Iran-Saudi proxy war spreads across the world

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Altaf Parvez: When Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri resigned on Saturday, accusing Iran of interfering in his country’s affairs, it was rather laughable. He had made this announcement sitting in Saudi Arabia. Such resignations are rare in the international context.

However, one can’t really blame Saad Habibi for seeking shelter with the Sauds. After all, the spectre of his father’s death haunts him. Around 13 years ago, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed by a two thousand pound bomb. The Shiite force of Hezbollah was suspected to be behind the killing.

Meanwhile, within hours of Hariri’s resignation, a ballistic missile launched in Yemen hit Riyadh. It is rather intriguing as to why the Iran-backed Houthi fighters launched a missile at Riyadh at that juncture. But this incident is clear indication yet another proxy war in the offing. Actually the war has already started – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Qatar and Syria. The Saudi-Iran conflict is having ramifications on the internal politics of these countries and other countries in the neighbourhood, directly and indirectly.

Saudi aggression in Yemen began from March 2005 and so far around 10 thousand civilians have died in the conflict. After the latest missile attack, the Saudis have declared an air, sea and land blockade on Yemen. This will spark off famine there. The root cause of the crisis is Saudi Arabia’s desperate efforts to protect the ousted Yemeni president Mansour Hadi even though the public is vehemently against him. The Zaydi Shias of North Yemen are particularly opposed to him. Having Iranian influence, they are a thorn in the flesh for the Saudis.

While not much has been achieved through the war on ground, repeated air strikes have devastated Yemen. Even the refugee camps are being randomly bombed. The country faces an acute shortage of food and medicines.

Now the people of Lebanon fear a predicament similar to that of Yemen. The fragile unity amongst the Sunnis, Shias and Christians in the state structure there may collapse. Investment will decrease in the country, fearing a similar situation that the country faced for 15 years from 1975. By bringing Sunni Hariri to their country and forcing him to resign, the Saudis have made it clear that they are unhappy with the political slant in Lebanon that goes in favour of the pro-Shia Hezbollah. To the Saudi’s Hezbollah is, to a great extent, a proxy of Iran.

.Qatar is another bane to the Saudis. The close ties between Iran and Qatar’s rulers irk the Saudis and from last June they have imposed a blockade on the country. They have forced the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt to join in the blockade. However, with Turkey and Iran immediately siding with Qatar, the effect of the blockade has been negligible. This has made the Saudis all the more annoyed with Iran. And a Saudi-backed coup d’etat is in the offing to change the rule in Qatar, though the Saudi planners are trying to find a replacement of US liking.

Ironically, Qatar was a Saudi ally in backing the anti-Assad forces in Syria. The Saudis basically failed to remove Bashar Al-Assad from power due to Iran’s elite force and Hezbollah fighters. That is why the Saudi’s hate Hezbollah even more than Israel hates them. And so Saad Hariri has been used to once again fuel the country’s old ethnic divisions.

Since 2015, Russian has supported the Iran-Hezbollah alliance as a superpower in the Syrian war. We see a different situation in Yemen. Over there, the US is backing the Saudi military alliance against the Houthis. The Houthis or the Ansar-Allah movement is basically anti-Israel and anti-US. And so as in Lebanon and Syria, Israel’s interests are directly involved in the Saudi-Iran proxy war. Many are even of the opinion that Saudi is actually fighting against Iran on behalf of Israel. The shadow war is actually between Israel and Iran and Iran’s associates. Israel has very openly said from beforehand that Iran is is actual foe in the Middle East. That is why the destruction of Syria is a silent victory for Israel.

Like Israel, Russia and the US are somehow or the other involved in the Iran-Saudi proxy war. This once emerged through the Saudi-Pakistan-Mujahideen alliance which stood in as a proxy for the US in Afghanistan’s post-1978 Saur Revolution.  And the Shia Hazara who supported the 12 Imams were virtually fodder for the Pushtoon foot soldiers of this alliance. The Hazara are close to Iran. Presently they are allies of the NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Pushtoon Talibans are close to the Russians. And the Saudis are there as the old supporters of the Talibans. As a result, the Iran-Saudi conflict will soon have an impact on Kabul’s Green Zone and Pakistan too. That is why perhaps when the mysterious missile of the Houthis hit Riyadh this week, Pakistan’s army chief was visiting Iran. And Pakistan’s former army chief four-star general Raheel Sharif has been heading the Saudi military alliance in Yemen since April. The people of Pakistan have invariably been the ‘sacrificial lamb’ in the Riyadh-Tehran proxy war.  The Shia mosques there are often victim of suicidal attacks for which the Pakistan intelligence blames the pro-Saudi salafists. Such clandestine attacks have spread like wildfire in Pakistan. Many of the local Shia youth, fighting for survival, turn to Iran and join the Shia Liberation Army.

.The Shia Liberation Army or SLA first appeared in the media last year though the confessional statement of the well-known general Mohammed Ali Falaki of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The members of this force have come in from all over the world, particularly from among the Shia communities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Iranian general Qasem Soleimani first initiated this force in Iraq and is the commander of SLA. Iran, however, remains silent about the power and capabilities of this force.

Needless to say, the Saudis have possibly chosen Pakistan’s Raheel Sharif to create a Sunni-dominated force to counter this force. But this poses two problems. Firstly, Saudi military ambitions lack in ideological spirit. The Saudis do not have a good image among the youth of the Muslim world. Secondly, it will be extremely difficult for a Pakistan general to meet Saudi ambitions as this will provoke an adverse reaction within the country’s armed forces. Pakistan is well aware of the Saudi’s proximity with Israel and also of the prevailing military cooperation between India and Israel.

Economically, Pakistan is hugely dependent on Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of thousands of the country’s workers are employed in Saudi Arabia and UAE. Taking advantage of this weakness, the Saudis want to involved Pakistan (and Bangladesh) in the Yemen war. This will certain displease the Shias in Pakistan who make up 15 per cent of the country’s population.

The Shia-Sunni ratio is the opposite in Iraq. But the influence of the Sauds and Iranians is more direct there. Sunni make by 30 per cent of Iraq’s population and Shias 70 per cent. The moment that Ba’ath Party was toppled in 2003, the Shias gained political and administrative clout in Iraq, and Iran’s rulers were direct beneficiaries of this. Though Daesh (IS) has been pushed in there to tackle the situation, the Iranian generals have used thousands of Shia volunteers to form militia force that has effectively handled the situation in Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul. And so now the Saudi-influenced US administration is actively endeavouring to drive out the Shia private militia forces like the Popular Mobilisation Force. And yet this very same US administration chooses to turn a blind eye to the huge Saudi military presence in Bahrain.

.Shias may be the majority in Bahrain, but they have no say in at the helm. Iran at one time would claim that Bahrain was a part of their country, but they do not have this stance now. That is why Saudi Arabia has maintained their military presence in this small but strategically important country.

Given the experience of Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Qatar, Yemen and other such countries as well as the aggressive attitude of the new influential Saudi crown prince Salman, analysts of international politics apprehend multifarious disruptions in many Muslim-populated countries in the days to come. In the meantime, the US, Russia and particularly Israel will instigate this further in keeping with their own vested interests. The more the Muslim-populated countries get embroiled in the conflict between the two camps, the easier it will be for Israel to repress the Palestinian struggle for their motherland.

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