After Iraq? Expanding Civil War in the Middle East
Last month the Iraqi government, which had once welcomed Al Jazeera and other Arab television networks, gave it the boot, accusing it of exacerbating domestic sectarian tensions. The policy reversal comes as Iraq appears poised to go the way of Syria, with sectarian conflict threatening to turn into full-fledged civil war. Though the US and Turkey continue to play major roles in internal Iraqi politics, the main drivers are the Saudi-Iranian power struggle and region-wide Shia-Sunni rivalry, contributing to domestic sectarian divide, pushing Iraq towards civil war.
In Syria, sectarianism is a by-product of four decades of Alawite minority rule; in Iraq, power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Shia majority, or a segment thereof, through the manipulation of electoral outcomes, thus fuelling Sunni discontent based on an acute feeling of political discrimination. Secondly, while the Syrian crisis is homegrown and the result of indigenous authoritarian rule by family and sect, the Iraqi counterpart is a product of foreign invasion that led not only to regime change and almost a decade of foreign occupation, but also to near-total state failure. This last outcome led to the abdication by the state of providing security to its citizens, thus forcing individuals and families to take refuge in sectarian solidarities as a survival strategy.
Matters were made worse by the US occupation, with authorities playing favourites by privileging the Shia on the mistaken notion that Sunnis largely supported Saddam Hussein and therefore must not be allowed access to the levers of power. This strategy turned into self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to a Sunni insurgency and establishment of al-Qaeda in Iraq during the early years of the occupation, thus further embittering Sunni-Shia relations. Sectarian divisions in Iraq would have been far less salient than they are today had the transition from Saddam’s regime to a successor government, popularly elected, proceeded without foreign intercession. Given this background, when the state began to reappear in the past few years it could not fully shed its sectarian hue, thus laying the basis for the current crisis in Iraq.
Matters have been made worse in, and for, Iraq by the fact that, like Syria, Iraq has become a major theatre of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Turkey pushed by force of circumstances into adopting an anti-Iranian role, probably against the better judgement of its leadership. Since both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are US allies, it’s clear that there’s a proxy war within a proxy war in Iraq that pits Iran against the US, which considers Tehran its principal antagonist in the energy-rich and strategically important Middle East.
Ironically, US success in toppling Saddam Hussein provided Iran the opportunity to increase influence and overshadow US influence in Iraq.
The Iranian objective in Iraq is clear – to prevent re-emergence of the sort of military threat that Iraq under Saddam Hussein posed to Iran, a threat dramatically demonstrated by the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 that led to an eight-year bloody conflict and left a million people dead.
The sectarian Shia card that Iran plays in Iraq to prevent the recurrence of this threat is but an instrument to achieve this objective. Tehran’s primary goal is not to establish a Shia crescent in the Arab world, for this would run counter to its broader objective of winning friends and influencing people in the predominantly Sunni Middle East, an essential condition for it to be recognised as a major power in the region.
The aspiration to be recognised as a major power in the Middle East brings Iran into conflict with Saudi Arabia, which has similar aspirations based on its enormous oil wealth and custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has been in competition with Iran for pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf from before the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This struggle for pre-eminence intensified with the ideological challenge that the 1979 Iranian Revolution posed to the House of Saud, which bases legitimacy of its hereditary monarchy on an interpretation of Islam that enjoins political docility on its population.
This runs directly counter to the Iranian interpretation of Islam that views religious ideology as a vehicle for popular political mobilisation.
The combination of these two factors led to the Saudi bankrolling, with assistance of allied Gulf monarchies, of the war that Saddam’s Iraq imposed upon Iran during the 1980s. It also drives the Saudi regime’s current animus against Iran. This hostility was epitomised in the famous statement by the Saudi King Abdullah, reported in an April 2008 US embassy secret cable, urging the US to “cut off the head of the snake”, clear reference to attacking Iran both to terminate Iran’s nuclear programme and roll back Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
In this context Riyadh and its Sunni monarchical allies, including the Gulf sheikhdoms and Jordan, have repeatedly expressed their fear of a “Shia crescent” comprised of Iran, Iraq, Assad’s Syria and a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon taking hold in the Middle East that would dictate the politics of the region. Iraq is crucial to the Saudis in this regard as a link between the Arab littoral of the Persian Gulf, which Riyadh considers to be its backyard, and the “Fertile Crescent”, the traditional heartland of the Arab world and birthplace of Arab nationalism.
No wonder then that Iraq, like Syria, has become a major theatre in which the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is played out with Tehran supporting the Maliki government and Riyadh staunchly opposing it.
According to a leaked US State Department cable, Saudi King Abdullah told President Barack Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser in March 2009, “I don’t trust this man [Maliki]. He is an Iranian agent.” In another leaked cable dated September 24, 2009, Christopher Hill, then American ambassador to Iraq, described the Saudi-Iranian rivalry being played out in Iraq as “the Great Game, in Mesopotamia”.
Consequently, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the latter coincidentally the sponsor of the TV network expelled from Iraq – have been funnelling money and, given Iraq’s porous borders, possibly weapons to the Iraqi opposition, a segment of which has been creating havoc by almost daily killings of Shi’ites by suicide and car bombings in Baghdad and other parts of the country.
Matters have recently been made worse by the Maliki government’s over-reaction to opposition demonstrations that have left dozens dead. Iraq seems to be moving toward the precipice of civil war in the footsteps of its Syrian neighbour, where Iran and Saudi Arabia once again face off, the former in the role of the principal supporter of the Assad regime and the latter as a major supplier of funds and weaponry to the predominantly Sunni opposition.
Just as one cannot explain the Syrian imbroglio without reference to the involvement of external powers, one cannot explain the Iraqi descent into civil conflict without reference to the machinations of external powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular.
A similar scenario seems to be emerging in Afghanistan as well, with neighbours Pakistan and Iran supporting different ethnic groups and political formations engaged in an often violent struggle for power. The departure of Nato forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 is likely both to intensify the civil war and make it easier to decipher such intervention by regional actors. Domestic cleavages and regional rivalries often meld seamlessly in the highly volatile greater Middle East.
Mohammed Ayoob is an ISPU Adjunct Scholar and University Distinguished Professor of International Relations, Emeritus, Michigan State University.
This article was published in The Nation (Thailand) on June 25, 2013. Read it here.