Books | Religion and Politics

How the deadly mix changed the contours of West Asia forever. An extract

BooksIqbal S. Hasnain

It was after the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, that the entire regional dynamics went for a total shake-up. With Saddam Hussein, Saudis had been able to present as an effective counterweight to Iran’s regional ambitions. After the invasion, however, the new Shia-dominated government in Iraq was supported by Iran, upsetting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi had never imagined a major Shia Arab country in their neighbourhood. It rightly feared Iran’s increasing interference in the region, for the first time, challenging its supremacy in the neighbourhood.

Saudi Arabia was actively involved in Syria to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. It was mainly aimed at destroying the Syrian-Iranian alliance. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Lebanon War in 2006 and the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline programme, all led to strengthening the ties between Iran and Syria. These developments, in turn, worsened the ties between Syria and Saudi Arabia. The Assad regime of Syria received support from Iran and the local Shia Alawite population. Saudi Arabia is also afraid of its Shia population in the eastern province of the kingdom rising against the government, especially after the Arab Spring. Just over 74 per cent of the Syrian population practices Sunni Islam and hence Saudi Arabia hopes to get an upper hand in case the Assad regime falls. Therefore, Saudi Arabia sends a large number of young jihadis to wage war against the Alawite political regime.

Traditionally, majority of the Syrian Sunnis followed Sufi traditions and rejected the bigoted Wahhabi-Salafi ideology, advocated by Saudi Arabia. Jihadi groups like Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat al-Nusra were allied to the al-Qaeda and were actively supported by it financially and logistically. After the entry of ISIS, the Syrian civil war morphed into a complete sectarian war, instead of a political struggle for democracy.


Saudi-Iranian Competition

The history of the Saudi-Iranian competition is deep and dates back to the seventh century. Saudi Arabia was established in 1927 as the Kingdom of Nejd and Hejaz, and a Saudi-Iranian friendship treaty was signed in 1929. Iran is primarily a Shia-majority nation, while the ultra-conservative Wahhabi-Salafi sect, which detests Shia Muslims, dominates in Saudi Arabia. The reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran, between 1941 and 1979, was secular. He maintained an excellent relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Gregory Aftandilian, an expert on Middle East politics, observed in The Arab Weekly that Iran and Saudi Arabia were on the same side of the global Cold War. However, the latter was worried that the Shah was trying to recreate the Persian Empire with American assistance.

For all the military training and arms sales to the Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, it was apparent to any observer that the US had considered Iran as an equal and competent partner. The seizing of three islands by Iran off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in 1971 was unexpected and it upset the Arab countries. Iran had been playing the role of the ‘policemen’ in the Persian Gulf, more than the Saudis. In the mid-1970s, Iranian troops with British special forces were sent to southwestern Oman to crush a Marxist-led insurgency. The US also engaged in strategic alliances to counter the emergence of the socialist Baath party in Iraq and Syria.

The Shia Islamic Revolution of 1979, however, totally changed the sectarian equation, and Saudi Arabia began to see Iran as a regional threat thereafter. The relation between Iran and the US also deteriorated after the revolution. After Ayatollah Khomeini’s emergence to power, the sectarian rivalry increased as Iran nullified friendship with Israel, declared war on Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and branded the Saudi kingdom as an illegitimate monarchy.

The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been at the centre of many major political shifts that occurred in the Middle East after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The battle for regional dominance played out in various ways and in multiple forms in the region. The clash has been ideological, sectarian as well as of the military. Syria’s Alawite Shia President Bashar al-Assad, who was backed by Iran, gradually gained the upper hand against the Saudi-backed Sunni rebels in the country while in Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has been attacking Shia Houthi fighters backed by Iran.

Both the countries are engaged in proxy wars in the entire Middle East and their relationship is defined by long-standing theological fault lines. Each has aspiration of Islamic leadership, and each pursues different versions of Islam. And here comes the next level of complexity: the political game now extends from ‘Saudi versus Iran’ to ‘US versus Iran’. The unequivocal support from President Trump and his family for Riyadh, as a counter to Tehran, extends to unquestioning support for the Kingdom’s impetuous Crown Prince MBS, who conceitedly secured his power base in the monarchy. The Crown Prince has been targeting internal enemies through a deadly purge of senior princes in the administration, military and religious leadership. But there are wheels within wheels even as the US backs Saudi Arabia, it continues to support Lebanon, including providing it military aid.

The US and Israel along with Riyadh branded Iran as a destabilising factor in the Middle East and designed a policy to isolate it in the region. The ruthless ambition of the Crown Prince MBS is on full display at home with his crackdown on the big businessmen and senior members of the royal family. It is also known across the Middle East that his over-enthusiasm is driven by the urgency to check the Iranian influence in the region. Whether he likes it or not, Iran is all set to become the dominant power in the region from Iraq to Lebanon. The Irani policy-makers know well that Tehran may not be in full control in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, but thanks to its proxies and allies, it can decisively shape their battlefields and politics. Once a cautious and passive regional power, Saudi Arabia in recent years has found a new meaning and purpose in its foreign and security policies. Rather than carefully pushing Iran back and garnering broad support for this effort from the rest of the world, Saudi’s approach, however, has been often haphazard, unsettling and counterproductive.


Saudi-Led Campaign in Yemen

The Saudi-led campaign called ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ began in March 2015 with the aim of forcing Houthi rebels to withdraw from the Yemeni capital Sanaa and install Yemen’s internationally recognised government in its place. Saudi Arabia deployed 150,000 soldiers, 100 fighter jets and navy units. Despite the 20 months of aerial bombardment and an estimated cost of US$5 billion by Saudi alone, the war is still to see an end. The Houthis control northwest Yemen and their alliance with the ousted President Saleh had further deepened their control in the region. The Houthis enjoyed broader support from various tribes and sects of the country. There were many reasons for their success as an armed rebel movement, but first and foremost was their intimate knowledge of the rugged mountains and canyons in which they operate.

The Houthis and the tribesmen, who make up the majority of their loosely formed force, have long understood Yemen’s mountains, which are an effective force multiplier. Mountains favour defensive warfare. Those who invaded Yemen in the past—the Ottomans twice, and the Egyptians later—quickly discovered that mountainous northwest Yemen, just like Afghanistan, is a graveyard for invaders. Second, the Houthi leadership has forged personal and organisational relationship with the tribal clans, most of whom are Zaydi Shias.

As a Zaydi Shia organisation, Houthis’ rise to power set off alarm bells in Saudi Arabia, which views them as proxies of Iran. To fight Houthis on the ground, Saudi Arabia had pitched militias and ISIS fighters escaped from Syria. The forces, comprising southern separatists, soldiers loyal to the government and militant Salafist tribesmen, were used as proxies of the Saudi-led coalition.

Houthis, who hail from Yemen’s northern coffee-growing Saada province, get their name from their late leader, Hussein Badreddin Houthi, and now led by his brother Abdul Malik Houthi, a charismatic figure, often compared to Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah. The Houthis have been fighting the Yemeni central government since 2004,

when the movement was founded to strengthen the rights of the Zaydi sect, which represents between 30 to 40 per cent of Yemini population. The Houthi movement came into being basically to fight the discrimination against the tribes of northern region by the former Saleh administration. Yemen never had sectarian issues in the past and there was no animosity between Shia and Sunni sects. During a Houthi uprising following the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia launched an aerial attack on the protesters, after which Iran entered the scene and eventually, contours of conflict changed in favour of the Houthi fighters.

Iqbal S. Hasnain
Rupa, Pg 278, Rs 395

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