Middle East Monitor
“Crisis in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s Attempts at Realignment”
183 Euston Road, Bloomsbury, NW1 2BE
18 November – 1015
Key Note speech by Paddy Ashdown
In foreign affairs, having a flawed model for viewing the world is nearly always the prelude to having flawed policies which end in failure.
The West cannot shake itself from the view that we still rule the world as we have done these last 400 years – since days of the Ottoman Empire. So we think everything that happens in the world is about us, the things that are important in the world are only important because they affect us and that anywhere there is a problem in the world, we can solve it.
There used to be an Arabic saying: “If a dog barks in the Middle East, British intelligence is behind it”. This is how it was and this is how, replacing British with American of course, we in the West think it still is.
But it isn’t. There were many, many casualties in the wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. One of them was the myth of Western omnipotence and the utility of having a West centric view of all that happens in the world.
For four years now – perhaps a bit longer – many of us have been warning that the greatest threat to world peace coming out of the Middle East, was not jihadist terrorism, but the danger of a wider Sunni-Shia religious conflict, similar the Wars of Religion which engulfed Europe in the 17th century. And that the terrorist insurgencies in Iraq, Syria, Mali, Yemen, Lebanon and the wider world of Islam should not been seen as individual conflicts, but as part of and preludes to, this larger confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The radicalisation of the “Sunni Umma” promoted, assisted and funded by Saud Arabian and Gulf elements, if not specifically by their Governments, is not any longer targeted on us in the West as we liked to believe. Its real target is, no longer the Great Satan in Washington, but the Great Heretic in Tehran. Attacks on Washington, London and Madrid are merely a proxy to help win support for that wider conflict.
I know it is hurtful to Western pride to think that these attacks on our cities were mere collateral damage. It is difficult for us to accept that we are not the main event here, only the hors d’oeuvre. But that is how it is.
Of course this is not to diminish the threat to us here in London – or to suggest that we should not have been taking this seriously. Terrorism in the name of radical Islam is a real and present threat. Collateral casualties, are no less casualties. As the innocents of Yemen, Iraq and Syria know so miserably well. The casualties of the bomb outrages in Western cities and the dead from the indiscriminate bombing of crowded suburbs in Sanaa are victims of the same event – the struggle between Sunni and Shia which now stands on the edge of open conflict.
A word about the role of religion in these kind conflicts. Of course I do not in any way doubt the sincerity of those who feel deeply – even violently – about the differences between the two great branches of Islam. I have personal experience of those kind of hates in Northern Ireland and in Bosnia. These sentiments may be odious, but amongst most ordinary people they are sincerely felt. My quarrel lies less with the misguided individuals who feel driven to be the actors in these tragedies, than with those behind them who use religion to drive the conflict. The reality is that in almost all great so-called religious conflicts, what lies behind the shouting of the clerics is a contest between the power of nations.
It was surely obvious to any sharp eyed observer with any knowledge of the Middle East that the moment that matters in the region ceased to be determined in the capitals of the great western powers, a contest for who was up and who was down would ensue.
And that contest was likely to be between Riyadh and Tehran – and the vehicle, motivator and driver for that contest would be religion; just as it was in Europe in the 17th century, just as it has been in so many conflicts that I have been involved in – from Far East, to Northern Ireland, to Bosnia.
This particular contest of power has been a long time coming. It has been building up strength, followers and causes through the proxy wars in Iraq and Syria, the proxy insurgencies in Mali, Libya and Yemen and the proxy terrorist outrages in major Western capitals. Left unchecked, as it has been, there was always going to be a moment when this would turn from something behind the scenes and below the surface, to something open and right in front of us.
The sudden seriousness with which Washington has woken up to what has happened recently in Lebanon, having been completely asleep to what was happening in Yemen, seems to indicate that that moment is very near.
So why should this bother us in Britain? Haven’t we got enough on our plate fighting our own war with the EU? Is this not just another far away country of which we know little, to adapt Chamberlain’s infamous phrase.
No it is not – it is definitely not.
A regional proxy conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, fired up by religious contention, is already sowing little wars around the region. If this finally breaks out into something which directly engages the two contesting capitals then I think we would see a threat to the wider peace of at least the same magnitude as the tensions surrounding North Korea, especially if, as seems almost certain, Israel becomes involved.
Mao Tse Tung famously called the two great World Wars of the last century “The European Civil Wars”.
It is not an inaccurate or inappropriate description.
For it reminds us that, in our deeply interconnected world, regional conflicts can have global consequences.
Three years ago I suggested that the right way to view the conflicts in Syria and Iraq were through the Sunni/Shia prism.
That the wars in Syria and Iraq could neither be solved nor ended by high explosive alone.
That what we needed was a Dayton style International Treaty safeguarding existing borders.
That this should involve regional players across the Sunni/Shai divide and be underpinned by Russia, the US and Europe acting as guarantor powers.
That Russia had too much interest in the area because of Sunni radicalism in their own Islamic republics, not to join a wider coalition to destroy ISIL
That if this did not happen, they would, inevitably and unilaterally, join Tehran and suppress with bombs what they did not have the opportunity to contain with diplomacy.
That what would follow would be a deepening of local conflicts and a heightening of Riyadh/ Tehran tensions
That the West would get dragged in to support one side – and Russia would get dragged in to support the other.
And that this would in the end fire-up a regional conflict in the Middle East which would have global consequences
It gives me no pleasure to say that this is exactly what has now happened.
We are very close now to a Sunni/Shia conflict with great power involvement on opposite sides.
If that does not strike a shiver down your back-bone, then you have not spent enough time studying history.
A lesson I learnt in both Northern Ireland and Bosnia is that even though it is necessary to constantly press for peace, peace cannot be achieved until the warring parties are willing and the right external conditions are in place. The right context – maybe the only context for a sustainable peace in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, is some kind of accommodation between Riyadh and Tehran.
I do not know whether, this late in the game, this is any longer possible.
I do not know, whether having been so deeply invested on the ground for so long, President Putin would see it any longer in his interest to play a constructive role in the process.
I do not know whether President Trump, whose seems incapable of resisting any opportunity for a dog-fight, has the strategic vision to see that this kind of diplomatic engagement is in Washington’s interest.
I do not know whether Brussels, now so internally obsessed with its own problems, is able to expend energy and political will on anything else.
But I am pretty certain that, absent this kind of vision and engagement, what has been these last two decades an extremely turbulent Middle East, could, if the Sunni Shia contest continues, quickly become something even more dangerous – something which Mao Tse Tong would have recognised very well – a regional conflict which would threaten the wider peace.
There is much about the piles of tinder scattered around the Middle East today which remind me of the Balkans in 1914.
So what should the policies of the western nations be to the impending danger?
If it is the case that the greatest danger to world peace coming out of the Middle East at present is not jihadist terrorism, but an open regional war between the imperial ambitions of Saud Arabia and Iran, then the right policy for the western nations is scrupulously not to take sides.
We should have good and normal relations with countries across the divide and treat them exactly the same.
If they sponsor terrorism we should strongly oppose their policies by all means possible, rather than turn a blind eye for short term convenience.
If they are engaged in proxy conflicts we should not throw fuel onto the fire by supporting one side against, above all with weapons.
If they commit war crimes we should condemn this even handedly.
We should strive by every means possible to encourage dialogue and agreement and take care to take no steps which will deepen the divide between both sides.
We should above all avoid any step which propels events further down the track we are already far advanced on, where the West supports one side – the Sunnis – encouraging Russia to take up arms in support of the other – the Shias. This is the outcome of greatest danger and we are very, very close to it.
So now we come to Britain and Saudi Arabia, especially in the context of the rolling tragedy of Yemen.
From a moral point of view Britain’s support of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen is as foolish as it is reprehensible.
It is very clear that war crimes have been committed in the conflict in Yemen, both in relation to indiscriminate attacks on civilians and by using aid and starvation as a weapon of war. Britain’s silence on these matters is thunderous and shaming.
The fact that we are supplying arms to Saudi Arabia is even more so.
The Government tells us that no weapons supplied by Britain have been used in this war. As someone who knows a little about the temptations and confusions of war, I simply do not believe this.
The Government should announce an immediate suspension of arms sales to Riyadh until their blockade of aid supplies is lifted and their indiscriminate bombing of civilians is ended.
I know enough of these kind of conflicts to understand that crimes are likely to be being committed by both sides in these kind of dirty wars. I am sure that it is true, for instance the Houthi rebels in Yemen, are also guilty of using aid and hunger as a weapon of war.
But the difference is that we do not support them, whereas Riyadh is an ally and one to whom we supply weapons of war.
I am not so naïve as not to understand the other factors involved here. Trade at a time when, thanks to the folly of Brexit we have a desperate urgency to grow our foreign trade quickly. Assistance in the struggle against terror, which far too often causes us to turn a convenient blind eye to human rights abuses in those countries which are our allies. Maintaining a balance in the Middle east broadly favourable to the west. The threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.
I doubt whether bending our principles in favour of short-term advantage on all of these fronts will deliver anything of use to us in the long term.
But even if it were to do so, such hopeful outcomes, if and when they arrive would have long ago been blotted out by the horrors of a widening religious war into which the great powers of our day allow themselves to be dragged in support of one side or another.
That is the danger that now confronts us and it is time that the world’s statesmen and women alerted themselves to it.