The war that Western powers — primarily US, Israel and Britain — began against the Islamic world after September 11, 2001 is about to enter a new more dangerous phase as their early plans for “changing the map of the Middle East” have begun to unravel with unintended consequences.
Codenamed “the war against terror,” the imperialist war against the Middle East was fueled primarily by US and Israeli ambitions. Britain’s participation is mostly a sideshow. US and Israel have convergent aims in the region. The US seeks to deepen its control over the region’s oil. Israel wants to create regional conditions that will allow it to complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
As a first step, both objectives would be served by removing four regimes — in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan — that still resisted US and Israeli ambitions in the region. Once these regimes had been removed, the US and Israel would carry the war into Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, to dismember them into smaller, weaker client states.
Iraq and Afghanistan were chosen as the first targets — the easy points of entry into the war. They had been ravaged by years of war, weakened by internal divisions, and, in the case of Iraq, hollowed out by sanctions. It was believed that occupation would be easy. With friendly regimes in power, the US could start working on regime change in Iran and Syria.
Occupation was indeed a cake walk. But little else has been easy. The Sunni-led insurgency that began within weeks of the fall of Baghdad has succeeded in derailing US efforts to stabilize Iraq. Indeed, as Iraq has moved closer to a civil war over the past few months, pressures within the US are mounting for an American pull out. In Afghanistan too, after a period of initial stability, a Taliban resurgence — operating from liberated areas in neighboring Pakistan — now threatens NATO forces through much of eastern and southern Afghanistan.
In the meanwhile, the US-led war against the region has changed the map of the Middle East, but in unsettling ways. Not only has Iran gained deep influence over Iraq and Afghanistan, it can leverage this influence to raise steeply the cost of the US occupation in both countries. In the meanwhile, with help from Russia and China, Iran has built a military capability that can threaten US clients on the Arabian peninsula, shut off the Hormuz Straits to shipping, and launch missiles that can reach Israel. In addition, last summer, Hizbullah demonstrated a new form of guerilla war — with low-tech rockets, anti-tank weapons, and sophisticated intelligence gathering — that neutralized a determined Israeli offensive.
The Iraq Study Group has described the situation in Iraq “grave and deteriorating” and recommended a quick drawdown of US forces. It is unlikely that the President will take that advice. Instead, the US, Israel, and Britain have for some time been working on an alternative plan when it appeared that their initial plans were being derailed. The US, Israel and Britain are now working to incite a civil war between Sunnis and Shias across the Middle East. As Jonathan Cook puts it, taking a leaf from Israeli experience in the West Bank and Gaza, they expect to create “controlled chaos” in the entire Islamic world.
The battle lines in this civil war have been drawn. The principal American-Israeli surrogates in this “Islamic civil war” showed their colors last July when Israel launched devastating air attacks against Lebanese civilian targets in response to the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah. Almost instantly, Cairo, Riyadh, and Amman condemned the Hizbullah action. On the opposite side there is the crescent of resurgent Shia power stretching from Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq, into Iran.
During his recent meetings with Israeli leaders and Sunni Arab potentates, according to an AP headline, British prime minister Tony Blair was working to lay the groundwork for an “alliance against extremism.” His plan is to erect an “arc of moderation” against the Shia Crescent, with Iran as the principal “strategic threat” to Western imperial ambitions.
Iraq is already the theater of this “Islamic civil war.” Last July, one of the aims of the Israeli destruction of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure was to spread this sectarian war to Lebanon. That gambit failed miserably. Now Saudi Arabia is threatening to expand its support for Sunni insurgents in Iraq and destabilize Iran by raising its oil production. More ominously, some of its Wahhabi clerical allies are trying to rouse both Arab fears of Persian domination and Sunni concerns about the ascendancy of the “heretical” Shias.
The determining factor in this war will be the Sunni populations under the thumbs of the Arab potentates. It is doubtful if the anti-Persian and anti-Shia rhetoric of the Arab potentates will succeed in swinging them around to support governments they have long hated, especially now as their alliance with Israel becomes overt. There is also the risk that, in fuelling the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Saudis will strengthen al-Qaida and their allies who are sworn to bring down the US-friendly Arab potentates.
Moreover, if there is a real war in the region, the pseudo Arab states in the Gulf have no fighting ability they can bring to this conflict. In the event, does the US have the forces to occupy Iraq and also defend its Arab clients in the Gulf?
Paraphrasing prime minister Tony Blair, AP writes, “. . . the fate of the Middle East, ‘for good or ill,’ would be felt around the world.” It is unlikely that adding an “Islamic civil war” to the dynamics of the region will work for the “good” of the US, Israel, or Britain.
M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at a university in Boston. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI Publications, forthcoming). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in the Arab Media Internet Network on 22 December 2006. © M. Shahid Alam