TCS Daily

Not Such Strange Bedfellows

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - January 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Recently, Professor Michael Scott Doran, who specializes in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, wrote this essay in Foreign Affairs on the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia. It included the following very interesting observation:

. . . Radical Sunni Islamists hate Shi`ites more than any other group, including Jews and Christians. Al-Qaeda's basic credo minces no words on the subject: "We believe that the Shi`ite heretics are a sect of idolatry and apostasy, and that they are the most evil creatures under the heavens." For its part, the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment expresses similar views. The fatwas, sermons, and statements of established Saudi clerics uniformly denounce Shi`ite belief and practice. A recent fatwa by Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, a respected professor at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University (which trains official clerics), is a case in point. Asked whether it was permissible for Sunnis to launch a jihad against Shi`ites, al-Barrak answered that if the Shi`ites in a Sunni-dominated country insisted on practicing their religion openly, then yes, the Sunni state had no choice but to wage war on them. Al-Barrak's answer, it is worth noting, assumes that the Shi`ites are not Muslims at all.

It's certainly a surprising commentary on the level of hatred for Shi'ite Muslims that Shi'ites are disliked by those who make up the ideological basis of al Qaeda even more than Jews and Christians are. And yet, as we know, al Qaeda operatives are found and harbored by the Islamic regime in Iran -- a country that is overwhelmingly Shi'ite. Iran has consistently refused to turn over al Qaeda members in its country to the United States.

Now consider this Los Angeles Times story, which informs us that between 2000-2003, banned weapons flowed from Syria to the former Ba'athist regime in Iraq. The company selling the arms is headed by a cousin of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and sent ballistic and anti-aircraft missiles, artillery, various spare parts, and nerve agent antidotes, among other things, to Iraq. This despite the fact that Syria was part of the coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War, and despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was long a major rival of Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, who was President of Syria when the arms sales were occurring, and who competed with Saddam for leadership of the Ba'athist party -- which is the dominant party in Syria, as it was in Iraq.

In analyzing the players in the War on Terrorism, we are regularly and repeatedly assured that certain groups cannot, and will not ever work with one another. Primarily, we are informed that pan-Arab secular nationalists will not ever work with Islamic fundamentalist movements, and that we should almost not even consider possibilities to the contrary. It would come as no surprise whatsoever to find similar statements assuring us that because certain pan-Arab leaders hated one another, they could never work with one another, or that certain theological groups could not ever get along.

But the above two examples demonstrate the fallacy of this generalization. In reality, Wahhabi-dominated al Qaeda appears to be using Iran as a safe harbor for its members. In reality, Ba'athist rivals and bitter foes make common cause in augmenting the military power of their respective nations. In reality, despite the fact that Iran and Iraq fought a bitter eight-year war, the former took a public stance against having war waged against the latter in 2003.

And what's more, none of this should surprise us. After all, the United States has entered into alliances with strange bedfellows in the past. Before the Cold War settled onto the geopolitical landscape, we -- along with Great Britain -- were strongly allied with the Soviet Union in World War II. Because we feared Islamic fundamentalism more than pan-Arab nationalism in the 1980s, we backed Iraq in its war with Iran. And despite the fact that Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization backed Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War, right after the war ended, the United States sought Jordanian and PLO support for the Madrid Middle East peace talks. Indeed, Jordan and the PLO were major players in the Madrid conference.

There is, of course, a very logical explanation as to why pan-Arab rivals and divergent strains of fundamentalist Islam -- among others -- cooperate with one another on certain issues. The defensive realist school of international relations predicts that nation-states will ally together to balance against a regional hegemon. While realist theory primarily focuses on the behavior of nation-states, it is by no means unreasonable to think that non-state actors will ally with one another in a manner similar to what nation-states do when confronted by a hegemonic competitor.

So it appears to be among various groups and nation-states in the Middle East. The regional hegemon they fear is the United States, which since 1990 has been able to project power in the region through its troop deployments -- first in Saudi Arabia, and now, with the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, in Iraq as well. It has long been the policy of al Qaeda to oust the U.S. from the region, and the regimes in both Syria and Iran must surely fear that American forces could bring about their downfalls, just as they brought about Saddam's. As such, we should not be surprised if the Alawite regime in Syria, the Shi'ite theocracy in Iran, and the Wahhabi fundamentalists in al Qaeda cooperate on specified issues to weaken and undermine the U.S. presence in the Middle East. While there may be doctrinal differences between the Alawites, Shi'ites, and Wahhabis that may make them implausible allies at first blush, the issue that unites them -- hatred and fear of American regional hegemony -- will likely more than make up for those differences.

Our analysis of the Middle Eastern chessboard should be more dynamic than it currently is. Too often, we employ superficial generalizations and fallacies in determining how regional alliance structures will develop. While it is important to pay attention to the doctrinal differences between various states and groups in the Middle East, we should bear in mind as well that alliances among rogue states and organizations develop because of their hatred and fear of American hegemony. The sooner we realize this fact, the more successful the United States will be at disrupting alliances that mean us ill, and preventing terrorist plans and operations from coming to fruition.


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