Thursday, January 7, 2016

Making (some) Sense of the Middle East

The tension between the two main factions of Islam has dramatically escalated over the past few days, as Saudi Arabia, and a few other countries, have severed their diplomatic ties with Iran. (This has had the added benefit of driving down oil prices, since both Sunni KSA and Shia Iran are major oil producers, each of which are refusing to lose market share by cutting production.) There remains widespread confusion in the west as to the nature of this conflict. So when it comes to evaluating the perpetual disaster that is the Middle East, I find the easiest strategy is to divide the actors into two sides. These sides are Sunni and Shia, the two major factions of Islam. These two groups have been at war for centuries, and the current conflicts in the Middle East are just the modern expression of this conflict (for a better display of the Sunni-Shia geography, check out this great map.)

shia-oil-cropped-2So on one side you have the Sunni nations and their allies:
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
United States/NATO

And on the other side you have the Shia and their allies:
Iran (Shia theocracy)
Iraq (population split, but Shia government)
Assad government in Syria
Hezbollah in Lebanon

As you probably know, the growing threat to the west is the rising militancy of factions of Sunni Muslims that have formed the terrorist groups of Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, and the Islamic State (ISIS). The Sunni nations listed above have been not-so-secretly funding these terrorist groups, partially in an attempt to take down the Shia Bashar Al-Assad who is the president of Syria. As a Shia Muslim, Assad is the only thing standing in the way of total Sunni domination of the Arab world, since the Shia in Iraq are barely clinging on power and the Iranians are isolated in the north. Assad has also been one of the few Arab leaders consistently protecting Arab Christian minorities from violence. The radical Islamists, who are mostly Sunni, have made it clear that establishing a Sunni caliphate, or Islamic State, is their goal. This is a much more radical ideology that even Al-Qaeda, which was mostly concerned with simply ridding the Muslim world of western influence.

Russia has been a long term ally with the Shia governments in Iran and Syria, partially because both nations were hostile with the United States and Turkey, and partially because of Russia’s conflict with the Chechens, who are mostly Sunni Muslims. The Russians and Turks have been enemies for centuries, constantly waging war over seaports and agricultural land. The Crimean War between Russia, and Turkey+Europe was one such fight. Russia has therefore chosen to ally itself with Shia Muslims, both because Russia’s main oil competitors are Sunni states, and because the Shia are a small minority within Islam whom the Russians deem to be worthy of defending.

Russia had been covertly supporting Assad’s fight against the rebellion in Syria since it began in 2011, but dramatically escalated its presence in Syria a few months ago, when they began flying their own sorties to bomb ISIS and the Syrian rebels in response to the downing of their airliner. This bombing campaign also had (for Putin) the added benefit of annoying NATO, of which Turkey (a supporter of the Syria rebels) is a member.

This conflict has been significantly worsened by the Obama Administration’s Cold War mindset. Habitually seeing Russia as the enemy has prevented the administration from clearly rebuking the increasing radicalization of Sunni Islam, which has awkwardly been funded by our Saudi and Turkish allies. Although we have traditionally seen Iran and Russia as adversaries, they are our clear allies in the fight against Sunni militants. The United States has always been good at dealing with state/ governmental enemies (the enemy we know). But history has shown that we have been terrible at dealing with non-state enemies, whether they be the Viet-Cong, Al-Qaeda, or now ISIS (the enemy we don’t). Although the governments of Iran, Russia, and Syria are horrible, brutal dictatorships, they are now, clearly, the least-worst alternatives to the radical Sunni guerrillas that are infecting the Middle East with ever-growing brutality.

Back in 2013, the United States was just a few days away from declaring war against Assad and toppling his regime. The Obama administration had drawn up plans for a full scale assault, and had bombers and ships in position ready to strike, only to call off the attack at the last second, claiming that Congressional approval was suddenly necessary. In retrospect, carrying through on this plan would have been a disaster on par with the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We now know that the Syrian rebels that were fighting Assad were mostly Sunni jihadists of various stripes, many of whom became ISIS. But even after the administration pulled the bombing at the last minute, it continued to insist on Assad’s removal and against any Russian involvement.

The events of the past few months, including the destruction of a Russian airliner and the massacre in Paris, revealed the administration’s Syria policy to be completely untenable. Just as the CIA-supported anti-Soviet mujahedeen morphed into Al-Qaeda during the 1980s, the CIA-supported anti-Assad rebels morphed into the uncontrollable Islamic State. This neocon Cold War strategy of training and arming rebels groups to fight against state enemies of NATO has repeatedly proven catastrophic, as these Islamist groups inevitably turn their anger against their western supporters.

For all its mistakes however, the Obama administration should be applauded for finalizing a nuclear deal with Iran. Secretary Kerry in particular deserves praise for his tireless efforts to finalize this deal, which was no easy task. Although Iran is still far from friendly towards the United States, at least the nuclear issue has been put on the back burner, at a time when we desperately need to stake out clear lines in this conflict. Had the deal not been struck, it’s likely that the US would formed deeper relationships with the Sunnis, making the fight against ISIS even more difficult.

Secretary Kerry’s recent remark that the US is “not seeking regime change” in Syria demonstrated that the administration’s position is slowly changing. Finally admitting that their previous approach to Syria was utterly wrong will be very difficult for any person in the White House to admit, especially since it fit the mold of previous US interventions. However last year, VP Biden accidentally admitted during a speech at Harvard that the US’ Sunni allies were the problem, saying "Our biggest problem was our allies… the Turks… the Saudis, the Emirates, etc, what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad."

There is certainly an argument to be made that Assad overreacted to the originally peaceful antigovernment protests in Syria that began during the 2011 Arab spring. But the reality here in 2016 is that Assad remains in power with the support of the Syrian people, at least in the eastern, more urban parts of the country. Despite western politicians and media portraying Assad as the Syrian version of Saddam Hussein, recent developments have made it clear that for the time being, the only hope for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict is for Assad to stay in power.

So I’d posit that the US create a sliding scale of Middle Eastern governments. The worst possible combination is religious dictatorships, followed by secular dictatorships, followed by secular democracies. We can debate whether the Assad government falls under secular dictatorship or secular democracy, but there is no debating that Assad is one of the few remaining Middle Eastern leaders who is committed to secular government of some type. The Saudis on the other hand, fall on the worst end of the scale- they are neither secular nor democratic, as last week’s mass execution clearly demonstrated. For the Middle East to have any hope of a peaceful future, the west must embrace and support secular governments, even if that means taking sides against governments with which we have been previously allied (KSA and Turkey).

Western interventions in Iraq, and now Syria, have destroyed two ancient societies and thrown the entire region into chaos. Heres to hoping our leaders will see the writing on the wall and turn away from the Medieval Saudi oligarchs, and toward more modern and moderate Middle Eastern leaders.


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