On this anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, I hate to have to point out the risk of a new war, into which the USA may again be dragged. Unfortunately, I'm not exaggerating. I fully expect at least one war, possibly more than one, to break out within the next year, and quite possibly within the next three to six months. There's a confluence of events, problems, crises and pressures that stretches in an arc from Egypt, through the Middle East to Pakistan and India, and then jumps over to South-East Asia and China. Let me walk you through it, one country at a time.
First, Egypt is in the process of holding elections. Guess who's leading in the vote count? If you said 'Muslim fundamentalist parties', you just won first prize. According to a report in USA Today, after the initial round of voting, the nominally 'moderate' Muslim Brotherhood has 37% of the vote, and the more hardline Al-Nour Party took 24%, for a combined Muslim fundamentalist vote tally of 61%. There are more rounds of voting to come, but I'll be surprised if a more secular trend emerges. Within a matter of months, we will - not may, will - be faced with an Islamic fundamentalist government in Egypt - one where leaders of both of the parties mentioned above have denounced the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. I'm sure you can appreciate just how warm and fuzzy this makes Israel feel . . .
Moving north, Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip (which shares a border with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula) is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It'll expect much greater support from that country after an Islamic fundamentalist government is installed - almost certainly including sophisticated weapons, and training in how to use them against Israel, if not actual military assistance by heavily-armed 'volunteers'.
Let's keep going north. Hezbollah, the Muslim fundamentalist terrorist organization that dominates southern Lebanon, shares many objectives, goals and tactics with Hamas. If the latter organization, encouraged by a Muslim fundamentalist government in Egypt, becomes more militant against Israel, we can confidently expect Hezbollah to do likewise in southern Lebanon, in order to threaten Israel on more than one front and force it to divide its attention and its forces.
Furthermore, Hezbollah is - or, rather, was until recently - closely aligned with the government of Syria, which has just been hit with sanctions imposed by the Arab League due to its brutal suppression of internal dissent. If Syria's government falls, it's almost certain that Hezbollah will become involved in the resulting power struggle, to secure its own position. Any new Syrian government will probably be dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. As the Guardian pointed out some months ago, this may have widespread consequences.
If the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad fails to reassert its authority, and is instead brought down or merely enfeebled by a prolonged period of popular agitation, the geopolitical implications could be considerable. Syria's allies – the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Shia resistance movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hamas government in Gaza – would all come under pressure. For all three, loss of Syrian support would be painful.
Israel would no doubt view such a development with great satisfaction. It has long sought to disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, which has challenged its regional supremacy – even acquiring a certain deterrent capability, intolerable in Israel's eyes. But Israel's feelings might be tempered by fear that Assad could be replaced by an Islamist regime, even more threatening to its interests and security.
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More broadly, the region is witnessing the unravelling of alliances formed in a critical period three decades ago that saw the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979; the Iranian revolution of the same year; and Israel's devastating invasion of Lebanon in 1982, followed by its 18-year occupation of the south, which led to the emergence of Hezbollah. Having been Syria's ally in the 1973 war, Egypt changed sides and became Israel's partner in peace. Iran, Israel's ally under the shah, changed sides under the Islamic republic, becoming Syria's ally instead. Syria and Israel swapped partners.
These arrangements are now under threat. Post-Mubarak Egypt is likely to distance itself from Israel and rejoin the Arab camp, while Syria's alliance with Iran – unpopular with the Sunni- majority population, – could be endangered by any change of regime in Damascus. Other significant changes to the regional geopolitical map include the emergence of Turkey as a beneficent player, promoting trade and conflict resolution, and Iraq's slow recovery as a major Arab power from the devastation inflicted on it by Tony Blair, George Bush and America's pro-Israel neocons.
Are we then about to witness some reshuffling of alliances formed 30 years ago? Iraq and Iran, who fought a bitter war in the 1980s, could well draw closer now both are under Shia leadership. Together they will form a formidable power block. America's colossal investment in men and treasure in the Iraq war will seem vainer than ever.
There's more at the link.
Consider, too, the close ties between Syria, Iran and North Korea. Israel destroyed what it alleged was a nuclear reactor being constructed by Syria, with North Korean assistance, during Operation Orchard in 2007. North Korea is allegedly working with Iran to develop nuclear weapons and a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile. Iran has, in turn, supplied missiles to Syria, and through Syria to its allies in Hezbollah, which threatens Israel with them. Syria, Iran and North Korea - talk about an 'axis of evil' or an unholy trinity . . .
DEBKAfile, an Israeli Web site that's alleged to have very close ties to Israeli intelligence sources, stated in a blunt headline yesterday that 'Israel and Syria brace for regional war between mid-Dec. 2011 and mid-Jan 2012'. The site advances evidence for its expectations, which dovetails neatly with some of the things I've pointed out in this article. I strongly suggest you click over to DEBKAfile and read their report for yourself. Given what many Israelis regard as a distinct lack of support for their country from the present US administration, that country's leaders may be more willing than usual to 'go it alone'.
(That expectation of war may be one reason why Russia has just completed the rush delivery of supersonic anti-ship missiles to Syria - missiles that have forced the USA to move its warships further away from that country's coast, for fear of being targeted. Furthermore, Russian warships are planning an imminent visit to that country. Syria is a very important client state for Russia, one of its last footholds of influence in the Middle East. If Syria gets dragged into a war with other nations, particularly Israel, don't expect Russia to sit idly on the sidelines. If it allows Syria to go under, it'll lose all credibility in the region - and it can't afford that.)
Israel, too, is apparently very close to military action against a perceived nuclear threat from Iran. That's been all over the news lately, so I don't need to go into detail about it here. You'll find many news articles if you do a search on the topic. The only aspect I'll highlight is that, if some of Iran's nuclear facilities are 'hardened' against conventional attack (i.e. buried deep underground), it may be necessary to use nuclear weapons to inflict enough damage to destroy them. If Israel 'goes nuclear' against Iran, you can bet every cent you own that every Arab state in the region will instantly go all-out to acquire nuclear weapons and delivery systems of their own. Pakistan, to date the only declared Muslim nuclear power, is likely to be deluged with requests for assistance; and, given the growing influence of Muslim fundamentalists in that country, I wouldn't be surprised if such assistance is provided. Once that genie is out of the bottle, who knows where things will end up?
Iran, a Shi'ite Muslim state, is also increasing its influence in Iraq, which is now ruled by a Shi'ite-dominated coalition. Indeed, the Iraqi Prime Minister has just warned that the fall of the Syrian government might plunge the entire region, from Iran through Iraq to Syria (and involving the states around them as well), into a conflict between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim states. That's just great. Not only do we have to worry about Arab-Israeli hatred and distrust, but now we have to worry about inter-Arab and inter-Muslim wars as well! It's about as certain as it can be that, in so unstable a region, one kind of conflict will inevitably spill over into other kinds of conflict as well. The entire Middle East and Persian Gulf region is a giant tinderbox of religious, cultural, ethnic and political sensitivities right now. One spark, and . . .
Let's move further east. Iran borders Afghanistan (where it's allegedly been arming the Taliban and other opposition groups) and Pakistan. It's under enormous stress right now, with unexplained explosions killing many of its senior military personnel and scientists involved with its missile and nuclear programs. Its Revolutionary Guard has just been placed on a war footing in response. This isn't a conventional army; it's a highly organized militia of fundamentalist Shi'ite Muslim troops, loyal not to the State, but to the Ayatollahs, the theocratic leaders of Shi'ite Islam in Iran. The latter won't order it into action based on political, economic or military logic. They'll do so based on their theological world view and their perspective on what God requires of them. If that means acting in such a way as to plunge the rest of the world into war, they don't care. God's will, as they perceive it, is more important than such mundane secular concerns.
Iran is more than capable of shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, through which flows at least a third of the world's oil supply. It doesn't even need to use ships or aircraft to do so: the Strait is so narrow (about 31½ miles wide at its most constricted point) that land-based missiles, even conventional artillery, could threaten shipping. Disrupting that traffic would double or triple oil prices overnight, delivering a hammer blow to the world's economy, already disrupted by the ongoing recession and debt crises in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Europe and the USA would have to react, sending military forces to reopen the Strait of Hormuz; and that would escalate the conflict as Iran tried to destroy those forces. Where it would end is anybody's guess, particularly if Israel used the confusion to launch a strike on Iran's nuclear sites. If both Israel and the West attack Iran, it's bound to draw other Muslim nations into the conflict: then it's all aboard the warfare merry-go-round . . .
This brings China into the mix. China has extensive oil supply agreements with Iran, and in return provides weaponry to that country, including advanced missiles. Iran, in turn, passes some of that weaponry on to its clients in Syria and Hezbollah. (The latter organization used a Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missile to damage the Israeli corvette INS Hanit in 2006.) If Iran is attacked by the West and/or Israel, expect China to intervene on behalf of its clients there, at least politically, perhaps through the supply of additional advanced weapons, possibly even militarily. Furthermore, China is closely allied with Pakistan, which is also a customer for its weaponry (for example, the JF-17 Thunder jet fighter is co-produced by Pakistan and China). If Pakistan intervenes to support its neighbor Iran, urged on by Muslim fundamentalists in both nations, China will be under enormous pressure to support both countries, regardless of the consequences.
Such pressure may not be unwelcome in China. That country's economy is entering a difficult period, as we've pointed out here before. China has traditionally sought to divert its population's attention from internal problems by a diversionary foreign policy - using (and, if necessary, fomenting) external crises to distract them. The prospect of intervening to help Pakistan and/or Iran against Western 'imperialism' may come at a very useful time for the Chinese leadership.
Alternatively, China could make use of Western preoccupation with the Straits of Hormuz (including the movement of US aircraft carrier battle groups to that area) to engage in political, even military muscle-flexing of its own. What price a sudden move to take over Taiwan, long regarded by China as a rebel province, and a very popular cause among its people? If I were in Taiwan right now, I'd be looking over my shoulder very nervously indeed! There's also the territorial dispute between China and five other nations over the South China Sea, quarrels with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands . . . there's no shortage of issues that China could use to foment trouble while her major potential opponents are distracted elsewhere. Ominously, this very day China's President told its Navy to "speed up its development and prepare for warfare". If you believe he didn't mean anything by that, but was merely posturing for public relations reasons, I have a bridge in Brooklyn, NYC I'd like to sell you. Cash only, please - or, rather, in this economy and with the risks of war being what they are, gold, please!
Muslim fundamentalists in Pakistan might also seek to take advantage of any turmoil in the Persian Gulf to advance their interests in Kashmir, even to the point of starting a war with India. Both nations are nuclear powers. If a conventional war got out of control, and Pakistan began to get the worst of it (as happened in each of the previous wars between the two nations, and is likely to happen again, given their respective military strengths), who knows whether it might use nuclear weapons against its neighbor? That would lead to nuclear retaliation from India, and where that would take the world is something I'd rather not find out!
So, dear reader, there you have it. There's an axis of enormous and growing instability, political, religious, social and economic, running from Egypt, north through Gaza to Lebanon, then east to Syria, south-east through Iraq to Iran, across to Afghanistan and Pakistan, thence to the Indian border. A hop and a jump further east we have China, tied by treaties, agreements and self-interest to Iran and Pakistan, and eager to use any disruption that preoccupies the West to score points of its own in the East. Almost all the 'players' are linked in one way or another. They're like a row of dominoes set on end. If any domino falls, the whole row of them is likely to be caught up.
There are other factors I haven't mentioned for lack of space and time (for example, the fact that advanced weapons from Libya have been smuggled out of that country, and are turning up in the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists in North Africa, and perhaps even in Gaza, threatening Israel). There are so many sparks flying around right now, and so much tinder out there, that sooner or later (probably sooner) one of those sparks is going to land on fuel that's all too ready to burn.
With China and Russia involved in supporting their client states (respectively, Iran and Syria), and the US trying desperately to be even-handed, but pulled in different directions by different interest groups, the odds of one or more of the great powers being dragged into such a war, whether they like it or not, are (in my opinion) better than even right now. To my mind, the biggest single danger facing the US right now is one or both of the following:
- Israel gets dragged into open war in the Middle East, either against Iran, or against Syria, or against Hamas and Hezbollah, or perhaps a combination of more than one of those enemies, thereby inevitably dragging the USA into the confrontation as a perceived ally of Israel;
- US forces in Afghanistan are attacked by Iran (either using its Revolutionary Guard, and/or sponsoring attacks by the Taliban and other terrorist organizations), and possibly in the same way by elements of Pakistan's armed forces (inspired by the growing Muslim fundamentalist influence in that country), in an attempt to take US prisoners and use them as bargaining chips during a wider conflict. Both countries may also believe that the US would have to divert so much of its attention and military assets to extricating its forces from Afghanistan that it wouldn't be able to intervene elsewhere, perhaps by a more direct attack on Iran.
Either or both possibilities would play right into the hands of both China and Russia, who would be delighted to have the US distracted in the Middle East while they pursue their own policies elsewhere. They might even think they can get away with overt military action of their own, to distract their citizens from their internal troubles. Frankly, they may be right. One must question whether the US could even afford a large-scale military action, given our current parlous economic state!
I'd love to be proved an alarmist: but in the light of all the elements I've outlined above, I don't think I am. If there isn't at least one war in the nations and areas I've mentioned, within the next year, I'll eat crow right here on this blog, with all due contrition. However, I somehow don't think that will be necessary . . .
I hope and pray that the USA can avoid being dragged into yet another war. Your guess is as good as mine whether or not that's a realistic hope.