A WAR TO MAKE ISIS BATTLE A SIDESHOW
The likely demise of ISIS is heating up Middle East conflicts to dangerous levels, writes Paul Toohey
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 picture: Gabriel Chaim