Saudi Arabia and Iran are closer than ever to an overt act of war…
The Final Word: By Buck Sexton
The great part about predicting events in the Middle East is that if you wait long enough, a pessimist on any important issue is almost always proven right. He simply needs to wait.
Whether used to describe the aftermath of elections in Egypt or nuclear negotiations with Iran, “destabilization” is the most common and least specific term used to describe anything of consequence in the Middle East. A vast range of happenings from Morocco in the west across to Iran in the east are said to destabilize the area, even though the region is anything but stable to begin with.
And 2018 will be no exception. Based on current trends among the major players in the region, all hell could break loose next year in the Middle East.
Atop the list of concerns is the overarching Sunni-Shia civil war that is playing out from Lebanon to Afghanistan. The original seventh-century dynastic dispute over leadership of the Islamic community still determines who is shooting at whom on battlefields from Aleppo, Syria… Mosul, Iraq… Sanaa, Yemen… and other, less well-known cities. This Sunni-Shia sectarian feud remains the single biggest driver of armed conflict in the region. And it’s being played out through a series of vicious proxy battles that have caused thousands of casualties already.
Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all endure some level of internecine conflict or suffer terrorist violence because of the Sunni-Shia divide. The so-called Arab Spring, which sought to overthrow the tyrants who had been a cornerstone of the American stability-first strategy in the region, has if anything exacerbated this 1,400-year-old feud. Without the iron-fisted rule of Hosni Mubarak or Saddam Hussein, long-simmering Sunni-Shia hatreds have bubbled to the surface. What we are seeing today is score settling over a thousand years in the making.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two main powers funding this conflict…
With the decline of Egypt, the Saudis are now positioned as the great protectors of Sunni Muslims – roughly 85% of Islam globally.
They’ve been arming to the teeth in recent years with the most expensive military hardware they can get. They’ve pursued a policy of cozying up to America, while also managing to be the single greatest exporter of Sunni jihadist ideology (like that espoused by Al-Qaida) on the planet. The U.S. has been willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to our Saudi “frenemies,” given their oil and usefulness as a check on Iranian ambitions.
The U.S. has been willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to our Saudi ‘frenemies.’
Across the sectarian battlefield is terror-sponsor Iran, the dominant Shia Muslim power in the world.
While vastly outnumbered – about 10% of the global population of Islam – what militant Shia states lack in manpower they make up for with zeal. The Iranian regime has been using its cunning and ruthlessness to build satellite armies among the extremists of the region since 1979.
Fast-forward to today, and Iran has never been in a stronger position for asymmetrical warfare. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the murderous Assad regime in Syria, and the all-too-powerful Shia militias in Iraq are clients of the mullahs in Tehran. Add to this the more recent Iranian overtures to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Iran has an ability to project power from the Mediterranean all the way to the Arabian Sea.
Up to now, the Saudis and Iranians have refrained from direct military confrontation. But the devastating civil war underway in Yemen has brought these regional powerhouses closer than ever to an overt act of war.
Enormous body counts and vast destruction for all parties involved aren’t always sufficient impediments to war in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter.
Iran is the primary backer of the Houthis, a rebel group that has overrun a large part of Yemen. The Saudis, meanwhile, are backing the Houthis’ opponents, the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. As part of that effort, the Saudis have engaged in an air campaign that, while largely ignored in the West, has been remorselessly destructive. Yemen is now both a war zone and a failed state that could bring the Iranians and the Saudis to blows.
Add into this combustible mix the Houthi-fired missile from Yemen that was shot down last month near an international airport in Riyadh… And tensions have rarely been this high between the two regional combatants.
While we can hope that the Saudis and Iranians know an all-out war would be costly for both countries, the possibility of miscalculation and rapid escalation remains. As the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s taught us, enormous body counts and vast destruction for all parties involved aren’t always sufficient impediments to war in the Middle East – or anywhere else for that matter.
We will not achieve peace in the Middle East next year. To the contrary, it will be a victory of sorts if we can make it through the next 12 months without seeing yet another major war erupt within the Islamic world.