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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Are Sunnis victims of a new ‘Great Game’?

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Chairman's Message

How would you feel if you knew that there was a slow ticking time bomb in your neighborhood while all around you refused to heed your warnings? That’s exactly the situation I find myself in these days. The bomb I hear ticking is Iran’s belligerence, interference in Arab countries and growing military might. This threat is dire and if we don’t take it seriously we’ll wake up one day to find that Iranian Revolutionary Guards have reached our coastlines.

A few days ago, I read an Arabic article by Mishari Al Thaidy published in Asharq Alawsat titled “Knocks on the Persian Door” that adds grist to my fears. The writer cites the views of former CIA field operative and author of “The Devil We Know” Robert Baer who claims America’s trust in weak Sunni regimes is misplaced. Instead, he maintains Iran, which is more powerful and stable, is a better bet. Baer advises the US to invite Iran to the peace table without preconditions.

Al Thaidy also discusses the sentiments of Iranian-born American Middle East analyst and author of “The Shia Revival” Vali Nasr. According to Nasr, “Shias have welcomed both the fall of Sunni domination and the rise of prospects for political change. This makes them, in principal, more likely to work with the United States. Greater democracy serves Shia interests across the region, and hence Shia revival is favorably disposed towards democratic change”, he writes. Although that’s hardly true when Sunnis proved their thirst for democracy during the Arab Spring and are laying down their lives for pluralistic governance in Syria.

A growing number of respected American think tanks are reaching similar conclusions to those of Baer and Nasr. If President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has whiffed this warmer mood wafting over the Atlantic in his direction, no wonder he feels confident enough to strut around Abu Musa, a UAE-owned island under Iranian occupation.  Which of our lands will he be gloating over next? Unless GCC leaderships wake up and smell the danger, as I’ve been advising over and over again, tragically, we may soon know the answer.

Historically, our Arab leaders have taken the promises of Western powers at face value and have failed to read the writing on the wall. Sykes and Picot were free to carve-up the Middle East with the stroke of a pen in 1916 and a year later Balfour merrily gave away Palestine that wasn’t his to give. When it came to oil-rich Gulf States, their strategy was more sophisticated. We weren’t occupied in the traditional sense, but rather dominated by Great Britain and, later, the US.

Well, that’s old history, you might think. But history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. We must absolutely refuse to be treated like pawns in an endless geo-strategic chess game being played-out by Washington and Moscow. We must let them know in no uncertain terms that we won’t be pushed around and shore-up our own joint defense capability. With unified objectives and effective militaries we can avert the threat of being treated like playthings without any say in our destiny.

A few weeks ago, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the US was committed to the security of Gulf States but the truth is that America is only committed to securing its own interests. Washington’s Middle East policy is always focused on retaining US regional hegemony using the tried and true method of ‘divide-and-rule’.

America fancies itself as a puppet master manipulating client/compliant states. During the presidential tenure of George W. Bush when newly democratic Russia was hesitant to flex its muscle, the US had free rein to invade Iraq and Afghanistan – and set-up military bases throughout the Gulf and the Caspian.

However, contemporary Russia is a different creature. President Vladimir Putin regrets his former conciliatory position and is set on countering America’s regional ambitions by taking Iran and Syria under his country’s wing.  Russia has played an important role in Iran’s nuclear development and is currently using its clout to keep Syria’s ruthless Al-Assad regime in power.

The game of who controls the Middle East and the Gulf may not be what it seems. Superficially, the US and Iranian governments are sworn enemies but this may be a ploy as highlighted by author Trita Parsi in his book “Treacherous Alliance”. It’s no secret that Britain and America were behind the ousting of the Shah and the installation of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Since, Iran’s mullahs have actively cooperated with Washington to rid Afghanistan of their mutual foe the Taliban and lent its support to the US-led invasion of Iraq, now sheltered under an Iranian umbrella.

There is a credible school of thought that Washington’s long-term agenda revolves around luring Iran into its camp on the premise that Arab Shiites would follow. This is one instance when the US and Israel, which perceives Iran as a threat to its existence, differ. Should the US succeed in bringing Tehran on side, Russia would be edged out of the picture and Israel’s security would be assured. There’s a precedent. Under the presidency of Jamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt eschewed the West in favor of the Soviet Union but the US wasted little time in courting his successor Anwar El-Sadat, the man who forged the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

In theory, Washington would like to appoint a powerful entity like Iran as its proxy regional caretaker as the Shah was until he suffered delusions of grandeur. But first of all, it would be obliged to throw predominately Sunni states under a bus. America’s aim is and has always been to divide Arabs by keeping Sunnis contained in manageable small pockets while empowering Shiites, a policy that it has successfully achieved in Iraq.
Think about it! With so much sectarian violence in Iraq there is still a strong possibility that the country could be divided-up into two or three states. Western hands were behind the slicing of Sudan into two warring entities. And their part in the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi has resulted in residents of Libya’s second city in the east Benghazi demanding autonomy. Yemen is also splintering under the weight of splits in the army, secessionist demands in the south, Houthis wreaking violence in the north and Al Qaeda poisoning the mix. In each case, Sunnis are the losers.

Strangely, the Alawite, pro-Iranian Al-Assad regime appears to have been given a license to kill as long as United Nations observers are taking a tally.  Moreover, the US and Europe seem to have entered some kind of accommodation with Iran over uranium enrichment during recent P5 +1 talks in Istanbul bringing a scowl to Binyamin Netanyahu and an optimistic grin to the faces of UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon and EU Policy Chief Catherine Ashton. Forget President Obama’s harsh anti-Iranian rhetoric, designed to placate Tel Aviv and America’s pro-Israel lobby! He’s certainly oiling this fledgling détente behind the scenes.

We shouldn’t wait for a nasty surprise. Western powers will always compromise with and join hands with powerful countries able to protect their interests, while the weak and those without sufficient gumption to preserve their honor will be squashed under foot.

Moreover, the Israel writer Yaron Friedman predicts that new post-‘Arab Spring’ political realities will spark sectarian clashes between Sunnis and Shiites. He believes the main arena of conflict will be the Arabian Gulf. We must pray that he’s wrong while remaining alert to prevent any such violent eruptions.

If only GCC governments and peoples would open their eyes to these new geo-political trends before citizens of Gulf States are herded into Gaza-type pens wishing we could turn back the clock. We must protect our dignity that rests in our countries’ sovereignty over our land and borders. And GCC States must set aside selfish interests and petty disagreements to form a seamless united front. Then, and only then, there is hope.

Is anyone out there listening?

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