Under pressure from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) bloody campaign in Iraq—one strewn with massacres, ethnic and sectarian cleansing, and attempts to subjugate women unprecedented in the modern history of Arabs and Muslims—U.S. President Barack Obama has at last decided to act. This, however, is taking place against the backdrop of a series of regional crises.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is continuing his fight to consolidate his grip, albeit at the expense of the fragmentation of the country and drawing its minorities into religious and sectarian strife.
Lebanon remains without an elected president, because the faction that seeks to subordinate the Lebanese state to its confessional “statelet”—Hezbollah—will not allow parliament to convene unless it elects its own candidate.
The Palestinian territories are at a crisis point following Hamas’s recent “victory” and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s candid criticism of some of Hamas’s actions, including its “execution” of so-called “collaborators” without trial.
In Yemen the beleaguered President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi continues to plead with the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels to take it easy on his weak transitional government.
In addition to the above, the Sudanese government recently accused Iran of spreading Shiism in Sudan, ordering the closure of its cultural center in Khartoum.
Iran’s interventionist and expansionist strategy is the common denominator in all the aforementioned cases. Yet the speedy advances of the ISIS now seem to be a priceless gift to Tehran’s regional ambitions, and Tehran is now presenting itself—and its regional henchmen and appendages—as an indispensable ally to the world community, particularly the West, in the “war against takfirist terrorism.” Sunni terrorism, in other words.
It is the duty of Sunnis, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, to defend their own interests and confront all those who harm or distort the image of IslamEyad Abu Shakra
Actually, Iranian President Hassan Rowhani’s pronouncements last week were direct, frank and clear. The Iranian president offered a serious vision of future cooperation, specifically between Tehran and Washington, in solving regional conflicts, beginning with fighting “takfirist terrorism.”
Rowhani’s position was made public after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem’s bizarre press conference, in which he declared his government’s readiness to join the fight against the same terror it helped create, and sponsored and exploited for years.
The principal difference between Muallem’s bizarre move and Rowhani’s serious vision is obvious. The Damascus regime has been, for some time, a mere marginal appendage of Tehran’s regional project. It is indebted to Shi’ite militias from Lebanon and elsewhere for its survival, militias founded and commanded by Iran—such as Hezbollah, the Al-Abbas Brigades and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Brigades. Its dwindling regional influence is now also being exposed by its failure to hold on to vast areas of Syria itself. The latest setbacks include its loss of the Tabqa air base in Raqqa province, ISIS’s virtual takeover of eastern Syria, and the al-Nusra Front’s advances in the Quneitra province towards the ceasefire line in the occupied Golan Heights.
Iran, on the other hand, is a heavyweight regional player, adept in planning and executing its maneuvers. It has been active in financing and supporting several groups, some of which are regional and local foes. Obviously, it has had scores of spectacular regional victories, particularly since the “moderate” Rowhani assumed the presidency and began promoting (along with his teammate, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif) a western-friendly image, communicating in a sophisticated diplomatic language acceptable to the West.
As is now well known, the White House is committed to “opening up” to Iran. And if we are to read correctly between the lines of the discussions and the analysis in the American press, we can see that the Washington–Tehran rapprochement is going ahead in spite of the misgivings of America’s regional friends and allies. One proof of this could be how quicker President Obama was in reacting to the threat of ISIS in Iranian-dominated Iraq—compared this with the more than three and a half years of inaction in Syria, where the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own people. Another proof is the chattering of David Hale, the U.S. ambassador in Beirut, about the political crisis there, as Hezbollah continues to blackmail the Lebanese people, using a Maronite puppet as its mouthpiece while mercilessly exploiting this puppet’s manic obsession with the presidency.
The emergence of ISIS and similar groups is undoubtedly a very dangerous development in the Middle East, as they threaten to tear apart its social fabric. However, they do not threaten just the region’s religious and sectarian minorities; ISIS and its allies also threaten Sunni interests, even if they do not constitute a physical danger to Sunnis themselves. These groups’ rejection of positive interaction and coexistence with others will surely destroy the chances of future generations of young Muslims seeking education outside the Muslim world, damage future trade and business, and sever cultural exchanges with the rest of the world. Indeed, the first victims of the backwardness and intolerance of ISIS and similar groups are the Sunnis, who will also pay the price of these groups’ atrocities, and see their enemies being exonerated and rehabilitated, and their crimes against them forgotten and forgiven.
A duty and a challenge
Thus, it is the duty of Sunnis, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, to defend their own interests and confront all those who harm or distort the image of Islam by their ignorance, extremism and arrogance. It is incumbent on all Muslims and Arabs to be aware of all aspects of the crucial challenge they now face, and not misinterpret the great changes taking place all around them by relying on parochial attitudes.
In this instance it would be impossible not to take into account the importance of Egypt and Turkey’s roles in counterbalancing Iran’s ambitions, and Israel’s continuing efforts to avoid a regional peace agreement.
Iran is playing its cards intelligently, and is even employing regional and local foes to help it achieve its goals, including some militant Sunni groups. Likud-governed Israel, on the other hand, does not seem to mind Tehran’s growing influence inside the Palestinian territories. It welcomes infighting among the Palestinians, as well as Sunni–Shi’ite conflict. Such a scenario serves the intersecting Iranian and Israeli interests under an American-sponsored regional master plan.
What can Egypt and Turkey do here? How do they figure in such a scenario?
In spite of its popularity and recently renewed electoral mandate, the Turkish leadership has continued to pursue narrow ideological policies. As for Egypt, which is still emerging from its experience of Muslim Brotherhood rule, it looks to many like its regional policies are being shaped by its recent painful national experience, forgetting how good the relations between Tehran and the Muslim Brothers were—an approach that may end up causing more harm than good when it comes to Egypt’s standing in both the Arab and Muslim worlds.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 4, 2014.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.