Foreign policy is a complicated business, but perhaps we might try not helping our bitterest enemies.
In the 1980s, the West helped Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. When that didn’t work out, we eventually got rid of him – in the process helping Iran upset the balance of power across the Middle East.
Without admitting their culpability, the interventionists have been calling for remedial action against the Mullahs ever since – for instance, in the Syrian civil war, where Iran and its Hezbollah allies are fighting to save the Assad regime. However, that would only help the other side, which as we now know is dominated by forces affiliated to al-Qa’ida.
Surely, if there was ever a fight that we need to keep out of it is one between Shia and Sunni extremists led respectively by Hezbollah and al-Qa’ida.
The interventionist counter-argument is that the Shia extremists are backed by a hostile (and potentially nuclear-armed) state and therefore represent the greater danger. However, as Patrick Cockburn explains in the Independent, the same is also true on the other side – with Sunni regimes playing a ‘great game’ with the lives of innocent people:
“Anti-Shia hate propaganda spread by Sunni religious figures sponsored by, or based in, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, is creating the ingredients for a sectarian civil war engulfing the entire Muslim world. Iraq and Syria have seen the most violence, with the majority of the 766 civilian fatalities in Iraq this month being Shia pilgrims killed by suicide bombers from the al-Qa’ida umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). The anti-Shia hostility of this organisation, now operating from Baghdad to Beirut, is so extreme that last [year] it had to apologise for beheading one of its own wounded fighters in Aleppo – because he was mistakenly believed to have muttered the name of Shia saints as he lay on a stretcher.”
While Iran is rightfully portrayed in as an aggressor in the Middle East (acting through its various front groups), it is not the only one:
“Western intelligence agencies, such as the NSA in the US, much criticised for spying on the internet communications of their own citizens, have paid much less attention to open and instantly accessible calls for sectarian murder that are in plain view. Critics say that this is in keeping with a tradition since 9/11 of Western governments not wishing to hold Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies responsible for funding extreme Sunni jihadi groups and propagandists supporting them through private donations.”
The Sunni-Shia divide goes back a long way, but in recent decades it has re-emerged as the most important cause of – or pretext for – conflict in the Middle East:
“Sectarian animosities between Sunni and Shia have existed down the centuries, but have greatly intensified since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that followed it. Hatreds increased after the US invasion of Iraq and the takeover of what had been a Sunni-run state under Saddam Hussein by the majority Shia community, which generated a ferocious sectarian civil war that peaked in 2006-07 and ended with a Shia victory.”
It should be said that the West is not deliberately taking sides in this conflict. Western governments are no more ‘anti-Shia’ in their stance on Syria than they were ‘pro-Shia’ when they toppled Saddam Hussein. But what we are guilty of is blundering around in other people’s countries, arrogantly assuming that the fights we get involved in are all about us.