The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been covered a lot in the media, and some mention has even been made to how the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq helped create this monstrous group.
Little attention, however, has been paid to the power struggles and centuries-old rivalries in the region, and the contradictions that U.S. policy in the Middle East is producing for American security interests.
Recently, the Obama administration has floated the idea of attacking ISIS in Syria in order to curb their reach into neighbouring Iraq.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of what has been going on in the Levant region must be shaking their heads.
While the U.S. has come out against the Assad government in Syria’s civil war, they are now proposing to move militarily against Assad’s biggest foe, ISIS – the clearest manifestation of a U.S. foreign policy that is inconsistent and self-defeating.
This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the contradictions of U.S. policy in the region.
While the relations between actors in the region are very complicated, there is a hugely important one that is barely mentioned in the Western media: the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, perhaps the fundamental tension in the region.
This centuries-old rivalry was for a long time just about plain old geopolitics and who would have dominance in the region. In the intervening years, however, this rivalry was overlaid with a religious element: the Sunni-Shia split within Islam.
In 1501, the Safavid Empire—a precursor to the modern state of Iran—converted from Sunni to Shia Islam (and with it, so did a majority of the population). This helped to unify the new empire under one religion and set it apart from its Sunni Arab neighbours with whom the Persians had long been rivals.
During the Cold War, both Saudi Arabia and Iran were closely allied with and received crucial support from the U.S., as their governments were conservative monarchies and staunchly opposed to communism.
This changed in 1979, when the Iranian revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah and ushered in a new theocratic state. American and Saudi interests became even more closely aligned, as both countries saw the new government in Tehran as a direct threat to their interests .
The larger Sunni-Shia conflicts seen in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are being fomented by Iran and Saudi Arabia, as each backs its own side in the numerous conflicts throughout the region.
The problem is that American interests in Iraq and Syria now align more with the Iranian side than with the Saudi side.
Even more troubling is the support that the U.S. gives to Saudi Arabia is helping to fuel the type of terrorism that America has become obsessed with fighting since 9/11: first in the form of al-Qaeda, and now in the form of ISIS.
When the West thinks about terrorism, usually what we are actually thinking of is Salafist-inspired Sunni Islamic terrorism – a fact we somehow always omit when addressing the subject.
Salafism or Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that was born and nurtured in the remote deserts in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. It is also where the Saudi royal family originates.
In fact, the foundations of the Saudi state come from a pact between the Saud and Wahhab families – the former handling political affairs, and the latter handling religious matters and providing legitimacy to the monarchy.
While the Saudi state is careful not to directly fund terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS, it does directly support the madrassas (religious schools) and conservative clerics that espouse the puritanical interpretations of Islam that form the basis of belief for these terrorist groups. Also, individual members of the Saudi royal family have provided support to these groups, although not in an official state capacity.
Thus we see American foreign policy at cross-purposes with itself in Iraq and Syria in the short term because of its opposition to the Iranian government. More worryingly, though, are the long-term effects that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia are likely to have in fermenting Sunni Islamic fundamentalism in the region and globally.
The birth of ISIS can be traced to the numerous U.S. blunders in Iraq, but its growth and success is due in large part to the inability of America to manage the contradictions of its foreign policy in the region.