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Britain is Wading into a Dangerous Sectarian Conflict

The British Government’s fawning on the absolute monarchs of the Gulf, whose authority is enforced by beheadings, lashings and the torture chamber, is at once contemptible and pathetic. It is a measure of Britain’s decline as a great power that it is only in tiny, toxic, sectarian Bahrain, where Sunni rulers suppress the Shia majority, that Theresa May can expect a regal reception.

May added her own few drops of venom to the raging sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shia in the region by targeting Iran. She said she was “clear-eyed” about the Iranian threat to an audience of largely fundamentalist Sunni Gulf leaders for whom the words “Iran” and “Shia” are demonic and interchangeable.

In Bahrain, the monarchy blamed the peaceful democratic uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011 on a deep-laid Iranian plot.

I spoke later the same year to doctors who had worked in a hospital in central Manama, the Bahraini capital, where they had treated injured protesters. After the demonstrations were crushed with the backing of Saudi troops, the doctors had been savagely tortured for using a complex piece of medical equipment that the Bahraini security forces had convinced themselves was the means by which Iran gave the protesters their instructions. It is this type of paranoia that May is feeding, though an independent inquiry found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the protest movement.

Downing Street’s rebuttal of Boris Johnson’s demonstrably correct view that Saudi Arabia wages “proxy wars” in the Middle East is equally mendacious. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have taken a leading role in funding and supplying weapons to extreme jihadi insurgents in Syria, as US leaders – including President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, supplemented by leaked documents – have made clear.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen, where airstrikes have devastated a country of 25 million people, differs only from its other interventions in that the Saudi role is overt and the suffering even more massive.

The humiliating and discreditable British posture in the Gulf is presumably a desperate attempt to find new allies in the run-up to Brexit. This might seem to be a good moment to do so, since the winners and losers in the wars that have engulfed Syria and Iraq over the last five years are becoming apparent. The only surprising aspect of the British initiative is that we seem, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be joining the losing side.

It is a moment of decision in Syria as the Syrian Army and its allies are close to overrunning east Aleppo, the last big urban enclave of the armed opposition. Their victory means that President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power, something that his many enemies were prone to discount until recently. Touchingly out of date with these developments on the battlefield, British policy remains that Assad must go before political progress is possible.

A similarly decisive moment has arrived in Iraq, though the security forces are making slower progress than in Aleppo in driving Isis from Mosul east of the Tigris River. Isis is deploying mobile squads of experienced fighters hidden in a vast network of tunnels backed up by hundreds of suicide bombers, snipers and mortar teams. The Iraqi security forces have lost almost 2,000 soldiers in November, according to the UN, but the superior firepower and numbers of the Iraqi government backed by the US-led air coalition are likely to overwhelm Isis in the long-run.

The victories of Assad and the Baghdad government will determine the political landscape of the Middle East for decades to come. The wars have been so long and so savage because Syria and Iraq have provided the battlefield on which more than half a dozen powers have fought out their differences. Since the second half of 2011, the advance and retreat of all sides in Syria has been determined by how much support they could get from their outside backers – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the insurgents and Russia, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah for Assad – in terms of men, money, arms, ammunition and airstrikes.

It is a regional war and its outcome will affect the whole area from Pakistan to Nigeria, as well as being a sectarian conflict, primarily but not exclusively between Sunni and Shia, which impacts on all the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

But how can we be sure that we are seeing a turning point in such a complex battle involving so many players with such divergent interests?

Isis and the armed opposition in Syria, led by Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly the al-Qaeda affiliate, fight quasi-guerrilla campaigns in which the loss or gain of territory does not necessarily tell one who is winning. The crucial change in the battle for east Aleppo is essentially political. Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the core fighting units have received little help, verbal or physical, from their former sponsors in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If these three did not support the rebels while they still held east Aleppo, it is unlikely that they will do so after the rebels have lost it.

The romantic image of heroic guerrillas standing alone anywhere in the world has always understated the degree to which they depend on outside powers. Possibly, the Turks and Saudis could sustain low level guerrilla warfare against Assad for a long time, but they would risk retaliation from victorious governments on the Shia side.

Foremost among the losers in this war are the Sunni Arab communities in Iraq and Syria, who have been defeated in their long struggle for power with the Shia and Kurds. Syrian exiles and their media sympathisers play down the sectarian and ethnic nature of the conflict, just as the Shia and Kurdish exiled opposition from Iraq did before the US-led invasion of 2003 in order to lure the US into overthrowing Saddam Hussein. “We are going to be the new Palestinians,” a young Sunni journalist from the city of Ramadi in Iraq lamented to me, shortly before 70 per cent his city was destroyed by US airstrikes and Iraqi Army artillery.

Iran is a winner in this historic conflict so far. It was the essential ally of Assad from 2011 to 2015, when Russia intervened militarily with its air force. The fear of extermination by Isis and al-Qaeda clones forced Shia communities together, including those with very different theologies. Overall, Iranian and Russian determination to support Assad was always deeper than that of the opposing alliance of Sunni states led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which replaced Qatar as the principal foreign backer of the Syrian insurgents in 2013.

Russia has re-established itself as a great power, if not a superpower, through the Syrian war. This was an ideal conflict for Moscow because Assad was always stronger and his domestic opponents weaker than they looked. President Putin did not have to deploy enormous resources to make a decisive difference. Though Putin is much demonised in the West, the enthusiasm of Western governments to get rid of Assad has ebbed steadily, as it became clear that the only alternative to him was Isis or Nusra.

Governments and public in the Middle East tend to exaggerate or understate American power in the region. In reality, the US position remains strong, with every Iraqi unit approaching Mosul including a US soldier calling in airstrikes while, behind the scenes, the US is orchestrating the logistics for the entire operation. In Syria, the US military alliance with the Kurdish paramilitaries has been highly effective in driving back Isis and closing the border with Turkey.

British officials and diplomats seem to lose their sense of what is achievable. Just over a year ago David Cameron announced that Britain was joining the war against Isis in Syria with all the brio of Henry V landing in France before the battle of Agincourt. The following nine months produced just 65 airstrikes by the RAF, which lacks identifiable targets and allies on the ground. As in Iraq in 2002, Afghanistan in 2006 and Libya in 2011, British high ambitions to be more influential in the Gulf will be thwarted by limited knowledge and inadequate resources.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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