Friday, May 1, 2015

Friends And Foes Mixed Up: Arab Balance Of Power Being Shaped

Friends And Foes Mixed Up: Arab Balance Of Power Being Shaped
                                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods; they kill us for their sport.”
                                                                                                            King Lear

This could well be a powerful chorus, the primeval cry from the Arab street as the Americans erect a new balance of power in West Asia now that the Iranians have been brought into the game, creating dread, promise, uncertainty.

For allies, or clients, the US will always be around, up, above, guns ablaze when required, to keep everyone in line, to keep the balance. Also, regional powers, with the capacity to buy arms, must now be encouraged to use these arms more frequently. Kids must play with their toys otherwise how would the supply chain be kept busy.

The US would now like to focus much more on the bigger theme developing in the Pacific, or on the “dangers” of Germans and Russians cosying up.

This is the sort of conversion you might expect in Arab Deewaniye or drawing rooms.

In Washington, folks have grown accustomed to Arab rage. Their considered priorities are more in line with what is emerging as official policy. Myanmar, Cuba and Iran kept outside the ball park serves no American purpose any longer. Engagement does. But for regional players this is no minor alteration in American policy. This is a tectonic shift.

Look at the consequential changes afoot in Riyadh. Saudi Royalty which never conducted diplomacy above the sound of whispers are today hysterically in battle albeit from the air in Yemen. Syria was seen as Iran’s (and Russia’s) opening onto the Mediterranean, Yemen onto the Red Sea. They must block both. Atleast be seen to have checked Iran. Otherwise the GCC may bolt.

The US, playing umpire from the air, has reserved the right to intervene to correct the game against the Houthis in Yemen (never mind if Al Qaeda is thereby helped), against Iraqi Shias and Iran in Tikrit (not necessarily against ISIS), against Bashar al Assad and Iran in Idlib, for Turkey which helps ISIS on its border with Syria. Fair is foul and foul is fair.

These are extremely complex set of adjustments. Place one point of the compass on Riyadh and the rotating point will touch all the locations listed above – except the military regime in Cairo.

Gen. Abdel Fatttah el-Sisi is so beholden to Saudi money that he must appear in Riyadh’s camp. The US meanwhile watches Egypt with bifocals.

At the time of Sisi’s coup, the State Department was persisting with support for the Muslim Brotherhood government. It was the Pentagon which, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, tipped the scales for Sisi. He is a variation on the Hosni Mubarak theme. But Hosni Mubarak lasted 30 years as President when the United States was a 24X7 presence in West Asia. It provided a veneer to Mubarak’s otherwise excruciatingly unpopular rule.

For remote control of Cairo, the United States will require a more broadbased, popular structure in place. Something like the Muslim Brotherhood. This cannot but be a source of concern for Israel as well as Saudi Arabia.

Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt becomes a source of great strength to its resourceful ideological kin in Gaza – the Hamas.

As for the Saudis, they have gone to town about Iran and Shiasm being their sworn enemies. The truth of the matter is that much the greater danger to the monarchy comes from Political Islam reared in the ideology of the Akhwanul Muslimeen or the Muslim Brotherhood.

The existential crises the Saudi monarchy faced, was not the Iranian revolution. That was the Saudi trick to externalize an internal problem. This internal crisis was the siege of Mecca that year by Sunni muslims opposed to the notion of Monarchy. Mention the name Juhayman al Otaybi, leader of the uprising, to any Saudi official and he becomes pale.

Ofcourse, a great deal of propaganda against Otaybi was blamed on Iranian machinations. This found traction in the media because the fall of the Shah was an extremely demoralizing event for the West.

The air strikes on Yemen are being explained in like fashion: because Shia Iran is helping Shia Houthis.

Damascus, one would have thought, would have been angry against Saudi action in Yemen. This is not the mood in the Syrian Foreign office. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s advisers are instead livid with Iran.

This is something of a surprise. The anti Iran line picked up traction in Damascus for two reason:  village of Jisr ul Shughur near Idlib in Syria was captured by ISIS with support from Turkey. A 100 Syrian troops were encircled. This action took place after Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Tehran.

True, Tehran blasted Saudi action in Yemen, goes the line in Damascus. Fair enough. But its silence on Turkish action inside Syria is inexplicable in Damascus. Syrian pride is hurt. After all the Syrian army’s staying power against the Syrian opposition, helped from outside, added to Iran’s clout which came in handy in its nuclear negations in Geneva.

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