Tehran has secured a sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean
- By Marwan Kabalan, Special to Gulf News
- Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
Over the past few months; and particularly since the Arab peace plan failed to bring an end to the Syrian crisis, analysts and commentators have been warning that the Syrian uprising against the rule of President Bashar Al Assad is threatening to turn into a fully-fledged sectarian conflict. Most notable among these warnings was a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) released last March.
The report titled Now or Never: A Negotiated Transition for Syria warned that the regime approach coupled with the increasing militarisation of the opposition and the growing international polarisation is threatening to throw Syria in the middle of an all-out civil war; “and heightens odds of a regional proxy war that might well precipitate a dangerous regional conflagration”.
Over the past few weeks, UN and western officials have been trying to say that sectarian war is already under way in Syria.
Sectarian tension has been in fact on the rise in the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The toppling of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussain regime in Baghdad has disturbed the centuries-old Sunni-Shiite balance of power in the Levant and the Gulf region. A few only have been attentive to the dramatic shift resulting from the irresponsible US policies in the Middle East; and fewer even have dared to speak out. King Abdullah II of Jordan was one of them.
In an interview with ABC news in November 2006, the Jordanian king warned that the sectarian violence in Iraq was threatening to spiral out of control. More alarming perhaps, King Abdullah II warned that unless some very strong actions were taken on the ground, the Middle East was likely to face the prospect of grand sectarian war.
A year earlier, King Abdullah II was criticised for warning against a Shiite crescent that was in the making stretching from Tehran to Beirut. Many Arab commentators believed that the King was exaggerating about Iran’s rising influence in the region and that he was driven by unwarranted fear of a Shiite revival in the Middle East.
Some academic voices lent the warnings credence, however. About the same time, an American scholar of Iranian origins came with just the same idea. Vali Nasr, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School, wrote his most celebrated book in academic circles in the US: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.
Nasr argued that by toppling Saddam, the US may have just liberated and empowered Iraq’s Shiite majority and helped launch a broad Shiite revival that will upset the sectarian balance in Iraq and the broader Middle East for years to come.
By the time this conclusion was becoming absolutely clear, rattled Sunni Arab governments began to speak out against US policies which let the Shiite genie out of the bottle. But, this year things seem to have taken an even more dramatic turn. The conflict between the pro-Iran Syrian regime and the Sunni-dominated opposition in Syria supported by Turkey and the Arab Gulf states threatens to engulf the whole region in a fully-fledged sectarian conflict.
Having realised the serious consequences of its policies in the Middle East and troubled by the mess it helped recklessly create, the US turned again to its Sunni allies in an attempt to restore the balance. This is not going to be an easy task. Following the US withdrawal from Iraq last year, Iran has emerged as a dominant power. This situation allowed Tehran to secure a sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. The Shiite crescent, King Abdullah II of Jordan once warned against, is already in place.
Indeed, the Sunni heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular, will continue to try to strip Iran off every single arena of its influence — that would include Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In Iraq, attempts to remove the pro-Iran Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki are under way. In Syria, Riyadh and Ankara will continue to support the opposition with all the means to bring down the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.
In Lebanon, the Hezbollah is already under tremendous pressure as a result of its position on the Syrian crisis. In Gaza, Iran has already lost influence. Following the ascendance of the Islamic parties to power in several Arab countries, particularly in Egypt, Hamas has distanced itself from both Iran and Syria.
Iran will not stand idle watching its influence being undercut however. It invested heavily in its grand plan to dominate the entire region. It will indeed fight back and try to prevent Saudi Arabia and Turkey from gaining the upper hand. That could very well lead into the much feared grand sectarian conflict which would engulf the entire Middle East.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon.