Sunday, December 4, 2016
A Proxy, Mate!
I’ve addressed the Shiite/Sunni schism in greater detail several times (see my October 20, 2015 blog, for example), but it continues to drive much of the conflict in the Middle East today. A short look at history merits examination, just to set up a relevant review of the Saudi participation in the Yemeni civil war and likely U.S. regional policy under the Trump presidency.
The Middle East has been a combustible region ever since the Western powers (primarily England and France… with participation by pre-Bolshevik Russia and Italy) began to erode the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Ottomans ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for over 600 years, ending in 1922 with their participation on the losing side of World War I. The Brits and the French were already calling the shots in vast stretches of Ottoman territory (e.g., the Brits in Egypt and the French on the Levant in what would later become Syria and Lebanon), long before the Turks actually lost formal control of those regions. After WWII, the Ottoman Empire was sliced and diced among Western powers.
Meanwhile, areas that had been fundamentally nomadic and tribal, especially in the Arabian peninsula, were slowly consolidating into their own nationhood, struggling for independence against rather clear territorial ambitions of Western powers (for example, the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916 which divided British and French spheres of control in and around the region around Syria and Iraq). Persia (modern day Iran) was once a perpetual power in its own right but was sucked up into the vortex of European colonialism.
Religion was the defining feature of struggles among the indigenous populations in the region. Extremely-Sunni Saudi Arabia, for example, legitimized their rule as the protectors of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Sunnism, accounting for around 80% of Islam, approaches faith with a government as the “protector” of Islam (a caliphate) and mandates that the faithful read the Qur’an in the original classical Arabic on a literal basis. Shiites, on the other hand, represent a less-than-20% minority of Islam (heavily concentrated in modern Iran and Iraq), believe that government itself must bow directly to God’s directives and that the Qur’an is a mystical tome, the meaning of which can only be interpreted by the highest prelate of the faith (which traditionally rested with a Pope-like leader called the “Imam”).
Shiites and Sunnis have fought against each other almost as quickly as Islam conquered so much of North Africa, parts of Europe, the Middle East and points north and east in the seventh century A.D. But Shia power unraveled when, in the 10th century, the 12th Imam simply disappeared. Sunnis pretty much held sway over Islam, amplified as large Sunni empires rules most of the Islamic world, culminating in with the Ottoman’s in 1301 (until 1922). Then, in 1979, it all changed.
With the Iranian revolution in that year deposing the Shah, a secular monarch with close ties to the U.S., a new religious supreme prelate, the Ayatollah Khomeini, became Shia’s de facto Imam. Iran become a full-fledged Islamic theocracy. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator in a nation that was 60% Shiite, quickly declared war on Shiite Iran. The first Shiite-Sunni surrogate war began and lasted from 1980 to 1988. Wahhabi (extreme Sunni Islam) Saudi money and arms (with American backing) took Hussein’s side, fighting to extinguish this nascent Shiite movement at its inception. Result? A stalemate. Saddam’s next challenge, seeking more oil, was to invade a former Sunni ally, Kuwait, resulting in his defeat in the First Gulf War.
But Iran has continually deployed her surrogates – mostly through its Hezbollah irregulars – in various battles across the region, wreaking havoc particularly in once apolitical Lebanon. Civil war reconfigured Lebanon, where Hezbollah became the predominant political party. Iran’s massive oil reserves gave her the munitions and financial wherewithal to challenge Sunni supremacy – represented in the extreme by Saudi fundamentalists. 80% Sunni Syria was under the dictatorial boot of the Assad family, oddly adherents to a Shiite sect (Alawites).
With the American presence in Iraq coming to an end, Iran – through her surrogates in Iraq – seized her moment. “Iran, convinced that the United States and Saudi Arabia would install a pliant Iraqi government — and remembering the horrors they had inflicted on Iran in the 1980s — raced to fill the postwar vacuum. Its leverage with Shiite groups, which are Iraq’s largest demographic group, allowed it to influence Baghdad politics.
“Iran also wielded Shiite militias to control Iraqi streets and undermine the American-led occupation. But sectarian violence took on its own inevitable momentum, hastening the country’s slide into civil war.” New York Times, November 19th.
When NATO allies finally exited Iraq, it took only moments for the Shiite Nuri al-Maliki regime (one of Iran’s surrogates) to make sure the 60% majority Shiites controlled the country, allowing a small minority of Kurds in the north to themselves. Sunnis in the west and southern parts of Iraq, and significant neighborhoods in Baghdad, found themselves deeply disenfranchised, facing even deeper discrimination and recrimination from their Shiite majority in Iraq and the Shiite leadership in Syria. A never-ending drought pushed almost a million Sunni farmers from their now fallow land. Abandoned by the world, ISIS stepped into the void, offering to battle on behalf of Sunnis constituents in both Iraq and Syria.
The recent flare-up in Saudi neighbor, Yemen, slowly wended its way from a horrific civil war into what is rapidly becoming a completely failed state. Once again, Iran saw an opportunity to deploy its Shiite surrogates – Houthis rebels – to destabilize and perhaps topple the Sunni government in Sana (Yemen’s capital), gnawing at the Saudi door. Saudis then attempted direct involvement in the Yemeni conflict, sending their own forces, mostly airpower, into the fray. The results were anything but what the Saudis intended. Their bombs and artillery shells seem to have blasted Yemen into the Stone Age, but they failed to defeat those Shiite rebels. The struggle continues.
“Once a provincial militant movement in the mountains of northern Yemen, the Houthis surged to prominence after they seized control of the country’s northwest in 2014. Since then, they have pushed the national government into exile and set off a new Middle Eastern war in which they are in the cross hairs of an intensive bombardment campaign by Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab countries… Now they are struggling to govern in the middle of a war that has ground to a destructive stalemate.
“In an interview in his car, because the Defense Ministry had been bombed, Brig. Gen. Sharaf Luqman, a spokesman for Houthi-allied military units, acknowledged that the front lines had scarcely moved in the past year.” New York Times, November 26th. The nation is decimated by bombed out ruins, but the Saudis (and their allies) have not dislodged the Houthis, and the indiscriminate Saudi bombing efforts have slowly gained the enmity of the even formerly sympathetic Sunni population.
How bad is it? “The health system and other safety nets that caught many children before their bodies withered away are frayed or have disappeared. International aid agencies are facing a multitude of barriers, including airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition helped by the United States and obstruction by the rebels who rule the capital, Sanaa, as well as the main northern sea port of Hodeidah.
“The U.N. Children’s Fund estimates that 370,000 Yemeni children are severely malnourished and facing death, and 2 million are in urgent need of help… ‘This is an entire generation that’s at risk here,’ said Erin Hutchinson, Yemen director for the aid agency Action Against Hunger. ‘We’re seeing a worsening situation as the conflict continues, and it’s not stabilizing. The needs are only deepening at the moment.’…
“Every day children are perishing in rural Yemen, where two-thirds of the nation’s population lives. Parents are forced to decide between saving their sick children and preventing healthier ones from following the same perilous route. Cemeteries in this desperately poor and rugged stretch of villages in the northwest contain the bodies of children who have recently died of hunger and preventable diseases. Most are buried in unmarked graves, their deaths unreported to authorities.” New York Times, November 30th. There are only losers in this civil war, some with much more to lose than others. That the Houthis are allied with their fellow Shiite Iran taints our perspective.
The United States aligned with the Saudis and thus the Sunni states, despite our overthrow of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. That WMD moment was what the Bush administration needed as an excuse to overturn the restrictions Congress imposed on the president after the Viet Nam war (read: the Patriot Act). Eager to restore her superpower status against the flailing United States, Russia embraced “the other side,” supporting the Shiite Assad regime with massive military backing, sidling up to Shiite Iran and basically opposing American policy at every turn. Sunnis vs. Shiites. Russia vs. the United States. The Middle East absorbed two more powers deploying and supporting their surrogates in the region.
Enter a new Trump administration, one ostensibly committed to unraveling Obama policies, including Obama’s attempting regime change in Damascus. Based upon the much-touted bromance between Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin, and America’s new president, Donald Trump, Trump seems to be headed towards a major realignment of power in the region. Confusion reigns supreme. Experts are tripping all over each other to determine what is likely to occur.
“So vague and contradictory were many of the pronouncements made by President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail that governments and analysts are puzzling out which ones he meant and how he would be able to implement them all.
“According to the more consistent of his statements, and conversations his advisers have had with analysts and officials, however, Trump will seek to bring about a significant recalibration of the existing order in the Middle East — in favor of Russia, away from Shiite Iran and to the benefit of Turkey and the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
“Some of his declared goals are not so very different from Obama administration policies that were set aside or unfulfilled because they proved too difficult to accomplish — such as the failed push to cooperate with Russia against terrorist groups in Syria and the expectation that Arab states will do more, and pay more, for regional security.
“Others mark a major departure, notably the threats to renege on the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, and suggestions that Trump will cut support for Syrian rebels and align the United States with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The blitz launched against Syrian rebel-held territory on Tuesday [9/15] by a newly assembled Russian flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean offered a taste of what may lie ahead. The attacks came hours after Trump spoke on the phone for the first time with Russian President Vladimir Putin about ways to improve U.S.-Russian ties, including a settlement for the crisis in Syria that will likely free up Russia to crush the rebellion against Assad’s rule.
“Yet other positions are hard to reconcile, such as Trump’s promises to do more to fight the Islamic State while also pledging to further disengage the United States from adventures abroad. Will Trump be an isolationist, continuing the risk-averse instincts of Obama? Or an interventionist, more in the mold of George W. Bush, whose global war on terrorism took the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?” Washington Post, November 15th. With global stability in the crosshairs, can these new vectors begin to drop the regional tensions down a giant step, crush ISIS and its ilk… or is a bad situation about to get that much worse.
I’m Peter Dekom, and Donald Trump is about to learn just how volatile the Middle East really is.