The civil war in Syria bubbles along, while civil strife in Iraq is coming to a boil. Kurds in Syria and Iraq are actively involved while their cousins to the north and east are pretending that they aren’t. Turks are growling and flailing around to the north, while the Saudis are doing the same in the east, goosing their small Gulf neighbors to join them. Jordan is keeping its head down as far down as it can. Israel is the inside outsider, not all that sorry to see Arabs killing each other next door while it pursues its strategic vendetta against Iran and bargains for time while it digests the West Bank. Iran has its own problems. They start with the strategic issue with Israel and the US over nukes, but the Persians don’t have the Israeli option of standing aloof from the pot of Arabs boiling away next door. They are involved in multiple and complicated ways, not least because of some of their own non-Farsi minorities..
Okay, but that is just for starters. For better or worse, the nation states created in the 20th century seem to be coming apart in the 21st. Or at least, nationalist sentiment based on current boundaries, never as strong a force as it has been in Europe, is getting swamped by older affiliations. Pan-Arab nationalism, once a potent force based on language, is still around but wounded, perhaps mortally. Regional and tribal associations are coming back, while class distinctions based on economic status remain important. Most important of all is the re-emergence of religion as the dominant criterion for the individual who has to decide which side he or she is on when contemplating the godawful anarchy that she or he was unlucky enough to be born into.
The ancient conflict between Sunni and Shia is at center stage. For a millennium and a half the Sunnis have been ahead, with the Shia surviving in pockets here and there in the Arab world while Sunnis lorded it over the rest of them. That’s a long time for frustration to build up. Anyone who has seen Shia men parading down some main street during Moharram knows that that frustration is strong and real. But anyone who understands Arabs even slightly knows that the former Sunni ruling class isn’t going to take a basic change in the old relationship lying down. The blood flowing in the gutters right now is still in spate. There is a lot more to come.
The fracas in Syria has metastasized into a mainly Sunni-Shia conflict while the one in Iraq is already organized on the same lines. The same is true in Yemen, a side show with Sunnis to the north and Shia in the south. A Shia axis has emerged as a fuzzy but real feature of the politico-geographical landscape. It extends from the non-Arab Shia power center in Tehran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, while Sunni power centers supported by Saudi Arabia surround that axis and are interspersed with it.
If the Sunni-Shia conflict were all that was involved, a rational outsider might well say, ok, let them fight it out and let the best man win, the issue is sixteen hundred years old and counting, why should we care?
Unfortunately there are several good reasons why the rest of us have to care.
The rest of us ought to care because we are humans and it is a humanitarian crisis with millions dying prematurely and tens of millions more suffering. We have to care because if the present conflict spreads into a wider war nobody knows where it would stop and we could all suffer. The question is, what we should do.
Liberal interventionists think we ought to jump in like the sheriff in a western movie and restore order for humanitarian reasons. The neocons also think we ought to jump in and restore order, because, they argue, the world needs a sheriff and we are it. Besides, we must protect Israel. Both these groups argue from conditions that obtained during the earlier years of their lives, and neglect the experience of older generations. That experience shows that when empires run low on gas and start to run down, the trigger that sets off their collapse is imperial overreach.
The Middle East muddle is a global problem, not an American one. The appropriate responses should be sought in the United Nations not in Washington. Our leaders should be enablers in the UN, not initiators themselves. Somehow, we must learn to keep our military-industrial complex under control, and even learn how to say no to the Israelis from time to time.