Waiting for the moment of truth in the Middle East
Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Niyaz Karim
Propaganda-laced, ideologically-driven rhetoric about the imminent breakout of a third world war following a nuclear strike against Iran has become a staple for certain politicians and mass-media observers. As part of this rhetoric – which has become commonplace whenever tensions flare in the Middle East – Russia has been invited to join one alliance or another, depending on where the sympathies of those who thought up the allegiance lie.
Speculations about potential Moscow alliances have little to do with real policy, especially since the Russian leadership has its own ideas on exactly how robust international alliances might be. These ideas are based not only on the experience of the Soviet era, but also on the past couple of decades. And it is this experience that encourages Moscow’s extreme caution when entering into any sort of cooperation with its foreign partners.
Failure to appease Islamists
Following the debut of the American film Innocence of Muslims, the anti-American riots that broke out this September forced significant changes upon the Middle East strategy of Barack Obama’s administration – particularly since these events occurred during an election campaign.
While the total and spectacular failure of American policy to appease Islamists has not put an end to its ties with certain Arab countries, it has no doubt weakened them. This includes Washington’s “strategic alliance” with Doha (Qatar) and Riyadh (Saidi Arabia), which endorses the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis for positions of power in Arab countries outside of the Arabian Peninsula.
The murder of the U.S. ambassador and three other American diplomats in Libya is only the most revealing incident among many in the Muslim world. The former “rebels” who committed the high-profile murders were well aware of the schedule and layout of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, as a result of frequent meetings with its senior officials there.
There are other similar trends in the region. Recent massive attacks by Afghan servicemen against their Western “comrades in arms” have resulted in more casualties for the troops of the coalition occupying Afghanistan than those have incurred in direct combat against the Taliban. NATO command has now banned units smaller than a battalion from participating in any joint operations with Afghan forces.
It can be said that the U. S. and the Western bloc have encountered the same problems in the Middle East that the Soviet Union experienced when it was actively spreading socialist influence in the region – any differences are purely formal. Democracy, rather than socialism, is being promoted in the Middle East now. Western investments in this process are being made in hard currency, which encourages embezzlement instead of large agricultural, industrial or infrastructure projects.
Local partners now include “clients” of the Gulf monarchies (the U.S. State Department and European governments), rather than movements and parties “of socialist orientation” cutting deals with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In fact, American and European diplomats and military advisers – just as the Soviet ones before them – are becoming targets for local military and political groups, as soon as such “friends” cease to be immediately needed for certain warlords or politicians.
An analysis conducted by a group of experts at the Middle East Institute looks into the dynamics of the riots caused by the controversial film and suggests that countries in which the riots took place can be broken down into several categories.
The first category includes the Arab Spring countries, which are engulfed in bitter power struggles between groupings close to Qatar (“moderate Islamists”) and Saudi Arabia (Salafis). Outmaneuvered, the Salafis have been trying to regain control from the “moderate Islamists,” who have installed themselves in key executive and legislative positions.
The second category is comprised of countries whose leadership has been able to keep the domestic political situation under control. This category includes the Arab monarchies. Anti-American protests in these countries failed to degenerate into riots. They serve both as a tool for exerting pressure on the U.S. and as a safety valve for “letting out steam,” thus, successfully redirecting outside the destructive energy of the streets.
The third category includes non-Islamic countries, such as Russia and states of the EU. Protests by followers of Muhammad in these countries have once again demonstrated the potential power of political Islam sponsored from the outside, testing the resilience of central authorities. They have also tested local Muslim communities for their loyalty to the authorities and for their readiness to adopt Pan-Islamic ideas as part of a potential “fifth column” in the future.
What are the consequences?
The rivalry between Iran and the Gulf monarchies within the “Shiite crescent,” where proxy wars have been waged through local tribal and military-terrorist factions, could provoke a regional armed conflict in the Gulf. Moreover, it is not categorically important where the conflict originates, be it in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province or Bahrain.
According to experts at the Middle East Institute, armed hostilities will most likely start in March or April 2013, or even earlier if something happens in any of the above-mentioned scenes of Sunni-Shiite standoff. Israel is also ready for a war against Iran, with or without U.S. support.
The results of the November presidential election in the U.S. are important in this regard. A Romney victory and a Republican administration would strengthen U.S.-Israel military ties, including those ties concerning the Iranian problem. A win by Obama would weaken those ties; although the Democrat incumbent’s interest in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is, in and of itself, a serious argument in favor of an American attack against Iran.
A scenario for Russia
As the Syrian civil war stagnates and an all-but-inevitable armed conflict in the Gulf involving Iran approaches, the Russian Federation has seen a revival of both the Iranian lobby and Islamist factions sponsored by the Gulf monarchies. Calls for Russia to help Iran and China against the West – akin to the straightforward Soviet propaganda of the 1950s – have been appearing in Iranian-sponsored print media and websites, alongside harsh criticism directed at Russian experts and international organizations dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
Radical Sunni groups such as the Salafi have been increasingly active in Russia’s Muslim regions. Terrorist acts against traditional Muslim leaders and mosque seizure campaigns in Russia have been accompanied by aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric in the Arab mass media, centered on accusing Moscow of supporting the Shiites against the Sunnis.
We believe these trends – hard and soft attempts to put pressure on Russia from all sides – demonstrate the success of Russia’s positive course of neutrality and its refusal to join either side of the burgeoning Arab-Persian standoff in the Muslim world.
Yevgeny Satanovsky is President of the Middle East Institute in Moscow.
The article is abridged and first published in Russian in VPK Daily.