Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Looming Sunni-Shi'ite War?

Just heard a worrisome report on Hardball - Chris Mathews was interviewing former CIA Agent Bob Baer who, despite the shambles of a movie George Clooney turned his book into, still has insightful comments and a deep knowledge of the Middle East.

Apparently - and this I didn't know - several members of the new, America approved, current Iraq government spent some of thire years in exile from Iraq in Lebanon, with Hizb'allah. Which is why their ties are quite close. And also would account for the fact that PM Maliki of Iraq, a Shiite Arab whose party has close ties to Iran, denounced Israel yesterday.

Baer also talked about the Shi'ite arc, from Iran, through Iraq, through parts of Syria (the Alawite minority part - the nationality of Bashir Assad), through to Lebanon. And the fear that this arc will erupt is driving a great deal of the politics in the ME right now. Thus, the Saudi fatwa against Hizb'allah.

Baer proposed that if it emerges,"World War III" will be driven by a rift between Shi'ite and Sunni Moslems. And mentioned, in passing, that Sunni's he knows in Damascus are now beginning to leave.

Couple that with these thoughts from Lebanon.Profile @ Lebanese Political Journal about the feeling in Syria right now, where he's writing from exile, and it's an uncomfortable round of speculation.
Everyone is packing on weight. The stress response is to put on weight. Your body doesn't know when it will eat again. Everyone is consuming mass quantities. And we're all gaining weight. Our health is slowly deteriorating. Our mental health is worse.

We are all shocked. All of this toasting and eating, like much of Beirut's nightlife and fashion scene, is superficial cover-up for all of the internal scars. Champagne, wine, cars, and jokes do not make up for the loss of lives of family and friends, the loss of property, the loss of one's country.

The Syrians have made our stay wonderful. But of course they should be welcoming. We're reviving their distraught economy. Nothing could be better for Syria and Iran right now. Iranian President Ahmadinejad is in Damascus having meetings with President Assad. Contrary to international opinion, they have come out on top. The war against Hezbollah has destroyed the Middle East's most pro-Western country, while empowering the nations that work against Western interests. Now, President Bush is asking Secretary General Annan to ask Syria for help resolving the crisis. The Syrians are in a power position. Iran's nuclear program goes on. Lebanon crumbles.

[scroll at his site for related articles]
Is everything that Lebanon.Profile reports true? He's an honest reporter of events, so it is certainly true that this is the feeling in Syria at the moment as he gauges it - whether it proves true, or maintains itself, in the longrun or not. It could also be the prodct of the mental and emotional fog of war.

Or, the crumbling of prosperous, pro-Democrat Lebanon may represent a crumbling of what could have been a very important bulwark against the Islamist night that will never be built up again in quite the right way.

Still, as Mark Steyn noted, in a humorous opening, only a few months ago:
Do you worry? You look like you do. Worrying is the way the responsible citizen of an advanced society demonstrates his virtue: He feels good by feeling bad.
By that measure, I seem to be fulfilling my quotient of responsibility, of late days.

Israel may yet succeed with Hizb'allah in Lebanon. Or it may go partway and then stop. And one way or another, it is impossible to see, down the road, what will be the outcome of its policy either way. For good or for evil. Even if it's intentions are good. Just as Reagan never could have foretold what would come from his failure to pursue the precursors of Hizb'allah, who blew up the Marines, stationed in Beirut.

So, while I don't share the set of assumptions of Harold Meyerson, in this column, about the guns of July, nor his political world view by any means, I think he is asking a valid question.
I wonder if this is how the summer of 1914 felt?

Then, you will recall, the assassination of the Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist terrorist provided the senescent Austro-Hungarian Empire the excuse it had been looking for to wipe out the Serbian nationalists, which provoked the pan-Slavic nationalists at work for the czar to threaten the Austro-Hungarians with destruction, which led Germany's Kaiser to pledge retaliatory war against Russia, which prompted the French, who had an anti-German alliance with Russia, to begin mobilization. . . . Nobody wanted global conflagration, yet nobody knew how to stop it...

I review this familiar history for those of us (myself included) who've been wondering how the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers (and the killing of eight others in the Hezbollah raid) has escalated in less than a week to what may be the brink of a cataclysmic regional war with ghastly global implications.
I don't see anything developing at anything like that speed. But, I must admit, this is a future outcome that is possible. And if we are led there, it will be through a series of unintended consequences.

The detritus of war becoming its mainstay.


**********

UPDATE: Here's the transcript of the Bob Baer interview I referred to above:
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Bob Baer has been to Tehran and all over the Middle East. He‘s a former CIA operative and author of “Blow the House Down.” Bob, over all, what‘s the threat from this war to the United States?

BOB BAER, FMR CIA OPERATIVE: The threat is right now ideological.

Islam against the west, particularly the United States and Israel. Remember, that Beirut, 1982, is when Hezbollah started. It‘s the basis of bin Laden‘s hate toward the United States, so a civil war or a continuing war in Lebanon is going to do us no good in the long run.

MATTHEWS: Why not?

BAER: Well, you‘re going to get a lot of people that are angry and out to take revenge. It may take 10 years for them to do it. It may 20 years. It happened with bin Laden. Secondly Hezbollah could turn to terrorism. We don‘t see that right now because it would take an order from Iran to do it. Hezbollah is a very disciplined organization and it looks to the spiritual leadership in Tehran before it does anything.

MATTHEWS: Well, you say that—and certainly it‘s on the record that what spurred the creation of al Qaeda, which hit us on 9/11, was keeping our 10,000 troops in the holy land of Saudi Arabia, the sacred ground of Islam, in a way that showed contempt or indifference to their religious concerns. Do you believe that the blowing up of all the infrastructure in Lebanon is going to create the same kind of anomies?

BAER: Equally, because bin Laden has gone on the record and said that he considered running airplanes into buildings or attacking the United States, an American city, after watching the bombardment of Beirut in 1982, and that‘s what‘s happening today.

Obviously, the Israelis have known that we‘d expect that this would happen almost 20 years later, that we would be attacked for that bombardment which we had nothing to do, but this is the sort of consequence that comes out of warfare and bloodshed in the Middle East.

MATTHEWS: Well, that‘s, of course, historic. We can tell that from every war in history. Every time there‘s bloodshed and occupation and killing of people, eventually the occupied country gets even.

Let me ask you about this strange thing we‘re facing now with the Shia branch of Islam against the Sunni branch. In effect, we‘ve helped Iran build up more strength in the region because it‘s able to now enjoy the leverage they have with the majority in Iraq that they didn‘t have before.

Are they also going to have leverage through the use of Hezbollah? Have we basically put the Shia, the more militant groups of Shia, into the driver‘s seat in the Middle East?

BAER: Absolutely. And this is—you know, what happened when we invaded Iraq was we essentially turned the country over to radical Shia, and the leadership in Baghdad is radical Shia. I know most of these guys. In the ‘90s, they took refuge in the southern suburbs of Beirut, with Hezbollah. There‘s a close connection between the government in Baghdad and Hezbollah.

And what we‘re seeing now is the development of a radical Shia arc, which goes from Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut now, which is what has the Sunni—and that‘s Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf and Egypt and Jordan—so worried, and this is why they‘ve come out against Hezbollah.

MATTHEWS: You know, I‘ve heard that from the mouth of one of the leaders of one of those Sunni countries. As you just describe it is the wave he described it, the fear of an emerging Shia crescent across all the Middle East.

The Sunni governments which tend to be moderate are now being overwhelmed by something we may have had a hand in triggering, the continuity now from Tehran, through Baghdad, down through Beirut. We may have created our worst enemy. Do you believe that?

BAER: Chris, this is a catastrophe, Iraq, and this is going to go on for years. Iraq is going to change us. We‘re not going to change Iraq. I got calls from Damascus just before I got on the phone with you, and the Sunni are worried. They‘re leaving Damascus, afraid that this war in Lebanon is going to spread to Syria, and they‘re going to pay the Sunni. You know, they‘re going to flee to the Gulf, wherever they can.

The division between the Shia and the Sunni in the Middle East is our greatest threat to the United States. When people talk about World War III, it‘s not a traditional war against us from nuclear bombs or anything, it‘s from the split that will lead to a regional war which will ultimately and I repeat—will affect oil supplies.

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