5 January 2014
The Middle East is in the grip of a war neither side can win. The conflict in the region between Sunnis and Shias, from Lebanon to Iraq, is a strategic absurdity, which makes the death toll even more tragic than it would otherwise be.
If anything can be said for certain about those who died in the recent explosions in Beirut, in last week's fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi, or in the latest bombing raids on Aleppo, it is that their deaths will serve no rational purpose.
The minds of the men on the ground, intimately involved in this carnage, are muddled by fear, prejudice, passion, and the desire for revenge – excuses of sorts. But what of those who preside over this bloodshed from distant capitals?
No reference here to Washington: while America bears much responsibility for triggering Sunni-Shia rivalry by its invasion of Iraq, and continues to try to influence the contest, it is not the driver of it.
That distinction belongs to Iran and Saudi Arabia, both bent on unrealistic plans for dominance in the region or, at the very least, on denying the dominance of the other.
For its part, Iran must know, or should know, that the Sunni Arab world cannot be transformed into a series of satrapies subservient to Tehran.
That flies in the face of history, demographics and ethnic loyalties. No matter that Iraq sings, for the moment, to the Iranian tune. No matter that the Assad regime has been, for the time being, rescued by Iranian aid and Hezbollah military support. No matter that Hezbollah continues as a powerful, and violent, player in Lebanese politics.
Iraq will sooner or later realise that its interests are different from those of Iran, the Shia bond notwithstanding. Syria will sooner or later become a state run by its Sunni majority: who can imagine that in, say, 10 years' time, there will still be an Alawite minority government?
In Lebanon, Hezbollah's stranglehold on government will slacken when Syria changes, if not before then.
Riyadh's strategic miscalculation is a mirror to Tehran's. As a state small in everything except sandy territory and oil, and distant from the main centres of Sunni population, how can it be so immodest as to imagine it will be entrusted for any length of time with the destiny of the Sunni heartland?
How does it avoid empowering Sunni extremists hostile to the Saudi state? And how does it imagine it will bring Tehran low?
Iran will in time learn the natural limits of its possible influence over the Arab world. But it is a giant compared to Saudi Arabia, which has less than half its population, little agricultural land, even less water, and only the advantage of rather more oil. Surely in these two capitals there are some with enough wisdom to realise the senselessness of what they are doing?