The Saudi-Syria-Iran-Israel-Palestine nexus

The toxins of the Israel-Palestine conflict continue to spill into a region that with difficulty and with setbacks is striving to embark on a new future. 

Tony Klug
29 March 2012

Much has been said and written about the Arab uprisings – a more appropriate term than Arab Spring in my view in the light of the tens of thousands of fatalities to date – a fair bit of it contradictory and a lot of it quite confusing. However, more than a year on, there are, I think, a few common themes that are discernable, allowing that the contexts are inevitably different in each country. I shall pick up on six of them.

First, it seems that the young activists who were at the forefront of the various rebellions with their bold calls for democracy and freedom are not, for the most part, destined to be the main beneficiaries. While their idealism and enthusiasm were initially contagious, their organizational inexperience and lack of grassroots connections have enabled better established and more savvy groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, to take advantage of the new climate and make political inroads in one Arab country after another.

Second, this said, the genies of free expression, basic rights, popular accountability and non-violent protest, lubricated by the new social media, have escaped their bottles and no future authority, whatever its political make-up, will easily be able to squeeze them back in again. To this extent, the old has already given way to the new across the Arab world, even if there is a long, hazardous journey ahead.  

Third, in consequence, Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood have had to temper their rhetoric, modify their programmes and seek alliances with other forces within their countries. Realistically, it was always unlikely that democracy would come to the Arab world without a largely Islamic face.

Fourth, the essentially peaceful popular protests, which enabled most elements of society to participate – young and old, male and female – have undermined the jihadi case that only violent methods can effect change and bring Islamic parties to power. These developments have also discredited the jihadis’ narrow sectarian and misogynist platforms.

Fifth, unlike the upheavals in Eastern Europe in 1989 that in the main aimed to transform their authoritarian governances into Western Europe-style liberal democracies, the Arab uprisings seem not to have very clear models to emulate. If there is any that comes close, it is probably the non-Arab country of Turkey.

Sixth, it is worth noting that it is not the conservative Arab monarchies that, to date, have suffered the main burden of the uprisings, but the post-colonial Arab republics - notably Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria – whose leaders may have confused their own grandiose rhetoric and inflated self-images with their people’s true interests and needs. In all these cases, power was on the verge of being handed over, without a shred of legitimacy, to the son or other close relative of the president, or had already been so passed on. The imminent coincidence of these would-be inherited successions may have been one of the triggers for the uprisings across the region.

The more authentic monarchies of Jordan and Morocco, on the other hand – less prone to illusions of universal popularity or of being the beating heart of Arab nationalism – showed greater flexibility when unrest threatened, holding out the prospect of more power being devolved to their respective parliaments. This helped to quell the protests, but whether this will be sufficient in the longer term is uncertain, to say the least.

The wealthier monarchies of the Gulf region, by contrast, sought to head off potential disturbances through a co-opt-and-contain or carrot-and-stick approach. In Saudi Arabia, where the political and religious establishments are instinctively averse to significant political reform, the king unveiled a massive package of benefits and subsidies. Simultaneously, pre-emptive security measures were taken and stern official warnings were issued against displays of dissent. Public protests were banned and religious leaders issued a fatwa declaring that Islam strictly prohibits protests in the Saudi kingdom because the sovereign there rules by God’s will.

These measures - in a country where demonstrations are historically rare and women are effectively excluded from participating in civil society, such as it is - have proved to be effective in most areas. But in the oil-rich eastern region of the country, members of the minority Shia community - an estimated ten per cent of the Saudi population who claim to be victims of systematic discrimination by the Sunni majority – have repeatedly taken to the streets. Thousands have reportedly been imprisoned following unfair trials, according to Amnesty International, or no trials at all, and there have been reports of government troops firing on demonstrators.  

Yet, with powerful vested interests at play, there appears at present to be no serious challenge – whether from domestic or international actors - to the political status quo in this key oil-producing state. When change finally comes to the country, it will probably be through the weight of its own contradictions, such as its inability to provide adequate jobs for its university-educated youth, including the growing number of largely unemployed female graduates, and its inborn resistance to their inevitably rising demands for greater freedoms and other political changes.

Suspect Saudi concern

The innate conservatism of the Saudi government stretches beyond its own borders. Indeed, it has opposed the uprisings in almost every Arab country, with the notable exceptions of Libya and now Syria, which has been subjected to a slew of sanctions at the instigation of the Arab League – with the strong support of Saudi Arabia - ostensibly for violently suppressing internal dissent.

However, while the sudden concern for human rights by the despotic Saudi monarchy and other Arab autocracies is touching, it is more than a little suspect. That Saudi troops played a decisive role in helping neighbouring Bahrain crush its revolution just a few months earlier is reason enough not to take this explanation at face value.

What then does account for the Saudi monarchy’s exceptional support for the uprising in Syria and the overthrow of the Assad government? That Bahrain is a Shia-majority country governed by Sunni rulers may offer a clue. The Saudi fear is not only that the Bahraini uprising could threaten the future of the monarchy in that small island state - which is connected to Saudi Arabia by a maritime causeway - or that it could spread to the Saudi kingdom’s eastern province, but that lurking in the shadows is its deadly rival Iran – the heretical, radical Shia power - ready to exploit any opportunity to its advantage. 

The Saudi, and broader Sunni Arab, concern, in a climate of increasingly sectarian discourse, is of growing Iranian influence over an arc of land over the roof of Saudi Arabia, stretching from the Iranian border through Shia-led Iraq and Alawi-led Syria – the Alawis being a Shia sect - to Lebanon, whose government is dominated by the Shia militia group Hezbollah.

If Saudi ArabIa has opposed the rebellions in all Arab countries apart from Libya and Syria, Iran, by contrast, has supported every uprising – dubbing them Islamic awakenings – other than in Syria. There, it has condemned the protestors as terrorists and agitators.

What better way to break the arc than to replace the minority Syrian regime with a Sunni-majority government that embraces the broader anti-Iran Arab consensus? The overthrow of the Assad regime would curtail Iranian influence in the Arab world and shift the balance of power back towards Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. Further combustion is added to the mix by virtue of the US Fifth Fleet being headquartered in Bahrain while Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is hosted by Syria. These are among the reasons that the situations in Syria and – previously - Libya are not analogous and the remedy used in the Libyan case cannot simply be transported to the more complex Syrian reality.

Iran, Israel and the proxy-war

How the Syrian civil conflict will unfold is yet to be seen but few commentators had expected it to last this long.  However, both sides seem determined to battle it out to the bitter end. The only certainties at present are that the glorious spring has given way to a ferocious winter and that, without some form of external political intervention, there will be a lot more bloodshed before one side or the other ultimately prevails. There is also a common fear that Al Qaida will try to turn the disarray in the country to its advantage. Primarily, it is up to the region to come up with a solution involving a negotiated transfer of power, to which a currently polarized international community may then lend its support.

The other side of the proxy-war  - Iran - is widely regarded as a belligerent power run by an unhinged leadership. Its drive to seek nuclear-weapons capability is seen from within an already destabilized region as deeply threatening and liable to spark off further proliferation. The widespread perception among Israelis is that it is aimed at their destruction.

The Iranian president’s provocative Holocaust denial coupled with his flamboyant threats against the Israeli state have all fed this fear. While the anxieties of the Israeli people are understandable, the threats of the Iranian president may be more posturing than substance. The Palestinians – who would be the victims of a nuclear strike on Israel no less than the Israelis – are mostly not fooled by Iran’s faux support for their cause, so why are Israelis so easily taken in? The two countries, a thousand kilometers apart, have no material disputes, such as over territory, population or natural resources, and Iran is doubtless aware of Israel’s vastly superior nuclear armoury.

But the danger of the bluffing-and-mutual-paranoia game is that if or when the bluff is called, it could give rise to a self-fulfilling prophesy. A pre-emptive Israeli attack could spark off a counter-attack on Israeli territory and on Israeli, western and allied interests worldwide. Counter-counter attacks may then be unavoidable.

Stepping back from the brink, Israel and Palestine

To enable the parties to step back from the brink, there needs to be a sustained period of calm. A clear indication from President Obama that the military option is off the table in the lead up to the US presidential election in November would be a start. That would give at least a few months of breathing space and provide a chance for more rational counsel to come to the fore in all quarters.

What would follow the election may well depend of who emerges victorious. On the one hand, it is doubtful that the present incumbent has busily been withdrawing US military forces from the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan only to send them straight back into the region to take on an even more formidable foe in the shape of the Islamic Republic of Iran. More likely, a second-term Obama would seek to engage Iran vigorously in the diplomatic arena rather than militarily on the battlefield. If, on the other hand, Romney is returned as president, the prospects of a US or Israeli military attack will rise - with all its devastating consequences, both predictable and unpredictable - if the utterances of most of the Republic primary candidates, including Romney himself, are anything to go by.

It hardly needs saying that the best way to call the Iranian bluff and lower the temperature is for the Israelis and Palestinians finally to resolve their conflict. But the prospects seem further away than ever. A principal obstacle to the two-state framework - the only proposal that makes any sense – is that the state that already has its independence has for years been chiselling away at the territory of the putative other, bit-by-bit reducing the size of the pie before any bargaining begins.

This is a very short-sighted strategy as it is strongly in Israel’s interests to ensure that the Palestinians have a genuine stake in the future. Moreover, there is no chance of Israel being accepted into the region for as long as its occupation of Palestinian territory continues

It is possible that we are on the verge of a peaceful settlement being buried indefinitely alongside Palestinian patience which has been severely tested, not just by relentless settlement expansion, but also by many fruitless years of aimless negotiations and feeble international mediation.

But if the possibility of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is receding it is, nonetheless, the only realistic alternative to perpetual conflict of one form or another. Why this is the case and why the idea of one unitary state, as currently floated, is a non-starter, is a subject for another time. But suffice it to say for now that for as long as this conflict is not resolved, its toxins are liable to continue spilling over into a region that, with difficulty and with setbacks, is striving to embark on a new future.

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