The threat to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms is not from Iran. It is from the Islamic State or Daesh. The conflict tearing the Islamic centre apart is not between Sunni and Shia. It is primarily – call it the first stage – a struggle for domination within Sunni Islam. Daesh’s aim is to be the paramount Sunni power, supplanting Al-Qaeda, indeed going beyond it, by seizing territory and consolidating its caliphate, and only then taking on Iran.
But the Saudis are not getting it and even as Daesh expands its sway and influence – capturing Ramadi in Iraq, Palmyra in Syria – they continue to fret about Iran. Iran was not behind the mosque suicide bombing which left 21 dead in the village of Al-Qadeeh in eastern Saudi Arabia. Daesh has proudly claimed responsibility, even posting a picture of the alleged bomber on its website. But Saudis can’t seem to make up their minds as to what is the real danger they face.
The threat to the Kingdom is from the north and the north-west, the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. But the monarchy has gone off on a tangent, ending its energies to fighting an imagined danger in the south. They are looking at today’s problems through lenses borrowed from the past.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are not more opposed to each other than Russia and the west were in the run-up to the Second World War. The Nazi threat forced Russia and the west to come together. When the common danger was defeated, they went their separate ways.
Saudi Arabia and Iran face a common enemy in the Islamic State. But higher statesmanship seems not to be a gift readily available to the world of Islam. So instead of a united front we are seeing more division and bitterness being sown. Even as it should be assuaging Arab concerns Iran is pursuing great power dreams while the desert kingdom remains beset by misplaced paranoia. Meanwhile Daesh continues to make further advances.
Nowhere is fractured purpose more on display than in Syria. Saudi Arabia has redoubled its efforts to overthrow the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad. Forces backed by it have scored some successes in recent days. But the most gains have been made by the Islamic State, as evidenced by the seizure of the fabled city of Palmyra, home to some of the richest antiquities of the ancient world.
Al-Assad is backed by Iran and Russia, and Hezbollah, the pluckiest fighting force in the Arab world which more than once has proved its mettle against Israel. Backing the al-Assad opposition are Saudi Arabia and Turkey, amongst others. Do they not realise that even if Assad is brought down, this will be a strategic victory not for them but for Daesh and its incipient caliphate?
There should be some limits to short-sightedness. The west and the Gulf sheikhdoms sowed the seeds of chaos and disorder in Libya. Qaddafi was brought down, and ultimately taken to his death, but to whose benefit? There was no Al-Qaeda, no extremist Islam, in Libya before…Qaddafi with his iron hand saw to that. Now Libya is the staging ground for extreme militias of all persuasions…while Europe which helped destroy Qaddafi is facing an immigration invasion from across the seas. Consider this another instance of the law of intended consequences.
Now the same short-sighted approach is evident in Syria, the obsession with al-Assad closing the eyes of the Saudis to the consequences of their actions.
If al-Assad falls, although there is still fight left in him, no one should be in any doubt that Syria will be plunged further into chaos. No one will exploit such a situation more than Daesh which may well think then of going up to the very gates of Damascus. What will the Turkish patriarch do then? What hand-wringing will come to the relief of our desert friends? And what further airstrikes will the Americans contemplate?
If the world of Islam, or the centre of this world, is today in flames the American contribution to this state of affairs has been the greatest. Talk of sowing the wind. From Libya to Syria, from there to Iraq and Afghanistan – the spillover effects of Afghanistan reaching into Pakistan – this entire region, cradle to different civilizations, home to empires lost and won, has been destabilised and thrown to the winds.
And having no stomach for anything riskier or more robust, all that the Americans can think of are air strikes. Their effect is limited. If airpower alone could have done the trick the outcome of the Iraq and Afghan wars would have been different.
In Ramadi the Americans insisted that only Sunni tribes and the Iraqi army should repel the Daesh advance. But Ramadi fell and now help is being sought from Shiite militias.
Let’s not forget that Afghanistan is far from settled. Indeed, if this summer’s fighting is anything to go by the Taliban are stronger than ever. The initiative is with them. Having waited out the Americans and seeing them depart, they can wait out the present interregnum. No one has seen Mullah Omar for the last 10-12 years. If he is holed up somewhere he is very likely a symbolic figure, exercising nominal authority, much like Osama bin Laden in his last days.
A new generation of fighters and commanders has come to the fore. And among them Daesh is hunting for recruits and influence. Daesh has made an appearance in Pakistan as well, former Taliban commanders pledging allegiance to it.
Al Qaeda then is the old enemy, its influence and attraction on the wane. The new star on the ‘jihadi’ horizon is the Islamic State which is drawing followers from across the Islamic world. According to some accounts, it is proving more attractive as a ‘jihadi’ destination than the Afghan ‘jihad’ in its early days, when it was first sponsored by the CIA and the Saudis (and we Pakistanis went blindly along).
Here then rests the supreme paradox. Wahabiism is the most austere and rigorous form of Sunni Islam, and the flag-bearer and custodian of this Islam is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its monarchs the self-proclaimed custodians of the two Holy Mosques, Islam’s most revered shrines. There is a threat, indeed a mortal threat, to this centre of strict Islam but it comes not from Shiism, as represented by Iran, but from within the bosom of Sunni Islam, as represented by the Islamic State.
The Islamic State is Wahabiism raised to the power of ten and its aim is to first establish its foothold in Syria and Iraq and only then to do battle against what it considers the Shiite heresy. As upholder of a new caliphate, the Islamic State recognises no national boundaries. And it considers all monarchies and sheikhdoms as illegitimate centres of authority.
Saudi Arabia thus wrongly draws its axis of conflict with Iran. The threat to it is from elsewhere. Indeed, the rise of Isil threatens all countries lying in its path. America could not rescue itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. How can it rescue the world of Islam from the looming threat of the Islamic State?
This task has to be undertaken by Islamic countries themselves, but only if they leave aside their petty differences, acquire somehow a broader vision and rise to the common danger. Above all it means Saudi Arabia and Iran getting their act together.