When Dick Cheney thinks you’ve gone too far, it’s time to take note. Known as the power behind the throne during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, the former vice president and neo-con extraordinaire developed a reputation as a cynical manipulator and is widely credited with being the driving force behind USA’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Lest we forget, that’s the very same invasion that destabilized Iraq and eventually led to the destabilization of the entire region and the birth of the terrorist organization known as Daesh.
Reacting to Donald Trump’s immigration ban, Cheney said that it "goes against everything we [the USA] stand for and believe in". He is joined by a chorus of condemnation from prominent American politicians and policy-makers, all of whom are decrying what they see as the negative fallout of Trump’s executive order.
But while Cheney and others are framing it in terms of American values, what is probably of greater concern to the former VP, the State Department and Pentagon is the damage this move will do to American standing in the region and the effect it will have on future U.S. military adventures.
To illustrate that, let’s take a look at the tale of Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi who was detained and questioned for hours at JFK airport shortly after the ban was announced and who was only released after lawyers intervened. Darweesh was no ordinary Iraqi; he was one of the many Iraqis who had collaborated with the U.S. army during their occupation of Iraq and had spent ten years serving as an interpreter for the U.S. Marines, a position which placed his life in danger. Now, he and many others like him stand disposed by the very country they served and were promised safety by. Regardless of whether the ban remains in place, the damage to American credibility is permanent and has been noted by its current and potential allies. Speaking of allies, the Iraqi parliament has also recommended a ban on Americans entering the country in response to Donald Trump’s move to suspend U.S. visas for its citizens – quite a comedown for a power that not too long ago effectively ruled Iraq.
Meanwhile, miles away in the Kazakhastani city of Astana was another sign of the USA’s waning influence as Russia, Iran and Turkey sat down to hammer out a Syrian peace deal. Not only were Western countries conspicuous by their absence, the very choice of venue – a country once part of the USSR – was a message in and of itself and that message is that the U.S. was no longer relevant in the Middle East.
The talks came shortly after the fall of East Aleppo, which marks not only a major shift in the ground situation in Syria, but also the culmination of major strategic shifts in the Middle East with effects that will resonate far beyond the region.
At the local level, it marks the end of the urban rebellion against Bashar Al-Assad and a major milestone towards Damascus reasserting its control over the rest of the country. Indeed, a heartened Assad has called Aleppo the‘tipping point’ in the conflict and a step ‘on the way to victory’.
Congratulatory rhetoric aside, it is unclear exactly how much say the Syrian government will have in the final dispensation of Syria.
After all, the fall of East Aleppo is not due to the Syrian Arab Army – a largely ineffective and undisciplined fighting force known more for looting and atrocities than for martial prowess – and is a factor of the indiscriminate use of Russian air power combined with ground forces in the shape of militias trained, financed and deployed by Iran. Hezbollah has also played a major role in Syria as a whole and when rebel fighters made a final attempt to break the Aleppo siege in October last year, it was Hezbollah fighters – possibly the most experienced and battle-hardened of the regime’s allies – that defeated the attempt. Bolstering these forces are troops belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) itself.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how these diverse allies manage their competing interests. Already we see the beginnings of some tensions, with Damascus displaying annoyance against not being included in earlier talks on Syria held between Iran, Russia and Turkey in Moscow. However, so long as mutual interest ties these forces together no major spats should be expected – at least in the short term. Assad will remain beholden and subordinate to Russia and Iran in order to secure the territory he holds and in order to gain more territory and will have little political space to maneuver on his own.
On the macro level, intervention in Syria has yielded many benefits for a resurgent Russia, distracting the West from its actions in Ukraine and Crimea. Tactically, the support they have lent Assad has also secured Russian access to the Mediterranean in the shape of the port of Tartus, and Moscow recently dispatched Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the largely obsolete Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean in a symbolic show of force. Syria has also proven to be a testing ground for Russian weaponry and tactics, an advertising campaign of sorts and a rather successful one, given that many states, from Iran to the gulf monarchies, have expressed interest in purchasing Russian weapon systems.
But most importantly it was a message to the world that the Bear still had claws and was more than capable of taking advantage of the retreat of American power in the Middle East. This pays dividends for Russia in several ways, one of which is as the Middle East’s new power broker. Take for example, the crisis that erupted between Turkey and Russia when Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015. Ankara and Moscow were soon at loggerheads, hurling threats and imposing punitive measures on one another. But a little over a year later, both countries are sitting down together and discussing the future of Syria in a relatively amicable atmosphere. Here, one of the reasons for this shift in Turkish policy is a recognition that Ankara’s Syria gamble has failed and that the Russians are very much here to stay.
It is indeed a bitter cup that the Turks have to drink from, given that despite their efforts the regime of Bashar Al-Assad looks more secure now than any point since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. To add to Ankara’s miseries, it is now being targeted both by Daesh and Kurdish extremists while also facing internal threats and divisions. Faced with the prospect of a Kurdish statelet on its borders, Ankara has little choice but to reach out to Moscow and Tehran to secure its strategic interests, and that it has done so also speaks of the importance of flexibility when it comes to foreign policy. Regardless, Turkish influence in the region should not be underestimated and thus far Erdogan is sticking to his stance that “a united, peaceful Syria will [not] be possible with Assad remaining in power”.
While any settlement in Syria will be difficult to achieve, reports now say that a de facto division of Syria into ‘zones of influence’ with a face-saving exit and guarantees for Bashar Al-Assad and his family is one of the options being considered. While there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, one thing is certain: Iran will have a major say in any future dispensation in Syria, and indeed it is Iran that has emerged as one of the greatest victors in this conflict.
It is hard to imagine that just a decade ago think tanks in Washington were actively advocating regime change in Iran, whether through covert means or a full-fledged invasion like that of Iraq. Heavily sanctioned and largely isolated in the region, with U.S. troops firmly ensconced in both neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran seemed surrounded.
Just eleven years later, the entire strategic outlook has changed – largely thanks to the U.S. itself. The removal of Saddam Hussain created a vacuum in Iraq, allowing militias like that of Moqtada Al-Sadr to mobilize freely for the first time. The dismantling of Iraqi security forces also allowed other non-state actors and terrorist groups to fill the void, notably Abu Musab Al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, which would later morph into Daesh. The sectarian attacks by Zarqawi further polarized Iraqi society, something that was exacerbated by the perceived sectarian leaning of successive Iraqi governments, creating resentment and a recruiting pool among Iraq’s once-privileged Sunni tribes.
As the chaos deepened, Iran began making inroads into Iraq’s political spheres, and the depredations of Daesh in Iraq finally provided the opportunity for a more direct role – as exemplified by the growing influence of the head of the Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, General Qasem Sulaimani in Iraqi politics and policy-making. With this, the Iranian sphere of influence now extended to Saudi Arabia’s borders. Then came the Syrian civil war, and this too provided the space for Iran to further extend its influence, albeit in a low-key way at first. While Iran tended to initially deny deploying combat troops in Syria, state media and leading governmental figures now report on, and pay tribute to, Iranian military casualties in Syria and those casualties are now said to exceed 1000. Other groups recruited, trained, funded and deployed by Iran in Syria are the Al-Zenabiyoun and Al-Fatimiyounmilitias, comprised of Pakistani and Afghan recruits respectively, and then there is Hezbollah, the role of which has already been discussed. A cursory look at the map of the Middle East thus shows us that Iranian influence now extends in an unbroken crescent from Iran, across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon right up to the Israeli border. Buoyed by battlefield success and flushed with cash as a result of the unfreezing of Iranian funds after the nuclear deal, Tehran is now openly boasting of its success in Syria, in contrast to the more ambiguous tone of the past.
Seyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a former military commander and currently an advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini even went so far as to say: “Aleppo was liberated thanks to a coalition between Iran, Syria, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah”, and that, “Iran is on one side of this coalition which is approaching victory and this has shown our strength. The new American president should take heed of the powers of Iran”.
The reference to America is particularly interesting, given that the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal was supposed to (at least as far as its American proponents thought) usher in a new era of reconciliation with the U.S. However, Iran’s regime has successfully portrayed this as the result of its unwavering stance on the issue, even going so far as to imply that it was a show of American weakness in the face of Tehran’s resolve. Actions on the ground seem to confirm this; just last year the capture by Iran of two U.S. naval vessels and their crew was portrayed by state TV as a victory for Tehran and a sign of American impotence, and in January this year a U.S. destroyer fired warning shots at advancing Iranian attack boats in the Strait of Hormuz. Add to that the opportunity for grandstanding provided by Trump’s immigration ban and you see Tehran also occupying the moral high ground.
The unfreezing of funds and the eagerness of Western companies and states to do business with Tehran is yet another sign of how Iran has now emerged as a major power broker in the Middle East region.
But there is such a thing as overreach, and Iran’s very success carries within it the seeds of failure. The use of militias may be cost-effective and convenient but such non-state actors have a tendency to act independently as they accrue more and more power and influence. Add to that the sectarian slogans and imagery used to motivate these militias and you see the seeds of a possible pushback from those on the other side of the sectarian divide. There are reportedly murmurs of dissent within Hezbollah itself, as fighters question whether involvement in the Syrian conflict is distracting from the group’s original mission. Subhi Al Tufaili, the first Secretary General of Hezbollah, even vociferously condemned Hezbollah for its ‘aggression’ in Syria and for siding with the Russians against their co-religionists. In a fiery sermon, he even went so far as to relate Aleppo to Karbala.
If and when stability returns to Iraq and Syria, the respective governments of these countries are also likely to assert themselves and look for ways to counter-balance Iranian influence. However, at this point in time, these are distant concerns at best.
Finally, the Iranian ascendancy is causing alarm bells to ring in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which are scrambling to develop counter-measures and responses.
Iran’s gain has been Saudi Arabia’s loss, and that country is now faced with the prospect of its ultimate strategic nightmare quickly becoming a reality; that of de facto encirclement by its regional arch-rival Iran. With a country the size of Western Europe and a population less than that of Sindh, Saudi Arabia is largely geographically indefensible and home to vast energy reserves – a dangerous combination if ever there was one. Riyadh’s problems are compounded by the fact that the bulk of its oil reserves are located in the eastern province, where members of the Shia minority are dominant and it has been a long-standing fear of Saudi planners that any unrest there could potentially jeopardize oil supply and production. Indeed, that scenario almost came to pass in 1979 – the year of the Iranian revolution – when a revolt in the Eastern Province coincided with Juhayman Al-Oteibi’s bloody takeover of the Masjid Al-Haram. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been wary of the prospect of unrest in that economically and strategically crucial province.
Saudi Arabia watched the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal unfold with a sense of alarm and betrayal, given Riyadh’s decades-old position as a major ally of the United States. Differences with U.S. policy in Syria and litigation against the Saudi government by 9/11 survivors and their families also deepened the growing divide between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, relations with Iran fell to an incredibly low ebb following the execution by Saudi Arabia of cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which led to the breaking of diplomatic relations. Adding to Riyadh’s woes are financial hardships caused largely by low oil prices and also a very costly and practically unwinnable war in Yemen along with the constant threat of attacks by terrorist groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda. The challenges are immense, and Saudi Arabia has responded in a variety of ways such as attempting to build a coalition of states to check Iranian influence. This includes the gulf emirates and also Bahrain, the rulers of which are terrified of the prospect of a possibly Iranian-influenced revolt has openly aligned with Riyadh, even going so far as to sever diplomatic relations with Iran. The row even spread to Africa, where Sudan threw in with the Saudis by expelling the Iranian ambassador. While Sudan is a peripheral player at best, Saudi diplomacy did achieve something of a win by getting Oman – which has usually tried to avoid being drawn into an anti-Iran alliance – into its multinational ‘anti-terror alliance’, an alliance which pointedly does not include Iran and Iraq. This is significant when you consider that Muscat acted as a broker in the recent rapprochement between Iran and the West.
Parallel to this, both Saudi and the Gulf states have embarked on a weapons buying spree (much as Iran has) and Riyadh spent $9.3 billion on arms purchases in 2015 alone, a major increase over previous years. Similarly, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have purchased weapons – ranging from attack helicopters to ballistic missile defence systems to precision guided munitions – worth $33 billion from the U.S. alone in 2015.
On the domestic front, Saudi Arabia is also belatedly planning for the economic future by launching an incredibly ambitious restructuring of its economy which aims at lowering its dependency on oil revenues and public spending in favour of a more production-driven growth model. To make matters even more difficult, economic reform in Saudi Arabia is not possible without social reform, notably when it comes to increasing the participation of women in the country’s economy. A study by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security puts it like this: “Due to the rapidly changing economic situation, Saudi families now need two incomes if they want to maintain their lifestyles. According to Saudi Arabia’s Central Department of Statistics and Information, employment of Saudi women has increased by 48 percent in the last five years, more than double the rate for Saudi men.
Despite the need for increased female labour participation in the kingdom, it remains extremely difficult for women to work in a country where laws and customs prevent them from doing so. Women now make up 49.6 percent of Saudi university graduates, yet they make up only 16 percent of Saudis with jobs, and are limited in the work they are allowed to do”.
This is perhaps why Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, recently called on his country to lift its ban on women driving cars, saying it was a matter of economic necessity.
This could be seen as a trial balloon to gauge the extent of the reaction from Saudi’s conservative and influential clergy which has in the past reacted violently to such proposals.
It is likely that chaos in the Middle East is improbable to end with the fall of East Aleppo and that increased confrontation and rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be the ‘new normal’. Here one hopes that cooler heads do finally prevail and both rivals manage to hammer out, at best, an agreement to respect each others’ zones of influence but if history is any gauge, such an agreement is unlikely. While it is easy to consider the current stand-off in the Middle East as primarily sectarian in nature, this merely obscures the reality of the basic struggle for power and influence that is at the heart of the conflict. However, we cannot afford to ignore the sectarian undertones, given that it is this dimension that could prove to be the most destabilizing for Pakistan and we must make all efforts to avoid being entangled in this power play.
The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV Channel.
E-mail: [email protected]
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