30 Dec 2013

A Sarajevo moment for the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia’s vast gift to the Lebanese army of $3bn represents a very significant step in the continuing Sunni-Shia conflict being fought out in and around Syria. 

Mourners carry the body of Lebanon’s murdered finance minister, Mohammad Chatah.

Not many of us had a clue who Mohammad Chatah was when news broke two days after Christmas that he had been assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut. But it turns out that this former finance minister was still seen as a potential prime minister. Less note was made, in the moment of his death, of the fact that he had grown up in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have seized upon his death, and pro-Shia Iran-backed Hezbollah’s alleged involvement in it, as a significant stepping-up of what they perceive as an out-and-out Sunni-Shia war. Without wishing to sound hysterical in a region in which hysteria is rife, this could prove to be something of a “Sarajevo moment” (for it was in the assassination of the archduke of Austria in that city 100 years ago, that history judged was the start of world war one).

Taking sides

Enter the French. By chance, France’s President Hollande is on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia. Hey presto, the Lebanese army, formerly largely equipped with American weaponry, is to buy French. The $3bn Saudi gift to re-arm Lebanon’s army is to be spent exclusively in France.

Intriguingly, the one western power to stand out against the recent diplomatic opening with Shia Iran has been France.

Questions are bound to be raised as to whether western powers are now beginning to take sides in this harrowing religiously entwined war. Saudi and Qatari cash has been alleged to be funding some of the more radical fighters and jihadists who continue to pour into Syrian rebel lines.

Indeed, western analysts have long been concerned about the sources of Sunni radicalisation extending from Pakistan in the east, across Afghanistan, into Yemen, Somalia, and other parts of Africa.

Make no mistake, the news out of Lebanon, France, and Saudi Arabia represent a significant moment in a crisis that continues to spiral out of control.

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