New alliances, new wars

26 Nov 2017


HISTORY attests that the conclusion of military alliances often leads to military conflict. Indeed, alliances are often formed for the purpose of waging war. It is thus ominous that several new alliances, formal and informal, are emerging currently in various parts of the world.

In South Asia, America’s new alliance with India has emboldened the Modi government to adopt a more aggressive posture towards Pakistan. Under the American umbrella, New Delhi is engaged in the brutal suppression of the latest Kashmiri revolt and ceasefire violations along the LoC; it has threatened ‘surgical strikes’ and a ‘limited war’ and made military preparations for a ‘Cold Start’ surprise attack against Pakistan.

India is now part of the ‘Quad’ (the US, Japan, India and Australia), the Asian military group formed to counter China. The consequent overconfidence in New Delhi sparked the recent military stand-off with China at Doklam.

Each component of the Middle East matrix is extremely complex.

Other military ‘alliances’ have been formed in the Middle East recently, including the Iranian alliances with the governments of Iraq and Syria, and the Russian ‘alliance’ with Syria and Iran. These have produced visible military outcomes which remain to be sanctified by political agreements.

President Trump and his inner circle of advisers believe that they have devised a winning strategy to both reverse Iran’s growing influence in the region and realise peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The centrepiece of this strategy is a new informal alliance between the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is presumed that Saudi influence in the Arab and Sunni Muslim world can be used to challenge Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and persuade the Palestinians to negotiate a settlement with Israel that is acceptable to Israelis.

This strategy may have already produced some unintended consequences, such as the ‘isolation’ of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt; intensification of the war in Yemen, and fresh political turbulence in Lebanon.

Each component of the Middle East matrix — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, the Kurds, Yemen and Palestine — is extremely complex. The positions of the regional players are well entrenched. These will not be changed by the new US-initiated power configuration.

It is highly optimistic, and quite naive, to believe that the new alignment can produce a settlement of the century-old Palestine ‘problem’. The present hard-line Israeli government is unwilling to accept the creation of a ‘real’ Palestinian state or to halt its continued encroachment on Palestinian territory. Riyadh has been unable so far to convince President Mahmoud Abbas, much less the Hamas leadership, to open direct negotiations with Israel without its commitment to a two-state solution.

Iran is now the dominant power in Iraq. It was the Iranian-formed Shia militias (and the Kurdish peshmerga) which turned the tide against the militant Islamic State group. The Iraqi government maintains cordial relations with Washington; but it is pro-Iranian leaders, like ex-prime minister Jaafari, who call the shots in Baghdad. Sunni leaders and mavericks like Muqtada al-Sadr have been marginalised.

Moreover, the precipitate Kurdish ‘independence referendum’ in northern Iraq has coalesced the interests of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey against Kurdish separatism which is perceived to be supported by Israel.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has just won the civil war with active military support from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The Western and Saudi-/GCC-sponsored Sunni insurgency is in tatters. It will be difficult to alter the Syrian power equation now.

In Lebanon, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, is the dominant component of a fragile coalition between the country’s Shia, Sunni and Christian factions. Ham-handed attempts to destabilise this coalition could lead to another war between Israel and Hezbollah. Fortunately, neither side wants a war, at least at present.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been unable to dislodge the Houthi-led forces, despite a massive bombing campaign. The Houthis, no doubt with Tehran’s support, have escalated the conflict by the recent launch of the missile aimed at Riyadh. There is no military solution in Yemen; the war can be ended only through a political settlement.

It is the convergent desire of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia to intensify nuclear and missile constraints on Iran through further sanctions and possibly to scuttle the nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and the six major powers. If, in response, Iran resumes nuclear enrichment, the US and Israel may construe it as justification for a military strike against Iran. An attack on Iran will be hard to justify and likely to produce catastrophic consequences.

While the US-led coalition will find it difficult to reverse Iran’s entrenched positions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, or to justify military action against it, they may opt to destabilise Iran internally. A low-level insurgency has been under way for some time in Iran’s Baluchistan-Sistan province (as in Pakistani Balochistan). There are disaffected Azerbaijani, Kurdish and other groups which could be used for subversion and sabotage. The recent terrorist attacks in Iran may have been a precursor of such action.

However, Tehran is in a position to escalate reciprocal pressure on the members of this new alliance. Bahrain’s Sunni rulers are vulnerable to their Shia-majority opposition. If pushed further, Qatar could move closer to Iran and possibly disrupt the operation of US airbases there. Iran enjoys considerable influence in Afghanistan with the Shia Hazaras and Persian-speaking Tajiks and increasingly with the Afghan Taliban. It could, if it wished, severely destabilise the Kabul regime and exert military pressure on the US-Nato forces in Afghanistan. Israel could face missile and rocket attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia militias now present in Syria.

The heavy reliance on military force and coercion, especially by the US and some of its allies, is intensifying the conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It has created the danger of war in South Asia and on the Korean peninsula. It is time for the voices of reason and responsibility — in America, China, Russia, Europe and the Arab and Muslim world — to caution against militarism and demand strict adherence by all states, large and small, to the UN Charter’s central principle: the prohibition of the use or threat of use of force in international relations.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2017