Small World: Another enemy arises

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

In case you’ve been totally occupied with the arrival of spring, there is a big debate developing in Washington over whether and how deeply to get engaged in another Middle Eastern war. I refer, of course, to Obama’s pledge to finish off the savage Islamic (Sunni) state (ISIL, ISIS or Daeesh). So far, American air power is the major outside contribution to that effort in which, as is customary in modern conflicts, we are joined by a coalition of partners who also drop bombs (on occasion).

The major ground force adversaries against ISIL are Syria and Iraq, part of whose territories the so-called Caliphate occupies. Those governments are assisted by Iran and the Lebanese Shia militants Hezbollah. We, burdened by history, have nothing to do with them, nor with the army of Syria. Nor are we keen on helping the Iraqi Shia militia groups, who formerly fought against our occupying forces.

To complete this dramatis personae, we should include Saudi Arabia and the smaller Persian Gulf states who — officially or privately — financed ISIL and the civil war against Syria’s Assad plus the rebellion against the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Then, there are the Kurds, who have been fighting to keep ISIL off territory they claim. The Turks have, for unexplained reasons, declined to seal their border with ISIL allowing supplies to go in as well as fresh volunteers. Finally, we should not forget Israel, which from time to time drops bombs on Hezbollah or Syrian forces.

There you have the story behind the debate, except you really don’t have all of it. You have to figure in the compelling attraction of ISIL for young Islamic radicals across the Middle East and beyond. In confronting ISIL, we are not only dealing with a small outfit with indigenous Sunni support; we are confronting a region-wide movement that is arrayed against us — sometimes as allied armed groups (Libya), sometimes as bomb-making individuals (inside Saudi Arabia).

If we defeat or degrade ISIL, we will still have a strong, hostile, youthful movement to contend with in the region and abroad.

But that’s only the smaller part of the grim picture. The larger context is the intensifying tension and violence between Sunni and Shia Moslems. The Sunni (Islam’s largest grouping) are led by Saudi Arabia, which is the home of the Wahhabi sect, a deeply conservative group which considers Shia and others as heretics meriting extermination. The Saudi state is the product of a deal with Wahhabi clerics: The Saudi royal family controls the country’s oil and foreign policy; the clerics have a free hand in matters of religion. The religious have used their power to establish schools and mosques all over the region. They oppose the more moderate Moslem Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia has kept the MB out of government in Egypt and elsewhere.

That fusion of religious fundamentalism and national riches has led Saudi Arabia to bitter tensions with Shia Iran over the strife in Yemen, Iraq and Syria and earlier in Bahrain. The Saudis have inevitably seen an Iranian role (often exaggerated) and have spent freely to impede it. The United States is sensitive to this deepening divide and appeases Saudi Arabia by staying distant from Iran (with whom, nevertheless, a nuclear pact is imminent) while extending military aid to the Saudis (as in Yemen).

The Saudis have too much oil (No. 1) and too much cash ($700 billion) for us to rub them the wrong way. I’m confident Obama’s advisors are well schooled in tending to the Saudis. It’s been that way since the end of World War II. But they also must know that if we can’t influence the Saudis to moderate their tone and actions against potentially powerful Iran, the region will be in for a very rough ride.

So what’s the best course for Washington? While it is tempting to say, “pull out and leave them to fight it out,” that isn’t the way of a great power, even one in decline.

I think we ought to do our best to isolate and contain ISIL by: (1.) pressing Turkey hard to close its ISIL border — no weapons or volunteers in, no hijacked oil coming out; (2.) jamming ISIL communications; and  (3.) working hard on Saudi Arabia to ease up on its anti-Iran actions and end their war against Yemen.

Beyond that, we ought to be true to our values of democracy, opportunity and justice and make clear to our friends, as well as enemies that we are serious.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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