Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical left and Islamic terrorism.
The Syrian Civil War killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Its ripple effects brought terror to Europe and dragged the United States into the fighting. And it’s just the appetizer for the coming war.
The real war is the one that the Saudis and the Iranians have been maneuvering toward for years. Those maneuvers included everything from Iran’s nuke deal, the fighting in Yemen, the Syrian Civil War, the Iraqi suppression of Kurdish independence, the rise of ISIS, and the Qatari embargo.
The death toll from the buildup to the Sunni-Shiite regional war is approaching a million. And the war hasn’t even begun yet. It may never become an actual war as we understand it. It’s possible that there will be a hundred little wars exploding across the region. These wars will tear apart more of the region and the talking heads on television will blame global warming or Israeli settlements.
Those progressive excuses make much more sense to the media than an Islamic religious war.
And it will almost certainly drag us in.
Obama’s policies lit the fuse. The withdrawal from Iraq, the Arab Spring, the Iranian Nuke deal and the alliance with the Shiite regime in Baghdad did a great deal to increase Iranian power. When the United States left Iraq, Iran took control. The Arab Spring tore apart the region. And Iran used the opportunity to expand its power over Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The nuke deal signaled that Obama wouldn’t do anything to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power or a regional power. And by outsourcing the fight against ISIS to Shiite terrorist militias, Obama allowed Iran to consolidate control over Iraq and Syria.
The Saudis and the Iranians are both assembling their coalitions. And they’re coloring outside the lines. Qatar’s billionaire Sunni Islamists are aligned with Iran. That’s why the Saudis slapped an embargo on the terror state. Meanwhile Israel is loosely aligned with the Saudis. That may sound strange, but Israel’s biggest threats, from Iran’s nukes to Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, can be traced back to Tehran.
The Saudis are no slouches when it comes to funding Islamic terrorists. But Qatar’s fellow Sunni oil tyrannies looked at the way that its allies, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda variants, were tearing apart entire countries, and decided that the little terror state had become too powerful and dangerous.
Iran and Qatar aggressively expanded their influence by using Islamist militias to tear down and take over countries. And between them, the two Islamic terror states were transforming the Middle East.
And so the Muslim Brotherhood’s coup in Egypt was met with another coup. The Saudis aren’t just hammering Iran’s Shiite Houthi militias in Yemen, they’re also helping Egypt fight Islamists in Libya. The current alignment puts Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and certain Islamist militias in the same corner.
Alliances in the Middle East are a turbulent mix of friendships and enmities. It’s why the latest Osama bin Laden documents confirm Al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran. Or why the UAE turned on Hamas and is suddenly friendly to Israel. But such arrangements are typically contextual and inconsistent.
Iran and Al Qaeda have a loose alliance against America, but Osama bin Laden couldn’t stop Al Qaeda in Iraq from massacring Shiites because the two flavors of Al Qaeda had different contexts and short term goals. Osama bin Laden shared common enemies with Iran, but the future ISIS wanted an Iraqi civil war. And so began the split between the two Al Qaedas.
That’s why it can be dangerous to read too much into these momentary alignments even as alliances and enmities are consolidating ahead of a possible regional war. And we’re already in the thick of it.
Iran and Qatar enjoy the support of the left. The Saudi-UAE grouping has some allies on the right. That’s why the media coverage of the Qatari embargo, Iran’s nukes, and the conflicts in Yemen and Egypt, almost universally echo Qatari and Iranian propaganda.
Obama aligned America with Iran and Qatar. The Arab Spring, Benghazi and the recent Iraqi attacks on the Kurds were all consequences of that disastrous policy. While Trump is hostile to Iran and Qatar, key foreign policy figures in his administration have been sending mixed signals on Iran’s nukes, the Qatari embargo and the Yemeni campaign. Some of this is due to the influence of Obama holdovers.
As the conflict worsens, the pressure on the United States will grow. Iran continues to escalate the violence. And the Qataris are using their leftist political allies to influence our foreign policy.
The crisis has been in the making since Jimmy Carter turned over Iran to Shiite terrorists. Obama just added Iraq and Yemen to the expanding Shiite empire in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. And the Saudis were not about to ignore an Iranian takeover of Yemen in their own backyard.
But the conflict also predates Obama, Carter and America. The Sunni-Shiite split is ancient. And the patchwork of ethnic and religious differences within Islam carries its own ugly history of violence.
Middle Eastern wars emerge from a combination of ancient tensions and modern policies. The tensions are the dynamite, but the modern policies light the fuse. The manifest destiny of Islam, its violent expansionism and throbbing xenophobia, are the dynamite. And the dynamite will always be there. But how, where and when it goes off can be shaped by our foreign policy. We could avert the war by making it clear that Iran’s free pass is over. But instead we’re once again sending all the wrong signals.
Our foreign policy assumes that peace is the natural condition of mankind. But in the Islamic realms of the Middle East, conflict is the natural condition. And the more we try to reform the Middle East, the more explosive it becomes. Instead of managing the inevitable conflicts, we’ve tried to resolve them.
The instinct in Washington D.C. is to find a non-violent resolution. But that may not be realistic.
The Shiite coalition gained enormously during the Obama years. And as it continues to press its advantage, it is unrealistic to expect the Sunni powers in the region to accept that. Iran’s expansionism in Yemen is a threat to the Saudis. And if the conflict truly begins anywhere, it will probably be Yemen.
Iran will inevitably try to drag Israel into it. When Muslims fight Muslims, they need to pretend that they’re really fighting non-Muslims. That’s why Saddam tried to drag Israel into the Gulf War. Meanwhile the fighting in Libya continues. The Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t given up on Egypt. The Sunnis and Shiites will clash again in Iraq. Lebanon is destabilizing. And there’s always Bahrain.
A regional war won’t look anything like a world war. Instead all the individual conflicts, the sore points and simmering tensions will flare up around the same time. Iran will invest more of its forces into these conflicts. The Saudis and Egyptians will hit harder. Israel will clash with Hezbollah. There will be riots, massacres and terrorist attacks across the region. And eventually the actual powers will collide.