Shia crescent pierces heart of Arab world - Times
[ Shiites firmly establised in traditional Sunni areas of influence]
The Times - 17 July 2006
SHIA CRESCENT PIERCES HEART OF THE ARAB WORLD
Sunni governments are nervously eyeing a militant alliance capable of taking on Israel
By Nicholas Blanford
THE present conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is not just a local quarrel between bitter foes who have been fighting each other in southern Lebanon for a quarter of a century. It is an attempt to redefine the balance of power in the Middle East.
As such it has implications not only for Israel but also for the Western-friendly, Sunni-led Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
The stakes are enormous. By attacking Haifa, Hezbollah has transferred the conflict to Israeli territory, undermining the latter’s longstanding military doctrine of defeating its enemies on foreign soil.
“If the Israeli public begins clamouring for a ceasefire, then the Israeli army will have been neutralised,” Amal SaadGhorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah, said. “It will shatter the myth of Israeli invincibility.”
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, appeared on television yesterday to warn Israel that the guerrillas’ military capabilities remained strong and that “we are still at the beginning” of the conflict.
“Our fighters are still there and they love the confrontation,” he said. “They are looking to show the world a new vision of victory.”
Such defiance may dismay Israelis, but it will cause additional unease among Sunni Arab countries who view the conflagration as a naked attempt by Shia-dominated Iran to project itself into the heart of the Arab world. Saudi Arabia hinted at this irritation with Hezbollah and its patron in an unusually frank statement that came after the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers last week. It called the operation an “irresponsible action” and blamed elements in Lebanon “and those behind them”.
Recent months have seen the crystallisation of an anti-Western alliance linking Iran, under the hardline President Ahmadinejad, some Shia factions in Iraq, Syria — which is ruled by the Alawites, a Shia splinter group — Hezbollah and the Damascus branch of the Hamas movement.
In December 2004 King Abdullah of Jordan famously described this emerging alliance as a “Shia crescent”, a synonym that outraged Tehran but spoke tellingly of Sunni Arab fears about the ambitions of Iran to become a regional superpower capable of facing up to Israel. Although the inclusion of the Sunni Hamas movement in the alliance weakens the notion of a Shia crescent, the idea is not entirely fanciful.
Emboldened by this partnership, Iran and Syria have refused to yield to intense international pressure to comply with the demands of the West on several issues. Syria stands accused by many of assassinating Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, last year, as well as continuing to support antiIsraeli militants and insurgency groups in Iraq. The Iranians faces possible UN sanctions if they continus to pursue their nuclear ambitions.
But Tehran, Damascus and their Hamas and Hezbollah allies are calculating that the United States, bogged down in the turmoil in Iraq, is unable to back its demands by force, allowing them to play some high-stakes poker, including the current confrontation with Israel. Iran increased the pressure yesterday by raising the spectre of a regional war, saying that Israel would suffer “unimaginable losses” if it attacked Syria. In turn, Mohsen Bilal, the Syrian Information Minister, vowed a “firm and direct response not limited in time or means” if Syria is attacked.
What worries the rulers of Sunni Arab countries is that, as their citizens watch satellite television images of the destruction wrought by Israel on Lebanon, sympathy will grow for Hezbollah, regarded by many Arabs — Sunni and Shia alike — as the only credible political and military force willing to match words with actions by taking on the might of Israel’s military force.
Perhaps that is why President Mubarak of Egypt, who has little taste for Hezbollah, admitted yesterday that “Israel will not be victorious in the current conflict”. He said: “Israel should stop the killing of defenceless Lebanese civilians.”
IRAN 89% Shia 9% Sunni
PALESTINIANS 5% Shia 90% Sunni
IRAQ 65% Shia 20% Sunni
LEBANON 40% Shia 20% Sunni
SYRIA 15% Shia 74% Sunni