Writing on his blog Karl reMarks, prominent Lebanese blogger Karl Sharro
complained of the “decline of narrative” in “Middle East expertise,” lamenting
the dominance of a “cold analytical approach” to events in the volatile region
and the role of foreign powers therein. But is the concept of narrative and
grand theory actually useful here? Consider the question of US policy toward the
region throughout the course of the Arab Spring. One narrative that has emerged
among certain commentators – mainly on the Western political Left, such as
Patrick Cockburn – is that the US is aligning itself with Sunni forces,
including those of an Islamist nature, in opposition to a perceived “Shi’ite
crescent” of power in the region.
As is often the case, this narrative
bases itself on elements of truth. The US shares the concern of the Sunni Arab
Gulf monarchies about Iranian influence in the wider region. The most egregious
case of alignment is in Bahrain, where Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and
Saudi Arabia have all deployed troops to assist the monarchy in suppressing
Meanwhile, Washington has called for the Bahraini government to
engage in meaningful dialogue with the opposition, but has at the same time
approved arms sales to the regime, for the US, with its Fifth Fleet stationed in
Bahrain, is deeply worried about the influence of pro-Iranian Shi’ite Islamists
such as Hassan Mushaima, who have slowly and steadily won more standing among
Bahraini protestors at the expense of more moderate factions like
It is also correct, as Cockburn noted in a recent article, that
the current US government is more sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and
associated factions than before. This is evident from the Obama administration’s
strong reluctance to be openly critical of the present Egyptian government under
the MB’s Mohammed Morsi, along with a consignment of F-16 fighter jets to Cairo
from Washington that began shipment last month.
The sympathy with the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in particular is based on two main factors. First,
whatever misgivings the Obama administration might express about developments
like Morsi’s constitutional decree in November last year that gave the president
dictatorial powers, the consensus in US policy circles is that an MB-led
government can guide Egypt to stable, democratic civilian rule. In other words,
the US sees in Egypt’s MB a “moderate Islamism” that can serve as a non-violent
antidote to the Salafists and al-Qaida.
Second, it is correct that the US
government sees the MB and like-minded factions as a counterbalance to Iranian
influence in the wider region. In this case, there is a disconnect between
think-tank circles in Washington and policymakers.
While attention has
been drawn in the world of punditry to talks between Egypt and Iran as regards
establishing ties, the fact is that these engagements remain nothing more than
talk, and a significant warming of relations between the two countries remains a
very distant prospect. Above all, on the question of Syria, Egypt and Iran are
deeply at odds, as the latter continues to back Assad while Morsi’s government
insists he must be removed from power.
In the meantime, the Obama
administration has been sympathetic to the MB-dominated opposition-inexile Syria
ALL THESE points notwithstanding, those who wish to
argue that US policy is aligned with the “Sunni bloc” in a grand sectarian
alliance against the “Shi’ite crescent” need to account for the fact that
Washington has consistently backed Nouri Maliki – who leads the Shi’ite
religious Dawa party – as premier of Iraq, rather than his rival Ayad Allawi,
who like Maliki is a Shi’ite but leads a very loose coalition of groups that
have widespread backing from the Sunni Arab community of Iraq.
the case of Iraq, US policy has something in common with the approach of Iran,
which likewise backs Maliki. On the other hand, the Gulf states and Turkey have
backed Allawi. Even Assad supported Allawi in his bid to become prime minister
in 2010, and while Syria outwardly reversed its stance after a sustained
lobbying effort by Maliki, the new-found support for Maliki was nothing more
than a cosmetic change.
In contrast, Washington has gone as far as to
take Maliki’s side in the ongoing dispute with Turkey over Ankara’s importing
oil from the Kurdistan Regional Government without Baghdad’s
There are two reasons for the American support for Maliki.
First, Washington sees him as more competent than Allawi, who is frequently out
of the country, leads a very disunited bloc of groups that is constantly marred
by internal splits, and is generally perceived as being out of touch with
reality on the ground in Iraq.
Second, as Reidar Visser points out, the
US approach towards Iraq is influenced by Yitzhak Nakash’s work The Shi’is of
, that emphasized the distinct Arab identity of the Iraqi Shi’ite
Thus, Washington is not all that worried about the question of
Iranian influence in the country, and has even maintained friendly ties with the
Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Shi’ite political faction that is
arguably closest to Iran in terms of ideology and cordial relations. Last month
the US ambassador met with ISCI leader Ammar Hakim to discuss the ongoing
political crisis and protests in Iraq.
What about Cockburn’s claim of a
supposed distinction between a “good” al-Qaida in the jihadist faction Jabhat
al-Nusra (JAN) in Syria as opposed to a “bad” al-Qaida, or George Galloway’s
recent attack on British Prime Minister David Cameron regarding supposed UK
support for jihadists in Syria? Here, some conventional wisdom needs to be set
aside. The reality is that Western support for Syrian rebel groups has been very
limited, and amounts to little beyond mere words calling for Assad to step down
as president of Syria and recognizing an opposition- in-exile coalition with
little credibility on the ground. The West is not in fact arming rebels in
Syria, and Washington in particular has not reversed its designation of JAN as a
terrorist organization despite objections within Syria and from the opposition-
It is true that Saudi Arabia has been providing aid to Salafist
factions while Qatar and Turkey prefer to back MB-aligned groups, but US policy
has been to ensure that these countries do not provide any heavy weaponry and to
enforce restrictions on arms supplies.
They have duly followed this
approach, having their own concerns about “jihadist blowblack” a la the
aftermath of backing the mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In any case, most of the support Syrian rebel groups receive actually comes from
private individuals, from Syrians on the ground or in exile and from some
wealthy Gulf Arabs.
In short, the main error in arguing that US policy
follows a sectarian alignment against a Shi’ite bloc is the equation of
opposition to Iranian influence with opposition to any expression of Shi’ite
identity at the political level. The case of Iraq clearly shows
The American approach to the Arab world can be criticized for
inconsistency on a number of levels, but the evidence does not support analyses
according to which US policy falls under a broad sectarian paradigm of
“pro-Sunni and anti-Shi’ite.”The writer is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at
the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford