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Hichem Karoui: Struggle in Middle East
December 03, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

As the US military are proceeding to complete their retreat from Iraq, speculations are going wild about the future of the country, against a background of exploding bombs in Baghdad and renewed security threats. Some policy analysts have already hinted at a potential massive shift in the regional balance of power, with Iran moving toward a more assertive role as a dominant power. Such a role is not much welcome in the neighbourhood, for fears of Iran’s whimsical policies growing into a new status quo hard to change without another costly war that nobody wishes.

The withdrawal from Iraq comes at a time of an overall crisis in the region, over how to deal with Syria (the most reliable ally of Iran), and how to deal with Iran itself. The big question is: would the economic sanctions recently decided against Syria and Iran have enough strength and impact to smother the regimes without asphyxiating the population? Are they enough to weaken the position of both governments and precipitate their downfall?

Nothing is less hazardous than wishful thinking. So many examples show us that autocracies and dictatorships do not fall because of economic sanctions, from North Korea to Saddam Hussein and Qadhafi. The first is still alive and kicking; the other two have collapsed after a military intervention orchestrated by major Western powers left them no other choice.

Resisting Western pressure is actually the ideological basis of these regimes. For so many years, they have indoctrinated troops, militias and civilians with such a dogma that has become a system of belief and behaviour. The zeal the Syrian troops and Shebbiha deploy in killing and torturing their own people can only be explained (although it is not a justification) within this ideological and political framework.

On the one hand, the US Middle East half-blind policies have turned the populations of this region bitterly against the West helping vested interests becoming the defenders of the Palestinian rights and the champions of resistance against Israel colonial aggressiveness. On the other hand, the more the support of the West to the Israeli expansionism was perceived unfair to the Palestinians and the Arabs, because it is the support of the powerful not the weak, the deeper the logic of resistance took root in the traditional ground of anti-imperialist fight. Both practices have grown so entwined that it is superfluous to add: they have typified the current Middle East and cemented the socio-economic and military basis of the regimes to the point that democracy and human rights values were considered secondary compared to the fight against Israel and the western imperialism.

Some scenarios may seem merely frightening to the West. Imagine Iraq falling completely under the Iranian influence, with its huge human and material potential. Imagine several years with the Syrian and Iranian regimes surviving the sanctions thanks to this strategic asset, which is an Iranian dominated Iraq. This prospect would allow Iran to extend its reach westward within a sphere stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.

However, as big an issue as it may appear, it is not easy to prove. For, why should the Syrian regime survive sanctions? Why should Iraq fall necessarily under the Iranian dominance? Is it a fate? Certainly not. However, objective conditions are determining.

In both Libya and Iraq, the dictators have been able to resist the siege just because they maintained the population under the yoke of fear. In Syria, ordinary people are resisting repression. The regime’s credibility is almost non-existent. The Arab League and the Islamic Conference’s positions in support of the popular demands have boosted the morale of the opposition and the demonstrators continue to challenge the regime. This has not happened in Libya and Iraq under the sanctions. The Arab League role here is a key to the future of Syria.

Concerning Iraq, the problem has been created by the Americans themselves. Bob Woodward reported that in 2006 prime minister Jafari was no longer acceptable to the United States and the United Kingdom. “Jafari’s support came from the Iranians and the detested Moqtada Al Sadr (…) The worry was if Jafari was elected prime minister for four years he would become Moqtada’s pawn.” Moreover, “the Iranians started saying openly and emphatically that Jafari was their candidate.” The situation grew untenable. However, the alternative was not much different.

When Jafari stepped aside on April 20, and the Iraqi parliament selected its first permanent Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, the Bush administration did not have a clue about him, except that he had spent 23 years in exile between Syria and Iran. In a meeting in the White House (May 12) where ten former secretaries of state and defence were invited, Colin Powell said: “I’d like to offer you caution about Mr Maliki, because frankly I don’t think any of us heard anything about him or knew anything about him until he was announced last week. And we pushed Jafari aside, but he is a deputy of Jafari out of the Dawa party. And I have to have a little bit of caution about somebody who spent most of the last 20-odd years in Iran and Syria.”

Is Maliki the man of Iran? Let us not play the sectarian game and believe that being Shiite, he is necessarily pro-Iranian. Not so easy. After all, his direct rival, Ayad Allawi, is also Shiite. Yet, as prime minister of the interim government, Mr Allawi offered the Arab neighbours a more reassuring image than other Iraqi politicians. Why? Because he was “well known for his pan-Arab credentials, for his orientation towards security and intelligence work, economic and social liberalism, and caution towards Iraq-wide federalism.
His Shiism was of a strictly non-political variety, while his relationship with the Najaf hierarchy was correct, though distant. He was also perceived to be a foe of Iran,” which probably explains why Tehran used of all its influence to support Al Maliki against him in 2010.

Now if we put aside the problems of power distribution that the Iraqi constitution may lead to in the future, and focus on those eventually rising from the Iranian influence, would it be wrong to assume that Iran is the winner of the war that George W Bush led?

The answer to this question may be in the outcome of the Syrian ongoing struggle, for Syria is indubitably a key to both countries.

The author is an expert in US-Middle East relations at the
Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute).


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