The one simple thing about the Middle East is that there are two main sects of the dominant Islamic religion: the Shi’a, or Shiites, and the Sunnis. This split reflects differing interpretations over who was the rightful successor to Mohammad, the founder of Islam. Sunnis are in the majority, about 85 to 90 percent of Islam. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan the United Arab Emirates, and the Islamic State are Sunni. Iran, Iraq, and Syria are Shiite.
In Syria, the US considers both Shiite Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Sunni Islamic State to be enemies. Our Sunni allies in the fight against Sunni Islamic State, notably Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have pinky sworn to help us fight them, but would really like us to take out Shiite Bashar Assad. Our Shiite ally in the fight against the Sunni Islamic State, Iraq, wants us to take out the Islamic State, but leave Shiite Assad alone. However, Iraq has a large Sunni population in central Iraq that did not put up much of a fight when the Sunni Islamic State rolled over it. Shiite Iran is Best Friends Forever with Shiite Iraq and Shiite Syria, and used to be our worst enemy. However, now that Shiite Iran has joined the fight against the Sunni Islamic State, it is more like a frenemy, especially since it actually puts boots on the ground in the conflict, unlike our Sunni allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
With whom do we fight in Syria if both Shiite Assad and the Sunni Islamic State are our enemy? John McCain and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have spotted a band of heroes called Syrian moderates. In real life, these moderates, mostly Sunni, have shown a distressing tendency to switch sides and join the Sunni Islamic State forces (now allied with Sunni Al-Qaeda), taking their US supplied weapons and materials with them. So as we escalate our involvement, we are making those brave Sunni Syrian moderates swear on a stack of Korans that they will not go over to the Sunni enemy. We will then train and arm them, which will take months, if not years. The current plan is that the brave Syrian Sunni moderates will take out the Sunni Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, then take out Shiite Assad, unless it’s the other way around. Unimportant details like that are still being worked out, but right now we’re dropping bombs and killing combatants on all sides.
If the Sunni Syrian moderates, Kurds (who practice a variety of religions), and the Shiite Iraqis defeat the Sunni Islamic State, our Sunni allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will insist we depose Shiite Assad. If we start with Assad, it will noticeably diminish Shiite Iraq and Shiite Iran’s enthusiasm for war against the Sunni Islamic State. How does the US define victory when it is on both sides of a centuries-old sectarian war? It doesn’t; although they’ve hinted of a thirty-year war, neither the Obama administration nor the Republicans and generals promoting deeper US involvement in the Middle East have bothered to tell us how we will know when we’ve won, because they can’t. Defeat will be easier to pinpoint; we’ve seen it before. The US will shell out at least a trillion dollars; US public opinion will turn decidedly against the morass of another inconclusive war; there will be thousands more dead, wounded, and shattered US soldiers; legions of new terrorists will prompt further expansion of the national security state, and Shiites and Sunnis will be locked in brutal combat for another thousand years or so.
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