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Perilous Sunni-Shiite Divide in the Middle-East

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Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani sought support from UN Security Council to end violence in Syria.By R. S. Kalha*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - The recent Security Council vote on Syria demonstrated vividly that the issue is no longer a question of removing odious dictators deeply entrenched in power by ushering in democracy on the basis of people's power, but that the Middle East has now become an area of great power contention.

At stake are the immense riches in the energy sector that this region holds. Also on the table is the western attempt to contain, roll back and eliminate Iran's nuclear programme. And for once the Arab-Israeli dispute is on the back burner. Israel is uncharacteristically very quiet, fearing that Assad's replacement might even be a worse option.

By bringing the Syrian question to the UN Security Council on the basis of proposals formulated by the Arab League, led principally by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the western powers ran the risk of not only facing a combined Russia-China veto but of inflaming sectarian opinion. Shiites have seen this as a Sunni led attempt by Arab Sunni powers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to oust an Alawite-Shiite led government. For the western powers to remove a Shiite led government was a splendid opportunity to strike at the soul of Shiite Iran; one of Syria's foremost supporters.

The Syrian rulers are tough, tenacious and not easily ruffled. The Assad government has seized this opportunity and successfully converted what was essentially a movement for the restoration of democracy, into a Sunni-Shiite power struggle. Evidence of this is becoming increasingly apparent in that areas that are dominated by Shiites and other minority groups in Syria are largely peaceful and pro-Assad. There is the fear that fellow Shiite groups such as the Hezbollah and Hamas would join in the battle and prevent the overthrow of Assad of Syria. And if further proof was needed the Shiite led government of Iraq, although originally sponsored by the US, has refused to join the anti-Assad bandwagon and on the contrary is actively helping him to survive. So is little Lebanon.

Strategic Error

It is indeed a geographical oddity that most of the oil bearing areas in the Middle East are in areas dominated by the Shiites. Southern Iraq, North-East Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and of course Iran are Shiite areas that come to mind. The Gulf region holding 27 per cent of the world's oil and 57 per cent of its proven oil reserves along with 45 per cent of the world's natural gas reserves makes this a very strategic and an immensely important area. And as former US Vice President Dick Cheney was to remark, 'this is where the prize is'!

By bringing the issue of regime change in Syria to the fore and by going to the UN Security Council, the western powers have tactically made a strategic error. The greater folly was to push for a plan to 'democratize' Syria based on recommendations made by the Sunni Arab states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Saudi Arabia is as autocratic as any other Arab dictatorship and its recent contribution to 'democracy' has been to allow women to drive! The sole Qatari contribution is the hosting of the media giant – 'Al-Jazeera'.

The western decision has thus resulted only in inflaming opinion along the sectarian divide. The question of Iran's nuclear ambitions and its alleged desire for nuclear weapons has almost entirely been pushed into the background. Iran would of course be delighted if the Syrian issue continues to hog the limelight and turns into a bitter sectarian fight between Shiites and Sunnis. Great power meddling would only fuel this further.

The Shiite rulers of Iran are no pushovers. They are well versed in statecraft and given the Shiite penchant for sacrifice and martyrdom are very formidable opponents. The more stringent the sanctions are the more intransigent the Iranians will become. Unlike Saddam Hussein of Iraq who unwittingly walked into a situation by attacking Kuwait and from which he could not retreat, the Iranians are hardly likely to oblige the western powers by blockading the Strait of Hormuz.

The Ayatollahs of Iran are far superior in tactics than Saddam ever was and are deeply conscious of the fact that blockading the Strait of Hormuz would not only put them in the wrong as far as world public opinion is concerned, but would inevitably invite a devastating western military response. Despite incessant bluster emanating from Tehran, the Iranians know that they are no match against the combined western military might. In such a scenario while both Russia and China might veto UN resolutions they are hardly likely to risk a military confrontation on behalf of Iran with the western powers.

Iran is an oil and gas exporting giant that holds 11.1 per cent of the world's proven oil reserves and about 970 b/cms of gas reserves. About 43 per cent of Iranian government expenditures are met from its oil revenues. It would therefore be natural to conclude that if Iranian oil exports could be curtailed, its government would come under severe pressure, succumb to western diktat and abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

The Oil Game

For promoting economic sanctions against Iran, the western powers have been assuring their interlocutors that any shortfall in the crude oil that they imported from Iran would be made up by requesting the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states to make up the necessary shortfall. While this is theoretically possible, it is also the weakest link in the western game plan.

North-East Saudi Arabia is the area where most of Saudi oil reserves are situated, it is here that the Saudi oil giant ARAMCO is located and this is also at present the main oil producing area. It is also a Shiite dominated area. There were reports last year of serious sectarian strife in that area which were put down with a heavy hand by the Saudis. The Bahraini movement for democracy which was heavily influenced by local Shiites was put down ruthlessly with the help of Saudi troops specially brought in for that purpose. It was alleged that the agitators had close links with their sectarian co-religionists in Iran.

It would therefore be naive to expect that sectarian trouble could not be once again fostered with the help of Iranian sympathy. Should that happen on a sufficiently large scale and for a fairly prolonged period oil prices would inevitably sky rocket northwards. The Saudis would thus be unable to fill the gap created by the Iranian embargo.

Apart from Israel, a reluctant US and some European countries, there is not much popular support for military action against Iran on the nuclear issue. The use of the oil embargo weapon to force the issue is also a double edged one. Apart from EU countries that import 27 per cent of their requirements from Iran, Asian countries such as China, India, Japan and South Korea are also major importers. Therefore any disturbance has major economic implications for most countries, including India. The stability of the world economy would be at stake. Some EU countries, with very fragile economies, would probably not survive the economic shock.

Thus while events in the Middle East unfold, the issues thus generated should not be looked at in a one-dimensional way as merely a fight for the removal of odious dictators. Now that the great powers have taken sides, there are larger and far more dangerous consequences. Awareness of them would go a long way in finding equitable solutions.

*R. S. Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq. This article first appeared as IDSA comment on under the headline 'Sectarian Strife Looms In The Middle-East'. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 11, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani sought support from UN Security Council to end violence in Syria. | Credit: GlobalomMedia collage

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