Brian M Downing
Sectarian tensions are high, probably as high as they’ve been in many centuries. This stems in part from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when the Sunni monarchies shuddered at Khomeini’s call for uprisings. More proximately, tensions stem from the Arab Spring when the same monarchs misinterpreted broad-based protests as the beginnings of Shia uprisings inspired by Iran.
American efforts at rapprochement with Iran came to nought. Iran preferred to maintain hostility as a legitimizing principle and strengthened ties with Russia. The Trump administration is as hostile to Iran as Iran is toward the US, and is solidifying an alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia. A standoff hangs over the Middle East, one that will see a measure of conflict in several parts of the Middle East.
The Gulf was jolted by Monday’s announcement that several Sunnis countries have broken diplomatic relations with the maverick Sunni mini-state of Qatar, which lies on a peninsula jutting out from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is closing off commerce with Qatar, leaving the latter with no easy source of many goods, including food.
The rationale is that Qatar’s support for terrorism is destabilizing the region but the paucity of evidence suggests other things are at work. Qatar has sought to increase its influence in three ways, all of which brought opposition from Saudi Arabia and Israel.
First, Qatar has maintained good relations with both its Shia population and with Iran. This has helped balance power relations in the Gulf, if only marginally. Second, it has bolstered its power in the Middle East by funding the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world. Third, Qatar’s media outlet, Al Jazeera, devotes a good deal of its time to criticizing Israeli settlements and mistreatment of Palestinians.
This does not sit well in Saudi Arabia or Israel. Iran is, in their strategic outlooks, a fearsome enemy. The Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition to monarchy is a threat to Sunni princes. Its potential for unifying the Arab world is fanciful but nonetheless worrisome to the Israeli Right, which also wants to limit international support for Palestinians, even though Al Jazeera’s position is no more critical than that of, say, Ha’aretz.
Qatar is in a difficult position. Its food supplies are imperiled as are hopes for a pipeline to European markets. Its options are to move closer to Iran and Russia and to threaten to close down the large American airbase at Al Udeid. Russian and Iranian generals may be eyeing the facility now. More likely, Qatar will use the Al Udeid facility as a high-value chip in negotiating a way out of the present crisis.
The Syrian civil war has been a sectarian conflict for several years, with Sunni states (including Qatar) backing rebel groups and Iran backing the government. The Sunnis and Israelis cannot have realistic expectations of taking Damascus and expelling Assad from power. Russia will guarantee a Shia statelet in the west, as it is home to a pair of major Russian military bases.
The Sunnis and Israel will grudgingly accept a Shia statelet in Syria but fight Iran in other ways. There are three Iranian military assets in Syria, Hisbollah, the international Shia forces Iran has assembled and trained, and approximately 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops. They will be targeted and ground down as much as possible, especially by Israeli airpower.
The US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel will seek to create Sunni and Kurdish statelets in the northeast and east, perhaps also in western Iraq. This will serve two strategic goals: ensuring that Syria never reunifies and disrupting land communications between the Syrian statelet and Lebanon in the west and Iran and Shia Iraq in the east. No Shia corridor is paramount.
The Baghdad government, though predominately Shia, has steered a neutral course between Iran and the United States and avoided dependence on either one. The US-Israeli-Sunni alliance may make this more difficult.
The alliance supports fragmenting Syria. It may also back detaching Sunni areas from Baghdad’s control and recognizing Kurdistan’s independence. This may elicit concern that the alliance, driven by sectarian passions and emboldened by Israeli and American power, may one day set its sights on Shia Iraq, and drive Baghdad into closer partnership with Tehran and Moscow.
Over the last several decades Yemen’s Shia north and Sunni south have gone to war several times. The conflicts, including the present one, have not been over sectarian differences. They’ve fought over regional differences stemming from the north’s development as an Ottoman province and the south’s as a British dependency.
The present conflict has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and is stalemated. The US may be poised to intervene with naval and air power. Northern forces have taken high casualties over the last two years and may not be able to stand up to American might, limited though it will be, especially if attended by a ground incursion from Saudi Arabia.
The alliance’s end game is uncertain, probably even to members. Success in Yemen and Syria may embolden them to greater efforts at weakening Iran, perhaps by encouraging Kurdish, Baloch, Azeri, and Arab insurgencies. But fragmenting Iran, with its strong capacity for repression, will be far more difficult than it was in Syria and Iraq.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.