For the Middle East, a gathering whirlwind
BEIRUT - With conflicts raging across the Middle East, from Libya to Yemen, and a sectarian cataclysm looming in the Gulf and the Levant, what happens in the increasingly complex civil war in Syria will have profound consequences across the entire region.
Much of this centres on Iran. It has become a critical player in Syria, which under the regime of President Bashar Assad has been its key Arab ally and its stalking horse against Tehran’s arch enemy Israel. Iran has a lot at stake in Assad’s regime as it struggles to extend its influence across the Arab world, particularly in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain. This helps explain Tehran’s recent decision to heavily strengthen its forces in Syria.
But the conflict in Syria is increasingly one between Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and champion of Sunni Muslims, and Shia Iran. The 1,300-year-old religious schism has become a struggle for political and economic power.
If Assad can be kept in power, Iran will have a big stake in Syria’s post-war economy, including a vast reconstruction process. Iran, the region’s largest cement producer, can expect major contracts, as well as building a natural gas pipeline from Iran’s huge South Pars field in the Gulf westwards to the Mediterranean for export to Europe, doubling its energy exports at a stroke.
Yet for Iran, crushing the Islamic State (ISIS) is a relatively short-term objective. Its strategic goal is to extend Shia influence across the Arab world and Asia.
The battle against the Sunni jihadists is proving to be invaluable because it allows Tehran to mobilise Shia militias into a veritable foreign legion that includes Arabs, Afghanis and Pakistanis and which forms the paramilitary spearhead of stealthy Iranian expansion.
The Shias were dominated by the Sunnis until the 16th century, when the Safavid Persian empire, which ruled until the mid-18th century, challenged the Sunni Ottomans for supremacy.
Most of the region was controlled by the Sunnis and remains so. But since 1979, the theocratic Iranian Republic has been the centre of Shia power, its primary objective to export Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ground-breaking Islamic revolution.
Constrained in any eastward expansion by India and Pakistan, Tehran has had to look west towards the Arab world. And in 1980, at the start of the Iran-Iraq war, Syria became a key ally under Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez.
The creation of Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon in 1982 gave Iran a powerful force right on Israel’s northern border. The rebellion against Assad’s regime in March 2011 was a major setback for Tehran, with the threat of a Sunni regime emerging in Syria.
But the campaigns by ISIS and al- Qaeda affiliates like al-Nusra Front, all Sunnis, have given Iran a chance to regroup and to exploit Sunni divisions and weaknesses.
In the end, numbers could be the deciding factor. Shias constitute only one-tenth of the world’s estimated 2 billion Muslims. Iran’s Shias are mostly Persians, not Arabs and there are limits to how deeply Arab Shias, such as those in Iraq, would support the Islamic Republic.
“Even in the unlikely scenario that Saudi Arabia weakens so much that Iran assumes de facto control of the Arabian peninsula, the Sunni populations would not allow the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to remain under Shia control,” the US security consultancy Stratfor concluded in a May analysis.
“And there are simply not enough Shias to do anything about it since they are essentially surrounded by Sunnis… As much as Iran would like to further exploit current Sunni weaknesses, changes under way in Tehran could thwart its leaders’ regional ambitions — as could internal differences among Shias and the progression of the Syrian civil war.”
That may be so. But Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states fear that an agreement between Iran and US-led world powers on curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme marks a major geostrategic shift in the Middle East that will allow the Islamic Republic to strengthen its regional power.
However, Stratfor analyst Ian Morris observed: “Iran’s revival as a regional power, we should conclude, is likely but not inevitable… The more Iran remains a revisionist power, challenging the status quo, the less likely it is to revive as a regional power.”
The United States, having proven indecisive and reluctant to get dragged into another Middle Eastern bloodbath as it pulls back from the region, has limited its involvement in Syria’s war to training “moderate” rebels.
But Saudi Arabia, under its new monarch King Salman bin Abdul- Aziz Al Saud, has thrown its traditional caution to the winds and with its Arab allies is attacking Iranian-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen on its porous eastern border — much too close to home.
This new-found Arab assertiveness is already extending to Syria: witness the recent gains by rebel forces backed by the Saudi-led alliance with its oft-times rivals, Turkey and Qatar. That may prove to be the turning point in the war. But it will likely intensify the confrontation with Iran, whose ambitions Riyadh is determined to quash — whether or not there’s a nuclear deal between Tehran and the P5+1 powers.