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The Middle East’s own 30 Years War has just begun

17 June 2014

In January, Douglas Murray explained in The Spectator how relations in the Middle East were becoming increasingly tense. With northern Iraq now in turmoil, following the advance of Islamist militant group Isis, Douglas’s insight seems prescient.

Syria has fallen apart. Major cities in Iraq have fallen to al-Qa’eda. Egypt may have stabilised slightly after a counter-coup. But Lebanon is starting once again to fragment. Beneath all these facts — beneath all the explosions, exhortations and blood — certain themes are emerging.

Some years ago, before the Arab ‘Spring’ ever sprung, I remember asking one top security official about the region. What, I wondered, was their single biggest fear? The answer was striking and precise: ‘That the region will clarify.’ That is a fear which now appears to be coming true.

The Middle East is not simply falling apart. It is taking a different shape, along very clear lines — far older ones than those the western powers rudely imposed on the region nearly a century ago. Across the whole continent those borders are in the process of cracking and breaking. But while that happens the region’s two most ambitious centres of power — the house of Saud and the Ayatollahs in Iran — find themselves fighting each other not just for influence but even, perhaps, for survival.

A member of jihadist group Al-Nusra in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo Photo: AFP/Getty

A member of jihadist group Al-Nusra in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo Photo: AFP/Getty

The way in which what is going on in the Middle East has become a religious war has long been obvious. Just take this radio exchange, caught at the ground level earlier this month, between two foreign fighters in Syria, the first from al-Qa’eda’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS], the second from the Free Syrian army [FSA]. ‘You apostate infidels,’ says the first. ‘We’ve declared you to be “apostates”, you heretics. You don’t know Allah or His Prophet, you creature. What kind of Islam do you follow?’ To which the FSA fighter responds, ‘Why did you come here? Go fight Israel, brother.’ Only to be told, ‘Fighting apostates like you people takes precedence over fighting the Jews and the Christians. All imams concur on that.’

The religious propulsion of many of the fighters who have flooded into Syria in the three years of its civil war — 400 or more from Britain alone — is beyond doubt. From the outset this has been a confrontation inflamed by religious sectarianism. In the first stages of the Syrian conflict the Shia militia of Hezbollah were sent by their masters in Iran to fight on the side of Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad. But those of a different political and religious orientation made their own moves against this. Across Britain and Europe, not to mention the wider Middle East, many thousands of young men listened to the call of religious leaders like the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Asheik and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who last year declared that Hezbollah is in fact not the ‘army of God’, as its name almost suggests, but rather the ‘army of Satan.’ Sheikh Qaradawi declared that ‘every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that [must] make himself available’ for jihad in Syria.


It is perhaps inevitable that with the amount of regional influence at stake, and the quantity of natural resources, there would be numerous powers involved in trying to dictate the Syrian endgame. But as the country’s civil war has ground on and the region as a whole has started to fall into a maelstrom, there is not a party or country that has not been shocked by one particular new reality. That is the fact that what has hitherto been the most important global player has decided to take a back seat. When two major Iraqi cities fell to al-Qa’eda forces last week, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, expressed concern but stressed that for the Iraqi government this was now ‘their fight’.

One of the cities was Fallujah, the site of the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war, where 10,000 British and American troops fought to depose the Islamists. It is now back under jihadi control, with the black flag of al-Qa’eda proudly flying — and the West does not want to know. Although there are Syrian cities also now under al-Qa’eda control, the US and its allies remain unmoved over acting in that country either.

To an extent, what is happening in the Middle East is what happens when America and the West suddenly lose interest. But for the US, the reasons for that new lack of interest are obvious. With America soon predicted to attain energy independence, why should the country continue to involve itself deeply in a region which has cost it so much in blood, treasure and international reputation? Why should the US 5th Fleet continue to attempt to maintain regional security in a continent whose regional resources are increasingly rewarding nobody so much as the Communist Party of China?

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Armed Iraqi men stand guard near the home of Sunni Muslim MP Ahmed al-Alwani Photo: AFP/Getty

Armed Iraqi men stand guard near the home of Sunni Muslim MP Ahmed al-Alwani Photo: AFP/Getty

For the UK and other lesser western powers, declining involvement in the region is neither a moral nor an interest-based decision. It is simply a decision based on the fact — as the last decade has proved — that we no longer have either the cash or the commitment to effect any decent outcome in the region.

If this remains a reality which is too rarely admitted here at home, it was long ago scented in the winds of the region. And as the new reality dawned, it was inevitable that the various factions in Syria’s civil war would reach out to anybody in the region who shared their broadest goals. Vice versa, the regional powers ended up looking for anybody who could plausibly assist them with the means and methods to reach their own ends. And so it is that a Middle Eastern proxy-war which had already reached as far as Washington DC has found its way right back to the very doorsteps of the countries that were propelling it. And how a war of religion also become a war of good old-fashioned statecraft.

From the outset of the Syrian uprising, it was inevitable that Iran would weigh in on the side of its client in Damascus. Indeed, so desperate were the mullahs in Tehran to do everything they could to protect their own interests that they even put up with protests at home from people starved of basic supplies complaining about their own government pouring millions into Syria’s civil war.

But the next step was just as predictable. Saudi Arabia, which fears Iranian influence spreading any further than it has already throughout the region, began to back the opposition. Starting cautiously, in recent months that caution has retreated and Saudi is now supporting groups as close to al-Qa’eda-linked forces as to make little difference. Desperate measures, certainly. But for the Saudi leadership these are desperate times. Though it is a battle that has been brewing for decades.

Iraqi security guards on patrol Photo: Getty

Iraqi security guards on patrol Photo: Getty

There has always been the ongoing tension of Bahrain, which is under Saudi domination but which Iran seeks for itself. But then there is the quieter battle for influence in the Gulf states, which, while interventionist at times, quiver before the clashing of these bigger beasts. It was only as Syria fell apart and the regional powers were pulled inexorably into a more open battle, that the cold war between Iran and Saudi found its hot battleground.

There are those who think that the region as a whole may be starting to go through something similar to what Europe went through in the early 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out. This is a conflict which is not only bigger than al-Qa’eda and similar groups, but far bigger than any of us. It is one which will re-align not only the Middle East, but the religion of Islam.

Deir Ezzor, Syria, January 2014 Photo: AFP/Getty

Deir Ezzor, Syria, January 2014 Photo: AFP/Getty

There is a significant likelihood — as intra-Muslim sectarian tension has had fallout even in Britain and Europe — that this could be the case. Or perhaps the region is going to descend into a complex miasma of slaughter as surely as Europe did a century ago. Either way there will be a need for a Treaty of Westphalia-style solution — a redrawing of boundaries in a region where boundaries have been bursting for decades.

But for the time being, a distinct and timeless stand-off between two regional powers, with religious excuses and religiously affiliated proxies will in all probability remain the main driver of this conflict. Certainly the sides remain fundamentally irreconcilable. As one of Saudi Arabia’s most important figures, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said on a recent visit to London, ‘Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the birthplace of Islam. As such, it is the eminent leader of the wider Muslim world. Iran portrays itself as the leader of not just the minority Shiite world, but of all Muslim revolutionaries interested in standing up to the West.’


Anbar city of Fallujah, Iraq Photo: AFP/Getty

Anbar city of Fallujah, Iraq Photo: AFP/Getty

Prince Turki decried Iran’s ‘meddling’ and its ‘destabilising efforts in the countries with Shia majorities — Iraq and Bahrain — as well as in those countries with significant minority Shia communities such as Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen.’ As he said, ‘Saudi Arabia will oppose any and all of Iran’s actions in other countries, because it is Saudi Arabia’s position that Iran has no right to meddle in other nations’ internal affairs, especially those of Arab states.’

Saudi officials more recently called for the Iranian leadership to be summoned to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes. Then, just the month before last, as the P5+1 countries eased sanctions on Iran after arriving at an interim deal in Geneva, Saudi saw its greatest fear — a nuclear Iran — grow more likely. And in the immediate aftermath of the Geneva deal, Saudi sources darkly warned of the country now taking Iranian matters ‘into their own hands’. There are rumours that the Saudis would buy nuclear bombs ‘off the shelf’ from their friends in Pakistan if Iran ever reaches anything like the nuclear threshold. In that  case, this Westphalian solution could be prefaced with a mushroom cloud.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud Photo: Getty

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud    Photo: Getty

An unlikely scenario, perhaps. But this stand-off between Iran and Saudi has been full of unlikely scenarios. It is only two years ago that the Iranians attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The plan was thwarted only because the two suspects — an Iranian-American and an officer from Iran’s Quds Force — unwittingly connected with an informant from US Drug Enforcement Administration. Of course Iranian officials denied the assassination plot, but America’s attorney general, Eric Holder, announced at a press conference in Washington that the plot had been ‘directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds force which is an integral part of the Iranian government.’

The war between Saudi and Iran has already reached America’s shores. It has been devastatingly fought out across Syria’s wasted land. In fact the only place where it has yet to strike meaningfully is on the soil of the main protagonists. If what has been happening so far looks bloody, it is the work of an Armageddon-ist to consider what will happen when those gloves come off. In a region replete with bitter rivalries and irreconcilable ambitions, that will be perhaps the ultimate clarification.

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Show comments
  • jianfei

    Excellent Article, even more relevant in 2015! I totally agree this ‘clarification’ will occur.

  • max!

    Many of the muslims trying to move to the west themselves are tired of these dictators and their barbaric way of ruling. They just want a better life and when they see their own governments are busy in looting their country’s resources, migration to somewhere else seems the only way out. So banning immigration will just increase the problems of these moderate muslims who just happen to be born in bad countries at a bad time

  • Porkys2istan

    Iran would utterly destroy Saudi Arabia in a direct fight. The Saudis are the most pathetic people on earth. 25% of the population of Saudi Arabia are foreign workers, and the native Saudis are the ONLY people who rival Americans for rates of obesity and diabetes. The REAL population of Saudi Arabia is 25 millions while the real population of Iran is over 80 millions. Iran has a well developed domestic manufacturing base and trained scientists while Saudi Arabia has to import EVERYTHING, even oil workers and engineers.

    Without the west (America, Europe) defending them, Iran would overrun Saudi Arabia in less than a month. This is why the Saudis have installed ‘dirty bombs’ in all their oil fields so that if they are ever overrun they can contaminate all their oil supplies.

    The ONLY thing that would save Saudi Arabia from Iran is western intervention, and the only thing that would keep western armies out of Iran is the threat of nuclear retaliation.

  • Attorney

    This is all in the Bible. Christ will come back and destroy all ISLAM militants. We need to turn to the bible for answers and comfort.

    • Owlster

      Care to supply a citation Phony Lawyer?????

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    • Owlster

      Please cite the exact passage that states:Christ will come back and destroy all ISLAM militants.

    • Owlster

      Christ will come back and destroy all ISLAM militants.???

      Where is that written in the bible?

  • Dixie_Pixie

    Finally, a major news organization has realized there is a major Civil War ongoing within Islam.

    Except the Sunni vs Shiite Civil War started in 1980 with the Iran vs Iraq Persian Gulf War 1.
    It was when the Shiite upraising overthrew the Shah in Iran and Iraq attacked Iran to put down the Shiite threat to the Sunni minority in Iraq from the Shiite majority.
    The rise of the Shiite in Iran panicked the Sunni as they were and still are a challenge to Sunni Dominance of Islam.

    Since then the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia has been using American protection and gullibility to eliminate any rival to Wahhabi Saudi dominance of first Sunni Islam then all of Islam.
    The Saudi Strategic Plan was to first eliminate all secular Middle East Governments then take them over by Wahhabi infiltration until the Wahhabi control allows the formation of a Saudi Caliphate.
    After the Saudi Wahhabi consolidates their control of Islam then they will then wage war on the rest of the world to bring the World into submission of Islam under a Saudi Worldwide Caliphate.

    The Wahhabi Saudis using American armed and covert forces have eliminated or nullified Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Afghanistan leaving only Shiite Iran as an rival.
    To the Saudis there only remains the elimination of Iran as a threat to begin the Wahhabi consolidation of the Middle East.

    When the Saudi Wahhabi control of the Middle East is assured by the formation of the Saudi Caliphate then they will turn their attention to the Far Eastern Muslim Nations.

    In short the Muslim Sunni vs Shiite has been ongoing for over 34 years and is part of a much larger war being fought by the Saudi Wahhabi to conquer the World.
    The ISIS capture of North Western Iraq and Eastern Syria was a big step forward in the Saudi Strategic Plan.

  • boonteetan

    ISIS or ISIL, does it really matter? Whatever the name is, heinous slaughters keep perpetrating, with seemingly no end to it.

    It is perplexing. 1.4 billion Muslims (almost 80% Sunnis, 20% Shiites and others) do not wish to share the values of 5.7 billion non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and minor religious groups).

    Yet Sunnis and Shiites have been at odds for 14 centuries. They appear to be deliberately trying to exterminate each other, intensifying the killing in the past decade. Why? In what way could the rest of the world help?

  • Gergiev

    “There are those who think that the region as a whole may be starting to go through something similar to what Europe went through in the early 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out”

    The parallel with the european wars of religion appears obvious, but the european affair not only pitted Catholics against Protestants, but, respectively, absolutist against secularist. Thus there was a distinct political and class aspect to the conflict in 17th century europe which seems absent in today’s middle east. In europe the conflict was able to be resolved eventually (in most countries anyway) as the political and class aspects worked themselves out in a general tendency towards secularism, gradually re-positioning religious difference from the public sphere to the private and liberating the individual conscience from public obligation in regard to religious belief. Perhaps I am missing something, but I can’t see anything like this going vis-a-vis Shia and Sunni who just seem to want to kill each other in the interests of competing theocracies.

  • JustMike

    I’m all for letting them slug it out and hoping none are left standing. However…their aspirations are global…all this is just to work out which faction gets to direct the jihad. And in the meantime (30-50-100-1000 years?) they will not pass up the chance to take a large bite out of us if the opportunity arises. And the more chaos in the region, the greater liklihood of a (nuclear) opportunity arising. Just sayin…

  • GWB2000

    I think this article is spot on. The ramifications of this war between the Saudis/sunni and Iranian/shite will start with massive barbaric acts, drive up the cost of oil into the unforseen future and end in cities of glass when they both acquire nukes.

    Sad to say but nobody can help anyone that doesn’t want it. Stay out of it and let it come to it’s inevitable conclusion.

  • devan95

    And when Iran gets the bomb…?

    • GWB2000

      The Saudis said a while back that should Iran get the bomb, they will also acquire a bomb. They also said over the past few months when it was becoming clear to them that the US was bailing on them and dealing with the Iranians that they would take matters into their own hands. Enter isis.

  • rechill

    I’m beginning to think that a M.E. civil war which would devastate oil production in the region is exactly what is intended by the US facilitating this mess. Is it all an elaborate plan to push for “green” energy schemes and wage a War On Oil?

  • Chance Boudreaux

    Let them send themselves to Allah.

  • RJ Wagner

    Glad we’ve got a Secretary of State focused on important matters, like Global Warming. We are so screwed.

  • RecklessProcess

    Obama and the democrats are backing the radical Islamic jihadists and not the Saudis or Syria. That is horribly frightening. Obama has backed the Islamic Jihadists in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and now he has armed al Qaida in Iraq (intentional or not.)

    • Dixie_Pixie

      “…radical Islamic jihadists …” are being funded openly by the Saudis and Gulf Arabs.
      So who do you think is holding the puppet strings.

      The fiction the Jihadists want to overthrow the Saudi Government is a cover story to maintain American protection of Saudi Arabia.

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