IS, a new Middle East, America and Pakistan
In the zero-sum game of Middle East politics, you are either at the table doing the carving, or on it getting carved, Winston Churchill famously said as he divided Allied mandate Arabia into post-colonial nation-states literally with a pen on his hanky. Truer words have not been spoken about this ‘zero sum game’. And so it is today.
So much is changing. Talk of US-Iran rapprochement would have sent the state department into a tail spin as recently as George W’s administration. The prospect of reducing the al Saud to second-fiddle in the Middle East – unravelling the Kingdom’s oil muscle and, subsequently, its notorious Riyal Politik – too seemed far-fetched. But nobody, from Washington to Tel Aviv, would have imagined the spat that came about between Bibi and Barak. This is clearly anything but the Middle East where the Shi’a Iran-Syria-Hezbollah resistance backed Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas in its war against Israel, Washington considered Tehran a part of Bush’s “axis of evil”, Egypt made war and Syria made peace in the region like the old days, and Israel was America’s unquestionable blue-eyed.
Suddenly, alliances and structures enduring since the Great War are breaking down. Sykes-Picot is unravelling. Iran and America have reached an understanding. GCC – the Wahabi stretch, particularly Saudi Arabia, that made a business out of leveraging mullah militias for foreign policy penetration – is no longer the favoured client, despite its oil wealth. And Israel does not enjoy the patronage it used to.
The strain first appeared shortly before Obama’s visit to Riyadh last year. If you believe certain sidelined sections of the Arab press, the White House, without warning, furnished Saudi Arabia with a ‘Syria dossier’, which detailed the kingdom’s financial and political patronage to radical Islamist militias fighting to unseat the Assad regime in Damascus. The support was supposed to be restricted to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – a group of secular Syrian activists that Washington approved of. But it was found, upon closer CIA investigation, that petro dollars were being channelled towards more radical groups that later came to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al Qaeda franchise, and IS, the so called caliphate that drew America once more to the war in Iraq.
By then Washington had also begun parleying with Tehran, much to Riyadh’s, and Tel Aviv’s, apprehension. Yet by mid ’13, when the Syrian civil war was in full swing and talk of formal US-Iran talks was gathering pace, analysts and journalists from the Gulf to the Levant to Israel refused to acknowledge a convergence of interests between the House of Saud and Israel’s far right leadership.
The strain first appeared shortly before Obama’s visit to Riyadh last year. If you believe certain sidelined sections of the Arab press, the White House, without warning, furnished Saudi Arabia with a ‘Syria dossier’, which detailed the kingdom’s financial and political patronage to radical Islamist militias fighting to unseat the Assad regime in Damascus
A hint, of sorts, appeared when Khaled Mashal decamped from Damascus. With the Brotherhood (then) entrenched in Cairo, and Assad seemingly on way to meeting a fate similar to Gaddafi’s, Hamas bet on the opposition and relocated to Qatar, but only to discover that GCC encouraged nothing beyond maintaining the status quo vis-à-vis Israel. How Mashal then went from Doha to Cairo, then back to Doha, then decided to flee to Tunis – where Arafat sailed off to too, with little success, after being booted out of Beirut – and then knocked at Iran’s door again, would be unbelievable anywhere but in the Middle East.
Now, though, Iran has clearly come out the winner. The US-Saudi romance is over – there is talk that Washington might even consider Tehran its now oil partner, as opposed to the al Saud whose obsession with Wahabi sectarianism across the Muslim world no longer suits American interests. And Israel no longer commands the pat on the back that it used to.
It is no coincidence, of course, that this de-escalation coincided with the emergence of Da’ish. The Americans long sided with the Saudi narrative regarding the Syrian civil war. But now they seem to have realised that they have a more trustworthy, and natural, partner in this war in Iran. They were the first to act against Saudi influence in Syria; even when Turkey, GCC, EU, NATO, and the US, were backing Riyadh. But now that Da’ish has taken over large swathes of land in both Iraq and Syria, and seem unfazed by constant US drone bombardment, surely Washington realises that its real partners in this war lie at the other end of its traditional spectrum.
And that, strangely, puts Pakistan in a very awkward position; a long border with Iran but long an ally of Saudi Arabia, to the extent that we allowed their madrassa policy to long outlast the Afghan war, even as Wahabi sectarianism, typical of Saudi outreach, led to a planned genocide of the minority Shi’a. It also ruled out any meaningful economic cooperation with Iran. Even the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, which would have gone a long way in addressing our energy shortage, was not important enough to upset the old arrangement.
But a new opportunity presents itself with Iran back in the international fold at a time when Pakistan is fighting its own existential war against terrorism. The Taliban, al Qaeda and Da’ish threats at our gate originate from the Wahabi petro wealth that Riyadh learnt to use so well in the days of the Soviet war, when Pakistan facilitated the so called jihad against infidels. Now, some powers that helped with that arrangement, in a different time and in a different setting, and those that opposed them throughout, have come to an understanding about the need to finally eliminate it. We, too, have played with proxies since that war of the ‘80s, and only cast them aside when they had eaten into too much of the state and society.
How Pakistan really responds to this tectonic shift remains to be seen. It could, once again, bury its head in the sand and hang on to the old ways. That would mean fighting terrorism while supporting its sponsors, even as the world leaves them behind. Or it could embrace the international political modification that is so close to its door. That would bring in economic benefits; oil, electricity and the advantages of Iran’s fabled bazaar. And it could bring political dividends, like the aid of a genuine partner in the war against terror.
How Times Change | Shahab Jafry