Saturday, 23 August 2014

The new Middle East realpolitik

About this time last year some bright journalistic spark decided to construct a chart to illustrate the complex – and far from logical ­– network of friendships and enmities that make up the political pattern of the Middle East.  The result resembled a web spun by a demented spider. 

A year is an eternity in politics, and even if that chart had been decipherable, subsequent events have rendered much of it obsolete.  One new player on the scene is the self-styled Islamic State (IS), formally established in June 2014 and based on the organization known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).  Led by a man of boundless ambition and undoubted military talent – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now dubs himself the caliph and head of Muslims the world over – the IS swept across Syria and northern Iraq, carrying all before it. In the areas it conquered, inspired by an utterly ruthless religious zeal, the army of the IS set about a brutal and pitiless slaughter of all who would not subscribe to its own version of extreme Islamism.  Tens of thousands fled before it and are now refugees from their own country.

The Islamic State is no-one’s friend but its own.  Rooted in Sunni Islam, its caliph now disdainfully rejects established Sunni authority, declaring to the Muslim world at large: “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas, Support your state, which grows every day.''

This time last year Syria’s President Assad thought it appropriate to provide under-cover support for the then-ISIS, which was at odds with the rest of the Sunni jihadists, including al-Qaida, battling it out in Syria.  That “Machiavellian strategy”, in the words of journalist Itzhak Benhorin, has clearly backfired, and Assad has turned on the IS.  Now the IS is in opposition not only to the Shia alliance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah – and, by extension, Russia - but also with most of the Sunni Middle East.

The alarming speed of its inroad into Iraq from the north, and the humanitarian crisis it unleashed among the Christian and other communities it overran, finally led to a stiffening of resolve, within both the Iraqi government and the western world.  Humanitarian and military assistance began to be provided by a number of western governments, including the US and the UK, to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces opposing the IS, and its apparently unstoppable advance was checked.

Nevertheless, the Islamic State’s military successes alone would not have generated the reaction they have, were it not for the fact that hundreds of volunteers from all over the world are being attracted into its ranks, and western governments fear the result of a return to their countries of battle-hardened and Islamist-indocrinated extremists.  Whatever the reasons, the civilized world seems finally to be waking to the reality of the enemy it faces –extreme Islamists who have the eventual domination of the whole world in their sights.

For example, UK prime minister David Cameron wrote recently that the creation of an extreme caliphate in the heart of Iraq and extending into Syria was the UK’s concern, here and now.  “Because if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain.”

Then he postulated an emerging realpolitik approach that is beginning to gain adherents among opinion formers in the West.

“We must work with countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey against these extremist forces, and perhaps even with Iran, which could choose this moment to engage with the international community against this shared threat.”

Sunni Qatar? - bidding fair to becoming second only to Iran as the world’s largest sponsor of global terrorism, and one of Hamas’s main financial backers.  Shia Iran? - with its clear ambition to acquire military nuclear capability as a vital step towards dominating the whole Middle East.  Yes, indeed. Both, as sworn opponents of the Islamic State, are being considered as bedfellows by the West.

Noting the trend, former UK Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind asks:. “Has there suddenly emerged an American-Iranian axis? Are the ayatollahs in Tehran working hand in glove with the Great Satan?”  His answer:  “You might be forgiven for thinking so. The United States and Iran joined forces in calling for Nouri el-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, to step down… There have been no protests from the Iranians as American jets carry out bombing attacks across their border. They seem quite relaxed as the US arms the Kurdish peshmerga.”

         Sir Malcom draws attention to the fact that the Iranians have worked informally with the Americans several times in the recent past, though neither side found it convenient to draw attention to it.  It wasn’t hypocrisy or double standards, he asserts, but because their national interests coincided on specific issues.  The most striking example he gives was the Iranian response after 9/11. Al-Qaida was a Sunni terrorist organization and the Shi’ite Iranians were very content to see them crushed by the United States. In short, if the West has to work with Iran to defeat the Islamic State, declares Sir Malcolm, so be it. History clearly shows that distasteful temporary alliances can be the best option.

          He goes further. The US and its allies must also be prepared to work with the Syrian régime of Bashar al-AssadThe Islamic State “needs to be eliminated,” he declares, “and we should not be squeamish about how we do it. Sometimes you have to develop relationships with people who are extremely nasty in order to get rid of people who are even nastier.”

         France’s president François Hollande goes one stage further by calling for an international conference to coordinate the effort.“We want not only all the regional countries, including Arab states and Iran, but the five members of the Security Council also, to join this action,” said French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.

The utterly inhumane and brutal beheading of US journalist James Foley was a message apparently intended only for President Obama a warning to desist from US air-strikes against IS forces.  Nevertheless the cold-blooded barbarity of the act shocked the world, and it may help to solidify opposition to the IS and raise awareness of the universal threat it poses.  But could that execution have the effect of bringing together, even on a temporary basis, states who are otherwise sworn enemies?  That is far from certain - though realpolitik has worked bigger miracles in the past.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 August 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 August 2014:

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