Fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is no picnic. America’s allies in the Middle East are often nothing but couriers delivering American arms to America’s enemies. The drill is for the U.S. to equip an Arab “ally” with up-to-date weaponry, only to have its warriors promptly retreat, abandoning their latest military hardware in the field, sometimes before uncrating it. Shipping arms directly to ISIL could achieve the same result at less cost, not to mention less humiliation.
Iraq’s army made sure by a series of hasty withdrawals that ISIL could acquire the most advanced equipment of the 21st century for its quest to recreate the 11thcentury, featuring the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordóba, or something similar. If it had been America’s aim to assist ISIL in this endeavor, it could have done no better. The Obama-administration’s policy, insofar as it had one, was to arm those afraid to stand up to the barbaric revivalists of the Middle Ages, while refusing to have anything to do with forces that might actually have resisted ISIL, such as the Shia militias of the region.
In defence of the Obama-presidency, it only shares the error of previous presidencies in this respect. America’s reluctance to ship arms to where they may do some good is understandable – in part. The Iran-sponsored Shia groups may fight Sunni ISIL to the death, but they’re no friends of America or Western-style democracy. The Islamist theocracy they would like to see triumph in the region is every bit as medieval as the Caliphate of ISIL, except it may, in addition, become nuclear-powered if the ayatollahs of Tehran have their way.
There has never been any good reason not to assist the Kurds, however. Yet the West hadn’t done so until it became a matter of too little, too late. Fear of secession? A functional and friendly Kurdistan would benefit the region much more than a dysfunctional and hostile Iraq.
The great poet of the British raj, Rudyard Kipling, warned about fools who try to hustle the East, and there’s little doubt that in the 20th century the Western powers have been such fools. The most foolish thing was their belief that in modern times they can have the benefits of empire without paying its costs. They didn’t so much hustle the East as they hustled themselves.
In fairness, they were not such fools as to take sides in the ancient Sunni-Shia schism that divides the house of Islam, only fools enough to think that in our times it no longer mattered. We are now discovering that in a large, densely populated and resource-rich part of the world, just about nothing else matters as much.
As a recent BBC program described it, “Members of the [Sunni and Shia] sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. The differences lie in the fields of doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organization. Their leaders also often seem to be in competition.”
This is an understatement, even by British standards. Shia and Sunni leaders could gag each other with a spoon (as Valley girls used to say in the 1970s) and their explosively pious disciples have been blowing up their heretic co-religionists’ markets and mosques with monotonous regularity. Under the tyranny of the late Saddam Hussain, the minority Sunnis in Iraq oppressed and sometimes massacred the majority Shia, and since Saddam’s departure at the end of a noose, the Shia have been trying to repay the Sunnis in kind, as much as an American-imposed system of mock-democratic multiculturalism let them.
Though not such fools as to take sides in the schism, the Americans tended to walk on the Sunni side of the street. Although a minority in Iraq, Sunnis constitute the overwhelming majority in the Islamic world, amounting to over 85% of all Muslims. In Persia, though, better known as Iran since the 1930s — and as the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979 — the Shia and their Islamic revolutionary clerics predominate. Iran is also well on its way to add to its arsenal the Islamic Bomb, and with it a chance to contest the hegemony of the region. Persian descendants of Xerxes the Great are no friends of the self-proclaimed successors of the Arab Caliphate. Needless to say, neither are friends of the West.
The conservative and wealthy Sunni rulers of the five Gulf states could be America’s natural allies — and, indeed, that’s what they are on paper — except they’re under the sway of Wahhabism, another fanatical strand in the fabric of Sunni Islam. Osama bin Laden had been a Saudi and so were the terrorists of 9/11. Clifford D. May, president of the American think tank FDD (Foundation for Defense of Democracies) quotes a recent article in the National Interest that highlights “how leaders from all five Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies — the Saudi king in particular — have promoted a [Wahhabi] preacher who propagates intolerance toward other religions, for instance proclaiming that Osama bin Laden died “with more sanctity and honour in the eyes of Allah than any Christian, atheist, or Jew.”
Just one tiny example, but it’s telling. With friends like this in the Middle East, America needs no enemies.