Monday, January 27, 2014

Permanent crisis in West Asia

Permanent crisis in West Asia   -- Stanly Johny

“What is beyond debate is that Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous than at any time in recent history,” Antony Blinken, then deputy assistant to President Barack Obama, said in a speech on March 16, 2012. Blinken, who later became the President’s deputy national security adviser, was echoing the White House’s optimism about the prospects of Iraq after most US troops withdrew from that country— an optimism that did not last long.

Less than two years later, today's Iraq is as violent and sectarian as it had ever been under Saddam Hussein, the dictator overthrown by the American invasion over a decade ago. The current government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is struggling to fight off a new wave of trans-border Sunni militancy. Recently, the al Qaeda group, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), took control of two Iraqi cities – Fallujah and Ramadi. Suicide attacks are a daily affair. According to the UN, more than 8,000 Iraqis were killed in terror attacks in 2013, the highest number since 2008.  

In the neighbouring Syria, where a bloody civil war is raging for the past three years, radical Islamists, including ISIS, are becoming increasingly powerful. In Syria’s neighbour Lebanon, al Qaeda-linked militants are stepping up their operations. In November, the local al Qaeda affiliate conducted a suicide bombing at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. In Libya, the North African country “liberated” from the dictatorship of Moammer Gadhafi by NATO troops, militia gangs are ruling from the streets. To put it differently, more than a decade after the US invaded Iraq in the name of making the world “safer”, radical Islamists are on the rise not only in Iraq, but in a wider region. 

Mother of all Instability
Saddam Hussein called the first Iraq war “the mother of all battles”. But his description would suit better for the second Iraq war of 2003. US president George W. Bush’s invasion changed the overall balance of power and destabilised many countries in the region. After the fall of Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, the Americans were unable to fill up the vacuum it created. The Shias, who make up majority of Iraqi population but were subjected to large-scale oppression under Hussein’s rule, were the natural benefactors of the situation. Shia-dominated political parties emerged victorious in the late 2005 parliamentary elections.

But for a country torn by a war, continuing foreign occupation and increasing sectarian tensions, elections were hardly a solution to the multiple problems it was facing. Several Sunni outfits, which were already fighting the American occupation, were suspicious of the rise of the Shias, and the support they got from neighbouring Iran, a Shia theocratic state whose regional ambitions are hardly a secret. In no time, the sectarian tension in Iraq turned into a civil war-like situation in which innocent people from both communities were targeted.

At the regional level, the formation of a Shia-dominated Government in Baghdad emboldened Iran’s position in the region. But this has upset Saudi Arabia. When Iran extended its influence in Iraq through the Maliki government, its Sunni rivals did the same through their proxies in the country. The result was unprecedented sectarian bloodshed, which bred militant groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq.      

Syrian Theatre
If the Iraq war set the stage for a new phase of Iran-Saudi rivalry, the crisis in Syria intensified it. Syria has long been an ally of Iran. Its ruling elite are from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. When protests erupted against the Syrian government in 2011, the Sunni Gulf countries immediately sensed an opportunity. They spent billions in shoring up the Sunni opposition in Syria. Protests soon turned into an armed rebellion.

Iran strongly backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia-cum-political movement, sent troops across the border to fight alongside Assad’s troops. On the other side, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey all backed different rebel factions. The US, France and the UK also sent both lethal and non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Though these countries extended support for the rebels in the name of Syrian people, the move had underlying geopolitical calculations. Both the West and the Arab countries expected Iran to weaken once Assad is gone.  

But who actually gained from the Syrian mess is the radical Islamists. With support flowing in from wealthy Arab monarchies and the government at Damascus weakened by the civil war, extremists in the region found a new cause and opportunity to regroup themselves. According to Sarah Birke, the Middle East correspondent of The Economist, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq, sent foot soldiers in January 2012 to Syria to found Jabhat al-Nusra with the aim of creating a new transnational Islamic state.

Over the following year, al-Nusra steadily gained strength. Gulf countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, are reportedly supporting these extremists. While the other opposition groups, incoherent and corrupt, failed to build a credible fighting force against Assad’s troops, al-Nusra presented themselves to the youth of Syria’s war-torn regions as the Islamist alternative to Assad’s regime. Translational jihadis, mainly travelled into Syria through the porous borders it shares with Iraq and Turkey, joined hands with them, strengthening radical bloc among the Syrian rebels. After gathering momentum for his brand of politics, in April 2013, Baghdadi regrouped al Qaeda in Iraq as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, coordinating operations in both countries. The ISIS quickly turned to a potent force in the region, much like the Taliban rose in Afghanistan during the mujahidin days. ISIS now wants to erase the border between the two countries and crave out a territory to run their jihadi project.  

Wars that Never End
As Adam Shatz wrote in London Review Books recently, the Iraq war “never really ended”. It just spilled into Syria. The forces unleashed by George W. Bush’s disastrous war were beyond even the imperial clutches of the US. The Obama administration added to the chaos by invading Libya and siding with the rebels in Syria. 

Look at today’s West Asia. The Americans are backing the Shia-dominated government in Iraq, which is supporting the Assad government in Syria. The US wants Assad gone, a goal it shares with the radical Islamists in Syria. Iran is backing Assad, but is negotiating a nuclear deal with the Americans. Saudi Arabia doesn't like the Iran deal, but is the strongest Arab ally of the US. The militants America loathes are getting support from its Gulf allies. It’s a complex interplay of multiple factors, which are at war with each other. In other words, it’s permanent crisis in the West Asia.

Dr Stanly Johny is the Assistant Editor in The Hindu Business Line

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