By M K Bhadrakumar
The narrative could not have been simpler – Saudi Arabia has taken its cold war with Iran, which is being fought on the beaches, in the air and in the hills of the Middle East, to the great arena of the Muslim ummah. And Iran has badly lost in the tournament.
However, the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca this week had a subtle subtext, and anyone who knows Muslim politics would sense that on such occasions the subtexts are invariably more significant than the manifest narrative.
The narrative itself is that Syria has been banished from the Sunni world and Iran could do nothing to stop it from happening. It is posted all over the Western media. Washington even expressed satisfaction that a “strong signal” had been delivered to Damascus.
But was Syria indeed the core issue at the OIC summit? It seems more like a case of the Syrian crisis providing the peg on which certain subtexts could be hung for all to see.
No one is mistaken that the majority opinion within the OIC as reflected in the decision to suspend Syria’s membership is going to decide that country’s future. Arguably, the summit sends a signal to Syria, but then, Damascus has no dearth of signals these days from far and near, and that is not the issue. All said, the OIC as a regional organization is notoriously ineffective. For decades it fulminated against India on the Kashmir issue and even constituted a Contact Group on the subject – with Turkey and Saudi Arabia charioting it – but New Delhi chose to ignore it and no one knows today whether or not it is still around.
A tough regime like the one in Damascus would know that the OIC is toothless and that Saudi Arabia’s wish has always been a command for the organization. Ironically, Syria used to counsel New Delhi not to lose sleep over the ISI Contact Group.
The heart of the matter is that the Syrian crisis has now transcended the Saudi-Iranian paradigm and has morphed into a first-rate wrestling match by external powers over regional hegemony – and the most powerful among them are not even Muslim countries. It is not in the interests of the most powerful protagonists – the United States, Europe, Russia, China – to give the impression that their security policy is to support the Sunnis or the Shi’ites in the Middle East.
The Western powers are reluctant to intervene in Syria while the diplomatic track has tapered off; Russia and China are moving on with their mundane life after having thrice drawn the “red line” in the United Nations Security Council; and the US and Turkey have been left in solitude to grapple with the difficult question of how to proceed to end the violence against the backdrop of the failure of diplomacy and the blunt refusal of the Bashar al-Assad regime to give in despite all the body blows given to it – this, in a nutshell, is the current Syrian situation.
Simply put, the OIC has no role here. In fact, if it had one, that too was lost on Wednesday after the flawed decision at Mecca to draw the bridges leading to Damascus – whereas, with a little more imagination, the OIC could have aspired to position itself to play the role of a facilitator-cum-mediator at an opportune moment in future.
So why did Saudi Arabia think up this untimely initiative to convene an extraordinary summit of the OIC? The central objective of the Saudi initiative was to present a united front against sectarianism in the Muslim world. Tehran understood this early enough, which explains its considered decision to participate in the summit in Mecca despite the near-certainty that the conclave would end up censuring the Syrian regime in one form or another.
In turn, Iran also rose to the occasion by giving a measured response at the level of the foreign minister to the OIC’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Mecca: “Syria should have been invited to the summit to defend itself and also so that the participants could have listened to its official views.” He explained that Tehran objected to the OIC decision because “this is against the very charter of the organization”. Salehi added: “In our opinion, cooperation is more logical [than suspension and] … we should seek a mechanism to exit the Syrian crisis by way of the opposition and the government engaging in talks to create favorable conditions” to end the crisis.
Redrawing the rules of the game
Second, the developments in Syria are steadily bringing religious sectarianism into the open in a way that does not suit any of the major regional protagonists – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar or Turkey – since almost all of them are as much vulnerable to the fallouts from any deepening of the sectarian fault line as Syria could be today.
Shi’ites constitute almost 20% of the Saudi population, more than 35% in Kuwait and almost 70% in Bahrain. Alawites are a restive minority with long-standing grievances of persecution, accounting for 20% of Turkey’s population (on top of the alienated Kurds, who form another 20%). Indeed, Iran too has a substantial Sunni minority.
Third, no matter what happens on the ground, Sunnis are going to play a much more influential role in Syria’s political life than before, which again means that none of the regional protagonists stands to benefit from pushing the envelope and escalating religious tensions. Also, the fallouts of religious tensions are certain to be very serious. The signs are visible already that the Shi’ite-dominated eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia are on the boil. This constitutes a formidable challenge to the royal family both in geographic and economic terms.
On Wednesday, even as the OIC began its deliberations in Jeddah, ominous signs appeared in Lebanon, with the Shi’ite Meqdad clan kidnapping more than 20 Syrians in retaliation for the abduction of one of their kinsmen by the so-called Free Syrian Army. The Meqdad clan has threatened that “the snowball will grow” and that Saudi, Qatari and Turkish nationals will be targeted.
Saudi Arabia promptly issued an advisory to its nationals to leave Lebanon immediately. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have taken similar steps. There are reports of dozens of Syrians being kidnapped in Beirut on Wednesday and of gunmen taking to the streets in the Shi’ite suburb of Tiro in the southern part of the city. That is to say, while the OIC summit initiative may not have any direct impact on the near-term trajectory of developments in Syria itself, it has taken into account the existential challenge posed by religious tensions and has adopted a long-term approach aimed at containing the several available potentially inflammable political hot spots in the region from assuming sectarian overtones.
In sum, the OIC summit’s rebuke to Syria adds up to little consequential beyond the symbolic. The summit could not be expected to heal the Saudi-Iranian rift, which stems from a clash of national interests. But what the OIC summit aimed at it may well be achieving, namely to redraw the rules of the game in Syria and to “secularize” the political differences and conflicts.
How far the OIC’s message will travel among the diehard militants time only will tell, but King Abdullah certainly made an important conciliatory gesture to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad by seating him at his side to welcome the leaders attending the summit.
As Reuters reported: “Ahmadinejad, wearing the dark suit and shirt without tie favored by Iranian leaders, sat at the left hand of the king in his traditional Arab robes. The two were shown talking and sometimes laughing together.”
This is where the “subtext” makes its presence felt as the real narrative. By any reckoning, the gesture to Ahmadinejad was an overture by the Saudi king to the Iranian nation that no matter what happens in Syria (or over Syria) in the coming period, “we are both Muslims”.
Curiously, a summit that was billed as a potentially big showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran ended by adopting King Abdullah’s proposal on the setting up of a center in Riyadh for dialogue among different Muslim sects. It is tempting to think that the OIC may have understood finally its tryst with destiny.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
See online: A Saudi overture to Iran