks fell through was more significant than their predicted failure.

The absence of finger-pointing shows how the Mideast landscape has shifted since the rise of the Islamic State, which has killed its way across Syria and Iraq in pursuit of a caliphate, dissolving borders in its wake.

The shift is not just among the countries in the region, but in the power struggle between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, which have been at odds since the 7th century, when the religion violently split into two branches.

The divide

The Sunnis were ascendant, making up more than 80 per cent of the Muslim world by this century, and a majority in the Mideast and North Africa, except for Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.

The Sunnis’ chief rival, Shiite-ruled Iran, has been in the diplomatic doghouse since an earlier geopolitical shift — the 1979 Islamic revolution that displaced the Western-backed Shah.

Since then, its bellicose anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, suspected progress toward building nuclear weapons, backing for the militant Hezbollah and human rights abuses have only increased tensions and made Iran a pariah state. Its dark image as a radical Islamic regime has cast a shadow over its faith.

Saudi Arabia, the headquarters of the Sunni world, benefited from Iran’s diplomatic disaster. Its oil wealth and willingness to co-operate with the West offset the excesses of its own medieval regime, a rigid monarchy that embraces beheading as capital punishment and keeps women under permanent “guardianship” of men. In spite of its extreme form of Sunni Islam, and link with Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, it has enjoyed a seat at the high table of international diplomacy.

But now, with the rise of the Islamic State, and the possibility of a nuclear deal in the offing, Iran’s interests are looking more like the West’s. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is threatened by its own religious and political splits, as well as the pervasive fear of a more muscular Shiite rival.

“Iran’s trajectory is going up, and the Saudis are in trouble,” says Kamran Bokhari, an adviser on Mideast affairs to the U.S.-based global intelligence company Stratfor.

“The kingdom has major problems. It is in a multi-front struggle against Iran, the Shiites, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. It’s trying to liberalize but facing resistance from conservatives within,” says Bokhari. “Its main structural problem is that in the struggle against Iran and the Shiites the Saudis cannot compete, or counter them, unless they can control the jihadists. But who is going to fight the Shiites? If it is the (extreme Sunni) Salafists, they are only a few degrees separate from jihadists.”

The unease is mounting as 90-year-old King Abdullah declines. “The infirmity of the king complicates the situation, and who his successor will be is impossible to guess,” says Thomas Lippman, author of .Saudi Arabia on the Edge.

The uncertainty, he adds, comes as the Saudis recognize that the Islamic State “is really a serious threat. They want Mecca. They are not dangerous religiously because nobody in the group has any theological credentials. But they are dangerous in terms of political power. Essentially, they are asserting a rival claim to primacy in Islam.”

Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, the holiest site of Islam, and has changed hands many times throughout history. But even without it, bigger gains for the Islamic State militants could create fault lines that further fracture the Sunni faith.

That would also escalate the religious conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that goes back to Muhammad’s death in 632, leading to bloody battles over his successor. Since then, the two branches of Islam have observed their religion in significantly different ways.

Sunni fears

The basis of Sunni faith, law and doctrine is embedded in the life and teachings of Muhammad. For Shiites, says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, it’s in a more personal connection: “(believers) need the help of exceptionally holy and divinely favoured people in order to live in accord with the inner truths of religion.”

Although Sunni and Shia believers have lived together peacefully and intermarried in a number of Mideast countries, combatants in the wars of the last decade have used religion to inflame old wounds.

Iraq’s Shiite majority, tightly controlled by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baathist Party, was propelled into power by the U.S.-led invasion. That resulted in a closer relationship with Iran, and Sunni fears of a “Shiite Crescent” from Iran through Lebanon and the Gulf countries, upsetting the balance of power in the region.

The Arab Spring also fuelled a resurgence of sectarianism that jarred the region. But the outbreak of war in Syria was its most deadly consequence, with President Bashar Assad’s Shia-aligned Alawite rulers battling a Sunni majority that has split into rival militant factions, while moderates are attacked from all sides. It enabled the explosive rise of the Islamic State, a geopolitical game changer.

“If we consider that the U.S. supported a Shia government in Iraq, has not intervened in Syria and is more or less reconciled to Assad in power, I’d say it has significantly shifted the balance,” says Geneive Abdo, a Sunni-Shia expert at the Stimson Center in Washington.

The rise of the Islamic State has made it more difficult to topple Assad, who is now on the same side as the West against Sunni extremists. And, says Abdo, Shiite Hezbollah, which was condemned for sending forces to defend Assad, is “vindicated” in its home base, Lebanon, where its support had been steadily slipping.

In Iraq, where the Islamic State made rapid gains, the country is fractured along deepening sectarian lines. “Tribal leaders say they don’t agree with its ideology or how the religion is interpreted,” says Abdo, who recently returned from the region. “But they believe if something isn’t done the Sunni will continue to be excluded and discriminated against economically.” Once considered an ally of Washington against Al Qaeda — a forerunner of the Islamic State — they are, tentatively, in the militants’ camp.

However, the largely Sunni but Western-leaning Kurds take an opposing view — with a willing hand from Iran. “The Iranian press is replete with stories of victories of the Iraqi forces and (Kurdish) peshmerga with assistance of Iran in countering (the Islamic State,)” says Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group.

That helps Iran to gain more leverage against the West and regional rivals, he adds, as well as strengthening its hand at the nuclear negotiating table. But it has the “side effect of exacerbating the Sunni sense of disenfranchisement that is one of the root causes of the current crisis.”

Nervous standoff

As the curtain falls on 2014, old and new alliances are in play in unpredictable ways and the line between uncertainty and hostility grows fainter.

“Iranians feel that they are surrounded by hostile forces that are bent on curbing Iran’s influence and encircle it with a Salafi crescent stretching from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Syria,” says Vaez.

The Gulf countries are equally nervous, says Mark Katz of George Mason University. “They see Iran as attempting to promote turbulence among its allies in Baghdad, in Syria and Lebanon — all hostile to the Gulf Arabs. In Saudi Arabia, they emphasize that we shouldn’t focus on Sunni extremism but Shia extremism. They feel they are being blamed by the West when the real threat is Iran.”

Toronto Star

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