Will Saudi Arabia ignite the fuse to start a new Middle East war?

by Andreas Becker

Saudi Arabia is currently not only arming itself for war, but seems almost eager to set fire to the fuse. In recent days, Saudi warplanes, their crews and ground personnel were transferred to the Turkish Incirlik airbase. The relocation was carried out in the context of the US-led military coalition against the Islamic State (IS), which Western politicians and media have recently preferred calling Daesh. The Turkish-Saudi alliance against Syria and Iran should be understood as Sunni alliance against Shiites. However, Lebanon is refusing the Saudi demand to join its military alliance. Today, a leading Maronite Christian wrote an open letter to the Saudi king Salman. A letter for peace on the eve of a war?

Since a week (24.2.2016) the oil-rich desert kingdom has been conducting the biggest military maneuvres in its history. Troops from 20 countries are involved. Saudi Arabia can now reap the rewards of its investments through generous cash flows into Arab and African countries over the past decades. Operation Northern Thunder was started ten days ago and will last one week. It was publicised only on its starting day. Simultaneously Riyadh literally threatened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “violently overthrow” him. This is exactly how wars have begun.
One of the wherefores is the Islamic State’s (IS) failure to win the day against Assad. Thanks to the Russian military support the Syrian government has lately been able to recapture several areas. In a relatively short time the Russians succeeded in what the US-led anti-IS coalition had not been able to achieve for the whole year before that – namely to stop the rise of the IS. However, the al-Qaeda successors are not defeated yet.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is already fighting a war against the Shiite Houthi rebels. However, the anti-Shiite front is expanding and threatening to encompass an area from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, and from the Turkish border to the Pakistani and Afghan borders. Riyadh is demonstratively showing its willingness to militarily intervene in the Middle East conflict and put things in order according to its own way of thinking, and thus concealing that it is itself part of the conflict. Saudi Arabia got together with its friend, the USA, to form an interest alliance against the ruling Alawites in Syria, who are considered to be Shiites and from whose ranks President Assad’s family originates. The reasons of the anti-Assad alliance are not exactly the same, but based on the motto: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, it was agreed to instigate a rebellion against the Assad government.
For this purpose Syrian Sunni clans were courted and supplied with money and weapons and logistical support. Initially Washington sources reported that a Free Syrian Army was fighting against the dictator Assad and for democracy. The Free Syrian Army soon revealed itself to substantially consist of Islamist militias such as al-Nusra Brigade and Islamic State (IS). This is a fact neither Riyadh nor Washington care to admit. However, the Free Syrian Army is hardly mentioned any longer, but instead Islamist murders are reported, preferrably with Christians as victims. To date, it is unclear what governments and institutions are clandestinely lending a helping hand to the Islamic State and its offshoots.

Lebanon as an alternative model

Lebanon is the only strongly Christian-influenced state of the Middle East. Originally it was a sort of autonomous sanctuary for Christians in the Ottoman Empire, who withdrew from oppression and repression to the mountainous coastal region. The country lost its Christian majority in the bloody turmoil of the Middle East conflict. Yet the country still exists and coheres, and this is thanks to the Christians and their culture-coining faith. Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East which has all groups involved in governance, thus it represents a unique exception.
And yet the Christians would also have sufficient reason to bear a grudge. They could resort to violence just like the other religious groups do, but they only do so if they are forced to. They know their history, but make no charges on its behalf.
Reasons for the fact that Christians no longer have a majority in the state which was meant as a country of Christians, are the creation of Israel and the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinians, Sunni Muslims and Christians. As those expellees’ chances of being able to return to their home countries in the foreseeable future dwindled, the PLO tried to conquer Lebanon as a new territory. It was supported by parts of the Sunni Lebanese.
The result was a bloody civil war. The PLO’s attempt was blocked. But the loss of human lives and the destruction were enormous. 27 years after the war Lebanon is still a long way from the prosperity, it had enjoyed before. Wealth that was due to the country’s Christians. Just as the Lebanese have to thank the Christians that their country has not become another Iraq or Syria , no second Yemen and no second Libya.
To go into further detail about the Lebanese entanglements between anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian, anti-Western and pro-Western, anti-Israeli and pro-Israeli forces, etc. would blow up this text incredibly and furthermore be likely to create more confusion than clarity.

The Saudi “revenge”

To understand the present situation it suffices to say that Syria attempted to help the Christians against the Palestinian attempt at conquest in the 1970s. And that the Shiites, whose number has significantly increased especially in recent decades, see themselves as the natural allies of the Syrian Alawites.
Fact is that the Christians of Lebanon are grateful to Syria for the military aid in the 1970s. However, it is also true that the majority of Lebanese Christians did not want a Lebanon that would be a Syrian protectorate and therefore advocated the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon concluded in 2005. The fact remains that the Lebanese Christians fully understand that their Christian fellow-brethren in Syria, with which they have often family ties, are much better off under the Alawite Assad than they would be under Sunni authority. While the Shiite Hizbullah is actively fighting on the side of Assad in Syria, the Lebanese Christians at least have sympathy, because of their solidarity with the Syrian Christians.
This partly explains why Lebanon does not want to participate in the anti-Shiite alliance forged by Saudi Arabia with the approval of the US. Their main reason for this is to protect themselves against another deadly and destructive war, in which nobody wants to get involved. The small country has to pay dearly for his refusal to participate. Riyadh recently announced a whole array of penalties against Lebanon. King Salman is reclaiming a donation of three billion dollars to upgrade the Lebanese army granted by his predecessor King Abdullah at the end of the year 2013. This huge sum that has since flowed partly into the army of the small Mediterranean country by way of arms deliveries from France. The common army represents an important stability factor in a state in which numerous armed militias still fought each other little more than 25 years ago.
Riyadh also expressed its displeasure by publicly warning that Saudis should avoid choosing Lebanon as a tourist destination for “security reasons”. Today Riyadh went even further and urged all Saudis to leave Lebanon, a measure also adopted by the closest Saudi allies in the Gulf region, Bahraini, UAE and Qatar. The Lebanese understand the meaning of this: The travel warning really is an indirect request to cut back economic relations with Lebanon. Today’s recall of Saudi citizens factually amounts in a civilian area to a general mobilisation in a military one.
The third threat, which was not officially pronounced but with sufficient conspicuousness informally circulated, has a direct and massive impact: Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf emirates might expel the 400,000 Lebanese employed in the Gulf region. It can easily be imagined what this would mean for Lebanon, a country with 4.4 million inhabitants (plus 450,000 Palestinian refugees and 1,250,000 Syrian refugees). By no later than the announcement of this threat every Lebanese knew that Saudi Arabia is serious and wants to bend the small Mediterranean country to its will. A fourth threat circulating as a rumour is that Gulf countries dominated by Sunni families might withdraw their money from the Lebanese banks and plunge the country into an economic and social crisis, and this completes the threatening scenario.

The Lebanese refusal

The “revenge” of Saudi king Salman followed the twofold refusal of the Lebanese Foreign Minister, Maronite Christian Jebran Bassil of the Free Patriotic Movement, to agree to an anti-Iranian resolution submitted by Saudi Arabia at the recent meeting of the Arab foreign ministers, and thus to join in the Saudi alliance. The Free Patriotic Movement domestically forms the minority faction of the Lebanese Christians. Yet the Christian majority and minority are largely in agreement regarding the foreign policy question of the Sunni-Shiite conflict powder keg, that is threatening to blow up the entire Middle East. A direct involvement of Lebanon in an uncontrollable Middle East war would be the end of the last remaining, significant and especially formative Christian presence in the Middle East.
Not only in Islamic circles but even among Lebanese Christians the conjecture is rumored that a destroyed hinterland as a kind of giant glacis would not be inconvenient to Israel nor to those Western forces who would be able to unabashedly lay their hands on the natural resources of the Middle East after a war. This assessment can do nothing to raise the overall mood. A leading Christian Lebanese does not want to speculate on such backgrounds behind the backgrounds. To him the facts on the table are sufficiently serious, and they caused him to act.
The Maronite Christian Fady Noun, deputy editor of the respected Lebanese daily “L’Orient-Le Jour” wrote an open letter to King Salman of Saudi Arabia in this dramatically worsening situation, in which you can smell the fuse even as far as Beirut. In this letter, he calls for mutual respect and illustrates why Lebanon can not be part of an alliance, because otherwise the only model of a sustainable solution to the conflict would be destroyed. Noun instead presents Lebanon to the Saudi king as a model for resolution, and he calls on him to choose peace instead of war.     •

Source: www.katholisches.info/2016/02/24/zuendet-saudi-arabien-die-lunte-zu-einem-neuen-nahost-krieg-offener-brief-eines libanesischen-christen-an-den-saudischen-koenig/ from 24.2.2016

(Translation Current Concerns)

“We must realise that we face a civilisational question that concerns everyone, the West included, the atheist West of the dead God, of colonial and imperial conquests, unequal exchanges, overt or covert racism and ethical relativism. The American philosopher Eric Voegelin, who reflected on millenarianisms, described this relativism as ‘a deification of society by itself’.
How in our dangerous times we miss the vigorous debate on civilisational relations that allowed us to play our role as cultural brokers for peace and truth. How we miss thinking about the 20th century we inherited. How we miss the in-depth reflection on Islam to understand what has led to the cultural and political aberration called ‘Islamic State’.”

Source: Open letter from Fady Noun to the Saudi Arabien King Salman (excerpt)

(Translation Current Concerns)