A while ago, the Iranians declared that they do not want the region to be called the Arab Mashriq. No one talks about Arabs in zones which Tehran influences in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon except within the context of slander as nationalism is “evil” and Arabs have “surrendered to America and Israel!” They also do not like the term “Middle East” which the westerners use because it reflects an American project in the region and it must not be accepted as it’s based on justifying the establishment of the Zionist state in Palestine. So what’s the name they want? They do not publicly speak about that. They also do not like an Islamic name although they represent “an Islamic revolution.” They do not like it because most of the region’s residents are Arab Sunnis while Iran is a sectarian state with a sectarian constitution. Their official statements are about the “axis” which extends from Tehran to Beirut via Iraq and Syria.
The extension of this axis depends on Shiite militias which Tehran formed and armed. Some of these militias have been brought from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq during the Syrian conflict. There are two tactics which Iran adopts to expand and control the axis and its surroundings: seize the authority via armed force like what’s happening in Lebanon or infiltrate the country like what’s happening in Iraq and Syria, particularly in Sunni-populated areas (Anbar, Diyala and Nineveh and Iraq and Damascus and its suburbs until Qalamun, Homs, the north and the east in Syria.) Since Iran’s hand is loose in all three countries, demographics are amended via two approaches: displacing people and seizing areas the way Israel does it in Occupied Palestine and imposing Shiism on residents who stayed in their towns or who returned to them.
These Iranian policies towards Arab countries (including Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen) have not been adopted during the past six years of Arab unrest. They’ve been adopted for years before that and they increased during this phase because Iran either wanted to thwart the change which it viewed as targeted it against it in Iraq, Syria and Yemen or to impose another political regime that acts as an agent to it and that’s part of its axis, like Yemen and Gaza are. As it divides and fragments areas and imposes Shiism on people, its original aims eventually surfaced. This is what happened in Iraq’s Kurdistan. It polarized the party of Jalal Talabani in Sulaymaniyah, which is closest to its borders, and encouraged division between him and the party of Masoud Barzani. When ISIS attacked Barzani’s area in 2014, the developments were dominated by the considerations of the conflict with Turkey as Iran believed Ankara is behind ISIS. This conflict extended to Syria where Iran stood with the Kurds there and facilitated the entrance of the Workers’ Party militia that’s been fighting for three decades against Turkey and in areas neighboring it and Iraq. It also allowed the Workers’ Party to establish bases in the Iraqi area of Sinjar because it’s situated in a central position between the Turkish and Syrian borders.
The Kurdish threat
This led to trouble particularly when the Kurdish threat rose in Iran and Iraq. Turkey has since 2004 tried to extend its influence to Syria via the Syrian regime. However at the beginning of unrest in the region, it adopted two alternative tactics: ride the wave of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood movement in Arab areas in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and Gaza and prevent the Kurds from emerging on its borders as independent entities in Syria and Iraq. This is why it established special relations with Barzani and why it was not that upset that ISIS emerged and attacked Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq. The conflict or competition with Iran lasted for three years on lines of contact between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and the Kurdish zone on the Tal Afar, Kirkuk, Sinjar, Syria and Turkey line. Arab Sunnis in these zones found some comfort as they have been in the middle of the Assad-Iraqi-Iranian war against them for years.
The battles’ dust has not settled yet but two new factors emerged in Upper Mesopotamia and around it in the past two years and they are the US and Russia. The US intervened in the interest of the Kurds and against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and temporarily marginalized Iran and Turkey. Russia intervened to support the Syrian regime and left combating terrorism for others. This made Iran and Turkey get close to Russia. A clear alliance sponsored by Russia emerged at the beginning of this year and it aims to act against the interests of the US. This is where rapprochement happened between Iran and Turkey as they are both against the establishment of Kurdish entities on their borders and they both want to use the Russian umbrella to confront American plans in the region.
The scene has not yet manifested a clear horizon as it’s going through major labor as the US is set to announce new policies against Iran.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.
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