The SuShi proxy war is likely to continue

This morning’s news that Saudi Arabia is bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen confirms what you already knew: the Middle East is engulfed in a proxy war between Iran–which supports the Houthis in Yemen, Bashar al Asad in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Lebanon’s Hizbollah–and Sunni states, including in the front lines the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia. Occasional Sunni-majority contributors include Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt. At the same time, Iran and its allies as well as Saudi Arabia and its allies are fighting against Sunni extremists associated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

No wonder it is hard to keep score. This game is played in many dimensions. In the Sunni/Shia dimension, the United States has no dog in the fight, to use Secretary of State Baker’s unforgettable phrase. Our focus is on the fight against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, wherever they rear their brutal methods, because we fear they will inevitably target the “far enemy” (us) in due course. You might think it would be possible for Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate in that dimension, but instead they compete. Neither wants a victory over extremism to be credited to the other or to allow the other (or its proxies) to inherit the territory extremists once controlled.

The Sunni/Shia dimension and the anti-extremist dimension are not really orthogonal. Victory in one will affect the outcome in the other. The protagonists know it, which is one reason they are engaging in both. Iran would gain a great deal in the fight against Sunni states if Shia-allied forces win in Iraq and Syria. Likewise, Saudi Arabia would gain a great deal in the fight against Iran if it is able to put a majority Sunni regime in place in Syria and chase the Islamic State from the Sunni provinces of Iraq.

Yemen is a bit of a side show to the main theater of operations in the Levant. But geography makes it important to Saudi Arabia, in whose back yard it lies. If the Iran-allied Houthis are able to take over there, the Kingdom will feel the loss. By the same token, the Kingdom wants to see Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula defeated. Ironically, the Houthis have been at least as willing to engage on that front as the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, but Riyadh won’t see that as a plus. It wants to defeat both the Houthis and Al Qaeda.

Washington is in a difficult spot. It doesn’t want to be a protagonist in the Sunni/Shia war, but is viewed as one with every move it makes. Yesterday’s American air attacks against the remaining Islamic State forces in Tikrit were apparently undertaken only when Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi agreed to limit the role of Shia militias in retaking the capital of Salahuddin province. David Petraeus and others are being quoted as claiming that Iran is a far greater threat to the US than the Islamic State.

Likewise the nuclear negotiations are being seen through the lens of the Sunni/Shia conflict. An agreement that blocks Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons and provides at least a year’s warning of breakout has come to be viewed as strengthening rather than weakening the Islamic Republic. Sunni states apparently prefer military action against Iran’s nuclear program, which would guarantee that the Iranians do their damndest to get the bomb. But their goading of the US to war might be quickly forgotten in the devastating aftermath, as Iran would no doubt target its Gulf neighbors in any response.

This layered set of interrelated issues (Sunni/Shia, Islamic extremists, nuclear capabilities) is a good deal to complex for even very skilled diplomats to imagine easy solutions. The Obama Administration has essentially decided to prioritize two issue: blocking Iran from nuclear weapons and fighting Islamic extremists. We’ll know by Monday, the deadline for some sort of product from the nuclear talks, if the first issue is likely to be resolved. The second is likely to be with us much longer, if only because the Sunni/Shia conflict we don’t want to be involved in will keep feeding the extremists of both varieties with recruits.

The SuShi proxy war (between Sunni and Shia) is likely to continue.


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