A former head of Mossad, the Israeli
secret service, Efraim Halevy, neatly encapsulated
 one primary aim of a war that has already been
ignited in the Middle East: "The current standoff
in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world
of the Iranian menace ... And ending Iran's
presence in [in Syria] poses less of a risk to
international commerce and security than harsher
sanctions, or war [on Iran would pose]".
And it is real, hot war now: both in the
microcosm of Syria and on the geostrategic plane.
In the wake of its failure to bulldoze the United
Nations Security Council into demanding President
Bashar al-Assad's head, Saudi Arabia and Qatar
vowed to intensify the bloody insurgency in Syria
in order to bring down a fellow Arab head of state
through violent insurrection.
were not currently such a hated object for the
Israel, such actions
would, in any other circumstances, be labeled
terrorism. It would be obtuse to imagine either
Saudi Arabia or Qatar were so outraged at the
Security Council veto for reason of their deep
commitment to popular democracy.
roiling the politics of the region, and fanning
this hot proxy war into wider sectarian distrust
and fear among religious minorities, is the sense
that at play are several quite distinct "war
projects". The bursting into flame of these
multiple agendas touches on the most sensitive,
the most elemental aspects of the sectarian divide
The feeling is one of
approaching an abyss, particularly as it is not
clear what the true objectives to some of these
wars are. That is to say, we all hear their
ostensible aims of humanitarian concern, but for
most these ring laughably false. Some projects may
march in step, some may overlap to some extent but
run counter in part, and some may simply have
completely opposing ends to what is proclaimed.
We have the ubiquitous American "project",
the Israeli "project" from which it in some
respects differs, and which also contains the
potential to run counter to the American project.
We have too the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood "project"
in the region to actualize political power, the
Saudi-Salafist "project" to shore up conservative
monarchical legitimacy, the Turkish aspirations to
lead the Sunni community, the Qatari ambition to
be America's regional "fixer", and the not
insignificant jihadi-Salafist "project" to
deconstruct "authority", to name but a few that
have suddenly flared up; and of course there is
the long established Iranian "resistance" project.
Additionally, there are the strategically
important "projects" to seize influence over the
region's energy supplies - in order to influence
which of the competing gas pipeline projects will
serve Europe's needs: either tilting European
dependency towards, on the one hand, Russia and
Iran; or alternatively, tying her to US proxies
such as Qatar and Turkey. On such calculations
will hinge too whether China's future energy needs
will, or will not be, vulnerable to subsequent
American squeeze as part of its containment of
And as no one really is
sure what is the true extent of the designs behind
these multiple projects, except that - since all
have a claim to power and hegemony - suspicion and
mistrust inevitably are mushrooming to the point
at which tensions can easily spill over, at any
point, into localized sectarian violence and then
jump the firewall into the geostrategic conflict.
This is what is meant by the "abyss".
in all this is the "Awakening's" origins as a
popular stirring: it has metamorphosed for now
into a profound geostrategic and sectarian
struggle over the future of the region. And though
the popular impulse has been for the moment
harnessed into other agendas, it nonetheless may
yet surge again. The potential for this certainly
is there: even to turn the political complexion of
the region inside out.
Now, it is the West
and Gulf states' "war" against Iran and Syria that
predominates. But what exactly are the final aims
of this war? It may seem obvious, but in fact on
this very point, both America and Israel are
internally conflicted. And of the US Arab allies
in this project, Saudi Arabia's and Qatar's
intentions clearly extend well beyond the mere
destruction of Iranian political power to a much
wider ambition not only to subvert real reform in
the region, but to restore a Sunni conservative
primacy throughout much of the Arab world as a
bulwark against Iran and reformist Islamism.
This current ultimately is one of
political autocracy, and of imposed civil and
Islamic discipline. It is about a hugely wealthy
elite staying on top.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in recent
comments, has made clear that a direct military
attack on Iran does not suit US interests, (or
rather does not suit President Barack Obama's
current electoral interests) - at least for now.
Any attack at this early stage in the electoral
process, simply would be too risky - it would
allow too much time - after the television
"spectacle" of the first "hit" gives Obama's
ratings a lift - for some horrible, possibly
traumatic consequences of military action to play
out, not least economically - and much to the
president's electoral disadvantage.
presidential race is about the economy, "stupid",
quite evidently, but already Iran has been
identified as the potential "wild card" that might
upset such electoral calculations. And, although
Obama uses tough language to inoculate himself
from Republican accusations of being "too weak" on
Iran, he knows that the person best placed to play
that "wild card" and possibly endanger his
presidential bid is Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than the Republican
candidates per se.
Netanyahu makes no
secret of his strong Republican sympathies, or his
hope that Obama will not be the next president.
And it is in this latter context that Netanyahu's
calculations on how to weaken Iran are likely to
include a large element of US domestic electoral
calculation, as much as any simple military
It is against this
background that "regime change" in Syria becomes
so important. Both in Israel and America, there
are serious constituencies which argue that a
direct military strike on Iran would provoke a
terrible disaster. To answer this, the combination
of financial siege on the Iranian people, in
combination with the overthrow of Assad - in favor
of an anti-Iranian, Sunni successor - is crafted
precisely to assuage those hawks demanding
It holds out the prospect
to them, as Halevy notes, of an alternative: "of
the Iranian people once again rising up against
the regime which has brought them so much
suffering" - of soft regime change, in place of
the unpredictability and riskiness of war.
The question is: would such a plan see
Obama safely pass through the re-election process,
and thus sink Netanyahu and Likud hopes for a
Republican win in 2012? That is the key issue on
which the White House and Panetta must maneuver.
Independent Israeli action could upset this
But collective "suffering" did
not cause the people of Gaza to turn against
Hamas, and there is no reason to think it more
likely to work in Iran. Iranians do not react well
to pressure; and if the US and its allies fail to
depose Syria's leadership, as seems likely, for an
anti-Iranian one, then the very "logic" of the
Obama position, on its own terms, will
ratchet his policy in the direction of the "final
option" - with vociferous Iran hawks levering the
war option along the ratchet.
Washington, unable to see how power is shifting in
the world today, firmly believe that Iran's
destruction would put Israel and the US back at
the top in the Middle East.
there was such affronted outrage from the
administration when China and Russia vetoed the
Syria "regime change" resolution at the Security
Council: It killed the best option for assuaging
Iran hawks, and risks Obama being painted into an
unpredictable Gulf war.
That Obama has
painted himself into such a corner is the direct
result of his endorsement of Dennis Ross'
"engagement with pressure" policy on Iran, which
apart from raising the question of whether there
ever was any meaningful engagement intended,
cannot now possibly provide any negotiated
solution - other than Iranian surrender - that
would be not be spared a brutal savaging by the
Republicans as Democrat "appeasement" and
"weakness", in a campaign year.
pursuing this project of seeking to mollify Iran
hawks through a hot, increasingly sectarian "war"
in Syria, and by letting the Gulf monarchies fire
up reactionary Salafist movements across the
region - supposedly again to "contain" Shi'ite
influence and further weaken Iran - the US and
Europe are becoming increasingly witting, or
unwitting partisans, in a Sunni sectarian
"project" for the restoration of Sunni primacy
which is piggy-backing on the US and European
obsessive animosity towards Iran. This risks
another type of war, just as dangerous - but to
which Western powers seem oblivious.
element of this Sunni project is seen in the
electoral resurgence of the more moderate Muslim
Brotherhood. But another Sunni primacy "project"
actually pits itself against the Muslim
Brotherhood initiative: The Saudi-Salafist
"project" is intended to "contain" the
Brotherhood's bid for power, and to seek for
itself the hold over regional changes. This is
being done in the interest of preserving pliant,
conservative Islam, and Saudi absolutism.
And finally we have the quite separate
jihadi-Salafist project to exploit regional
tensions to deconstruct "authority" to establish
regional footholds as sites for jihad - and the
emergence of a very different type of authority.
These projects, set afoot under cover of the US
containment of Iran, are setting sect against
sect, one generation against another and one class
in society against another, and in pitting them
one against another, may set the region on fire.
They are all pitted against the
"resistance" project of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
And some in Tel Aviv, Washington and Paris will
think this must be a good thing; but this limited
perspective rather overlooks the fact that some of
these movements being fired up - whilst they do
indeed hate the Shi'ites - also hate moderate
Sunnis, all heterodoxy, Israel and Western values
Not surprisingly, Russia and China
see the disaster looming: They see the US-Gulf
Cooperation Council project as threatening
fitna (civil and religious strife), and
risking sectarian war. It directly threatens their
own security: Russia is not at risk in the
Caucuses from Shi'ite Islam; but from fired-up
Salafism: Iran in fact is all that stands
geographically between the now quiescent Salafism
in the Central Asian republics and the stoking of
it happening in the Middle East.
It is not
hard to imagine that Russians see that this
current of Islam that historically has been the
most violent could, in due course, be redirected
by the US towards their Asian allies - just as it
has been pointed towards Syria. Equally, China is
just as sensitive about its own Muslim community.
It can see too that the Western "project", were it
to succeed, potentially would give the US huge
leverage over China's growing energy requirements
- and hence its economy.
extraordinary is that European states have not
woken up to the fact that it is they who have most
to lose in this "great game". They too have an
alienated, disenchanted Muslim population, and are
far from self-sufficient in energy - unlike the
US. Their placing of the Israeli interest,
refracted at them from the prism of essentially
domestic American political needs, blindly
followed, seems to repeat the history of the 2003
Gulf war: Another war "project" that fissured
Europe, closed off policy options, and brought
terrorism to European streets.