Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Brief Guide to Middle Eastern Alliances


By Elizabeth Kendal
Religious Liberty Monitoring

The complex, volatile and exceedingly fragile alliances between the Middle East’s powers and sects are unpacked in detail my book, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

What follows below is but a brief (and consequently simplistic) guide to the tangled web that is the Middle East.

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A BRIEF GUIDE TO MIDDLE EASTERN ALLIANCES
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Map by Elizabeth Kendal
click on map to enlarge
click here for pdf

At the heart of the Middle East is Mesopotamia: the land between the two rivers (the Tigris and the Euphrates). Comprising modern-day Syria and Iraq, this resource-rich Fertile Crescent has long been regarded as the cradle of civilisation. The homeland of ancient peoples – Armenians and Assyrians (also known as Syriacs and Chaldeans) – Mesopotamia is today (after numerous invasions, conquests and occupations) both a buffer zone and melting pot. Terrorism analyst Yossef Bodansky has labelled it, “the fertile crescent of minorities”.

The Mesopotamian heartland is surrounded by the region’s three imperial powers: TURKEY, ruled today by the Neo-Ottoman, Sunni Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan; IRAN/Persia, ruled today by its revolutionary Shi’ite clerical regime; and the Wahhabist Kingdom of SAUDI ARABIA representing the Sunni Arabs. Today, as a century of Western hegemony comes to an end, these three imperial powers are struggling not only for hegemony over resource-rich Mesopotamia, but for leadership of the Muslim world.

The Middle East is divided along sectarian lines: between Islam’s two mains sects, the Sunnis (who follow Arab tradition/sunna in being led by a strongman) and the Shi’ites (who maintain that only a blood relative of Muhammad can lead the Muslims). Because Shia doctrine deligitimises all Sunni Caliphs, Sunni Islam has long sought to deligitimise Shi’ism as heresy, and demonise Shi’ites as rafida/rejectionists to be killed. Like the three imperial powers, these two Islamic sects are fighting for hegemony over resource-rich Mesopotamia and for leadership of the Muslim world.

The Middle East is divided along political lines: the north-south Turkey-Arab Sunni Axis comprising NATO-member Turkey and the US-allied Sunni Arabs; and the east-west, Iran-led, Shia-dominated Axis of Resistance (often called the Shia Axis) comprising Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Lebanon’s Hezballah, along with various Sunni “resistance” groups such as Hamas and even al-Qaeda. These powers and groups are united by their commitment to “resisting” America’s and Israel’s presence in the Middle East. ISIS would be in this axis too if ISIS were not so inflexibly takfiri (anti-Shi’ite).

But nothing is ever that simple. Within these political axes the allied states routinely display widely diverging interests -- including economic interests -- and this is where it gets complicated.

Regarding the east-west Iran-led, Shia-dominated Shia Axis / Axis of Resistance.  This axis is not as united as it seems (or is made to seem). The interests of the Alawite-dominated secular government of Bashar al-Assad do not fully align with those of sectarian, revolutionary Shi’ite Tehran. The relationship between the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus and the clerical Shi’ite regime in Tehran is purely strategic. Like Baha’is and Ahmadiyyas, Alawites revere Muhammad as the founder of Islam, but follow as subsequent (and indeed more pacifist) prophet. Alawites follow Abū Shuʿayb Muḥammad ibn Nuṣayr (who diverged from Shia Islam), which is why they were historically known as Nusayris. The French convinced them to change their name to Alawites so as to hide their link to Nusayr while emphasising their link to Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law, and the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph of Islam). A century on, the name Nusayr is being revived by fundamentalist Sunni jihadists.

Fundamentalist Islam regards those who follow a subsequent “prophet” as heretics deserving of death. Consequently, when the long-persecuted minority Alawites came to power in Syria (1971), they knew they needed allies. Cognizant of this and sensing an opportunity, Shi’ites in Lebanon and later revolutionary Tehran, proposed an alliance. Since then, the Alawite-led government in Damascus has provided Shi’ite forces with strategic depth, while Lebanese Shi’ites and Tehran provide Syria's minority Alawites with legitimacy and protection. For the Alawites this alliance is about little more than surviving as an existentially imperilled religious minority in a hostile region. For Hezballah and Tehran this alliance is all about geo-politics; they would sacrifice Assad in a flash if he resisted them. Of course Assad knows this, which is precisely why he is looking more to secular Russia (which happens to be pro-Israel) than to sectarian Shi'ite Tehran, which is not merely fighting in Syria, but working to Islamise and “Shi’itise” the Syrians, much to their horror.

Regarding the north-south, US-allied Turkey-Arab Sunni Axis.  This axis contains both pro and anti Muslim Brotherhood (MB) factions. Qatar and Erdogan’s Turkey are strongly pro-MB; while Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, along with President al-Sisi’s Egypt, are strongly anti-MB.

Over recent years the anti-MB faction has grown increasingly frustrated with Qatar, due to the way Qatar uses its state-owned media company, al-Jazeera, as a tool of foreign policy and as a weapon with which it interferes in the affairs of other states. Indeed, al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood were central players in the misnamed “Arab Spring” which commenced in Tunisia in December 2010, and either toppled or threatened anti-MB regimes across the region throughout 2011 until it finally met its match in Damascus.

Even within the anti-MB faction, tensions exist between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Not only has Egypt steadfastly refused to send troops into Yemen in support of Saudi forces, but Egypt has also steadfastly rejected Saudi calls to send troops into Syria to help overthrow the Syrian government (which, like al-Sisi, is strongly anti-MB). In October 2016, Egypt voted in favour of a Russian resolution in the US Security Council which called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, particularly in Aleppo, and demanded that all parties prevent material and financial support from reaching groups associated with Al-Qaida including Jabhat al-Nusrah, or  ISIS (ISIL/Da’esh). While the resolution failed (4 in favour, 9 against, 2 abstentions), Saudi Arabia was furious with Egypt. Labelling Egypt’s support for the Russian resolution a “betrayal”, Saudi Arabia immediately suspended its monthly shipments of discounted oil to the cash-strapped state. [Shipments resumed in March 2017.]

Q) Why is anti-MB Saudi Arabia working alongside pro-MB Turkey and pro-MB Qatar to topple the anti-MB government in Syria? As usual, the answer is money, pipelines, oil and gas! In 2009, Damascus rejected a proposal to have a Qatar-Saudi Arabia-[Syria]-Turkey pipeline traverse its territory, thereby stifling Sunni plans to sell gas from the Persian Gulf to Europe. Then, in 2010, Damascus approved a proposal for the construction of an Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline that would transport gas from Persian Gulf to the Syrian coast for export to Europe. Can anyone think of a better reason for the US and NATO-backed Turkey-Arab Sunni Axis to covet regime change in Damascus?

Q) Apart from the threat Shia doctrine presents to the monarchy, why does Saudi Arabia feel so existentially threatened by Iran?  Again, the answer is money, pipelines, oil and gas, along with refineries and the status and power that comes from wealth!

Though Shi’ites comprise only around 10 percent of Muslims worldwide (Sunni Islam having been spread worldwide by nomadic peoples), in the Middle East they comprise around 50 percent. More critically, in the lands around the oil and gas rich Persian Gulf – and that includes Saudi Arabia’s resource-rich Eastern Province – Shi’ites comprise around 80 percent. If Iran ever decided annex Eastern Province – ostensibly on the pretext of rescuing/liberating its persecuted Shi’ite majority – the Saudis would be back in the desert with nothing but camels and sand. And while the Saudis would still be custodians of the Two Holy Mosques (a profitable business indeed!), it is doubtful they could hold that position for long if Iran was in control of all the oil and gas in the region. When we consider all this in the light of the fact that Saudi Arabia’s military is no match for Iran’s, it is easy to understand why the kingdom will do virtually anything to retain its US security umbrella. [See composite map at the top of this article.]

Q) What about the jihadists/terrorists? The jihadists – be they allied to al-Qaeda (which co-operates with Shi’ite Tehran) or ISIS (which refuses to; hence the split) – are all nothing but proxies. All jihadist groups of any significance are totally dependent on state backing, be it from NATO-member neo-Ottoman Islamist Turkey, US-allied Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, or Revolutionary Shi'ite Iran. Cognizant of this, Russia – which has been supporting the government of Syria, at its invitation – has been appealing from the very beginning for an end to the funding and arming of all Islamic militant groups; to no avail.

Q) What about the Christians? In Iraq, the displaced and destitute Assyrian remnant currently has security and liberty in Iraqi Kurdistan, for which they are phenomenally grateful. However, as they watch the Kurds occupy their lands -- remembering, as they do, the long history of massacres and genocides -- the Assyrians cannot help but harbour deep suspicions as to what Kurdish ambitions and intentions might actually entail.

Bishop Moussa enjoys Palm Sunday
parade outside the
Church of Saint Elias in Damascus.
9 April 2017
In Syria, Christians  in government-controlled areas (including many thousands of IDPs) are not only protected, but they enjoy full religious liberty meaning they are free not only to worship but to minister to the wider community. In August 2015 the situation looked dire and had Russia not intervened then the government would surely have fallen. While Hezballah and Tehran are fighting in support of the Assad government, their foreign Shi’ite fighters have no love for Christians. Russia on the other hand, which not only has a long history of relations with and interests in secular Syria, also has an even longer history – a history of which it is very proud – as a protector of Eastern Christians.

Right across the Middle East it is overwhelming the case that Christians, feeling themselves betrayed and abandoned, are no longer looking to the West for help.

Q) What is the US doing in Syria? Having facilitated the rise of Iran (through the removal of Saddam Hussein and the “democratisation” of Shia-majority Iraq) the US is now desperate to rein it in, for an ascendant revolutionary Iran poses an existential threat to America’s allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel) and interests in the region.

Though still officially a US ally, Iraq is in reality lost, and is now little more than an Iranian vassal. Consequently the battle against Iran must be fought in Syria. Indeed, for the US, the war in Syria has always been about Iran.

Initially the US-Sunni strategy was to affect regime change in Damascus. Failing that, plan B has been to hammer a north-south Sunni bloc through the east-west Shia Axis to serve as a bulwark and base of operations against Iranian ambitions.

US troops patrol with fighters from
Maghaweir al Thowra (MaT)
(Revolutionary Commando Army) in Tanf.
Long War Journal (14 June)
Having established a garrison in Tanf (near the Syria, Iraq, Jordan border triangle) -- which is now protected on account of its being deemed a "deconfliction zone" -- the US-Turkey-Arab Axis is working with its Sunni militant proxies to establish a Sunni bloc that would stretch from the Gulf states and Jordan to Turkey through eastern Syria severing the Baghdad-Damascus Hwy, ostensibly under the guise of fighting Islamic State.

Of course this is something the Axis of Resistance powers will not tolerate. . .
. . . meaning this conflict is about to move to a whole new level.



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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com