12 Apr 2012

Crescent War over Syria


Sunni world tries to stop Shia march on the road to Damascus.
West helps Arabs prevent rise of Cresent over Syria.


Experts: Syria unrest widens Sunni-Shiite divide


A picture released by opposition group Hama Revolution 2011 on April 6 shows destruction in the city of Hama after reported clashes between Syrian government forces and rebel groups. The conflict in Syria, pitting majority Sunnis against rulers from an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is increasing sectarian tension that is closely linked to political discord in the region, experts say.

AFP - 7 April 2012

The conflict in Syria, pitting majority Sunnis against rulers from an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is increasing sectarian tension that is closely linked to political discord in the region, experts say.

Thousands of people have died in a crackdown by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, on a mainly Sunni uprising against his rule that erupted in March 2011.

Protests began peacefully but the movement gradually took on a militant face and has evolved into an armed revolt, though demonstrations are still held.#

How to respond to the violence in Syria has split the Arab world. Influential Sunni-ruled Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to arm the Syrian rebels and Shiite-majority Iraq opposes the move.

The Middle East is seeing "tension and regional escalation" -- part of it between Iran and Gulf Arab states -- "and another part sectarian, and they are intertwined with each other," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

"The situation in Syria is fuelling the Arab division," Salem said.

Iraqi analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidai also warned of a "major division" between states led by Saudi Arabia and the so-called Shiite crescent led by Iran, that is underpinned by sectarian differences.

"The tension between them is especially centred on ... states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that are trying to end Bashar al-Assad's regime because of a sectarian mindset," he said.

At last month's Arab summit in Baghdad, all the Gulf states except Kuwait sent low-level delegations to the meeting, and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani said that was a "message to the government of Iraq."

Without elaborating, he went on to accuse Iraq of "neglecting" some parts of its population, including minority Sunnis, in the formation of its government.

"Iraq is a very important state in the Arab world, but we do not agree with some of the policies against a specific component," an apparent reference to Sunnis.

On Sunday, Iraqi premier Maliki criticised the Qatari and Saudi stance on Syria, saying: "We reject any arming (of Syrian rebels) and the process to overthrow the (Assad) regime, because this will leave a greater crisis in the region."

"We are against the interference of some countries in Syria's internal affairs," the Iraqi leader said.

Fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who took refuge in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region in December to avoid charges of running a death squad, left for Qatar on Sunday and then moved on to Saudi Arabia.

Baghdad slammed Doha for receiving him and called on Qatar to hand him over, but it declined to do so.

Saudi and Qatari newspapers lashed out at Maliki on Tuesday, calling for a boycott of him and his government, with one accusing him of bias against Sunnis and asking whether he was "a voice for Iran or the ruler of Iraq."

Qatar University professor Mahjub al-Zuwairi said the region "entered into a type of sectarian dispute since 2003," when a US-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein. That ended decades of rule by Iraq's minority Sunnis and brought the Shiite majority to power.

The Jordanian academic referred to a "unified Gulf stance" regarding Iraq, a country he said is seen as "supporting Iran in its stance on Syrian events."

"Iraq is afraid that there will be a Salafi (fundamentalist Sunni) system after Bashar al-Assad," Sumaidai said.

Iraq is well aware of the dangers of Sunni fighters entering from Syria, having accused Damascus in the past of letting Sunni insurgents and arms transit the country for attacks inside Iraq.

Former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, a Shiite, said "the (Sunni-ruled) countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are playing with fire that will burn the whole region."

"These countries take a sectarian direction in their efforts, and consider the Syrian regime as Shiite, and this is a big mistake," he said.

Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt over the past 16 months have brought Islamists to power, replacing Arab nationalist regimes.

And Sumaidai said that those Islamic movements and parties are ready "to send fighters to other states such as Syria ... because there are those on the other side of the same sect."

While the Sunni-Shiite divide is a major factor in the Syrian crisis, it has also surfaced violently in Bahrain and even in Saudi Arabia itself.

Last year, Bahrain's Sunni ruling family crushed Shiite-led protests calling for reform, with backing from forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that entered the tiny Gulf kingdom.

Maliki warned at the time that the intervention in Shiite-majority Bahrain by its Sunni neighbours risked a sectarian war in the region.

And protests in Saudi Arabia's eastern oil-rich region, which has a significant Shiite population, have been violently put down.



By Dr Murtaza Haider – 7 March 2012

(Dr Haider is the Associate Dean of research at University in Toronto)

The sectarian gulf between the Sunni Arabs and Shia Iranians runs deep. Recent reports suggest that Arabs, while being motivated by their abhorrence of the Shias, appear willing to support Israel in her not-so-covert plans to attack Iran.

Peter Cohan, writing in Forbes.com, reports that “Saudi Arabia’s rage against the Shias exceeds its dislike of its Jewish neighbors” so much so that Saudis are willing to provide Israel logistics support to attack Iran later in June. Other Arab states including Jordan and Egypt may also stand behind Israel’s foray into Iran.

It was only in November 2010 when WikiLeaks revealed that Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz was egging the American leadership to take out Iran’s nuclear programme. In April 2008, WikLeaks exposed US diplomatic cables in which the current Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubair, told an American diplomat about King Abdullah’s “frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program.” According to the leaked cables Ambassador al-Jubair, while referring to Iranians, asked Americans to “cut off the head of the snake”. The Saudis never denied making these comments and observed that they could not verify the veracity of these documents.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on a whistle stop tour of the western capitols to win their support for an Israeli military foray into Iran. The American newspapers, such as New York Times, have willingly become cheerleaders encouraging Israel to follow through on its threats by publishing speculations about when and how Israel will or should attack Iran. In the past three months alone, the New York Times has published over 32 stories flirting with the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran.

While Israel’s loud threats against Iran are increasing by the day, the deafening silence of the Arab leadership on threats against Iran, a supposedly brotherly Muslim country, is also becoming hard to ignore. At the same time one is at loss to understand why Iran continues to antagonise the West who is concerned about Iran’s hard stance against Israel and her unqualified support for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Over the past three decades Iran has taken a leading role in mobilising Muslims against Israel. However, while Iran has become a pariah for supporting the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arabs on the other hand continue to treat Shia Arabs and Iranians with contempt.

The brutal repression of Bahraini Shias, who are in majority, by the minority Sunni rulers was aided and abetted by the Saudi regime who sent the Saudi army (including retired non-commissioned soldiers from Pakistan) and heavy armaments across the causeway to help the Bahraini regime. Rulers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the uprising by the majority Shias in Bahrain against the Khalifa and his clan who are Sunni Muslims. Similarly, Saudi Arabia continues to suppress Shias in the south and deprives them of the opportunity to practice their faith freely.

While Hamas has profited from the Iranian support over the years, it too is equally hostile to Shias living in Gaza. Earlier in January, armed men belonging to Hamas attacked Shias in a house in the Sheikh Zayyad neighbourhood (between Beit Lahia and Jabalya) who were commemorating Arbaeen, the end of the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussain. The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper quoted a Gazan residence Rafik Hamad whose brother was tortured by Hamas. “The police said my brother was a heretic [Shia] and asked me to keep him at home and not let him out,” Al-Hayat quoted Hamad.

The sectarian strife is ever so obvious in the Arab-Israeli conflict where Sunni Arabs are distrustful of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which is dominated by Shia Arabs. A survey conducted in Lebanon by the Pew Research Center in 2010 revealed that while 94 per cent Lebanese Shias held a favourable view of Hezbollah, only 12 per cent of Sunni Lebanese felt the same way. Surprisingly, Christians in Lebanon were more responsive than the Sunnis to Hezbollah where one in five Lebanese Christians reported holding a favourable view of Hezbollah. Even as they faced off against a common nemesis, the Shias and Sunnis in Lebanon remained polarised along the sectarian lines.

The survey by Pew Research Center in 2010 revealed that despite Iran’s hardline stance against the West and its unreserved support for Palestinians, most Muslim respondents continued to hold an unfavourable view of Iran. Respondents in Pakistan and Indonesia were the only two exceptions where more than 50 per cent respondents held a favourable view of Iran. Most respondents in Egypt, Jordon, Lebanon, and Turkey reported an unfavourable view of Iran.

Even a smaller proportion of respondents expressed confidence in the leadership of Iranian president Ahmadinejad. Consider that only 35 per cent respondents in Pakistan expressed confidence in Ahmadinejad, even when 72 per cent Pakistanis had reported a favourable view of Iran.

And while it may appear that only western countries are opposed to Iran acquiring the nuclear weapons technology, polling data suggests that most Muslim countries are equally alarmed by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. The Pew Research Center survey revealed that more than 80 per cent Egyptians and over 74 per cent Jordanians felt threatened by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. Of the surveyed Muslim majority countries, most respondents in all countries, with the exception of Pakistan, reported feeling threatened by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.

These trends indeed are quite surprising if one were to ignore the sectarian strife between Shias and Sunnis. However, when one acknowledges the sectarian differences between the Shias and Sunnis, one is able to appreciate the motivation for Sunni Arabs to oppose a nuclear-armed Iran.

Iran once again is increasingly getting isolated on the global stage. It was not long ago when in 1988 the US shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 persons aboard. The dead included Iranian nationals, as well as 13 Emiratis, 10 Indians, 6 Pakistanis, 6 Yugoslavians and an Italian. Despite this act of naked aggression, the global response was mute at best. Iranians stand equally isolated from the world today as they did in 1988.

As Israel continues to think aloud about the idea of attacking Iran, Arab Muslims are also not averse to attacking Iran to prevent her from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. No fewer than 71 per cent respondents to the Pew survey in Nigeria, much more than the ones in the US, favoured a military action against Iran in 2010; note that 50 per cent of Nigerians are Muslims. In Egypt, only 16 per cent of the respondents opposed the idea of attacking Iran. Similarly, only one in five Jordanians opposed attacking Iran to disrupt her alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons technology.

I wonder if Arabs, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, would have held such hostile views for another Sunni Muslim country suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons technology. Given the fact that Iran is a Shia majority country and that hardline Sunnis consider Shias heretics, one can appreciate that because of the sectarian strife Sunni Muslims are equally predisposed to attacking the Shia Iran. This has happened in the past as well when all Arab countries backed Saddam Hussain against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war that killed millions on both sides of the conflict.

Given the overt abhorrence of Shias common amongst Arabs, Palestinians have not been immune to the sectarian strife, Iran’s policy to antagonise the West and Israel while it tries to appease Arabs makes no sense at all. Iran now stands almost alone in the community of nations. The world, including Iran’s Arab neighbours, is becoming increasingly wary of its nuclear program and Iran’s efforts to assume the leadership of billion-plus Muslims whose overwhelming majority follows Sunni Islam.

A prudent foreign policy would require Iran to reconsider support for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. It may require Iran to leave the Arab-Israeli conflict to Arabs who have never welcomed Iranian interference in the dispute between Arabs and Israel. Iranians should instead champion the rights of Shias who are increasingly becoming victims of targeted killings at the hands of other Muslims.


Sunni vs Shia: Conflict Escalates

Yekaterina Kudashkina - 13 March 2012

(Interview with Silvia Colombo, Analyst and Expert in Middle East Policies with Italian Institute of Foreign Relations.)

I think Bahrain is the perfect case, which would confirm at this interpretation that we must remember that the all Arab Spring started in other places, in Tunisia, Egypt where the confrontation between Sunni and Shia is not so relevant and so then it spread also to the Middle East and to the Gulf in particular where the Sunni minority is ruling over Shia majority in some cases like in Bahrain or also there are very powerful Shia communities in Saudi Arabia, so there the confrontation started to become more sectarian, and we also have Lebanon very close where Sunni-Shia problems have always been present. So, now people start talking about general conflict between Sunnis and Shia, and I think that we must keep that into our perspective but that does not explain the whole story also about the conflict in Bahrain, which when it started 1 year ago it was part and parcel of Arab Spring, where political revendications and frustration erupted against the ruling
family, and these protests were made of Sunni and Shia together marching on the streets and calling for more freedoms. So, then the ruling family tried to portray this upheaval as Shia majority confrontation to the power of Al Khalifa, but this is not how it started. It was depicted, it was portrayed like that and now of course with all the tensions we have in the Gulf and the fears that these upheavals and these protests could lead to another hole of the balance between Sunni and Shia, we hear more and more talking about sectarian conflict, but I think this is just a bit of an explanation and one reason how to interpret the broader conflict which is going on in the Middle East in particular. Of course sectarian armies are very important because of the long history and the social political reality on the ground.

But what could the international community do about it?

I mean, we as an international community cannot do anything in terms of the balance of power between the Shia and Sunni. This is the reality we cannot really cope with, we cannot really divide the policy to deal with that. So, I think that it is misleading in the sense that it is part of tempt by the ruling family for example in Bahrain or the Gulf in general to keep West more outside from this conflict saying “yes, it is just something which belongs to us. Our social political reality and you cannot do anything. We can solve it. This is the only way we can deal with it”. As I said this is not how it started, this is not the core of revendication, so we must pay attention to other things going on and the only thing we can do as Western world is to insist on the elements, which are not sectarian and try to downplay the sectarian conflict.

Do I get you right that the explanation of a Sunni-Shia opposition when we are talking about the standout between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also too superficial?

This is of course very relevant for this part of the world but what I am trying to say is that it has become like this also because it was portrayed and it was made up in the certain sense by the all evolution of the story. In the beginning the revendications in Bahrain for example were very close, similar to those in Tunisia and Egypt where most of the young people were Shiah of course but they were marching and asking for more freedoms and for dignity next to Sunni young people. So, then it became much more sectarian because of course it was portrayed like this in a certain sense and it was easier for the ruling families in the Gulf to describe it like this and to justify also their intervention. Also on the other side, for example, in Iran it is said that there was an attempt by the Sunni minority to crash the Shia majority in these countries, so Western, an exterior intervention has happened in Bahrain when the Saudis and the Emirates forces entered the kingdom, so it was exploited on both sides in their confrontation, then the result is that we tended to forget and go to the core and to the really the deep aspirations of the people that were fighting and were in jail in Bahrain for example and with the fact that the situation is very tense, we cannot see a solution to this ongoing crisis.


4 January 2012

Turkey Warns of Sunni-Shiite War

Turkey has warned of a sectarian Cold War in the Middle East, amid growing rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia for regional influence.

"Let me openly say that there are some willing to start a regional Cold War," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told state-run Anatolian news agency.

"We are determined to prevent a regional Cold War.

“Sectarian regional tensions would be suicide for the whole region," he warned.

Tension has grown between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.

Gulf Arab countries are concerned over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which the West accuses Tehran of masking it for nuclear weapons.

Tehran says its program only aims to generate electricity.

Iran has faced accusations of sparking unrest in Shiite-majority Bahrain last year, which prompted Saudi Arabia to send troops to help stabilize the tiny Gulf country.

Tension has sharply grown between the two rivals after the US accused Iran of plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, a claim denied by Tehran.

"Turkey is fiercely against new regional Shiite-Sunni tensions, or an anti-Iran or similar tensions arising like in the Gulf," said Davutoglu, who arrived in Tehran on Thursday for talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Tension has also grown between the West and Iran after an Iranian threat to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a critical route for oil transfer, if the West imposed new sanctions over its nuclear program.

Sectarian Iraq

The top Turkish diplomat singled out the case of neighboring Iraq, which is splitting up into sectarian and ethnic fiefdoms.

"Our Iraq policy foresees close contact with all sides,” Davutoglu said.

Sectarian tension has grown in Iraq following the 2003 US invasion to topple the Saddam Hussein regime, claiming thousands of lives.

Following the US invasion, the Kurds consolidated their autonomy in the north, Shiites dominated across the south and Baghdad, and Sunnis are exploring whether to set up their own autonomous region in the centre and west.

Tension has escalated after Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Shiite, issues an arrest warrant against Sunni Vice-President Tareq Al-Hashimi.

At least 24 people were killed Thursday after two bomb explosions rocked Shiite areas in Baghdad.

“No one should make a mistake here,” Davotoglu said.

Sunni-majority Turkey is worried that Iran’s growing influence in Iraq could result in escalating tension among Iraqi sects, resulting in the country’s partition.

“No one should act with a conviction that one ideology, one sect, one ethnicity could dominate in any country as it was the case in the past. The societies in the region want a new political understanding."

Tehran has criticized Ankara for siding with the West against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who is facing popular protests to quit power.

“We have different opinions on Syria but our stance has principles. They have their own perspectives and principles. We may discuss them,” Davutoglu said.
“Everybody in this region is a friend and brother. If Bashar al-Assad had not launched this war against his own people, we would not be facing such a problem.”


Financial Times - 8 April 2012

The world must unite to save Syria

The forces of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, have been killing Syrians mercilessly for 13 months while the world has fumbled for a credible strategy to remove him from office. The rhetoric has been strong: he must go; this is his last chance; his loss of legitimacy is irrevocable. Such phrases have been heard time and again over the past year.

But the Syrian dictator hangs on, his supporters now predicting, and his enemies fearing, that he could be in power for years. He is undeterred by increasing isolation and by the sanctions piling up against his cronies, even though these have frozen Syria’s oil exports and crippled its economy.

His friends in Russia (a source of diplomatic backing) and Iran (a source of funding, military advice and possibly also weaponry) remain committed to his survival. His international opponents know that Syria’s crisis is not only a humanitarian tragedy: the fall of Mr Assad would bring significant strategic gains to the US and Europe, altering the balance of power in the Middle East by removing Iran’s most Arab ally. Yet, while western governments float ideas like setting up humanitarian corridors and safe havens, they quickly roll back, unable to bring Russia on board and, in any case, lacking the political will for Libya-style military involvement.

The world’s failure in Syria is manifested in an escalating death toll that has now exceeded 9,000, with many thousands more wounded, arrested and tortured. It is a symptom of this failure that major powers have rallied round an initiative that very few diplomats believe has a chance of success. The six-point proposal put forward by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general now acting as envoy on Syria for the UN and the Arab League, is the only plan on the table today.

In theory, the proposal, which starts with a ceasefire leading to political dialogue, reasonably seeks to bridge the positions of western powers and that of Russia and China. In practice, however, it is likely to be exploited at every turn by Mr Assad and risks providing him with a cover for continued brutality.

The Syrian regime claims to have accepted Mr Annan’s plan. However, ahead of the ceasefire that comes into effect this week, forces have been pounding rebellious towns and villages. The plan itself has problematic aspects. It calls for a two-hour daily humanitarian pause when it should demand unfettered access for humanitarian agencies. It puts as much onus on a loose network of armed opposition men, with no central leadership or command, as it does on an organised army. This leaves ample room for the regime to claim its opponents are not abiding by the ceasefire.

If the Annan plan is to have any chance of imposing a diplomatic solution, the UN must deploy several hundred monitors who will need their own security and, above all, unfettered access across Syrian territory. Should a dialogue begin, a political transition must be clearly defined as the objective and the talks cannot be open-ended.

But is also important to bolster the Annan plan and that requires not ruling out more robust alternatives, however complicated and unattractive they may be. Western governments are now relying on Russian leverage to force Syrian compliance and Moscow says it wants the Annan blueprint to work. But to what end? The outcome it is seeking is the survival of the regime, not its demise. Mr Assad must be told that if the Annan plan fails to produce a peaceful transition, then the US and European governments, working with Turkey and willing Arab partners, will put the options of arming the opposition and creating safe havens for the rebels on the table – and that this time they will be serious about them. [ft.com]


Huffington Post - 11 April 2012

Syria: The Battleground Between Sunnis and Shiites

Professor Alon Ben-Meir, Senior Fellow, NYU's Center for Global Affairs

In a late 2011 article [see below], I argued that Syria's upheaval thrusts Turkey and Iran into a collision course because they have opposing geostrategic interests in an outcome that neither party can afford to ignore. Four months later, it has become increasingly clear that the Syrian uprising transcends Iran's and Turkey's strategic interests, as it has become the battleground between the Sunni and Shiite communities throughout the Middle East. The Syrian uprising has drawn a clear sectarian line: the Sunni axis led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the Shiite axis led by Iran. The new political order that will eventually emerge in Syria will determine not only the ultimate success or failure of Iran's aspiration to become the region's hegemon but whether or not the Sunni Arab world will maintain its dominance. Hence, the conflict will be long, costly and bloody, reflecting the troubled history between the two sides that has extended over a millennium.

History may not repeat itself, but it remains instructive. The Sunni-Shiite schism goes back more than a thousand years, starting with the dispute over the Islamic Caliphate following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 and carrying through to the conflict between the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Persia and the Sunni Ottoman dynasty in Turkey in the 16th and 17th centuries. This conflict has, in fact, shaped the geography of Shiite Islam to this day: Persia and its periphery are Shiite and Sunnis are located to its East and West. There were periods of conflict and periods of peace, such as the epoch that existed between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the secular Pahlavi dynasty in Iran in the 1920s. This period was broken by Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, whose vigorous attempt to export the revolution to its Sunni Arab neighbors and the latter's fierce resistance manifested in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Given this enduring rivalry, the superficial political effort made by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to obscure the conflict between the Sunni and Shiites has now been thrown into the spotlight for all to see.

There is no greater evidence of the intense conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites than the violent clash in Bahrain where Saudi Arabia directly interfered militarily to quell the Shiite uprising to ensure continued Sunni dominance. However small Bahrain is, it represents a microcosm of the Sunni-Shiite conflict that has engulfed the region. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq continues to terrorize the Shiite majority, resulting in a weekly death of dozens of innocent civilians on both sides. The Shiite's Hezbollah group in Lebanon continues to support the Syrian government's violent crackdown on its citizens, killing by most estimates more than 10,000. Sunni Hamas, which has enjoyed financial and military support from Iran while simultaneously receiving political and logistical support from the Syrian Alawite regime (an offshoot of Shiite Islam), has left its headquarters in Damascus and now openly condemns the Syrian Authority's bloodletting against its Sunni population.

Diplomatic tension rose last week between Ankara and Tehran over statements from Iranian officials about moving the nuclear talks to a more "neutral territory" such as Syria, Iraq or China, resulting in an angered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who bluntly criticized the Iranians' "lack of honesty." A dichotomy on Syria exists between Iran and Turkey: whereas the former supports the Assad regime with everything he needs, the latter hosts the main opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC). This is a reflection of their individual national interests to dominate a country that provides both of them an opportunity to assert themselves as the region's hegemon and attempt to offer a model to the newly-emerging Arab regime to emulate. Above all else, however, the Sunni Islamic movement, just as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), adamantly opposes a Shiite dominance in its neighborhood.

At greater stake in Syria is the national interest of Saudi Arabia as the conservative leader of the Arab Sunni world. A consolidation of Iran's grip over Syria would transcend the Shiite influence over the entire crescent of landmass between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. Though Saudi Arabia paid not much heed to Saddam Hussein's ultimate fate (who once threatened to invade the kingdom), handing Iraq to Shiite Iran on a golden platter in the wake of the Iraq war of 2003 was, and remains, deeply troubling to Riyadh. The fact that Iraq is ruled by a Shiite regime closely allied with Tehran explains why Saudi Arabia has provided refuge to Iraq's top Sunni political figure, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, whose political conflict with the Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki resulted in him being sought by Iraqi authorities on terrorism charges. It is critical for Saudi Arabia to pull Syria out of Iran's belly, which explains why the Saudi government is supportive of arming the rebels in Syria in the hope of toppling the Assad regime. Moreover, there is no love lost between Iran and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (MB) -- a regional Islamic Sunni movement whose local parties will certainly form the new regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.

Although all three countries are undergoing a difficult transitional process, they would cheer the collapse of the Assad regime and would do whatever they could to support the emergence of a Sunni government in Syria. The new transitional governments in Libya as well as Tunisia recognize the SNC as the legitimate authority of Syria. Similarly, the turmoil in Egypt did not prevent the MB from clearly indicating that they simply do not see eye to eye with Iran. In fact, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee in the Egyptian parliament, the MB Freedom and Justice Party member Dr. Essam al-Arian, stated ominously that the Arab Spring would also reach Iran.

As international sanctions began to bite and the Iranian leadership began to feel the pain, they agreed to re-engage in negotiations with the P5+1 over their nuclear program. Equally motivating to Tehran, however, is the situation in Syria. The deteriorating conditions of Syria and Iran's nuclear issue have become intertwined because the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons is driven not merely by national security considerations but essentially by Tehran's desire to secure nuclear weapons to bolster its regional hegemony. Assad's Syria is key to this strategy, and its fall would further increase Iran's isolation in a mostly-Sunni neighborhood and cut the direct links between Tehran and its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon. Also, once Assad's Syria is unraveled, the current substantial Iranian influence on Iraqi politics would weaken at a much quicker pace. Indeed, it is more than likely that Iraqi nationalism would eventually trump its internal Sunni-Shiite divide as Iraq historically takes pride in its unique place in Arab culture as the cradle of Arab civilization.

It follows that Iran may well be willing to demonstrate some flexibility in the Istanbul talks on the nuclear issue by using its Russian patrons to convince the West to curb the pressure on Syria to save the Assad regime, and buying time to prevent an attack on their nuclear facilities by Israel and/or the US. From the Iranian perspective they can always resume the nuclear program at a later date once the Assad regime is re-stabilized and in so doing, can safeguard the Shiite crescent. One can only hope that the West would not fall for the manipulative mastery of the Iranians. Note that the sacrifice of a temporary pause in the nuclear program in return for higher political purpose was also tried successfully by Tehran in 2003.

In the wake of the imminent collapse of the Kofi Annan plan to end the conflict in Syria the leading Sunni countries, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, now have the opportunity and the obligation to bring an end to the Assad regime, end the massacre and pave the way for the emergence of a Sunni government in Damascus. To achieve that, both nations (deriving their legitimacy from the Arab League) must provide military assistance to the rebels while Turkey should carve a significant landmass along its border and along with its NATO allies, enforce a no-fly zone to protect the Syrian refugees and the Free Syrian Army. Moreover, both nations should make every effort to enlist the international community to bestow legitimacy on the SNC to provide the foundation for a transitional government. Such an effort will save Syria as well as the national interest of the Sunni states in the region while depriving Iran of its aspiration to become a regional hegemon potentially equipped with nuclear weapons.

Anything short of that would mean handing Iran a complete victory and surrendering the Middle East to an inevitable, but wider, violent conflict in the future between the two axes of Sunnis and Shiites.





Professor Alon Ben-Meir - November 28, 2011

The Arab Spring is changing the political and strategic map of the Middle East as we know it in ways that will persist for decades to come. Notwithstanding the domestic developments in each country, the Arab Spring is uprooting long-standing authoritarian regimes, antagonists and protagonists to the West alike, and is creating a vacuum that regional powers will quickly attempt to fill. Each of the regional powers in the Middle East - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel - are poised to exploit the uprising to their advantage. New regional alliances could emerge, as could a new "cold war" and the potential of violence between the competing powers. What is certain now, however, is that the Syrian upheaval thrusts Turkey and Iran into a collision course because they have opposing geostrategic interests that neither of them can afford to ignore.

The entry of Arab powers--Egypt and Saudi Arabia--into this rivalry might be delayed, but not for long. Once Egypt gets its act together and manages to sort out its internal socio-political and religious combustion, it will reassume its traditional leadership role in the Arab states. Though poor in resources, Egypt has always been the epicenter of the Arab world. Ideologies ranging from Arab nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism originated from Egypt and its political direction, from confrontation with the West and Israel to peaceful relations with them, have dominated the Arab political sphere. Despite gestures towards Turkey and Iran, Egypt will inevitably resume its role as a rival of both if it is to regain regional leadership. Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia will continue to lead as the custodian of Sunni Islam and exert significant political and religious influence throughout the Arab world, especially in the Gulf because of its riches and ability to
"buy its way" through the thickets of Arab politics. Despite the socio-economic and political differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they will no doubt attempt to maintain the veneer of good relations required by their natural affinity and shared concerns about the Israeli-Arab conflict: Turkey's desire to lead the Sunni Muslim world, and in particular, Iran's ambitions to become the region's hegemon equipped with nuclear weapons.

Conversely, Israel is the only regional power that does not have the will, capacity or the prospect to become the region's hegemon and yet, it will maintain its military superiority. Though not slated for regional dominance, Israel could still utilize the Arab Spring, should its leaders muster a moment of lucidity, to advance the inevitably-required solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than allow the Arab Spring to become the cause of a Palestinian uprising to end the occupation. In spite of their different reasons or motivations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel share a strategic interest to undermine Iran's pursuit of hegemony, not only because of its nuclear ambitions, but also its drive to destabilize the region through the spread of terrorism and its extremist brand of Islamic regimes. Therefore, all three would likely welcome any effort to cut the Syrian "line" from Tehran's axis in the region.

It is the non-Arab states other than Israel, Turkey and Iran, that are now on a collision course as they survey the Arab Spring manifesting itself in Syria which provides them both an opening to assert themselves as the region's hegemon while attempting to offer a model to emulate for the newly emerging Arab regimes. Iran was quick to proclaim that the Arab Spring was part of the "Islamic revival" and overlooked no opportunity to describe the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain as an extension of the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution (which it failed to export). Turkey on the other hand is eager to suggest that it has created a perfect model of governance by successfully combining Islam and democracy while ushering in significant economic developments.

Syria, bordering both countries, is already the battle ground between Iran and Turkey who are determined to shape the outcome of the upheaval there to safeguard their national vested interests and ambitions. Neither Tehran nor Ankara is publicly assaulting the other, but both governments harbor tremendous concerns and suspicions of each other. Although Iran and Turkey have major stakes in Syria, for Iran the possible fall of the Assad regime would not only increase Iran's isolation and cut direct links between Tehran and its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon, but also inflict a major blow to its regional ambitions. This explains, for instance, why the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard's air division threatened this week that Iran will target the NATO missile defense installations in Turkey if its nuclear program is attacked by the United States and/or Israel.

The aforementioned suggests why even Iran's verbal support of the Arab Spring is absent when it comes to its ally, Syria. Tehran continues to provide the Assad regime with weapons, logistical support and cash to crush the protests. The decision by the Obama administration to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of this year offers Iran an added advantage to further expand its support of the Assad regime, and more importantly, to expand its influence in Damascus while maintaining and strengthening its contiguous Shiite-controlled landmass extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. However, if and when Tehran reaches the conclusion that the Assad regime is doomed, it will most likely shift tactics in an effort to shape the developments in a post-Assad Syria. For this reason, President Ahmadinejad, while supporting Assad to quell the uprising at all costs, made a statement condemning the "killing and massacre" in Syria to ingratiate
himself in the eyes of the Syrian public.

On the other hand, Erdogan's Turkey, much like Iran, aspires to export its "Islamic model" to the Arab Spring countries. After a grace period in which Ankara attempted to pressure Assad to reform, Turkey has now finally abandoned him to his own devices. Not only has Ankara hosted the establishment of an opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), it now provides logistical support to the rebel Syrian Free Army which has a camp on the Turkish side of the border. Moreover, although it was initially reluctant to take severe measures against Damascus, following the Arab League's decisions to impose a diplomatic and economic boycott on Syria, Turkey is now gearing up to take further punitive actions. Ankara is planning to impose a new set of sanctions while preparing to intervene militarily to establish a safe haven in northern Syria for refugees and Syrian military defectors.

Having given up on President Assad, Turkey will do everything in its power to curry favor with the Syrian public to place itself in a preferred position to influence the new, emerging post-Assad political order. Iran, on the other hand, will stop short of nothing to continue its unqualified support of the Syrian regime as long as it believes that Assad might still have a chance of survival. Ankara and Tehran are determined to maintain their sphere of influence over Syria because both know how serious the implications would be to their national security interest and regional aspirations which place them on a direct collision course.

The United States, which had earlier been held back from stiffening its sanctions against Assad by Turkey, should now work closely with Turkey to hasten Assad's departure, especially in the wake of the Arab League's decision to impose their own punitive measures. This represents a golden opportunity to loosen Tehran's grip on Damascus and extract Syria from Iran's belly at a time when Iran is in dire need of holding on to its slipping regional influence.

To be sure, Iran is more vulnerable today than it has been in a long time. Faced with serious charges by the IAEA to pursue nuclear weapons, increased international sanctions and growing isolation, the loss of its Syrian connection will inflict a fatal setback to Iran's regional ambitions. The question is, will Turkey be up to the task and will the US aid Ankara in indirectly engineering such an outcome?


Sunni Muslim rulers snub Iraq at Arab League summit

BAGHDAD – Sunni Muslim rulers largely shunned an Arab League summit hosted by Shiite-led Iraq on Thursday, illustrating how powerfully the sectarian split and the rivalry with Iran define Middle Eastern politics in the era of the Arab Spring.

Mideast upheaval knocks Saudi Arabia off balance

Iran's meddling "is very dangerous." Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal

The decades-old rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia-controlled Iran for prominence in the region is one of the volatile subplots embedded in the "Arab Spring."This was evident Thursday when Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, which have complained of Iranian manipulation of the Shiite-majority government in Iraq, sent lower-level delegations to the Arab League summit in Baghdad.

Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to embrace the 'Arab Spring,' which has ousted its allies. But the tumult has also offered it a chance to weaken rival Iran. The Saudi royal family prizes stability as much as the oil that secures its wealth, but political upheaval across the Middle East has shaken the kingdom's sense of balance, forcing it to press for radical change in Syria and confront a bid by longtime nemesis Iran to wield greater influence. Intrigue between Riyadh and Tehran has sharpened. The kingdom blames Tehran for training Islamic militants and for stirring sectarianism in eastern Saudi Arabia and in neighboring Yemen and Bahrain. The bloodshed in Syria has enraged the monarchy, but also provided a moral cover as it attempts to undercut Iran by weakening its strategic proxy, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Saudis Seek to Funnel Arms to Syria Rebels

MARCH 2012. Syria's fighting has already added to the rancor between Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies, who support the country's largely Sunni opposition, and Shiite Iran, whose government backs Mr. Assad. Saudi Arabia has argued strongly for weapons supplies to Sunni protestors.


Arab summit appears divided over approach to Syria

AP - 28 March 2012.

Arab leaders gathering here Thursday will call for Syria to implement a cease-fire, but there's little faith that President Bashar Assad will do anything to halt his crackdown on the year-old uprising.

That could set the stage for Gulf Arab nations, eager to see Assad's downfall, to take stronger action on their own.

Arab governments are divided over how strongly to intervene to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and their divisions illustrate how the conflict has become a proxy in the region's wider rivalry — the one between Arabs and powerhouse Iran.

Sunni-led nations of the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar — hoping to break Syria out of its alliance with Shiite Iran — are believed to be considering arming the Syrian rebels to fight back against Assad's forces. But other Arab nations are reluctant to openly call for that step yet.

Iraq, the host of the one-day Arab League summit, is in a particularly tight spot because its Shiite-led government has close ties to Iran, Assad's top ally.

Given the divisions, foreign ministers meeting here Wednesday laid out a middle-ground for their leaders to issue at the summit. The draft resolution they put together would reject foreign intervention in Syria while voicing support for the Syrian people's "legitimate aspirations to freedom and democracy." It would call on Assad to implement a cease-fire and let in humanitarian aid, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press.

The leaders also "denounce the acts of violence, killings ... and remain committed to a peaceful settlement and national dialogue," it said.

It also supports the mission of joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who has put forward a peace plan to end the regime's crackdown that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 9,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari acknowledged to the media that the summit will offer "nothing new" on Syria, but will complement ongoing international diplomacy to settle the crisis.

Damascus has accepted Annan's plan, which includes a cease-fire. Violence has continued, however, with clashes between government forces and armed rebels. Syria's opposition is deeply skeptical that Assad will carry out the terms of Annan's plan.

The plan also calls on Damascus to immediately stop troop movements and the use of heavy weapons in populated areas, and to commit to a daily two-hour halt in fighting to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations.

Opposition members accuse Assad of agreeing to Annan's plan to stall for time as his troops make a renewed push to kill off bastions of dissent.

"We are not sure if it's political maneuvering or a sincere act," said Louay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. "We have no trust in the current regime. ... We have to see that they have stopped killing civilians."

The Assad regime has pre-emptively rejected anything coming out of the Arab League summit, a reflection of its refusal to deal with the 22-member body since it suspended Syria's membership last year.

Iraq is hosting the annual summit for the first time in a generation, keen to show it has emerged from years of turmoil and U.S. occupation. But the Syria issue has clouded its attempts to win acceptance by other Arab nations, which are deeply suspicious of its ties with Iran.

In a snub to Baghdad, most — if not all — of the rulers of the six Gulf nations were staying away from the summit, sending lower-level figures instead. League officials said the level of representation was aimed at showing their frustration over the lack of more assertive action on Syria.

Instead of its king, Saudi Arabia was sending its ambassador to the Arab League — a worse slap because the post is even lower than the foreign minister level. The League officials said Saudi Arabia and Qatar had wanted Iraq to invite representatives of the Syrian opposition to the summit. Baghdad declined, much to their dismay, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Offering a glimpse of Qatar's thinking on the Syrian crisis, the prime minister of the tiny, energy-rich nation told Al-Jazeera television that it would be a "disgrace to all of us if the sacrifices of the Syrian people go to waste."

"We are faced with a difficult choice — either we stand by the Syrian people or stand by him (Assad)," said Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.

The Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been pushing behind the scenes for more assertive action to end the conflict. Privately, they see little benefit in the Arab League's efforts to reach a peaceful settlement and prefer instead to see a small core of nations joining together to act on their own.

Among the options they are considering are arming the Syrian rebels and creating a safe haven for the opposition along the Turkish-Syrian border to serve as a humanitarian sphere or staging ground for anti-regime forces. Such a step would require help from Turkey — the country best positioned to defend such a safe haven — but so far Ankara has seemed reluctant.

For Gulf nations, removing Assad would almost certainly break Syria's alliance with Iran, disrupting the sphere of Tehran's influence that now extends from Iraq and across Syria to the shores of the Mediterranean. Syria's Sunni majority makes up the bulk of the uprising. Assad's regime is dominated by his own Alawite sect, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, said the summit would not demand that Assad step down. But he later said Iraq "could no longer remain neutral" in the face of the violence in Syria.

He did not elaborate, but added that the Syria crisis was headed toward "internationalization," maintaining that the Arab League already has done all it could to resolve the conflict.

Zebari, however, is a Sunni Kurd and his pronouncements may not accurately reflect the views of the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the all-powerful Shiite political establishment backing him.

In a possible breakthrough in Iraq's relations with Bahrain — one of the Gulf Cooperation Council's six members — al-Maliki met on the sidelines of Wednesday's meeting of Arab foreign ministers with Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. No details emerged from their meeting.

Relations have been tense since Shiite Iraqi politicians publicly criticized last year's crackdown by Bahrain's Sunni-led regime against the nation's Shiite majority. The tension between Iraq and the GCC over Bahrain was among the reasons an Arab summit that had been scheduled to take place in Baghdad last year was abandoned.


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