Conflict in the Middle East will have consequences far beyond its borders, especially in Europe.
This is a very important article by Nicholas Blanford and can help us predict the future patterns of conflict in the region. The key quote in it for me, the one that explains how “geopolitical concerns” are understood by Iran’s leaders at this stage and, consequently, how other players are bound to understand them as swell, is this:
In February 2014, Mehdi Taeb, a senior Iranian cleric, underlined the importance of Syria to Iran in stark terms, saying it is a “strategic province for us.” “If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or [the Iranian province of] Khuzestan, the priority is to keep Syria,” he said. “If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”
Geopolitical concerns and identity politics have always gone hand-in-hand in the region, which is why each crisis, when allowed to simmer for too long, ends up acquiring a communal ethos that makes it even more difficult to tackle. That is, if we are to assume that communal considerations have not been present all along as was the case in the Syrian Conflict – something with which Syrian opposition leaders keep struggling, as their country is being laid to waste by a brutal proxy war that will not necessarily end once the Assad regime has collapsed. There is more at stake here for the regional sponsors of this proxy war than the mere fate of the Assad regime: it’s the future shape of the entire and the spheres of influence that currently being carved out by the regional power centers with the backing, straightforward (as is the case with Russia) or hesitant and calculating (as is the case with the United States) of their regional “partners” and “allies.”
So long as Iran continues to use Shia communities in the region as an instruments for projecting its power and defending its “geopolitical” interests, interests that have be filtered through the visor of the Shia doctrine and Persian identity espoused by the ruling elite, the natural countermeasure that will be adopted by its Sunni counterparts, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, will be to seek to minimize the influence of the Shia communities living in their midst, which, in most cases, will translate into more restrictions and repressive tactics. But, in some cases, in places like Syria, Lebanon and parts of Iraq, the search for minimizing the influence of local Shia communities could translate into policies seeking to minimize their size through ethnic cleansing campaigns.
Yet, paradoxically enough, it’s Iran that set this policy in motion beginning in Iraq, beginning in Iraq where Shia made up the majority, before moving on to Syria, where Shia are a decisive minority representing less than 12% of the population, and where the overwhelming majority of them happen to belong to the Alawite community, a branch that espouses beliefs considered heterodox by both Shia and Sunnis. (See in this regard as well my earlier post: Lebensraum& Implications.)
But while the heterodox nature of the Alawite community was only a minor complicating factor in the relations between the Assad and Mulla regimes, it has always been a major element of concern for the Alawites in regard to their relationship with the larger Sunni community in Syria, one that allowed the Assad regime to mobilize the Alawite community and enlist them in the crackdown against the nonviolent protest movement back in early 2011, as well as the ensuing armed insurgency. While many Sunnis took part in the crackdown aimed at their co-religionists, for a variety of parochial and ideological reasons, the crackdown was popularly billed as a defense of the country’s religious minorities, especially the Alawites, and the overwhelming support it received from these minorities have been too visible to take away from any negative impression made as a result.
Indeed, the macabre ethnic cleansing campaign unleashed by the Assad regime with the backing of the Iran primarily targeting the majority Sunni community in areas across the country have led, over the last four years, to the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st Century (so far). This tragic development gives the Sunnis in Syria a serious grievance against religious minorities in general, and not only Alawites, one that is bound to shape their attitudes towards these communities for decades to come.
“The only way for the region’s different communities to move beyond these scenarios of kill-or-be-killed, which often translate into a war of all-against-all, is to choose leaders that represent and defend their “actual” interests, not their own parochial criminal interests, nor those of certain regional powers.”
Considering the involvement of foreign Jihadis and that most armed Sunni groups in Syria, other than ISIS, seem to be carrying out a Saudi-Turkish plan of sorts, and so long as the thinking of the ruling Iranian elite policy towards continue to be mirrored by the statements made by Mehdi Taeb, the fate of Syria’s religious minorities will depend in no small part on the factors below:
- How far Iran will continue to push the envelope in Syria, and how much territorial control will be enough for them to conclude that their geostrategic interests are now protected.
- How far Saudi Arabia and Turkey will go in this regard as well.
- How much influence countries like the United States, France, Germany and Russia actually have over the thinking of the different regional parties involved.
- How much control Iran, Saudi and Turkey actually have over their proxies in Syria.
- The role of ISIS and other armed groups who have their own unique agendas, and whose behavior is subject to their own internal calculations, reflecting minimal influence by established players.
The only way for the region’s different communities to move beyond these scenarios of kill-or-be-killed, which often translate into a war of all-against-all, is to choose leaders that represent and defend their “actual” interests, not their own parochial criminal interests, nor those of certain regional powers.
In practice this calls for agreeing on a new region-wide administrative and power-sharing arrangements involving all the players on the scene, a development that could only take place once an international will to lead and mediate such an effort is formed.
This is where Europe should step in. Yes. Europe.
“Europe’s leaders seem unaware of the real significance of what’s happening next door”
For so long as conflicts rage on in the region, thousands of immigrants from all communities involved in the conflict will make their way into Europe, bringing their grievances along with them and helping to further radicalize Europe’s indigenous Muslim communities where integration efforts are already failing. In 2-3 decades, ghettoes where non-Muslims are not welcome, as well as Muslim-on-Muslim violence might become a norm in Europe.
This eventuality cannot be mitigated without addressing the current assortment of regional conflicts, which will only increase in scope, intensity and number if left unmanaged. But, at a time when the U.S. seems intent on minimizing its footprint in the world, it’s Europe to step in. After all, the he battle in the Middle East seems bound to shape the future of Europe as well and in ways that are no less profound than what’s happening in the Middle East.
But Europe’s leaders seem unaware of the real significance of what’s happening next door which represents another complicating element in this unfolding tragedy.