The so-called “Arab Spring” protests began in January 2011 in Tunisia and soon spread like a wild contagion across North Africa into the Middle East. The first victim was Tunisia’s President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, quickly followed by Hosni Mubarak, the ossified Egyptian leader and one of the Arab world’s grand old men. Libya collapsed into civil war as rebel forces battled Moammar Quaddafi’s loyalists for control of the country. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded in an explosion and fled to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind him a country reeling from anti-regime demonstrations, a strengthening al-Qaeda presence, a Shia revolt in the north, and civil unrest in the south. When demonstrations began in Bahrain, the Kingdom’s desperate Sunni rulers turned to their Saudi neighbors for military assistance to put down the majority Shia protesters.
Syria, however, seemed to be the one country that would not succumb to the Arab Spring phenomenon. Assad appeared quite relaxed as he watched his counterparts fall and chaos engulf other countries. He even dispensed some advice to other leaders clinging to power, telling THE WALL STREET JOURNAL in early February that Syria was immune from popular rage because his regime was “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.”
However, Assad’s confidence was premature. In mid-March, demonstrations began in the southern town of Deraa and quickly spread. The regime sent in troops and security forces to crush the protests, but a rising death toll and countless reports of brutality and torture simply galvanized the opposition protest movement even more. As the weeks turned into months and the uprising showed no sign of diminishing, analysts began to ponder whether the Assad regime could possibly survive. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah could only wring their hands and watch helplessly as the future of a strategic alliance – the so-called Axis of Resistance – that has endured for three decades suddenly was cast into doubt.
Syria is the vital geo-strategic lynchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah. It grants Hezbollah strategic depth and political backing, and serves as a conduit for the transfer of heavy weapons across the rugged border with Lebanon. If Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime falls and is replaced by an administration better reflecting the majority Sunni population, Hezbollah’s stature in Lebanon inevitably will diminish, even if it remains the dominant political and military domestic actor.
– pgs. xv, xvi, Introduction, WARRIORS OF GOD, Nicholas Blanford, Random House, 2013
Shiism arose from the disputed succession from the Prophet Muhammad after his death in A.D. 632. Some of his followers believed that Mohammed’s successor, the Caliph, should be chosen by consensus. Others argued that the succession should follow through Mohammed’s family and that Ali, as the prophet’s son-in-law, was the rightful heir. The title of Caliph was bestowed initially upon Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s father-in-law and a close companion of the Prophet. Ali became the fourth Caliph, but for Ali’s supporters – the Shiat al-Ali, or Partisans of Ali – he was the first true Caliph, the beginning of a line of descendants known as Imams.
The “Twelver” Shia tradition holds that Ali was followed by eleven more Imams, the last of whom, Imam Mahdi, went into occultation to escape his oppressors. According to the Twelve Shias, the return of this last Imam, the “hidden Imam,” will lead to the end of the world and to their salvation. The Twelvers comprise the majority of Shia Muslims – including those of Lebanon and Iran.
When Shah Ismael I, the Safavid ruler of Iran, introduced Twelver Shiism as the state religion in the early sixteenth century, he turned to the scholars of Jabal Amil to help promulgate the new faith. (Jabal Amil is the hill country historically bordered by Sidon in the north, Mount Hermon in the east, upper Galilee in the south, and the Mediterranean in the west, where much of Lebanon’s Shia population lives.) Adopting Shiism was intended to stabilize the Shah’s new empire through a sense of religious kinship and to sharpen the front line against the rival Sunni Ottomans to the west. Dozens of leading scholars from villages in Jabal Amil and the Bekaa Valley traveled to Iran, settling there, marrying, learning Persian, and involving themselves in the rivalries and intrigues of the Safavid court. Thus began a linkage of families and learning between the Shias of the Levant and Iran that endures today.
Ironically, however, the very success of the Jabal Amil scholars in preaching Shiism in Safavid Iran shifted the center of the faith from the Arab world to the powerful Persian Empire. In the eyes of Arab Sunnis, Shiism, already deemed heretical, was further tainted with a Persian hue, and its adherents were considered potential agents for the non-Arab Persians. Indeed, Jabal Amil’s gradual decline as a center of Shia learning was due not only to the ascension of the Safavids as a Shia power, but also to Ottoman suspicions that the Shias living within their domain were a potential source of collaboration with their Persian enemies. Such suspicions prevail today, with Hezbollah dogged by accusations from some Sunni Muslims that it is a Trojan horse carrying Iran’s influence into the majority Sunni Arab Middle East.
– pgs. 8-10, ibid.
It is possible to think of a macro empire comprised of the United States, Canada, Great Britain and the European nations as organized in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance. This was what became known as the First World after World War II, the First World being an advanced, highly developed civilization which required huge amounts of gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum products to feed its wealthy economies. Apartheid South Africa and the new Israel (1948) were parts of the First World. So was post-World War II Japan.
Before 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Second World was basically a competing military alliance called the Warsaw Pact, led by Russia, which was a direct challenger to the United States for global hegemony, and featuring various Eastern European states such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, also East Germany, and so on.
The Third World was the rest of us, which is to say, the poor, un-industrialized nations of Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, most of South America, and so on, whose basic role was to provide raw materials for the factories of the First and Second Worlds.
There was a point, let us say in the 1970s, when the giant China made a move out of the ranks of the Third World into the higher “worlds.” Today, China has become a world power challenging for the aforementioned global hegemony.
Russia, which briefly collapsed in the 1990s, as the Warsaw Pact disintegrated, has re-emerged as a world force which will not take orders from the United States and NATO, and has committed to military and economic partnership with China.
There is an area of the world which the scholars began to refer to as the Middle East, where a large amount of the world’s oil fields are located. The Middle East features “desert kingdoms” like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Dubai, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and various nation-states which were designed by European powers after the fall of the Ottoman Empire early in the twentieth century. These include Iran, Iraq, Jordan (also a monarchy), Syria, Lebanon, and so on. Of these, Iran and Iraq are major oil producers, and Syria is strategically located where the conflicting, confrontational interests of the United States and Russia are concerned, hence Syria’s prominence in regional developments.
Massive transfers of wealth have taken place since World War II from the First and Second Worlds into the coffers of the oil producing nations of the Middle East, and thus it occurred that Saudi Arabia and Iran emerged as wealthy, Middle Eastern powers which view each other with extreme hostility. Saudi Arabia, a corrupt monarchy whose base constituency is Sunni Muslim, is an ally of the United States, whereas Iran, a theocracy whose base constituency is Shia Muslim, became a great enemy of the United States after the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, and has made Israel its primary target. Iran, for its part, is Saudi Arabia’s primary target. Israel, a military surrogate of the United States in the Middle East, receives more military assistance annually from Washington than any other Middle Eastern state.
Saudi Arabia controls mind boggling wealth, and its Sunni Muslim allies include Jordan and Pakistan, a nuclear power. Iran, for its part, is friendly with the Alawite (Shia) regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and helps to finance Hezbollah, a Shia group in Lebanon which has been confronting Israel militarily over the past three decades.
Where things get confusing is in Iraq, which, even though their population was majority Shia Muslim, was led by a Sunni Muslim dictator named Saddam Hussein, who waged war against Shia Iran from 1980 to 1988. But Saddam became too big for his britches and invaded Kuwait in 1990. He was forcefully ousted from Kuwait by an alliance led by the United States, and then the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, overthrew and executed Hussein, and installed a “democracy” which was dominated by the majority Shia Muslims of Iraq. This American-installed Shia government became friendly with Shia Iran, thus provoking the wrath of Sunni Saudi Arabia, which is, paradoxically, the United States’ richest ally in the Middle East, and which has sworn to acquire nuclear capability from Pakistan if Iran ever becomes a nuclear power.
When the United States-led NATO decided to reduce Syria to the ranks of the victims of the so-called Arab Spring, a regional phenomenon which had overthrown regimes in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya, and NATO encouraged rebellion in Syria, Russia’s interests compelled Vladimir Putin to come to the support of the Assad government in Syria. The terror group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a radical Sunni Muslim group which is financed and supported by Sunni Saudi Arabia. Within the last few weeks, ISIS has bombed a Russian airliner out of the skies, attacked the Hezbollah security zone in south Beirut in Lebanon, and wreaked havoc on the fabled French capital of Paris. ISIS had previously conquered large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. The situation has become such that, apart from the automatic galvanizing and mobilizing of the NATO European nations, Saudi-financed ISIS has actually brought the Russians and the Americans to the negotiating table seeking military unity against the ISIS threat.
King Abdullah of Jordan, a long-time American ally in the Middle East, a few days ago described the violence raging in the region as a war going on within Islam. It is that, but the ISIS phenomenon is also the product of the sometimes conflicting interests of the United States and NATO, on the one hand, and the interests of Saudi Arabia and its vassal states, on the other. The Sunni Muslim Arab kingdoms, made unbelievably wealthy by their Western oil customers, have found they have to play regional revolutionary (read “anti-Israel”) games from time to time in order to satisfy their militant Muslim bases. Saudi Arabia itself produced Osama bin Laden and the vast majority of the 9/11 airline hijackers who took down New York’s World Trade Center in 2001 and terrified hundreds of millions of United States citizens and residents for several hours.
This is a delicate and dangerous subject we have taken on in this editorial. It should properly be dealt with by Belize’s professional academics. The terror groups spawned by the volatile political, economic, military and religious issues in the Middle East have demonstrated that they have the capacity to reach anywhere in the world to send their messages of violence and death. Belize’s tertiary level institutions should be leading the way insofar as educating the people of Belize on these critical matters. When it comes to empire and terror, ignorance, we submit, is definitely not bliss.
Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie. Fight for Belize.