At the heart of all politics lies cold, hard opportunism. New circumstances, changed alliances and unexpected events will always conspire to alter one’s calculations to benefit a core agenda.
In the Middle East today, those calculations are being adjusted with a frequency unseen for decades.
In Egypt and Syria, for instance, popular sentiment is genuinely divided on where alliances and interests lie. Half of Egyptians seem convinced that deposed President Mohammed Mursi is the resident US-Israeli stooge, while the other half believe it is Egypt’s military that is carrying out those foreign agendas.
In Syria the same can be said for Syrians conflicted on whether President Bashar al-Assad or the external-based Syrian National Council (SNC) most benefits Israeli and American hegemonic interests in the region.
But Egyptians and Syrians, who point alternating fingers at Islamists or the state as being tools of imperialism, have this wrong: Empire is opportunistic. It has ways to benefit from both.
There is another vastly more destructive scenario being missed while Arabs busy themselves with conspiracies and speculative minutiae: A third option far more damaging to all.
Balkanization of Key Mideast States
At a June 19 event at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, former US Secretary of StateHenry Kissinger touched upon an alarming new refrain in western discourse on Mideast outcomes; a third strategy, if all else fails, of redrawn borders along sectarian, ethnic, tribal or national lines that will shrink the political/military reach of key Arab states and enable the west to reassert its rapidly-diminishing control over the region. Says Kissinger about two such nations:
“There are three possible outcomes (in Syria). An Assad victory. A Sunni victory. Or an outcome in which the various nationalities agree to co-exist together but in more or less autonomous regions, so that they can’t oppress each other. That’s the outcome I would prefer to see. But that’s not the popular view…First of all, Syria is not a historic state. It was created in its present shape in 1920, and it was given that shape in order to facilitate the control of the country by France, which happened to be after UN mandate…The neighboring country Iraq was also given an odd shape, that was to facilitate control by England. And the shape of both of the countries was designed to make it hard for either of them to dominate the region.”
While Kissinger frankly acknowledges his preferred option of “autonomous regions,” most western government statements actually pretend their interest lies in preventing territorial splits. Don’t be fooled. This is narrative-building and scene-setting all the same. Repeat something enough – i.e., the idea that these countries could be carved up – and audiences will not remember whether you like it or not. They will retain the message that these states can be divided.
It is the same with sectarian discourse. Western governments are always warning against the escalation of a Sunni-Shia divide. Yet they are knee-deep in deliberately fueling Shia-Sunni conflicts throughout the region, particularly in states where Iran enjoys significant influence (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) or may begin to gain some (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen).
“Seeding” Sectarianism to Break Up States
If ever a conspiracy had legs, this one is it. Stirring Iranian-Arab and Sunni-Shiite strife to its advantage has been a major US policy objective since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Wikileaks helped shed light on some of Washington’s machinations just as Arab uprisings started to hit our TV screens.
A 2006 State Department cable that bemoans Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strengthened position in Syria outlines actionable plans to sow discord within the state, with the goal of disrupting Syrian ties with Iran. The theme? “Exploiting” all “vulnerabilities”:
“PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.”
Makes one question whether similar accusations about the “spread of Shiism” in Egypt held any truth whatsoever, other than to sow anti-Shia and anti-Iran sentiment in a country until this month led by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.
A 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia continues this theme. Mohammad Naji al-Shaif, a tribal leader with close personal ties to then-Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh and his inner circle says that key figures “are privately very skeptical of Saleh’s claims regarding Iranian assistance for the Houthi rebels”:
Shaif told EconOff on December 14 that (Saudi Government’s Special Office for Yemen Affairs) committee members privately shared his view that Saleh was providing false or exaggerated information on Iranian assistance to the Houthis in order to enlist direct Saudi involvement and regionalize the conflict. Shaif said that one committee member told him that “we know Saleh is lying about Iran, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
That didn’t stop Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lying through her teeth to a Senate Committee a few short years later: “We know that they – the Iranians are very much involved in the opposition movements in Yemen.”
US embassy cables from Manama, Bahrain in 2008 continue in the same vein:
“Bahraini government officials sometimes privately tell U.S. official visitors that some Shi’a oppositionists are backed by Iran. Each time this claim is raised, we ask the GOB to share its evidence. To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s… In post’s assessment, if the GOB had convincing evidence of more recent Iranian subversion, it would quickly share it with us.”
Yet as Bahraini rulers continue to violently repress peaceful protest in the Shia-majority state two years into that country’s popular uprising, their convenient public bogeyman mirrors that of Washington: Iranian interference.
Washington was extremely quick to activate anti-Shia and anti-Iran narratives as the Arab uprisings kicked off. Barely three months into 2011, the US military ran a secret exercise to fine-tune a “storyline” that perpetuates differences between Arabs and Iranian, Sunni and Shia.
Here are some of the premises and questions included in CENTCOM’s Arabs versus Iranians exercise. (Note: The exercise refers to Iranians as “Persians.”)
Premise: “The Arab-Persian dynamic is a divide. History, religion, language and culture simply pose too many obstacles to overcome.”
Premise: “A general Arab inferiority complex relative to Persians means that many Arabs are fearful of Persian expansion and hegemony throughout the Middle East. In their minds, the Persian Empire has never gone away and it is more self-sufficient than most Arab states.”
Premise: “Barring a “clash of civilizations” – i.e., a modern crusades, Islam vs Judeo-Christians, warfare between the West/Israel vs Arabs/Persians – there does not appear to be a scenario where Arabs and Persians will join forces against the US/West.”
Question: “Is it appropriate to frame the discussion as Arab-Persian or is Sunni-Shia a more appropriate framework?”
Question: “Assuming a schism, what could unite Arabs and Persians, even temporarily?”
These narratives assume two things: that the division between Iranians and Arabs is a fact and that the greater unity of the two groups in the wake of the Arab uprisings is a potential threat to U.S. interests. Hence the worried question: What could unite them, even temporarily?
“Small States” Weaken Arabs
As manufactured conflict increases in the region, options too diminish. Because of the strategic importance of the Middle East and its vital oil and gas reserves…because of the desire to maintain stability in key states that safeguard US interests like Israel, Jordan, NATO-member Turkey, Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf…open-ended conflict in multiple states is, simply put, undesirable.
Over the course of the Syrian conflict – and certainly in the past year when Assad’s departure looked less likely – the West, through media and “pundit” intermediaries, has often floated the idea of dividing the state into several smaller parts along sectarian and ethnic lines. While framed as a means to “prevent further conflict,” this idea actually follows the American experiment of Iraqi federalism that effectively sought to carve Iraq into three distinct Sunni, Shia and Kurdish zones.
Forget that you cannot find five non-Kurdish Syrians or Iraqis of credible national renown who would back the idea of fragmenting their nation. This is distinctly a Washington vision. Or rather, a western one, with Israeli fingerprints all over it.
Israel’s vision of “Small States”
In 1982, as Israel warmed up its operation to invade multi-sect Lebanon, Israeli foreign ministry strategician Oded Yinon inked a master plan to redraw the Mideast into small warring cantons that would never again be able to threaten the Jewish state’s regional primacy:
“Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan.”
“Egypt is divided and torn apart into many foci of authority. If Egypt falls apart, countries like Libya, Sudan or even the more distant states will not continue to exist in their present form and will join the downfall and dissolution of Egypt. The vision of a Christian Coptic State in Upper Egypt alongside a number of weak states with very localized power and without a centralized government as to date, is the key to a historical development which was only set back by the peace agreement but which seems inevitable in the long run.”
“Iraq, rich in oil on the one hand and internally torn on the other, is guaranteed as a candidate for Israel’s targets. Its dissolution is even more important for us than that of Syria. Iraq is stronger than Syria. In the short run it is Iraqi power which constitutes the greatest threat to Israel. An Iraqi-Iranian war will tear Iraq apart and cause its downfall at home even before it is able to organize a struggle on a wide front against us. Every kind of inter-Arab confrontation will assist us in the short run and will shorten the way to the more important aim of breaking up Iraq into denominations as in Syria and in Lebanon. In Iraq, a division into provinces along ethnic/religious lines as in Syria during Ottoman times is possible. So, three (or more) states will exist around the three major cities: Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, and Shi’ite areas in the south will separate from the Sunni and Kurdish north. It is possible that the present Iranian-Iraqi confrontation will deepen this polarization.”
“There is no chance that Jordan will continue to exist in its present structure for a long time, and Israel’s policy, both in war and in peace, ought to be directed at the liquidation of Jordan under the present regime and the transfer of power to the Palestinian majority.”
Beware the Artificial Break-up of States
As opposed to western narratives about Arab “revolutions” heralding the arrival of “freedom and democracy,” the Russians took a more cautious view of events.
As early as February 2011, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that revolutions across the Arab world could see fanatics coming to power, leading to “fires for years and the spread of extremism in the future.” The breaking up of states in the aftermath of these events, he says, is a distinct possibility:
“The situation is tough. We could be talking about the disintegration of large, densely-populated states, talking about them breaking up into little pieces.”
The Russians were right. The Americans – dangerously wrong.
The Mideast will one day need to make region-wide border corrections, but to be successful, it must do so entirely within an indigenously determined process. The battles heating up in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere are a manifestation of a larger fight between two “blocs” that seek entirely different regional outcomes – one of these being the borders of a new Middle East.
The first group, a US-led bloc aggressive in its pursuit of maintaining regional hegemony any which way, is using fiction and carefully-spun divisive narratives to sway populations into accepting “cause” for new western-backed borders. These borders will divide nations along sectarian, ethnic and tribal lines to ensure ongoing conflict between the newly minted states, and “redirecting” them from the vastly bigger imperial threat. A unified Mideast, after all, would naturally turn against the universally reviled Empire, with Israel’s borders being the first on the chopping board. And in this climate, western-fomented border revisions will be dramatically more chaotic than Sykes-Picot ever was.
The second bloc (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia, China and a smattering of independent groups/states) which opposes western-Israeli hegemony does not have the means or ability to impose border solutions except in their own direct geographical base, which looks increasingly like a line drawn from Lebanon to Iraq (and not accidentally, where most of the chaos is currently channeled). Theirs is a defensive strategy, based largely on unwinding divisive plots, minimizing strife and warding off foreign-backed insurgencies, through military means if necessary.
In this bloc’s view, Sykes Picot will be undone, but within an organic process of border corrections based on regional consensus and rational considerations. In truth, this bloc is focused less on redrawn borders than it is on dousing the fires that seek to create the harmful divides.
Arabs and Muslims need to start becoming keenly aware of this “small state” third option, else they will fall into the dangerous trap of being distracted by detail while larger games carve up their nations and plunge them into perpetual conflict.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.