John Kerry’s Silly Play
The secretary of state prattles about imaginary treaties while the Arab world is engulfed by a Sunni-Shia civil war
In turn, the Sunni states are backing the Sunni Arab majority in Syria, pouring in money and arms. If some of their assets are unsavory characters affiliated with al-Qaida, the reality is that, absent the United States, the Gulf Arabs have no other security pillar to protect and advance their interests.
The Sunnis are of two minds about the conflict: They both welcome it insofar as they see it as the realization of a historical dream to put down the upstart Shia once and for all. The Sunnis also fear the conflict. They believe that the Syria campaign may be even more dangerous and destabilizing than the Iran-Iraq war, which—terror attacks aside—was largely restricted to a relatively limited field of battle between the borders of those two countries. The current enactment of the Sunni-Shia war, on the other hand, threatens to extend to everywhere in the Middle East where the two sects live in close proximity to each other. Sectarian violence in Iraq has picked up as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki further consolidates his power and the Sunnis are fighting back. Earlier in the week, 70 people were killed in car bombings and shootings in Baghdad in a round of violence that may augur a return to the worst sectarian fighting since the country’s barely averted civil war under the American military occupation. Now that the Americans are gone, communal violence between Sunnis and Shia is likely to escalate.
In Lebanon it seems that neither the Iranians nor the Saudis have an interest at present in opening another front. Tehran believes that Hezbollah firmly controls Lebanon and there is no reason to risk that control while Hezbollah fighters are pouring into Syria to give Assad’s depleted forces a breather. Riyadh also wishes to focus its efforts on Syria. But who knows how long the Lebanese will continue to cross the border to fight each other when they can save on car and bus fare, sleep in their own beds, and fire RPGs at each other at home?
So, what does any of this have to do with America, besides the fact that no one likes seeing footage of dead babies on YouTube? Why not, as some argue, let the Sunni and Shia kill each other until they get tired of killing? For the United States, the gravest danger of the Sunni-Shia war is that it might spread to the Persian Gulf, which remains a fulcrum of the global economy.
The possibility that the fires that are burning in Syria and Iraq might spread to the Gulf gets more real by the day. Bahrain, an oil-rich country ruled by Sunnis, has a restive Shiite majority. Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority inhabits the country’s oil-rich eastern province. The Sunni rulers of the Gulf States appear to relish the opportunity to take on Iran and the Shia, especially in Syria, the historical homeland of the first Arab empire, the Umayyad dynasty. Without Washington on the spot to rein in Arab triumphalism, the Saudis are likely to over-estimate their power, causing damage not only to themselves, but also the global economy and therefore vital American interests.
Obama might not see the Iranian nuclear program as a very big problem—it’s not the Soviet Union after all. His apparent focus on al-Qaida rather than on Iran as America’s major strategic threat may suggest he believes that, in the long-run, the Shia, as a regional minority, are a better match for American values and interests than the Sunni majority, whose millennia-long domination of the Shia has given rise to the sectarian supremacism that in turn gave rise to al-Qaida. There are good reasons, in other words, for America to stay out of the Sunni-Shia civil war. What a good secretary of state should be telling the president right now is that such a course of action, while perhaps preferable, may not be possible.
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Why is a Jewish group dedicated to tolerance honoring a politician who has failed to support religious minorities?