FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 4, 2016 - 9:00am

The deep slide in oil prices kept importing countries happy the last few months. Last week, however, the slide appears to have been reversed.

The global market is still oversupplied, after Saudi Arabia decided to hold its production levels and as Iran’s oil fields are rehabilitated after the trade sanctions are lifted. But a new fissure has developed between the two regional powers in the Middle East, producing tensions that introduce some amount of uncertainty into the medium term.

Last week, Saudi authorities proceeded with the execution of middle-level but high profile Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr as-Nimr. The execution was followed by an outburst among Shiite Muslims, particularly in Iran. The Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked with firebombs by a mob. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia withdrew its diplomatic presence from the Iranian capital and asked Iran to do the same.

Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni, with the Shiite minority constituting two million of its 18 million citizens. Iran is predominantly Shiite Muslim.

The two powerful, oil-rich nations are accused of conducting war by proxy in strife-ridden Syria and Iraq. Syria is predominantly Sunni although the Assad regime is Shiite. Iraq is predominantly Shiite with a Sunni minority that enjoyed political power during the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The collapse of the Saddam regime in Iraq unleashed sectarian and ethnic tensions among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The deposed dictatorship kept the simmering tensions under the lid through sheer brutality.  The ISIS is driven largely by Sunni militants driven out of Iraq by US forces – only to reorganize in the chaos of the Syrian civil war to return and overrun the main Iraqi Sunni cities.

Over in Syria, the democratic opposition to the Assad dictatorship was quickly marginalized by fundamentalist militants. The democratic opposition is now a small, insignificant force sheltered by the better-organized Kurdish minority. The Kurdish forces now carry the brunt of the fighting to liberate Syrian cities that fell under the control of ISIS.

Iran offered to send fighting forces into Iraq to help beat the ISIS. That was resisted by the western powers wary that the Shiite government in Baghdad will fall even more completely into Iran’s embrace.

At the same time, none of the western powers are willing to put boots on the ground once more in order to ward off the ISIS threat. France, Britain and the US are content sending in their air forces on bombing missions. They all admit bombing alone will not crush the terrorist movement.

Russia has sent in a substantial air force on the side of the beleaguered Assad regime. It is a force that alarms Turkey. That country, since the Ottoman Empire, has been wary of Russian power. This fear explains the eagerness of Turkey to join the NATO. It also explains why, a hundred years ago, Turkey conducted genocide against its Armenian minority seen as sympathetic to Russia.

When a Russian warplane strayed into Turkish air space last year, the Turks shot it down without hesitation. Such assertiveness on the part of the Turks is unprecedented. Ankara, however, is increasingly worried the situation next door could get out of hand, spilling into its borders.

Turkey now finds itself in a delicate situation. Although the Turks have no love lost for the Assad regime, they are worried the increasing power and influence of the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria could encourage the Kurdish insurgency within Turkish borders.

The Kurds comprise a significant minority in Turkey as they do in Iran, Syria and Iraq. By hewing closely to the western powers, the Kurds have created political leverage against the Arabs, ensuring them a virtual state in northern Iraq and uncontested control over many areas in northern Syria.

Ankara fears that if the Kurds consolidate territory in northern Iraq and Syria, this could encourage armed Kurdish secessionists in Turkey to step up their insurgency. There is little the Turks could do, however, to arrest the consolidation of a quasi-Kurdish state from the ruins of Syria and Iraq.

Kurdish militias constitute the strongest force on the ground in the areas where, with the help of comprehensive western air assaults, they have regained ground from the ISIS. Baghdad has been hesitant to send in predominantly Shiite military units into the Sunni areas occupied by ISIS.

Tehran suspects the Saudis have been clandestinely funding the Sunni extremists in an effort to prevent the consolidation of a Shiite regime in Iraq. The Saudis fear the consolidation of a Shiite regime in Baghdad will enable Baghdad to project its power and influence in the troubled region.

For their part, the Saudis suspect Tehran is clandestinely supporting the insurgencies in Yemen to hem in Saudi influence. Saudi Arabia last year sent military forces into Yemen to help quell the growing, predominantly Shiite insurgency.

Few are hopeful Syria and Iraq will ever be the integral nation-states they once were under Baathist rule. They are rapidly decomposing along sectarian lines while the other regional powers are advancing their security interests.

With Sheikh Nimr’s execution, the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia could worsen into armed confrontation. Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province is predominantly Shiite and is rife with talk of secession. Meanwhile, Iran has been upgrading its military capability since her armed forces were bloodied by Saddam Hussein years ago.

Nimr was a firebrand cleric, denouncing the Saudi monarchy and openly advocating secession. That made him a dangerous man for the Saudi authorities. His execution, however, could create even more problems for Saudi Arabia – problems that could imperil the world’s oil supplies.

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