Daesh may be losing ground on several fronts, but there is a danger less spoken of in the western media which will have just as great an existential impact on the nations of the Near and Middle East and maybe even beyond: the precarious state of health of the leaders of the region, particularly those who are Shiites.
Shia Iran and the complex succession of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution
Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, the highest authority of The Islamic Republic of Iran, is reported to have widespread cancer and when he passes away, there is likely to be a harsh battle for power between the two largest clans in the Persian political arena: the hardline ultraconservatives and the more moderate reformists.
From an ideological standpoint, there is little difference between the policy of the defence of the regime, as enforced by the successor of the Ayatollah Khomeiny and that of Hassan Rohani, the current Iranian president. However, in practice, their positions are markedly different. One of the plainest examples of this is the recent agreement on nuclear power, which was lambasted by the regime’s hardliners, including the Pasdarans, the core of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. There are two reasons which explain such a divergence. The first is ideological and refuses any concessions made to the the West which might be construed as a weakness both on an internal and on a regional level. The second is economic. Indeed, a more open approach could result in the redistribution of the control of both resources and the military-industrial apparatus. If such were to be the case, the Pasdarans would stand to lose the most.
As for the wider Persian society, it yearns for more freedom. There has recently been a drastic clampdown on social media via numerous measures, the goal being to silence the clamor of public opinion. The criticism pertains most particularly to the regime’s role in the Syrian crisis, which has led to great loses, including many in the ranks of high-ranked officers. The country’s minorities, particularly the Kurds are also voicing their opinions. The latter are growing increasingly frustrated with having to live under such tight control whereas their Iraqi and Syrian brothers are enjoying an increasing degree of participation and autonomy.
In the absence of popular, charismatic figures, the Iran of today, albeit seen by some as a pole of stability, is quite likely to experience a period of unsettlement, as its neighbors have.
The Lebanese Hezbollah and the succession of Nasrallah
Over the last few years, the Shiite movement, which is a veritable state within the state of Lebanon and the armed wing of Iran, has seen all the potential successors to its leader, Hassan Nasrallah die in suspicious circumstances. This is all the more serious as Nasrallah, like Khamenei, has cancer which is at an advanced stage. Although Israel was immediately accused of the deaths, internal accomplices would have been necessary to accomplish such acts. This could indicate the existence of strong divergences within the Islamist militia, the main causes of which are to be found in its external operations.
To begin with, the consequences of the second Lebanese war against Israel in 2006 were disastrous both for the Land of the Cedar and Hezbollah, despite official rhetoric declaring a divine victory. Indeed, the Shia militia, following orders from Iran and without the go-ahead of the Lebanese government, decided to declare war on Israel. And the country’s infrastructures as well as the militia still bear the scars. The non-Shiite country’s leaders and population have not forgotten. In addition, the militiamen of Hezbollah are on the front lines in Syria and are paying with their lives to do what even the Iranian Pasdarans are unwilling to do. Now, a growing fringe within the movement is voicing its opposition to the current policy and the unreserved submission to the Persian mullahs, even if the majority of their resources come from Teheran, as they were recently forced to acknowledge.
It is more than likely that as Nasrallah’s health declines, there will be an increase in the confrontation between those who on the one hand, aspire to being a political force in the Lebanese landscape and on the other hand, those who are staunchly aligned with the Islamic Republic.
The impossible succession to Mahmoud Abbas at the head of the Palestinian Authority?
Although he is a non‑Shiite, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority is trapped in the age-old conflict which the two main components of Islam have been fighting out. At the age of 81, he is the successor of Yasser Arafat, elected in 2005 for 4 years and whose mandate was prolonged, without consulting the people after the coup d’Etat by Hamas in Gaza in 2007. Since then, the West Bank and the narrow coastal strip have been living apart like two distinct, rival entities. Despite his weakening state of health, the Palestinian leader has not prepared his succession in his party, the Fatah, nor that within the Palestinian Authority. Thus today, there are numerous candidates to succeed him, be they officially declared or not.
As for Hamas, it has experienced irreconcilable divisions between its political wing and its armed wing in Gaza as well as the ramifications of the latter in the West Bank and its “exiled political leadership”. Since the last conflict in 2014, in order to stay in power, the political wing of Hamas in Gaza has been avoiding an escalation with its Israeli neighbor by controlling the excesses of the other factions. The reason for this is that another confrontation would most likely sound its death knell. The armed wing of the Islamic militia on the other hand, as well as the Islamic jihad, continue to obey orders from Teheran and are seeking confrontation not only with Israel, but also with the political wing of Hamas in Gaza and with the Palestinian Authority.
There are all the elements in this family struggle to deprive the Palestinian people for many years to come of the independence they dream of.
What is to be the outcome for the Shia leaders and their troops?
It is to be feared that as these various crises all have internal sources, the resolution of the question of power will be found by designating a common enemy, as is unfortunately often the case.
Here, the enemy is obvious: Israel and the Sunni nations. That said, there is a clear awareness among certain leaders that they have a lot to lose: a rash act could well enflame the region, starting off with the northern borders of Israel (Golan, Lebanon) et those in the south (Gaza, Sinai). Indeed, the Iranian regime’s hardliners via the Lebanese Hezbollah and their support in Gaza as well as in the « Shia arc », could thus shift attention elsewhere in order to strengthen their power and that of their partners, thus supplanting the more « moderate » movements
A veritable threat anticipated by Sunni rulers and Russia?
The recent protocol by Egypt for the return of two islands in the Straits of Tiran to their legitimate owner, Saudi Arabia, which had ceded them in 1950 to fight the « Zionist entity », offers new, important perspectives. If the official version is the construction of a bridge by the Wahhabi kingdom in the Red Sea to link the two countries, consulting Israel on the project and obtaining her approval of it clearly indicates that hostilities have officially ceased with Riyad. It is also part of a wider scheme, albeit discreet, which has seen cooperation between the Sunni nations and Israel to counteract both Sunni jihad supporters and unrivalled Persian influence on policy.
Furthermore, Turkey and Israel have also signed an agreement re-establishing their relationship after a fall-out which lasted a number of years after the boarding of the Mavi Marmara which was attempting to bypass the blockade of Gaza. This new relationship contributes to reinforcing a united front to face shared challenges, which the Arab Sunni nations are also confronted with.
Similarly, the strategic viewpoints which Russia and Israel share concerning the Syrian crisis and which can be seen increasingly on the ground, have a shared goal, whereas Moscow is officially a close ally of Theheran. This shows a shared willingness to control a potentially explosive situation, particularly in preventing the transfer of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah by Bachar el-Assad, all under the supervision of Iran.
The end of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement?
The 1916 Sykes-Picot saw France and The UK dividing the remains of the Ottoman Empire out between themselves. Despite the promises of independence, including notably the pledge made to the Kurds, the Near and Middle East were divided up into zones of influence in which nations were created artificially, without the slightest thought going towards the local socio‑cultural factors, where the notions of tribes and clans prevail. Since then, this region with its rich history and resources has constantly been sought after and has been the scene of numerous conflicts involving the planet’s most powerful nations, which have used those of the region to strengthen their power.
With the arrival of Daesh (the Arab acronym of the Islamic State or ISIS), several states yielding from the sharing out of the region -Syria and Iraq- have already lost their identities. But Iran is also responsible here, as it sees itself as the protector of the Shia populations wherever they may be, for example in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. To be added to this is the longtime-subdued desire for independence of the Kurds, who are an essential tool in the fight against the jihad-driven Sunnis, and whose peoples are dispersed notably in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The well-intended “Western Doctors”
Thus, neither international peace conferences, UN resolutions nor occasional alliances will offer a lasting solution to a conflict which is as inextricable as its genesis is complex.
100 years on, it seems naive to continue to believe that the division of the region via the Sykes-Picot agreement is still relevant when the reality on the ground tells an entirely different story.
The West must take this into account if it hopes to find a solution to a conflict by which it is now also directly concerned.