Washington scrambles for answers as another civil war beckons in the Middle East
Be careful what you wish for could have been, and perhaps should have been, Washington’s advice to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have been supporting Sunni jihadists against Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus. The warning is even more appropriate today as the bloodthirsty fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) sweep through northwest Iraq, prompting hundreds of thousands of their Sunni fellows to flee and creating panic in Iraq’s Shi’ite heartland around Baghdad, whose population senses, correctly, that it will be shown no mercy if the ISIS motorcades are not stopped.
Such a setback for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been the dream of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for years. He has regarded Maliki as little more than an Iranian stooge, refusing to send an ambassador to Baghdad and instead encouraging his fellow rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – to take a similar standoff-ish approach. Although vulnerable to al-Qaeda-types at home, these countries (particularly Kuwait and Qatar) have often turned a blind eye to their citizens funding radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most active Islamist groups opposed to Assad in Syria.
Currently on vacation in Morocco, King Abdullah has so far been silent on these developments. At 90-plus years old, he has shown no wish to join the Twitter generation, but the developments on the ground could well prompt him to cut short his stay and return home. He has no doubt realised that – with his policy of delivering a strategic setback to Iran by orchestrating the overthrow of Assad in Damascus showing little sign of any imminent success – events in Iraq offer a new opportunity.
This perspective may well confuse many observers. In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of reports of an emerging – albeit reluctant – diplomatic rapprochement between the Saudi-led GCC and Iran, bolstered by the apparently drunken visit to Tehran by the emir of Kuwait, and visits by trade delegations and commerce ministers in one direction or the other. This is despite evidence supporting the contrary view, including Saudi Arabia’s first public display of Chinese missiles capable of hitting Tehran and the UAE’s announcement of the introduction of military conscription for the country’s youth.
The merit, if such a word can be used, of the carnage in Iraq is that at least it offers clarity. There are tribal overlays and rival national identities at play, but the dominant tension is the religious difference between majority Sunni and minority Shi’ite Islam. This region-wide phenomenon is taken to extremes by the likes of ISIS, which also likely sees its action in Iraq as countering Maliki’s support for Assad.
ISIS is a ruthless killing machine, taking Sunni contempt for Shi’ites to its logical, and bloody, extreme. The Saudi monarch may be more careful to avoid direct religious insults than many other of his brethren, but contempt for Shi’ites no doubt underpinned his Wikileaked comment about “cutting off the head of the snake”, meaning the clerical regime in Tehran. (Prejudice is an equal opportunity avocation in the Middle East: Iraqi government officials have been known to ask Iraqis whether they are Sunni or Shi’ite before deciding how to treat them.)
Despite the attempts of many, especially in Washington, to write him off, King Abdullah remains feisty, though helped occasionally by gasps of oxygen – as when President Barack Obama met him in March and photos emerged of breathing tubes inserted in his nostrils. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi – and, after his elder brother’s recent stroke, the effective ruler of the UAE – visited King Abdullah on June 4, the Saudi monarch was shown gesticulating with both hands. The subject under discussion was not revealed, but since Zayed was on his way to Cairo it was probably the election success of Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, considered a stabilising force by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Of course, Sisi gets extra points for being anti-Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose Islamist credentials are at odds with the inherited privileges of Arab monarchies. For the moment, Abdullah, Zayed, and Sisi are the three main leaders of the Arab world. Indeed, the future path of the Arab countries could well depend on these men (and whomever succeeds King Abdullah).
For those confused by the divisions in the Arab world and who find the metric of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to be of limited utility, it is important to note that the Sunni/Shi’ite divide coincides, at least approximately, with the division between the Arab and Persian worlds. In geopolitical terms, Iraq is at the nexus of these worlds – majority Shi’ite but ethnically Arab. There is an additional and often confusing dimension, although one that’s historically central to Saudi policy: A willingness to support radical Sunnis abroad while containing their activities at home. Hence Riyadh’s arms-length support for Osama bin Laden when he was leading jihadists in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan, and tolerance for jihadists in Chechnya, Bosnia and Syria.
When the revolt against Assad grew in 2011 – and Riyadh’s concern at Iran’s nuclear programme mounted – Saudi intelligence reopened its playbook and started supporting the Sunni opposition, particularly its more radical elements, a strategy guided by its intelligence chief, former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The operation’s leadership changed in April, when Bandar resigned in apparent frustration over dealing with the cautious approach of the Obama administration, but Saudi support for jihadi fighters appears to be continuing. (The ISIS operation in Iraq almost seems the sort of tactical surprise that Bandar could have dreamt up, but there is no actual evidence.)
At this stage, a direct confrontation between Saudi and Iranian forces seems very unlikely, even though, as in Syria, the direct involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps cannot be ruled out. What is clear is that the Syrian civil war looks like it will be joined by an Iraq civil war. ISIS already has a name for the territory, the al-Sham caliphate. Washington may need to find its own name for the new area, as well as a policy.
Simon Henderson is director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.