We’re just not Enemy Number One for al Qaeda and its franchises anymore. Oh, Sunni jihadis still seek opportunities, great or small, to strike Americans, but we’ve clearly lost ground in the Great Satan Sweepstakes. The anti-American rhetoric remains, but most al Qaeda affiliates now wage local struggles or concentrate on opposing the new top “enemy of Islam,” Shia Iran and its clients.
To grasp how profoundly the Middle East has changed – and continues to change – you have to escape the slogans and count the casualties. Neither al Qaeda nor any of its franchises have done much harm to the USA of late (although they welcome American renegades radicalized on the internet), but they’ve killed a great many Iran-supported Hezbollah militants in Syria, as well as Iranian “volunteers” who fought alongside the Assad regime. And Iran and its Shia clients do their best to kill Sunni jihadis. We’ve been benched for a long and ugly halftime show.
The trend should have been obvious to all by last November, when al Qaeda-aligned suicide bombers wrecked the Iranian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, killing dozens – including a high-ranking spy boss posing as a cultural attaché. Suddenly, we weren’t in Syria anymore.
But the Sunni jihadi vs. Shia militant bloodletting had been intensifying for years, with al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria not only usurping leadership of the struggle against Syria’s Iran-backed Assad regime, but exploiting Sunni discontent in western Iraq over that country’s Iran-allied Shia government’s anti-Sunni discrimination and death squads. Suddenly, Sunni extremists were fighting to grab power, while Shia hardliners struggled to retain power. This is, quite literally, a struggle for the soul of the Middle East.
Our diplomats flee from reality, but the region is in the grip of a brutal religious civil war between Sunni and Shia. And that bitter, brutal struggle comes atop the confused revolutions of the “Arab Spring” and region-wide internal struggles within each branch of Islam between modernizers, moderates and fanatics. Christian and other minorities fall in the crossfire.
Back in the 1990s, I wrote that, while people may enjoy hating a distant enemy, they prefer to kill their neighbors. That is exactly what we’re witnessing now: Vituperative statements about distant America continue, but the massacres by both camps are up close and personal. You don’t just get killed for worshipping the wrong god, but for worshipping the right god the wrong way.
This merciless struggle will ebb and flow, as it has for 13 centuries, but it’s difficult to see how it can be resolved. Our fearful, politically correct diplomats scrub religion from their analyses, but nothing else, except blood ties, so provokes atrocities. This is a great religious war, Shia vs. Sunni, and we pretend it’s all about minor grievances.
I’ve also written that a situation in which our enemies stay busy killing each other isn’t necessarily bad news. Even our sole ally in the region, Israel, has fallen lower on the jihadi target list – so low that the Palestinian Authority has difficulty exciting any support, while the terrorists in Hamas are largely quarantined in Gaza.
Our biggest problem is that we can’t see the oasis for the sand dunes. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions have been hampered by our inability to recognize that not only were our sanctions biting into the Iranian economy – leaving us in the power position – but that Iran’s strategic ambitions had been bleeding out in Syria and, increasingly, Lebanon. Our diplomats could not do elementary strategic math.
Watch: Will the bloodbath in Syria continue to expand, erasing the region’s artificial borders?
Crisis Watch Bottom Line: Sometimes, it isn’t so bad to be Number Two.
Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team, a former Army enlisted man and retired officer, and the author of the critically acclaimed and bestselling Civil War novels “Cain at Gettysburg” and “Hell or Richmond.”
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armchair General.