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Sectarianism Raising Its Deadly Fists



By Abdel Bari Atwan

December 29, 2013

Underlying all the major events in 2013 was the relentless spread of sectarianism; borders melted away as once mighty regional giants imploded in civil strife, which has resulted in semi-failed states of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and Sudan.

The emerging phenomenon of geo-sectarianism has fragmented these countries as Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities, who once lived harmoniously side by side, are displaced — either voluntarily or by force — into ‘safe’ areas dominated by their co-religionists or ethnic brethren.

The ‘Arab Spring’ has yet to throw up a workable post-revolutionary political template, and only Al Qaida, the West and Israel have benefitted from the dismantling of these once proud countries.

At the beginning of the year, the West was diametrically opposed to Iran and Syria, the main forces in the so-called Shiite bloc, and stood firmly in the same trench as the Sunni regional heavyweights led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. By the summer, military intervention in Syria, following Bashar Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, seemed inevitable. An attack on Iran also seemed likely. Who could ever have predicted the emergence of Russia as the region’s most sophisticated master of diplomacy, brokering agreements on both the Iranian and Syrian files, utterly changing the political map of the Middle East, and bringing the world back from the brink of Third World War?

I am speaking, of course, of the efforts made by Moscow not only to secure Al Assad’s signature on the Chemical Weapons Treaty, but to ensure that he stuck to the conditions and deadlines imposed by the UN.

I am speaking, too, of the so-called 5+1 agreement with Iran which saw Tehran retaining the right to enrich uranium. The US, Britain and France, all of whom had hawkishly opposed Iran’s claim to join the nuclear club, emerged from the Russian magician’s hat transformed into cooing doves with Washington suddenly the most eager of all to pursue rapprochement.

These developments shook up the regional status quo with Saudi Arabia overtly criticising the US president’s foreign policy as weak and indecisive, and casting about for new friends and allies. It is even possible that Riyadh might enter a marriage of convenience with Israel to counter growing Iranian influence. The last months of this year have seen a flurry of Saudi-Israeli diplomacy.

In addition, Saudi Arabia is the driving force behind re-energised plans for a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ‘army’. In December, the formation of a unified military command was announced at the GCC summit. This move towards greater military independence is championed by the US which declared it would lift all restrictions on ballistic missile systems and hardware for defence, maritime security and counter-terrorism to supply the GCC’s joint command.

A new regional arms race seems inevitable, fuelled by Washington in a manner reminiscent of its role in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Then, the US sold arms to both sides, allowing the two regional heavyweights to debilitate each other in a bitter conflict that claimed more than a million lives.

A major consideration behind all this year’s seismic changes, particularly regarding the revised alignment of the larger powers, is a shared anxiety over the year’s most dramatic development — the rapid rise and spread of Al Qaida-linked jihadist groups. Regional and international powers alike recognise that a united front is required to offset this growing threat.

In the course of 2013, Al Qaida-linked jihadists came to dominate the Syrian rebel forces, and a new group linked to Al Qaida in Iraq emerged — the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS). Meanwhile, the indigenous Al-Nusra front officially announced its allegiance to Al Qaida.

Al Qaida kept up its relentless sectarian campaign in Iraq and 2013 has been the bloodiest year in that unhappy country since 2008. Also in 2013, the network participated in the temporary takeover of Mali, and remained vigorous in Yemen, Libya, the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.

Al Qaida was also party to several horrific attacks abroad, including the Westgate shopping mall massacre in Nairobi — committed by affiliate Al Shabab — and devastating ‘lone wolf’ attacks on the Boston Marathon and the streets of London where a soldier was hacked to death by two self-confessed Al Qaida supporters.

As I predicted in my 2012 book, After Bin Laden: Al-Qa’ida the Next Generation, the network has become what is, in effect, a regional power. This is unprecedented for a non-state actor.

The emphasis in the region, post-Arab Spring, is no longer on establishing the principles of democracy and human rights but on the race to contain radical Islam.

In Syria, the waters have been further muddied by the simultaneous rise of so-called ‘moderate’ armed Sunni Islamist groups who have joined forces in Syria under the Saudi-funded umbrella ‘the Islamic Salvation Front’ (ISF). While these groups, numbering at least 50,000 fighters, share Al Qaida’s ambition to establish an Islamic state in Syria, they have been drafted in by the Free Syrian Army to protect the opposition against Al Qaida.

A new battle may emerge in 2014 between Al Qaida-linked jihadists and non-Al Qaida jihadists.

Meanwhile, widespread regional chaos and instability has created a window of opportunity for Barack Obama to fulfil his second term dream of brokering an agreement between Palestine and Israel. The Arab world is divided and most countries are concentrating on their own internal crises, leaving the Palestinians uniquely isolated and vulnerable to external pressure. It is no coincidence that, at a time when the Palestinian National Authority is almost bankrupt, the EU has come up with a tempting economic package for both the Palestinians and the Israelis in the event that a peace deal is made.

This year, for the first time, one has sensed that the US president is tiring of Israeli arrogance and intransigence. Rapprochement with Tehran — Israel’s arch-enemy — allows the US to exert some pressure on a justifiably alarmed Israel. Despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s prolific shuttle diplomacy throughout the year, I am not optimistic that we will see an acceptable solution since Kerry’s intense efforts — mindful of the Zionist lobby back home — remain largely based on the Israeli agenda. Any concessions Kerry can extract from the intractable Netanyahu administration are unlikely to significantly improve the chances of a real and lasting settlement.

Going forward into 2014, I expect the region’s tragic sectarian rift to widen further and the fight against Al Qaida to become the most dominant concern. The major powers are likely to formulate a deal which sees Al Assad remain in power in Damascus, rather than risk a weak, inexperienced government, which would give the radical Islamists even greater opportunities.

I am sorry not to be able to offer a more optimistic prognosis but take this opportunity to wish all readers a happy new year.

Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.