The likely demise of ISIS is heat­ing up Mid­dle East con­flicts to dan­ger­ous lev­els, writes Paul Toohey

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - - NEWS -

IT WAS al­ways com­ing but the dis­trac­tion of three years fight­ing ISIS meant it was set aside. Now ISIS has all but fallen, ten­sions be­tween Mid­dle East na­tions are in­ten­si­fy­ing as never be­fore.

The fear is that proxy Sunni vs Shia bat­tles across the re­gion will trans­form into ma­jor wars, with Saudi Ara­bia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) the lead­ing con­tenders. Re­cent events, cen­tred in Saudi Ara­bia, have ex­posed the post-ISIS fault lines of the Mid­dle East. Anointed by his ail­ing fa­ther, King Sal­man, the pro-US and anti-Ira­nian Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man has con­sol­i­dated his power in a cor­rup­tion purge that has seen 11 princes among the hun­dreds ar­rested. He wants to cleanse Saudi’s im­age as a chau­vin­ist (he’s al­lowed women to drive cars) and cor­rupted ar­cane monar­chy, which took a belt­ing with the leak of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s emails.

One email cited Ms Clin­ton say­ing: “The Saudis have ex­ported more ex­treme ide­ol­ogy than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years.”

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is back­ing the new Crown Prince as both a mod­erniser and ab­so­lute ruler who will act in US in­ter­ests. In May, he signed an MOU for a $US350 bil­lion ($A456 bil­lion), 10-year deal to sup­ply the Saudis with mil­i­tary hard­ware for the se­cu­rity of Saudi Ara­bia and Gulf na­tions “in the face of ma­lign Ira­nian in­flu­ence and Ira­nian-re­lated threats”.

Last week­end, the en­tire Mid­dle East was set on edge after the Prime Min­is­ter of Le­banon, Saad Hariri, who was backed by Saudi Ara­bia, an­nounced his un­ex­pected res­ig­na­tion – not from Beirut but Riyadh, the Saudi cap­i­tal. He said he feared Iran would use Hezbol­lah, the true mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal force in Le­banon, to as­sas­si­nate him. Hezbol­lah is ac­cused of do­ing the same to his fa­ther, for­mer prime min­is­ter and ty­coon Rafik Hariri, whose mo­tor­cade was hit with an un­sur­viv­able blast in 2005.

Whether, as some claim, the Saudis forced Mr Hariri to re­sign to desta­bilise Le­banon and spark a war, or whether he truly be­lieved his life was at risk, Mr Hariri blamed Iran.

“Wher­ever Iran set­tles, it sows dis­cord, dev­as­ta­tion and de­struc­tion, proven by its in­ter­fer­ence in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of Arab coun­tries,” he said. “Iran’s hands in the re­gion will be cut off.”

Hezbol­lah and Iran ridiculed Mr Hariri, say­ing his

de­ci­sion to re­sign from Riyadh proved that Saudi Ara­bia was med­dling in Le­banon.

A short time later, a bal­lis­tic mis­sile was fired north from Ye­men and in­ter­cepted close to Riyadh’s in­ter­na­tional air­port by a Pa­triot mis­sile, with­out do­ing dam­age.

The Saudis de­clared it “an act of war” by Iran. It ac­cuses Iran of arm­ing the Houthis of Ye­men, the Shia rebels whom the Saudis have been fight­ing, with lit­tle suc­cess, from their south­ern bor­der since 2015. The Saudis claim Iran smug­gled the mis­sile into Ye­men; and in re­sponse block­aded all ac­cess, in­clud­ing aid, to the dis­ease and famine-rid­den coun­try, fear­ing more mis­siles could be se­creted in.

Iran’s For­eign Min­is­ter, Javad Zarif, de­nied in­volve­ment and ac­cused the Saudis of spread­ing cholera and killing thou­sands in Ye­men.

On Fri­day, in a fur­ther es­ca­la­tion, air strikes by a Saudi-led coali­tion re­port­edly left at least three civil­ians wounded in Sanaa.

An open war be­tween the Saudis and Iran is now thought pos­si­ble – partly be­cause no third party could me­di­ate a dis­pute based on ir­rec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences within Is­lam.

Such a war would ren­der the bat­tle against ISIS a sideshow.

The US would be forced to back the oil-rich Saudis, throw­ing Aus­tralia (if history is a guide) into a con­sum­ing re­gional war.

Although Vladimir Putin

and Mr Trump share some com­mon ground, the Rus­sian leader seeks con­trol­ling in­flu­ence in the re­gion. He sup­ports Iran’s deal to pur­sue peace­ful nu­clear power; the US leader does not trust Iran to re­frain from mak­ing nu­clear weapons.

In the mid­dle is war-weary Iraq, which feels more in­debted to Iran for com­ing to its early aid to de­feat ISIS than it does the US-led Coali­tion.

Iran now has a land cor­ri­dor run­ning through Iraq, Syria and down to Le­banon, mean­ing it can sup­ply Hezbol­lah with weapons and mili­tia at will.

Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, the Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter, re­cently ac­cused Iran, via Hezbol­lah, of build­ing guided mis­siles in un­der­ground fac­to­ries in Le­banon and Syria. “This is some­thing Is­rael can­not ac­cept,” he said. “This is some­thing the UN should not ac­cept.”

Is­raeli Hous­ing Min­is­ter Yoav Gal­lan said if Hezbol­lah “starts a war, we will send Le­banon back to the Stone Age.”

Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah said: “They do not have the cor­rect pic­ture about what is await­ing them if they go to the id­iocy of this war.”

The ex­pec­ta­tion is for an­other proxy war be­tween Is­rael and Hezbol­lah which could bloom into ma­jor con­flict. What would Rus­sia do, be­ing sym­pa­thetic to both Is­rael and Iran?

One Is­raeli an­a­lyst, Dmitry Adamsky, ar­gues Mr Putin is so cyn­i­cal he would “prob­a­bly let Hezbol­lah and Iran bleed”, while en­sur­ing (by se­cretly arm­ing Hezbol­lah) that Is­rael did not achieve out­right vic­tory. Thus, he could move in as peace­maker, fur­ther erod­ing Amer­ica’s stand­ing in the Mid­dle East.

CHAOS RULES: As ten­sions rise in the Mid­dle East with the likely demise of ISIS, (from left) Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man; Hezbol­lah fight­ers in An­bar; the de­stroye­droyed Syr­ian city of Raqqa; and fformer Le­banese PM Saad Hariri. i. Main...

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