MUQTADA al-Sadr is up to something. In 2004 occupied Iraq, the nationalist leader who later engineered the Sadrist movement was even demonized as America’s number one enemy – briefly dethroning Osama bin Laden. Now, he’s being painted – by the usual Wahhabi-coddling suspects – as some sort of Reconciliator. Last month, al-Sadr flew to Jeddah to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a. MBS, the House of Saud destroyer of Yemen. This was only a year after al-Sadr was calling for protests outside Riyadh’s embassy in Baghdad for the Saudi execution of key Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. A few days ago, al-Sadr flew to Abu Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan – who happens to be MBS’s mentor. So what’s going on here? Sadrists are essentially nationalist working class urban Iraqis, not exclusively Shiites. Al-Sadr is very critical of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government and used to support – sort of – former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Crucially, he wants the dissolution of the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units, PMU) who have been instrumental in the fight against Daesh. According to official GCC spin, al-Sadr’s travels are all about countering Shiite-led Iran’s expansion and “aggression.” Yet the spin about his blasting of Iranian influence in Iraq tells only part of the story. Wily al-Sadr in fact is against any interference – from Iran but also from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, Sunni Turkey and pro-Kurdish Israel. On the other hand, al-Sadr called last year for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation in Syria – something that aligned him with interference/pro-regime change Riyadh and Ankara. The notion that the House of Saud will consider investing in Shiite- majority southern and central Iraq and send humanitarian aid to internally displaced Iraqis, as confirmed by al-Sadr’s office, reads like lousy Orwellian newspeak. A quick glance at how the House of Saud is treating Shiites in Yemen and in its own Eastern province debunks it for good. The Saudis also promised to “strengthen Arab Shiite authority” in Najaf and Karbala. That’s open interference in religious Shiite matters – as quietist Najaf is openly opposed to Khomeinist Qom. The Saudis will also “consider” opening a consulate in Najaf and operate flights from Najaf to Saudi Arabia. This whole charade can be interpreted as Riyadh using Najaf as a sort of bridge to Baghdad. MBS has let out the notion that he would like Prime Minister al-Abadi to be a mediator in Riyadh and Tehran’s intractable relationship. Iran has welcomed the idea – assuming that’s not a Saudi diversionist tactic. The House of Saud game is mostly about the 2018 elections in Iraq. Al-Sadr has been the proverbial king maker in previous elections. Yet the notion that the Saudis may be able to buy al-Sadr to become ‘The Man From Riyadh’ is ludicrous. Al-Abadi and al-Maliki (himself heavily supported by the PMU) will run united, and may get more than 120 seats in Parliament. In this case, game over for al-Sadr What this House of Saud power play reveals is, once again, desperation – caused essentially by its miserable defeat in Syria. Thus the shift into trying to counter Iranian “aggression” in Iraq instead of Syria. Syria: the facts on the ground: Way beyond the al-Sadr-Saudi love fest, Mesopotamia and the Levant, in the post-Daesh era, are indeed unrecognizable compared to the state of play in the early 2010s. The facts on the ground in the Syrian war theater are stark. While the Beltway was blinded by regime change, Moscow swooped in and with a small expeditionary force turned the Middle East game upside down. While Russian jets fully coordinated with an array of forces on the ground, Russian diplomacy ended up closing down all manner of war fronts and imposing ceasefires or de-escalation zones. A New Syrian Army (NSA?), instead of those walking dead FSA, is now fully battle-tested, in both conventional and guerrilla warfare, and with morale extremely high to the point that Hezbollah now needs to deploy only a few of its officers to coordinate each Syrian unit. Popular national units, Hezbollah-style, or even PMU-style, are being built by Damascus as the backbone of future resistance forces against any invaders, direct or by proxy. While the CIA and the House of Saud, Qatar (which later repented) and Turkey (which later aligned with Russia) were obsessed by their regime change crusade, “investing” in chaos spread by “moderate rebels” and demented jihadis alike, Iran invested billions of cold hard cash in Syria – including paying salaries to troops, buying oil, logistical support and building medicine factories. So apart from the NSA, the ones fighting jihadis on the ground are an array of Shiite militias. They include resistance groups sometimes referred to as Iraqi Hezbollah as well as the Local Defense Forces in Aleppo and National Defense Forces uniting Alawites and Sunnis, all backed by Iranian military advisers. Hezbollah, for its part, is even stronger today than in 2006. In a nutshell, it was essentially Hezbollah that defeated al-Qaeda in Syria. Most of all, the divide-and-rule Takfiristan project is dead. Daesh and al-Qaeda are being smashed – and will be reduced to squalid hit and run ops. The Trump administration ditched “Assad must go” as well as CIA financing of “moderate rebels.” Both Syria and Iraq won’t be partitioned. And on the Pipelineistan front – a key reason for the war – we may even find in the foreseeable future Iran and Qatar teaming up to sell natural gas to Europe. So there will be no neo-con New Middle East. Instead, the “4+1” – Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, plus Hezbollah – has gained the upper hand. Live with it. The joys of leading from behind: Right into the fray steps in the Damascus International Fair, starting this Thursday. It is indeed the foundational stone for the revival of the Syrian economy. What nations are represented at the fair tells everything one needs to know about the future. All the BRICS are there, as well as Iran, Iraq and Cuba. Who’s not there? France, the UK, Turkey, the House of Saud and the US – all previous supporters of regime change, “moderate rebels” and, by proxy, Salafi-jihadis. No wonder Russia, China and Iran – crucially, the three major poles of Eurasia integration – will receive “high priority”, according to Damascus, on Syria reconstruction. So it’s not only the “4+1” who are gaining the upper hand; enter the Chinese juggernaut. As Asia Times has reported, the Arab-Chinese Exchange Association even rolled out a previous red carpet, promoting the Damascus fair in Beijing in an event called “First Project Matchmaking Fair for Syria’s Reconstruction.” A key participant was the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Beijing already sees Syria as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). After all this “New Middle East” is crucial for China, especially as its largest source of oil imports, expected to remain over 50% in the foreseeable future. The current state of affairs was already envisaged by international relations scholar Wang Jisi way back in 2012 in his groundbreaking study Marching Westwards: The Rebalancing of China’s Geostrategy, which codified Chinese strategic expansion from Central Asia to the Middle East. BRI is the epitome of this vision – as it will install an orgy of connectivity between China, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. For Beijing, Syria is extremely attractive as a key trans-shipment hub into Iraq, Lebanon and the Levant as well as enabling direct access to the Mediterranean. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) not only is a shareholder in the top two Syria oil companies, but also signed hefty deals for research and development assistance, while Sincochem owns rights in one of the two largest oil fields in Syria. Damascus is very much aware of the subtle Chinese “leading from behind” Syria policy. Beijing, allied with Moscow, thwarted every NATO-induced scheme to condemn/sanction Syria at the UN Security Council. Beijing was always adamant that Syria would not be regime-changed – with devastating militia wasteland consequences – as in Libya. The “moderate rebel”/Salafi-jihadi horror show in Syria kept China on red alert, considering its possible “export” to Xinjiang. Al-Sadr, playing his Wahhabi game, would have nothing to lose by taking a few cues from the Chinese Politburo. Bide your time. Don’t let it be known you’re leading from behind. And pounce when you identify real winners. Beijing was not rattled by America’s “pivot to Asia” – which, by the way, collapsed under its own weight. Trouble in the eastern front? Subtly invest in the western front. And reap your benefits side by side with the “4+1.” Iraq, by the way, is part of the “4+1.” If al-Sadr plays his cards right he may even be upgraded from MBS to Xi Jinping. Published in Daily Times, August 211st 2017.