Friday, September 27, 2013

A Civil War in Islam. By David Gardner.

A schism in Islam is ripping the Middle East apart. By David Gardner. Financial Times, June 14, 2013.

Islam’s Civil War. By William S. Lind. American Conservative, September 24, 2013.

America can win it by staying out.


President Barack Obama’s decision to send unspecified “direct military support” to Syria’s rebels may have as its proximate cause the now firm US conviction that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against them. But it will be seen across the Middle East as a choice by America to throw its weight behind a Sunni alliance against Iran-led Shia forces across the region – a conflict in which Syria is the frontline.
How could it be otherwise when, after two years of dither, the White House moved on the same day as a conclave of Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo declared a jihad against what it called a “declaration of war on Islam” by “the Iranian regime, Hizbollah and its sectarian allies”? Or, as former president Bill Clinton put it, chiding Mr Obama’s hesitation over Syria, “now that the Russians, the Iranians and the Hizbollah are in there head over heels, 90 miles to nothing.”
While his words revive memories of the western contest with the Soviet Union in the Middle East, the cold war was straightforward in comparison to the Sunni-Shia conflict driving events across the region, not just in the Levant but from Turkey to the Gulf.
This primordial struggle within the Muslim world dates back to the great schism inside early Islam at the end of the 7th century. A latent contest between the Shia minority and overwhelming Sunni majority has reignited in the past three decades – and western leaders brought up to distinguish black hats from white tend to see just a blur of turbans.
When the region was bound into a cold war straitjacket, even tumultuous conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 or the mainly Muslim-Christian civil war of Lebanon in 1975-90 could be constrained. The sectarian viciousness of the current Sunni-Shia battle knows no boundaries. It is bursting through the arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French a century ago.
First Lebanon, then Iraq and now Syria have all been convulsed by ethno-sectarian civil war. But what had been a Sunni-Shia subplot in the drama burst on to centre stage after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That catapulted the Shia minority within Islam (a majority in Iraq) to power in an Arab heartland country for the first time since the fall of the heterodox Shia Fatimid dynasty in 1171. It thereby tilted the regional balance of power in favour of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Shi’ite, Persian, with ambitions as a regional hegemon to rival Israel – and fanned the embers of the Sunni-Shia stand-off into millenarian flame.
Iraq became a sectarian bloodbath, grinding minorities such as its ancient Christian communities between the wounded identities of the Sunni and Shia. Syria, similar in its ethno-sectarian make-up, is heading the same way. But sectarianism is the consequence not the cause of this conflict, which started as an Arab spring-inspired civic uprising against the Assad clan, which has built a lucrative tyranny around its Alawite minority sect, another esoteric offshoot of Shi’ism.
Now, the decision of Iran and Hizbollah, its Lebanese paramilitary proxy, as well as the Shia Islamist government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, to help the Assads crush Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels has polarised the region and set the scene for a car-bombing contest from Beirut to Baghdad.
In 2006, when Hizbollah was able to appear as the champion of Arabs and Muslims, Sunni and Shia, after holding its ground against Israel in a five-week war, a Syrian Sunni town near the Lebanese border called Qusair took in hundreds of Shia refugees. Last week, Hizbollah fighters stood in the rubble of Qusair, which they boasted of liberating from Sunni jihadi fanatics.
Sunni hierarchs hitherto at odds closed ranks: Abdelaziz al-Sheikh, the Wahhabi mufti of Saudi Arabia; Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar university; and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, all chanted from the same prayer sheet to denounce Hizbollah and Iran. On Syria’s eastern border, rebels killed dozens of Shia they dismissed as “apostate rejectionists”, as the old Wahhabi poison about Shi’ite “idolaters” oozed north from the Arabian peninsula. It is contagious.
An underexamined aspect of Turkey’s present crisis, for example, is the deteriorated relations between the increasingly Sunni ruling party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the minority Alevis, a heterodox and varied Shia sect of up to a fifth of the population. Mr Erdogan’s initiative to make peace with Turkey’s Kurds has as its subtext drawing Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurds into a Sunni Turkosphere. With the Shia Alevis, by contrast, dog-whistle politics are the order of the day. His government wants to name a third bridge over Istanbul’s Bosphorus after Selim the Grim, Ottoman Sultan and the first Caliph, who massacred the Alevis during his war against Safavid (and Shia) Persia in the early 16th century.
This, then is the arena Mr Obama, and his post-imperial British and French allies, are entering. Their timing – just after the Hizbollah siege of Qusair – looks deeply suspect in a suffocatingly sectarian environment.
Giving rebels the chance to tilt the battlefield against Bashar al-Assad’s savage regime and draw support away from Sunni jihadis on the rebel side is still worth a try. Standing back, and subcontracting arming the rebels to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Qatar has contributed to polarised extremism. Despite support from Russia and Iran, the Assads cannot win, as their dependence on Hizbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shows. There is a certain school of realism that believes it is better to let the Shia Islamists of Hizbollah and al-Qaeda sympathisers such as the rebel al-Nusra front fight it out, like scorpions in a bottle. But Syria is not some sort of jihadi fight club that can be contained.
Afghanistan, in the mountains of central Asia, incubated al-Qaeda and 9/11. Leaving Syria to its present devices will create an Afghanistan in the eastern Mediterranean.


One of the disappointments of the young 21st century is that H.L. Mencken was not around during the presidency of George W. Bush. He would have had what soldiers call a “target-rich environment.” Mencken would have understood Bush’s invasion of Iraq as a world-class blunder, one so dumb only a boob from the deepest, darkest Bible Belt could have made it.
One can imagine what Mencken might have written of Bush’s neocon advisors: perhaps something on the lines of “A cracker barrel of backwoods Arkansas faith healers, card sharps, and carnival side-show barkers, galvanized with the sheen of the garment district, clustered about the head of their moon calf . . .”
In Heaven, which may bear a resemblance to Mencken’s Baltimore, we shall know.
It is therefore ironic that Bush’s Iraq debacle may have opened the door to the possibility of American victory in the Middle East. How has this miracle come about?
One of the unanticipated and unintended results of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to reignite the latent Sunni-Shiite civil war within Islam. As David Gardner wrote in the June 15 Financial Times, the invasion “catapulted the Shia majority within Islam”—a majority in Iraq—“to power in an Arab heartland country for the first time since the fall of the heterodox Shia Fatamid dynasty in 1171. It thereby . . . fanned the embers of the Sunni-Shia standoff into millenarian flame.”
Fighting for a sect or a religion is one of the most powerful contributors to Fourth Generation war, war waged by entities other than states. So powerful is religious war that it can sweep states away altogether, as has happened in Syria. Gardner writes, “The sectarian viciousness of the current Sunni-Shia battle knows no boundaries. It is bursting through the arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French a century ago.”
The harsh fact is that extensive Fourth Generation war in the Islamic world is inevitable. As descendants of Western colonies, most Islamic states are weak. Their legitimacy was open to question from their founding, in part because their boundaries seldom lie along natural divisions in the cultural geography. Sects, tribes, and ethnic groups overlap. Frequently, representatives of one tribe or sect—often a minority—form the political elite. They treat the state as a private hunting preserve, stealing such wealth as it has while supplying government as incompetent as it is corrupt.
On top of weak states has been laid a demographic bomb, in the form of vast populations of young men with nothing to do and no prospects. So what will they do? Fight.
They will fight us, they will fight their neighbors, they will fight each other in supply-side war, war occurring not as Clausewitz’s politics carried on by other means but war driven simply by an over-supply of warriors. If this sounds strange to moderns, it would have been familiar to our tribal ancestors.
Finally, we think of jihad as something waged by Islam against non-Muslims, but quite often it has been between one Islamic sect and another. Now Islamists are once again declaring jihad on each other. In June the New York Times reported on an influential Sunni cleric who “has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, calling on Muslims around the world to help Syrian rebels . . . and labeling Hezbollah and Iran”—both Shi’ite—“enemies of Islam ‘more infidel than Jews and Christians.’” David Gardner’s Financial Times piece tells of a “conclave of Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo [that] declared a jihad against what it called a ‘declaration of war on Islam’ by the ‘Iranian regime, Hezbollah and its sectarian allies.’”
How should the West react to all this? With quiet rejoicing. Our strategic objective should be to get Islamists to expend their energies on each other rather than on us. An old aphorism says the problem with Balkans is that they produce more history than they can consume locally. Our goal should be to encourage the Muslim world to consume all its history—of which it will be producing a good deal—as locally as possible. Think of it as “farm to table” war.
All we should do, or can do, to obtain this objective is to stay out. We ought not meddle, no matter how subtly; if we do, inevitably, it will blow up in our faces. Just go home, stay home, bolt the doors (especially to refugees who will act out their jihads here), close the windows, and find a good opera on television—perhaps “The Abduction From the Seraglio.”