The US vs. the ‘Shi’ite Crescent’?

The American approach to the Arab world can be criticized for inconsistency on a number of levels.

Shi'ite Muslims do Arbain observance, Iraq_311 (photo credit: Mushtaq Muhammad/Reuters)
Shi'ite Muslims do Arbain observance, Iraq_311
(photo credit: Mushtaq Muhammad/Reuters)
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 protests.
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 al-Wefaq.
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 National Council.
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.
Indeed, in 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 permission.
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 Iraq, that emphasized the distinct Arab identity of the Iraqi Shi’ite community.
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- in-exile.
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 otherwise.
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 University.