The Great Game of Radical Narrative Change (and its Drawbacks) by Alastair Crooke

 It is clearer now: Trump seeks radical ‘narrative metamorphosis’. No more shall America be perceived as ‘weak'. America shall be ‘strong'. US rhetoric against North Korea, Russia and Iran, again is larded with ultimata – and is stridently bellicose. Plainly, the US rhetoric, per se, has done wonders for the US President’s domestic poll ratings, and may help unblock Congressional doors for his crucial domestic budgetary endeavours.  (It is not so certain however, whether these high favourability ratings would prove so durable should the ‘Tough America’ tactic lead to actual war).

How much the bellicosities are directed internally towards US public opinion – and are Trump’s demonstration of the merits of businessman-negotiator’s bluff at work – is not clear?  Neither is it clear how much the threats are intended to be militarily executed, should his ‘negotiator’s bluff’ be called.  Plainly, if the bluff is called, America will be perceived to be hollow – and will be weakened. Nor is it clear, how much ‘the threats’ will actually ‘give peace a chance’.  The threats may only paint the new Administration into rigid binary positions that otherwise the Trump Team would not wish to hold.  All that, remains to be seen.

The Middle East however, is more familiar than other regions with this old Israeli strategy: ‘The boss has gone nuts! Watch out: Anything may happen: For goodness sake, placate him quickly’.  Often, the Israeli version of the ‘boss has gone nuts’ was proved to be no more than theatrical bluff.  Certainly, Iran has seen through these ploys, and simply does not believe them now.  In a sense, Israel has already devalued this currency.

The Trumpist ‘narrative metamorphosis’ tack, as transient as it may prove to be, will however directly impact and shape the Middle East — at least for the time being. But at last, we can, after a period of extended disorientation, try to draw some conclusions about what this may mean.  Of course, should the Trump ‘hard-nosed negotiator approach’ either bog down with North Korea (where it is quite possible that the Chinese do not share the US desire to see North Korea run up the ‘white flag’, and become disarmed, and wholly ‘docile’), or lead the US closer to real war with North Korea, it is possible that Trump may switch back to ‘peacemaker mode’.  That is to say, he may attempt to reverse (if not too many bridges have been burnt in the meantime).  Be sure, though, that if not entirely burned, the bridges are very badly fire-damaged – beyond, perhaps, that which is properly understood in Washington.

The first point – a simple statement of fact – is that if America does wish convincingly to project its image of strength globally, the Pentagon surely will insist on retaining its necklace of US military bases in the Gulf. The US will therefore, consequently, remain aligned to Saudi Arabia (and, of course, therefore, to Israel, with its own particular regional interests too).

The second point is that Saudi Arabia and its allies, naturally, will lever this US-Gulf-Israeli military and intelligence alignment against Iran – to the latter’s detriment: this will be exploited, further to deepen Irano-phobia within Washington, where both the Gulf and Israel command and fund extensive political ‘assets’.

The third sequela that flows from this Strong America ‘narrative’ is that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies will take advantage of their seemingly revived political status with the US Administration to fire-up (again) the Sunni rebellions in both Iraq and Syria, and to continue to pursue a humiliating defeat for the Houthis and AnsaAllah in Yemen. (They – the Houthis – must accept the solution as decreed by the United Nations, without equivocation, MbS reportedly told Mr Trump).  Political solutions in any of these states therefore, will not be available for the duration of this phase of politics: that is to say, until things, somehow change.

Finally, the Gulf partisan lobby in Europe and America, egged on by those John Brennan adherents who still lead the wholly politicised western intelligence services, will seek to re-instate regime-change as the policy for Syria (by fabricating further false allegations of Syrian government chemical weapon use). This campaign neatly combines the aims of the ‘Gulf partisans’ movement’ (and their Israeli allies) to weaken Iran – with those of the Cold War ‘contingent’ seeking to undermine President Putin, and to weaken Russia.  Iran and Russia will conclude that they have little alternative but to finish the war in Syria speedily, and to prevent America’s attempt to insert a Sunni-Wahhabi wedge between Iran and Syria (a wedge seen by western hawks as possessing additionally the merit of putting an end to any thoughts of an Iranian oil pipeline serving Europe, via Syria).

To repeat, all the above points simply flow, ipso facto, from the one single premise: that Trump wishes to project America as being ‘globally strong’ again – and the need therefore, to align with the Gulf. It is not clear that Team Trump thought through these sequellae, or that they had the intention to re-invigorate the neo-cons (which is what has been done). Rather, any thought of benefitting the neo-cons is unlikely. More probable is that the notion of ‘looking militarily strong’ seemed a natural enough concomitant to the President’s businessman-negotiator doctrine, and that the consequences were not thought through well enough.

Does this then portend a geo-strategic reversal in the Middle East, as the forces gather who seek President Assad’s head?  Probably not. In an interview with Adam Shatz of the London Review of Books (LRB), Professor Joshua Landis, inter alii, touched on the bigger reason why this will not happen:

LRB: … We haven’t spoken much about the Syrian people, except to say that, increasingly, Syrians see many of their co-nationals as no longer belonging to the same community, because the cleavages along sectarian lines have become so bitter and so lethal [Shatz is referring here to the jihadists in Syria being perceived by many Syrians, as absolute, irreconcilable enemies, and as ‘foreigners’]. And so, in a sense, one great question is: Who are the Syrian people? What will their future be? Will their future even be inside Syria…?

Landis: … That’s the million-dollar question. It’s very hard to see through this … to see into the future. You know, on the one hand, one can look at this as a major tectonic shift in identity and power in the northern Middle East, on a par to what happened in the twelfth century, when Shi’ite lords dominated much of northern Syria, and were a powerful element supported by Persia. The Mamluks, and then, following them, the Ottomans, changed that: they pushed out the Shi’ites, marginalised them – they became very impotent; and the Arab world became a Sunni world, led by the Ottoman Empire. Today, you could see something like the twelfth century coming back, with Shi’ites predominating in the north… But, you know, political power can be very enduring, if Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq all secure their alliance; and that means that Sunnis in Syria could [have to] live under this kind of a regime – a regime that’s backed by Iran – for a long time. If that happens, identities are likely to shift once again, to be plastic, and to be reworked. I don’t know how that happens, but that’s a possibility…

… the thing that frightens me, because of my seeing this as a great ‘sorting-out’, is that, if Saudi Arabia, and the US and others, continue to fund rebellion by the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria, they’re likely to get crushed, with the present disposition of power in the Middle East …”.

Landis touches on something important here, but it needs a little expansion. (Originally, Ismaili) Shi’ism dominated not just northern Syria, but a large part of northern Africa (including Egypt), stretching up to As-Sham (Greater Syria and the Levant). Yes, the Shi’a were subsequently slaughtered, repressed and marginalised during the centuries that followed. Many were forcibly converted to Sunnism.  But Shi’ism persisted in many places, against the odds.  Aleppo, for example, has been known until this day, as a historic seat of Shi’ism.

In Graham Fuller’s book sub-titled The Forgotten Muslims, he begins by saying, “to speak of the Shi'a of the Arab world is to raise a sensitive issue that most Muslims would rather not discuss. To some it is a nonexistent issue, but to many more it is simply best ignored because it raises disturbing questions about Arab society and politics and challenges deep-rooted assumptions about Arab history and identity. Sunnis by and large prefer to avoid the subject”. [Emphasis added].

But, between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than 100 million Shia, but only 30 million Sunni: “In political terms, the disparity is even greater, because the militarily powerful Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Syria, though Sunni by religion, are more frightened of Isis and extreme Sunni Arab jihadis, than they are of anybody else”. 

In sum, the Saudi and Gulf claim to Sunni political and religious ‘rights’ over the northern Middle East – rights that have somehow lately been usurped by the Shi’a as Sunnis are apt to claim – is highly questionable, in terms of both sectarian adherence and historic identities. Furthermore, the (heterogeneous) Sunni Islam of the Levant is quite different to the ‘blow-in’ of Nejd Wahhabism (which is exclusivist) and only arrived in the Levant in the late 1940s. This huge difference explains how it is that the mainly Sunni army of the State of Syria, is fighting other Sunnis (Da’esh and al-Qaida/An-Nusra). They are fighting a Gulf imperialism seeking to establish a monopoly of ‘desert (Nejd) Islam’, the construct of Abd-el Wahhab which arose in the eighteenth century, but only took flight with the advent of the 1960s gush of petro-dollars. (Wahhabism is the only orientation of Islam that makes the claim to be the One True Islam).

Add to this history the present disposition of power in the Middle East: on the one hand, the security architecture encompassing Syria, Iran, Iraq, Hizballah, Russia and China (which provides training to the Syrian armed forces), and, on the other, Saudi Arabia mired in Yemen – and one can see why Professor Landis is likely right: “(Saudi Arabia, the US and others) are likely to get crushed, [given] the present disposition of power in the Middle East …”.

Only a decisive military intervention by President Trump might change this calculus, but I suspect that he has no intention to fight Russia in Syria – and that in time, this will become evident. It is a pity that Trump has started out on the wrong foot.

The US military still is a big stick, but were the President to be cornered by hawkish counsellors into having to use it, he will find only that he has succeeded in opening Pandora’s box. Its’ contents will be far from “beautiful” (as Trump described US missiles recently). In May 1951, after President Truman relieved him from command, MacArthur testified to Congress. He said: “The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20 million people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at the wreckage, and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited.”

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20 Responses to The Great Game of Radical Narrative Change (and its Drawbacks) by Alastair Crooke

  1. A highly interesting post. Fundamentally correct that the Sunni/Shia split now if not before in MENA drives the politics of that region. I would like to believe SECULARISM a third force but that is dreaming.
    The President’s campaign guess that MENA a no-man’s land for Christian armies probably correct. So choose up?

  2. turcopolier says:

    I think you are correct in maintaining that Sunni claims of an eternal and long standing right to dominance in northern Arabia is a serious case of factional self-delusion. Until the high medieval period (11th Century CE?), various forms of Shiism, their derivatives as well as Christians and Jews were dominant until the arrival of; the Seljuks, the Ayyubids, the Mamelukes and then the Ottomans. To subscribe to the triumphalist claims of the Sunnis at this late date is foolish and is probably related to the Saudism of Sir John Philby. pl

  3. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Salah al Din, a Kurd, who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders, expelled all the Shia (Fatimid) Doctors of Religion from the Al Azhar – itself named after “Al Zahra”, the daughter of the Prophet by Khadijah.
    His son, at the behest of Sunni Doctors, executed one of the greatest philosophers of Islam – Shahab al-Din Yahya ibn Habash Suhrawardi(please see – in Aleppo. His philosophical school continued among the Shia, all the way to Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers.
    In my opinion, just like the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War separated Iran from the Sunni Arab world (for the most part), the 6-year long war in Syria has separated the adherents of the Party of Ali from the Sunni World.
    Among the Party of Ali I include the 12-er Shia, the 7-er Shai, the 5-er Shia, the Alevis/Alawites, the Ali Allahis and a few others that I do not even know.
    These populations span Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Yemen, UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and a few other places in smaller numbers.
    I do not see any upside to the friends & allies of the Fortress West in the revival of the struggles of Imam Ali against Muawiya (like the way this German Offical came to Iran a few years back and threatened Iran with something analogous to the 30-year War.)
    Just to be concrete: 35 million souls in Turkey are Kurdish or Alevi (Party of Ali); Turkey faces destruction in its current configuration her leaders persist in pursuing in their current path.

  4. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Which Countries Support and Which Oppose the U.S. Missile Strikes in Syria

  5. The Porkchop Express says:

    Crooke is a unique character. I got to know he and his wife quite well in Beirut. He wrote a fascinating tome called “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution,” where he touched on many of these issues before in a much broader fashion and which I would highly recommend to those of you who enjoyed this article.

  6. Kooshy says:

    It is interesting to see what a little room Iraq has to play, and how tough politics are there not to get tilted again.

  7. Bill Herschel says:

    Isn’t this really very simple? The United States went to war with Iraq on account of WMD. Went to war. Invaded. Conquered.
    Some said at the time that it would make more sense to go to war with North Korea who actually had WMD. Problem was, North Korea could fight back and was probably able to strike the 28,500 “tripwire” American troops in South Korea.
    For whatever reason, the US did not choose the “sure thing” target.
    Now, the U.S appears to be gearing up to go to war with North Korea. Sure. Just like Iraq had WMD. The Affordable Care Act will be repealed and replaced long before we go to war with North Korea.
    DT is a joke.

  8. Annem says:

    If given the choice, I don’t believe that Sunni Muslim Syrians would opt to live under the rule of the Saudi-backed jihadis who have made life miserable for all who had to endure their governance over the last years. Certainly all those families whose sons fight in the Syrian military and staff the government bureaucracy will want to live that way. It is likely though that the Russians would have to work with the Syrian regime to minimize the Iranian influence. It is worth remembering that one of the factors that led the Russians to get so deeply involved in the Syria conflict was the Iranians burrowing into the regime institutions, especially the military and intelligence services. Likewise, the Russians would have to reassure the Sunnis that the regime would not want to take vengeance on them along sectarian lines.

  9. mauisurfer says:

    I read Landis’ blog all the time, hold him in high respect. So I was greatly disappointed that he refers the gas attack as having been perpetrated by the government of Syria, with no qualification
    or discussion, as though there is no other possibility.

  10. DC says:

    As a cultural parochial, the Shia / Sunni divide seems an analog of that between Anabaptists and Calvinists in 17th century Europe, a divide which persists to this day in America between Evangelical-Baptists and Westminster-Presbyterians. For the former, an unconstrained individual response to God is paramount, while for the latter such response may only take place in a determined manner. Might the human mind default one way or the other?

  11. BraveNewWorld says:

    From time to time the MSM accidentally stumbles into the truth.
    “When Secretary Mattis did not even raise the issue of Qatar’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood—measured in both billions of dollars over the past 20 years and in thousands of hours of airtime on Al Jazeera over the same period—he sent the Qataris a clear and sad message: The Trump Administration has no problem with Qatar housing U.S. forces while financing the same people that America regularly bombs.”
    Out of curiosity does any one remember which administration signed the original deal to put the big base in Qatar?

  12. Kooshy says:

    IMO, the bigiest threat to Iran, and grater west Asia, is not US or Israel, the bigest threat is a true street level war between Shia and Sunnies, which IMO in that context a true street deep war has not been matrilized yet. The ongoing sectarian war in Syria and Iraq is a attritional proxy of West and Israel, for some reason, beside some paid wahabbies the rest of Sunnis have avoid to get involved and Shia head of religions Margaret) have forbid any punished retaliation to bombing, although the KSA and Qatar wahabby kings have been haveliy paying and pushing for a inter religion war.

  13. Jack says:

    Mr. Crooke
    Thank you for this very enlightening post.
    It seems the Shia-Sunni divide and the conflicts therein have been in place for millennia. Why does the US political, media and governmental establishment believe it is a US national interest to meddle in this millennia old theological and ideological conflict, when most Americans including me know very little about Islamic culture? Is it really about the money that flows to the foreign policy think tanks from the Sunni oil states? Can it really be due to the outsized influence of the Likudnik wing in our politics? If that is so, why aren’t those that oppose this meddling, counter these influence operations in a similar vein? After all it would seem that if a powerful case can be made by the opponents of this policy, about how interfering in this religious conflict is detrimental to US interests the American people who are by and large uninformed about this subject, would get it.

  14. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Yes, I agree, that type of street war has not yet started.

  15. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Ah, but you are forgetting that comely female called Palestine; she is abducted and the Knights of Party of Ali are the only ones left who remain fighting to restore her to her former station and place of honor.
    On the other hand, the Sunni Knights are gone home to play with their glass beads and other trade goods supplied to them by the King of the West; thinking that they have finally “arrived”
    In the meantime, the Red Tsar and the Yellow Emperor are gradually recovering their previous strength; all the time hoping that the King of the West would reprise the folly of Crasus.

  16. Babak Makkinejad says:

    But did you notice the fracture inside EU; even Spain – in spite of all the lies that El Paise prints – did not endorse those attacks.
    Neither did any East European country save Poland.

  17. kooshy says:

    I would say the reason there is no blood in the streets it’s all due to grand ayatollahs, Sistani and Khamenei if it was not for them Shia would have retaliated and everything would go south to US and Israel liking, this is one war Saudi’s and wahhabis tried but failed, this war can be started only if is asked for in Najaf and Qom. The proof of this assertion is, how fast the hashd al shaabi was formed.

  18. kooshy says:

    IMO, The Sunni majority, Syrian Arab Army is a big reason and contributor to show that this struggle, is not about a inter religion sectarian war, but rather it’s the usual anti colonial war with the west conducted true their local client kings and paid proxies. IMO, today the SAA is the true heros of muslim middle east, with their loyalty to their country, they have for all reason broken possibility of a real sectarian war between shia and Sunni, my hats off to all SAA.

  19. Lurker says:

    What if China didn’t believe this threat is geared against NK? The THAAD installation that is being rushed is placing radar eyes on China. China is placing barriers on SK – China Trade and developing alternative industrial base on Chinese soil. China is developing and possitioning assets to strike at the SK THAAD deployment. One thing to consider is that past and present administrations say one thing and do another. Obama said the Aegis Ashore deployments in Poland and Romania strictly defensive against Iran. But Putin says they can be offensive and same tubes can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles and since the iran deal, Iran is no longer a threat. Thus, Russia believes it is the target. Same idea with THAAD and NK. China believes it is the real target. I do not think that Xi and Putin believe anything that Trump says because he has outsourced his foreign policy to Jared and the Pentagon.

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