by Roger Cohen
Events in the new Middle East, which is located in western Asia like the old Middle East, can seem confusing. In the belief that clarity leads to understanding, which in turn leads to good policy, here is a primer for the region.
1) The US invaded Iraq in 2003 because of its weapons of mass destruction program. However, Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion brought the Shiite majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East. This infuriated Sunni Saudi Arabia, America’s ally (in theory).
2) To redress the balance, the wealthy Saudi royal family backs Sunni Islamists in Syria against the country’s despot, Bashar al-Assad (who is from the quasi-Shiite Alawite sect), but at the same time is bankrolling the destruction of Sunni Islamists in Egypt. This wrong sort of Sunnis, known as the Muslim Brotherhood, commits the ultimate lèse-majesté of believing in the ballot box as a source of authority rather than royal lineage.
3) In the aftermath of the Arab Spring the three main Arab states — Egypt, Syria and Iraq — are in disarray. The Arab Spring happened three years ago. Several nasty despots were swept out. This event demonstrated that nobody controls the new Middle East: No nation could produce that much change that fast. The revolutions produced a vacuum. Sectarianism loves a vacuum. Sectarianism means looking out for your own and brutalizing the rest (see Egypt, Syria etc.).
The functioning or semi-functioning states in the Middle East are non-Arab: Israel, Turkey and Iran. Israel has been in a stop-go war with Arabs since 1948 over claims to the same land but is most angry with Iran, which is not Arab, not Sunni and not on its border.
4) Sunni-Shiite tensions have escalated through the Syrian war. They are now regional. The Sykes-Picot Middle Eastern order is in tatters. Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were dyspeptic European diplomats who drew lines on maps that became the borders of the modern Middle East.
5) Turkey backs the Sunni fighters battling to oust Assad in Syria. But it is close to Iran, which supports Assad against this very Sunni insurgency. The Turkish government is furious about a military coup in Egypt that in 2013 ousted a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president. The US declines to call this coup a coup.
6) Think of the Middle East as a huge arms bazaar. The US plans to sell Apache helicopters to the Shiite government of Iraq, with which to suppress Sunni revanchist stirrings, while the US is supporting the Sunnis against the Shiite-backed Assad in Syria.
7) Saudi Arabia thinks the US is not backing the Sunnis enough in Syria. The Saudis blame Iran for everything, including (but not limited to) unrest in Bahrain, the Arab Spring, terrorism and the melting of the polar ice cap. The Sunni Wahhabi Islamism trafficked by the Saudi royal family sees Zionism as its enemy. However, Saudi views are often identical to Israeli views.
8) Israel has a nuclear deterrent but tries to pretend it does not because if it did it could presumably deter Iran, which does not have a nuclear weapon. The US and Israel have agreed never to talk about the Jewish state’s alleged nuclear weapons.
9) Like the old Middle East the new Middle East has a cottage industry called the peace process. This involves Israelis, Palestinians and various mediators, principally the US. Palestinians are represented by the Palestinian Authority, an authority that has no authority over Palestinians in Gaza, no democratic legitimacy, and no obvious claim to represent anything but itself.
10) Iran is a theocracy. The supreme leader stands in for the hidden imam, who disappeared long ago but could show up any time. (Sunnis and Shiites had an inheritance wrangle after Muhammad’s death in 632, which led to a split. One thing they don’t agree about is the hidden imam.) Iran has something called a nuclear issue. The US and other powers have reached an interim nuclear accord with Iran opposed by Israel, Saudi Arabia, the largest American pro-Israel lobby, and many members of the U.S. Congress who have drafted a bill President Obama vows to veto that says America should “stand with Israel” and provide “diplomatic, military and economic support” to Israel if it goes to war with Iran, which it has been threatening to do for a very long time.