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Rise of ‘Shia crescent’ leaves Mideast rattled

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry
Published : Aug 4, 2017, 12:33 am IST
Updated : Aug 4, 2017, 12:33 am IST

The fact that Iran is working with the Russians in the Syrian theatre further pushes Iran away from the sensibilities of the West.

Islamic State fighters (Photo: AFP)
 Islamic State fighters (Photo: AFP)

The traditional Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been relegated to the background as a far more divisive undercurrent explodes within West Asia that dates back to the schism following the Prophet’s death and the subsequent disagreement on his successor. Today, the sectarian split in the Islamic world (ummah), translates into 85 per cent of the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide to be Sunnis, whereas the remaining are broadly Shias. The uncomfortable truce and living cheek-by-jowl in many countries flared up following the stunning Iranian Revolution in 1979, which suddenly galvanised latent Shia sentiments across the globe. Soon the theocratic Iranian regime assumed the extended moral guardianship for all Arab Shias, Turkic-speaking Azeri Shias, Shias in the Indian subcontinent, smaller Shia communities in Africa, besides their own Persian-speaking Shias.

Further, the unintended consequence of removing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq was the emergence of the third Shia-ruled country in Baghdad. This seemingly innocuous development in the “freedom” of Iraq from the dictatorial clutches of Saddam Hussein unleashed the pent-up frustrations within the Iraqi Shia majority, who saw themselves as historically suppressed by the previous Sunni-ruled regime of Saddam Hussein. Thereafter, the vacuum created by the ill-advised US-ordering of the dissolution of the erstwhile Iraqi Army in 2003 was soon filled up an equally regressive and sectarian tenure of the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014), that saw the vengeful new Shia-dominated governmental forces and the private Shia militias reciprocating the historically perceived injustices, thus laying foundation for the most virulent strain of militant Islam in the form of ISIS (or Daesh).

As the uber-puritanical and Sunni-supremacist ISIS furiously swallowed swathes of Sunni-dominated lands in the Iraqi-Syrian deserts, soon the retaliatory violence acquired a no-holds-barred dimension of open sectarianism. Expectedly, the Shia convergence of Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian forces joined hands and became the principal on-ground opponents of the ISIS “caliphate”. However, the festering sectarian faultlines in the extended region exploded at other places like Yemen (where the minority Shia-Houthi rebels stormed the capital Sanaa), in civil disturbances in Bahrain (where the restive Shia majority is ruled by the Sunni-monarchy), in Al Qatif in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia which hosts a minority Shia enclave, in the traditional stronghold of South Lebanon via the powerful Hezbollah etc. Suddenly all pretences of any other angularities like the anti-West, anti-Zionism or even anti-monarchies were thrown to the wind as the region got violently consumed by spectres of “Iranian footprint” asserting itself across West Asia.

By 2004, sensing the revival of the powerful sectarian winds, King Abdullah of Jordan propounded the controversial term, “Shia Crescent” — to describe an unbroken swath of crescent-shaped and Shia-dominated lands from the shores of Iran to the shores of Syria and Lebanon at the other end that cut across Iraq and Syria in an uninterrupted land mass of Shia influence. Adding momentum to the overall Iranian power was the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal, in the last days of the Barack Obama administration that unfroze billions of dollars of Iranian assets, besides ending the economically debilitating sanctions for Tehran.

The traditional regional powers like Saudi Arabia watched in horror as Shia influence started encroaching into the traditional Saudi-Arab zones of influence and Iran emerged as a viable counter-power to the Saudis in the region. Certain knee-jerk reactions like the controversial hanging of Shia cleric Nimr-al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, and the conceptualisation of the ostensibly “anti-terrorist” force of IMFAT could hardly belie the reality that all 39 countries that were part of this Saudi-led military alliance were Sunni-ruled countries, whereas, the three countries left out were the Shia trinity of Iran, Iraq and Syria. Suddenly, the underbelly of the Sunni-ruled countries like Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which hosted a substantial minority population of Shias, squirmed at the prospect of meeting existential challenges from three fronts. First, against the democratic fervour unleashed by the “Arab Spring” that threatened these autocratic monarchies or dictators; second, having to deal with their home-grown ultra-orthodox groups like ISIS or the myriad Al Qaeda affiliates that were turning against the regimes; and then the third and added dimension of having to deal with the restless and emboldened Shia population within.

Political correctness aside, the essentially sectarian term, “Shia Crescent” is slowly but surely taking shape with the Iranian-led forces defeating ISIS in Iraq and leading the fightback in Syria. In Lebanon, Hezbollah remains an undisputable and parallel force that routinely partakes military operation across the frontiers in Syria, on behalf of co-sectarian Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen, despite substantial military operations by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt, the Shia Houthis are the most dominant force and are retaining the capital, Sanaa. Ironically, the parallel intra-Arab feuds have also facilitated the drift of the Sunni-ruled Qatari state towards Iran, besides the tactical support given to the Palestinian Hamas by the Iranians. With both military and economic might and operational results of the Iranian forces in full display — the sectarian wounds and cleavage is becoming more painful and apparently irreconcilable. The Donald Trump administration has thrown its weight behind the Saudi-led bloc in a return to the anti-Iranianism that dominated US policies, before the Barack Obama tenure. The fact that Iran is working with the Russians in the Syrian theatre further pushes Iran away from the sensibilities of the West. In all, a radically different map with indelible watermarks of the politically-incorrect term, “Shia Crescent” is dawning over West Asia and an emerging Iran is now the latest disrupter of the existing power structures, by using the varied interpretations of Islam as instruments of aggressive foreign, economic and security policy. This sectarian divide — that pre-dates the modern concept of nation states — will soon start impacting the established global security, energy, trade and societal imperatives.

Tags: donald trump, shia communities, islamic state