The Great Game of Radical Narrative Change (and its Drawbacks)

Alastair Crooke,  Sic Semper Tyrannis blog,  28 April 2017

It is clearer now: Trump seeks radical ‘narrative metamorphosis’. No more shall America be perceived as ‘weak’. America shall be ‘strong’. US rhetoric against North Korea, Russia and Iran, again is larded with ultimata – and is stridently bellicose. Plainly, the US rhetoric, per se, has done wonders for the US President’s domestic poll ratings, and may help unblock Congressional doors for his crucial domestic budgetary endeavours.  (It is not so certain however, whether these high favourability ratings would prove so durable should the ‘Tough America’ tactic lead to actual war).

How much the bellicosities are directed internally towards US public opinion – and are Trump’s demonstration of the merits of businessman-negotiator’s bluff at work – is not clear?  Neither is it clear how much the threats are intended to be militarily executed, should his ‘negotiator’s bluff’ be called.  Plainly, if the bluff is called, America will be perceived to be hollow – and will be weakened. Nor is it clear, how much ‘the threats’ will actually ‘give peace a chance’.  The threats may only paint the new Administration into rigid binary positions that otherwise the Trump Team would not wish to hold.  All that, remains to be seen.

The Middle East however, is more familiar than other regions with this old Israeli strategy: ‘The boss has gone nuts! Watch out: Anything may happen: For goodness sake, placate him quickly’.  Often, the Israeli version of the ‘boss has gone nuts’ was proved to be no more than theatrical bluff.  Certainly, Iran has seen through these ploys, and simply does not believe them now.  In a sense, Israel has already devalued this currency.

The Trumpist ‘narrative metamorphosis’ tack, as transient as it may prove to be, will however directly impact and shape the Middle East — at least for the time being. But at last, we can, after a period of extended disorientation, try to draw some conclusions about what this may mean.  Of course, should the Trump ‘hard-nosed negotiator approach’ either bog down with North Korea (where it is quite possible that the Chinese do not share the US desire to see North Korea run up the ‘white flag’, and become disarmed, and wholly ‘docile’), or lead the US closer to real war with North Korea, it is possible that Trump may switch back to ‘peacemaker mode’.  That is to say, he may attempt to reverse (if not too many bridges have been burnt in the meantime).  Be sure, though, that if not entirely burned, the bridges are very badly fire-damaged – beyond, perhaps, that which is properly understood in Washington.

The first point – a simple statement of fact – is that if America does wish convincingly to project its image of strength globally, the Pentagon surely will insist on retaining its necklace of US military bases in the Gulf. The US will therefore, consequently, remain aligned to Saudi Arabia (and, of course, therefore, to Israel, with its own particular regional interests too).

The second point is that Saudi Arabia and its allies, naturally, will lever this US-Gulf-Israeli military and intelligence alignment against Iran – to the latter’s detriment: this will be exploited, further to deepen Irano-phobia within Washington, where both the Gulf and Israel command and fund extensive political ‘assets’.

The third sequela that flows from this Strong America ‘narrative’ is that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies will take advantage of their seemingly revived political status with the US Administration to fire-up (again) the Sunni rebellions in both Iraq and Syria, and to continue to pursue a humiliating defeat for the Houthis and AnsaAllah in Yemen. (They – the Houthis – must accept the solution as decreed by the United Nations, without equivocation, MbS reportedly told Mr Trump).  Political solutions in any of these states therefore, will not be available for the duration of this phase of politics: that is to say, until things, somehow change.

Finally, the Gulf partisan lobby in Europe and America, egged on by those John Brennan adherents who still lead the wholly politicised western intelligence services, will seek to re-instate regime-change as the policy for Syria (by fabricating further false allegations of Syrian government chemical weapon use). This campaign neatly combines the aims of the ‘Gulf partisans’ movement’ (and their Israeli allies) to weaken Iran – with those of the Cold War ‘contingent’ seeking to undermine President Putin, and to weaken Russia.  Iran and Russia will conclude that they have little alternative but to finish the war in Syria speedily, and to prevent America’s attempt to insert a Sunni-Wahhabi wedge between Iran and Syria (a wedge seen by western hawks as possessing additionally the merit of putting an end to any thoughts of an Iranian oil pipeline serving Europe, via Syria).

To repeat, all the above points simply flow, ipso facto, from the one single premise: that Trump wishes to project America as being ‘globally strong’ again – and the need therefore, to align with the Gulf. It is not clear that Team Trump thought through these sequellae, or that they had the intention to re-invigorate the neo-cons (which is what has been done). Rather, any thought of benefitting the neo-cons is unlikely. More probable is that the notion of ‘looking militarily strong’ seemed a natural enough concomitant to the President’s businessman-negotiator doctrine, and that the consequences were not thought through well enough.

Does this then portend a geo-strategic reversal in the Middle East, as the forces gather who seek President Assad’s head?  Probably not. In an interview with Adam Shatz of the London Review of Books (LRB), Professor Joshua Landis, inter alii, touched on the bigger reason why this will not happen:

LRB: … We haven’t spoken much about the Syrian people, except to say that, increasingly, Syrians see many of their co-nationals as no longer belonging to the same community, because the cleavages along sectarian lines have become so bitter and so lethal [Shatz is referring here to the jihadists in Syria being perceived by many Syrians, as absolute, irreconcilable enemies, and as ‘foreigners’]. And so, in a sense, one great question is: Who are the Syrian people? What will their future be? Will their future even be inside Syria…?

Landis: … That’s the million-dollar question. It’s very hard to see through this … to see into the future. You know, on the one hand, one can look at this as a major tectonic shift in identity and power in the northern Middle East, on a par to what happened in the twelfth century, when Shi’ite lords dominated much of northern Syria, and were a powerful element supported by Persia. The Mamluks, and then, following them, the Ottomans, changed that: they pushed out the Shi’ites, marginalised them – they became very impotent; and the Arab world became a Sunni world, led by the Ottoman Empire. Today, you could see something like the twelfth century coming back, with Shi’ites predominating in the north… But, you know, political power can be very enduring, if Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq all secure their alliance; and that means that Sunnis in Syria could [have to] live under this kind of a regime – a regime that’s backed by Iran – for a long time. If that happens, identities are likely to shift once again, to be plastic, and to be reworked. I don’t know how that happens, but that’s a possibility…

… the thing that frightens me, because of my seeing this as a great ‘sorting-out’, is that, if Saudi Arabia, and the US and others, continue to fund rebellion by the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria, they’re likely to get crushed, with the present disposition of power in the Middle East …”.

Landis touches on something important here, but it needs a little expansion. (Originally, Ismaili) Shi’ism dominated not just northern Syria, but a large part of northern Africa (including Egypt), stretching up to As-Sham (Greater Syria and the Levant). Yes, the Shi’a were subsequently slaughtered, repressed and marginalised during the centuries that followed. Many were forcibly converted to Sunnism.  But Shi’ism persisted in many places, against the odds.  Aleppo, for example, has been known until this day, as a historic seat of Shi’ism.

In Graham Fuller’s book sub-titled The Forgotten Muslims, he begins by saying, “to speak of the Shi’a of the Arab world is to raise a sensitive issue that most Muslims would rather not discuss. To some it is a nonexistent issue, but to many more it is simply best ignored because it raises disturbing questions about Arab society and politics and challenges deep-rooted assumptions about Arab history and identity. Sunnis by and large prefer to avoid the subject”. [Emphasis added].

But, between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than 100 million Shia, but only 30 million Sunni: “In political terms, the disparity is even greater, because the militarily powerful Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Syria, though Sunni by religion, are more frightened of Isis and extreme Sunni Arab jihadis, than they are of anybody else”.

In sum, the Saudi and Gulf claim to Sunni political and religious ‘rights’ over the northern Middle East – rights that have somehow lately been usurped by the Shi’a as Sunnis are apt to claim – is highly questionable, in terms of both sectarian adherence and historic identities. Furthermore, the (heterogeneous) Sunni Islam of the Levant is quite different to the ‘blow-in’ of Nejd Wahhabism (which is exclusivist) and only arrived in the Levant in the late 1940s. This huge difference explains how it is that the mainly Sunni army of the State of Syria, is fighting other Sunnis (Da’esh and al-Qaida/An-Nusra). They are fighting a Gulf imperialism seeking to establish a monopoly of ‘desert (Nejd) Islam’, the construct of Abd-el Wahhab which arose in the eighteenth century, but only took flight with the advent of the 1960s gush of petro-dollars. (Wahhabism is the only orientation of Islam that makes the claim to be the One True Islam).

Add to this history the present disposition of power in the Middle East: on the one hand, the security architecture encompassing Syria, Iran, Iraq, Hizballah, Russia and China (which provides training to the Syrian armed forces), and, on the other, Saudi Arabia mired in Yemen – and one can see why Professor Landis is likely right: “(Saudi Arabia, the US and others) are likely to get crushed, [given] the present disposition of power in the Middle East …”.

Only a decisive military intervention by President Trump might change this calculus, but I suspect that he has no intention to fight Russia in Syria – and that in time, this will become evident. It is a pity that Trump has started out on the wrong foot.

The US military still is a big stick, but were the President to be cornered by hawkish counsellors into having to use it, he will find only that he has succeeded in opening Pandora’s box. Its’ contents will be far from “beautiful” (as Trump described US missiles recently). In May 1951, after President Truman relieved him from command, MacArthur testified to Congress. He said: “The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20 million people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at the wreckage, and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited.”

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