By announcing the unilateral American withdrawal from Syria, US President Donald Trump has tossed the world in turmoil. But having done that, I suspect that the prankster in him is covering his face with a handkerchief and laughing his sides out. Only a prankster in occupation of the White House could have said: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey.”
Mr Trump had to mention “Turkey” because a howl of protest went up from the US Congress, the Pentagon and America’s allies over the Syrian Kurds being left by him to the mercy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The desire to withdraw from conflicts and then not get sucked in again has been evident for quite some time. Witness his cool response to the recent reversals in Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
In fact, all of West Asia is on the cusp of change which promises or threatens (depending where you stand) to inaugurate a new world order. The tide turned against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mr Trump did nothing about it. So long as Mr Trump’s “B” team kicked and ranted, the smell of war lurked. John Bolton, Bibi Netanyahu, Mohammed bin Sultan and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, reinforced each other’s war lust until enlightenment dawned: Mr Trump was using them to beat the drums of war to a deafening crescendo in order to exert maximum pressure on those whom he was out to strike a deal with. His withdrawal from Syria may well result in the albatross being hung around Mr Erdogan’s neck.
The disabling of units at Aramco by Houthi drones and the occupation of Najran are body blows. MbS, in the bleakness of his circumstances, is having to eat crow. Bibi is meanwhile hobbling with corruption cases and the elusiveness of durable power. I am not convinced that Mr Trump is a wounded stag quite yet. In fact, by initiating impeachment proceedings against the President, 79-year-old House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have over exposed a 76-year-Joe Biden, leaving the way open for America’s first woman President, Elizabeth Warren, 70, now that the 78-year-old Bernie Sanders must slow down with a serious heart condition. But that’s a digression, although it has a bearing on the radically changing situation in West Asia. It may still be premature to fall back on the Marxist appraisal that the immense power of the Jewish lobby and petrodollars will turn to dross once imperialism loses interest in the House of Saud and Israel. That stage may not have been reached, but a trend has been noticeable.
Why did Riyadh and Tel Aviv panic at the prospect of Iran being brought into the tent by the US, regularising its nuclear intentions? The fact that the Barack Obama-John Kerry team were creating a self-regulating balance of power in West Asia meant they were shedding their hands-on interest in the region. The “Pivot to Asia” was beckoning.
MbS may have been able to cover up reversals in Syria, particularly after the Russians entered the game. But it was universally acknowledged that the pointless war in Yemen was going disastrously, draining the kingdom’s coffers, building a humanitarian catastrophe and helping create a battle-tested Houthi “Vietcong” enlarging their dependence on Iran. When future historians record the rise and fall of MbS, they will put down his hubris to an endless supply of petrodollars, attracting an endless and wasteful supply of American and British arms incapable of coping with simply configured drones. The carelessness induced in this fashion helped further consolidate the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. This is the Shia arc that Saudis should be worried about, not Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Hamas, which is Israel’s brainchild for its own reasons. And Hamas is true blue Sunni.
The artificial Shia-Sunni faultline was created for two reasons — to scare the oil rich Gulf Cooperation Council with Iran’s rise and sell them arms and, second, to break the morale of Iran, the only country in West Asia which stands up for Palestinian rights, much to Israel’s annoyance.
On current showing, the trick has not worked. That which was never intended appears to be the outcome. Low-key pilgrimages, confined largely to Shias, have, in the Shia-Sunni competition, demonstrably burgeoned. Arba’een, the 40th day of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom, has become an annual walk from Najaf to Karbala, a distance of 80 miles, in which last year 20 million pilgrims from all over the world participated, far in excess of the annual Haj of Mecca. This cannot please the Saudis.
This year, the congregation is expected to be much bigger. Further, traffic from the shrine of Imam Raza in Mashad to Karbala and Najaf and onto Bibi Zainab’s shrine in Damascus is likely to be frenetic. This, because the Iraq-Syria border is now open, is exactly what Riyadh and Tel Aviv were fiercely opposed to. By mid-October, this part of West Asia will have pilgrims in all directions, like a maze of flyovers. Given the disturbances in southern Iraq, everyone in the region must have their fingers crossed.
One aspect of the recent disturbances in Iraq is to deter attendance at Arba’een. These uncertainties will wax and wane so long as relations with Iran are not firmed up. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is firm — revert to the nuclear deal as it was on May 8, 2018 and lift the sanctions before any dialogue is possible. The French have offered a compromise formula — that some of the countries who have had to impose sanctions against Iran lift the restrictions to initiate an official-level conversation, which then prepares for a higher-level engagement.
Recently, the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed did send a delegation to Tehran. Is MbS chastened enough to tread the path towards regional peace without holding America’s hand? When that happens, West Asia will truly have changed....