Islamic State: A Product of the War Between Shiites and Sunnis

Barack Obama has tried everything to avoid getting here. In fact, his desire to extract the United States from the Middle East is one of the main causes of the catastrophe that is forcing him to act now. Like his predecessors, he can’t escape it. Whatever its politics, America seems doomed to fight a war in the Arab world.

If any terrorist organization deserves to be taken out with bombs, it is definitely the Islamic State. The beheadings, the mass executions, and the calls for death in the name of jihad all serve to make the group morally detestable. The danger can’t be underestimated. The Islamic State’s organization, military and financial resources, and ability to conquer vast territories and attract thousands as foreign volunteers is unprecedented. In comparison, al-Qaida seems like a group of amateurs. We must respond now if we don’t want to see this phenomenon spread, if we want to prevent other “caliphates” from arising in the Maghreb, in Africa or in Asia, and if we want to prevent a wave of terrorist attacks from sweeping across Europe and America.

Barack Obama had to act: Better late than never. If it would have been better to help the moderate opposition fight Bashar al-Assad from the beginning; it would be futile now to stop hitting the enemy in Syria under the pretext that this could help the regime. In the current context, international legal arguments don’t hold. Baghdad called for help. Damascus could not fight back, even rhetorically. As for Vladimir Putin’s objections, his annexation of Crimea limited his sway.

Will air strikes suffice to eradicate the Islamic State? Evidently not. Barack Obama had the audacity to say that his goal was not limited to “degrading” the Islamic State, but that he was acting to “destroy” it. This will take years, and Washington, for once, agrees on that. Above all, the countries in the region must take charge and decide themselves to fight the battle against radical Islam, a battle in which they are the primary victims. Without an organized uprising by Sunnis in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, airstrikes will not be sufficient.

The problem is that this new confrontation is superimposed on the war between Shiites and Sunnis that has been raging across the Middle East since at least the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. The rallying of four Arab countries — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — that have joined the U.S. in justifying the strikes on Syrian territory, has mostly symbolic value. Its operational utility will depend on their level of commitment and on the course that the military operations will take. The important thing is that all five are Sunnis and seem to finally realize that they have, to varying degrees, birthed a monster by waging a war that opposes the Shiite axis headed by Tehran.

If the Sunnis, whether the Gulf monarchies or the Iraqi tribes, tolerate an entity as barbaric as the Islamic State, it’s because they still fear that their Shiite enemies, who are largely minorities in the region, will destroy their ancient supremacy. Turkey is in the same situation, but the Kurdish factor adds an even more heartbreaking aspect to its case: The adage, used frequently in the region, that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” applies here more than anywhere.

America and its allies have neither the military nor the political means to end the regional civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. It is even likely that the ongoing rapprochement with Iran on the nuclear issue is helping to exacerbate the Sunni leaders’ obsession.

All we can hope and expect is to contain the bad and to promote peace. The extreme complexity of the overlapping conflicts in the region makes any outcome uncertain. We just have to hope that the Islamic State’s barbarism elicits a profound response that can initiate a new dynamic.

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