All Fall Apart?


Former CIA officer Robert Baer has a commentary in Newsweek International examining the consequences of the death of King Fahd. According to a Syrian source of his, of the 1,200 suspected suicide bombers arrested by Syria, some 85 percent were Saudis.

Eighty-five percent? This can't be good. Saudi Arabia sits on 25 percent of the world's proven oil reserves. It is the only producer with enough spare capacity to stabilize oil markets during crises. So what if these jihadists crossing from Syria into Iraq decide, sooner or later, to take their war back home, perhaps by attacking the kingdom's oil infrastructure in the same way the Iraqi resistance is doing in Iraq? That's a scenario that keeps Washington awake at night.

Indeed, but it's what Baer writes later in the piece that shows how potentially dangerous the Iraq war has become to the Saudis, but also how, for better or worse, how such loyalties as ethnicity, sect and tribe, have taken over as the prime motivators of regional actors. Baer writes:

Two months ago, in Qum, [in Iran,] I spoke with Grand Ayatollah Saanei about the phenomenon of suicide bombings. I expected the usual diatribe against the United States but instead his real anger was directed at the "Wahhabi" suicide bombers, almost all of them Saudis, killing Iraqi Shia. "They are wolves without pity," he said. "Sooner rather than later, Iran will have to put them down."

While Baer interprets this as an Iranian threat to mobilize Saudi Arabia's marginalized Shiites, who sit atop the oil fields in the kingdom's eastern province, the situation is even more disturbing. We may be fast moving toward a generalized logic of sectarianism that will undermine the unitary pretensions of several states in the region. This is not an American intention, nor do some of the states involved, namely Syria, understand how their playing with fire in Iraq may turn against them if the outcome is a loose confederalism or partition. (To this, add that the Saudis may see an interest in pushing harder for the fall of the Assad regime in Damascus to ensure the Sunni majority can regain power there, as a counterweight to Shiite gains in Iraq.)

The sectarian dismantlement of the Arab states has long been regarded by Arab conspiracy theorists as an American goal, dating back to the Nixon-Kissinger era, motivated largely by the need to protect Israel. No evidence for such a plan exists, nor are you likely to find any, but there is a paradox here: If the U.S. fails in its Iraq project, it will, inadvertently, enhance the logic of sectarian disintegration.

There is another culprit, beyond American ambition in Iraq: Arab nationalism. The Arab states, in concealing for decades domestic sectarian and tribal divisions under an iron curtain of imposed nationalist unanimity (both inside states and within a broad purported "Arab nation"), must now look warily at a reality telling a different story, where sectarian and ethnic identities often prevail.

In Iraq, we're witnessing the consequences of this daily. In Syria, Alawites can no longer purport to be as one with Sunnis under the great Baathist tent, since the levers of power are not only in Alawite hands, but actually in the hands of the Assad family. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Shiites remain second-class citizens, despite halting efforts to give them some rights. In fact, in many parts of the Arab world the nation-state format offers few convincing solutions to myriad social and political cleavages.

Lebanon alone, while suffering from the same problems as elsewhere, acknowledged this reality by creating a sectarian system. Though much maligned by Arab nationalists and their cheerleaders, it may be a way for the future.

The Bush administration still insists on a unified Iraq under a federal system. Meanwhile, supporters of effective partition must yet prove that most Iraqis will go along with their plan, and that the consequences won't be far more traumatic than what we have today (look at the creation of a separate India and Pakistan). If the Americans turn tail and leave, they will leave behind a sectarian war that will engulf the region. At best, they will have to return to the fray at some later stage to protect their access to oil.

What the Arabs also realize is that there is no Arab antidote to avoid chaos: Arab nationalism is pixie dust. That's why, even if the Americans screw up in Iraq, those who advised against a war find there themselves defending a mirage: America should have never stuck its hand into the hornet's nest, they argue, because what we have now is worse than what we had before. But the status quo they defended was itself aberrant and abhorrent. The idealists stupidly believed Arab nationalism could overcome sectarian, tribal and ethnic divisions, even as they thrived off them; the cynics argued: Let's stick with dictatorship to guard against sectarian breakdown and Islamism. Both approaches were examples of sins by omission.