Cross purposes

India's friends Israel and US differ sharply on the Arab world

Cross purposes
The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will push the rapidly changing West Asian landscape onto the middle of the agenda President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will discuss on Sunday. Terrorism was already a theme, but now cause and effect of that rampaging evil may also get an airing, something neither Riyadh nor Jerusalem quite like.

Abdullah, even as Crown Prince, was brilliant at managing Washington. Witness how he coped with all the criticism and suspicion when fifteen of the nineteen masterminds of 9/11 turned out to be Saudis.

He was on an equally slippery slope when ISIS was found with Saudi recruits. It also had active cadres inside Saudi Arabia. A few days ago, ISIS militia breached the Saudi border with Iraq and, working on prior intelligence, killed the general guarding the Kingdom’s northern frontier.

The kingdom’s incredible wealth made it more equal than others ever since the discovery of oil, but Abdullah’s recent co ordination of policy with Israel had enhanced his clout with the West in geometrical progression.

When he came out of convalescence from hospital in February 2011 and saw his friends Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as casualties of the Arab Spring in Cairo and Tunis, he swore to block the Spring.

He rained $135 billion on the people of Saudi Arabia, a brazen purchase of support. No monarchy would be allowed to fall, he declared. He even made up with the estranged Emir of Qatar whose singular asset, Al Jazeera TV, was required by him and his western allies for propaganda during the Syrian and the Libyan operations.

Let me explain this: When war breaks out, the first casualty is the truth. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and operation Desert Storm in February 1991, the global media has been called upon to cover so many conflicts, that principal channels like CNN and BBC lost credibility in the process of dressing up the West’s case. Al Jazeera TV built up a reputation covering the “other side”. An exasperated Washington bombed Al Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad. This boosted Al Jazeera’s credibility sky high, a priceless commodity at a time when audiences were simply not believing CNN, BBC and Fox News. But by serving the interests which the principal western media did in the past, Al Jazeera too has lost its sheen. The field is wide open for a truly Independent Indian global media.
Israel has elections on March 17. Kerry is pushing for a nuclear settlement with Iran, also in March

There are other, much more important Saudi initiatives, past and present, which have come a cropper. The terrorist mayhem in the world is commonly traced to the training imported to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. What is not so well known is the late Saudi interior Minister, Prince Naif’s scheme to train Mujahideen in Yemen as a bulwark against Soviet influence in Aden.

It is these which have mutated into today’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, linking up with Al Shabab in Somalia and spreading violence along the Sahel upto Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

Nearer home, Saudi Arabia has made itself extremely vulnerable by promoting interests to the South of it which are so unpopular among the people that the Shia Houthis are today in control of Sanaa.

Abdullah always flailed his arms against the Shias but the Arab arc surrounding his kingdom is just what he would abhor. Shias rule in Baghdad; Bashar al Assad (so far) is an immovable force in Damascus; Hassan Nasrullah is the most powerful leader of Lebanon. This has invited an Israeli riposte.

Israeli air strikes have hit where it should hurt: against Hezbullah, Syrian and Iranian military assets in the Syrian city of Quneitra. An Iranian General and six Hezbullah commanders have been wiped out. Iran says they were training Syrian hands against “Takfiri-Salafist terrorists”. There has been no statement from Washington and no retaliation from Hezbullah, Syria or Iran. Sometimes restraint is lethal.

Well, Israel has election on March 17. Kerry is pushing for a nuclear settlement with Iran, also in March. If the Israeli strike in Quneitra invited a response from, say, Hezbullah, the atmosphere would have been fouled up and impeded the nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond led a conference of 21 world leaders in London to strategize against the ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Consider the irony. Israelis killed military assets who were ostensibly training the sorts of forces that the sponsors of the London conference would require to fight the ISIS.

Are Jerusalem and Washington working at cross purposes? New Delhi is friendly with both. Here is a chance to obtain clarifications first hand.

The writer is a journalist based in India.