Choose a side: Trump and the Sunni-Shiite war

Choose a side: Trump and the Sunni-Shiite war

The Sunni-Shiite civil wars in Iraq and Syria are both nearing their end, and in both cases the Shiites have won – thanks largely to American military help in Iraq’s case, and to a Russian military intervention in Syria. Yet Russia and the United States are not allies in the Middle East. At least not yet.

U.S. President Donald Trump may get in bed with the Russians and the Shiites eventually, but he doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought yet. So for the moment U.S. policy follows the line laid down by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Ex-President Obama was determined not to send American troops into another Middle Eastern war. Even as the Sunni extremists of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda under another name) expanded their control in Syria and then seized much of Iraq, Obama restricted the U.S. intervention to training local troops and deploying American air power.

In Iraq, the local government’s troops were mostly Shiite (as is most of the population), and U.S. support was sufficient without committing American troops to ground combat. The Iraqi army is now in the final stages of reconquering Mosul, ISIL’s capital in Iraq and an almost entirely Sunni city. Yet there have been no massacres of Sunnis, and only a handful of American casualties.

In Syria, the United States strongly opposed the Shiite-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but it did not fight him. Obama found local allies to wage a ground war against ISIL in the form of the Syrian Kurds, who are Sunni, but more interested in a separate Kurdish state than a Sunni-ruled Syria.

That collaboration worked well too. With U.S. training and air support, the Syrian Kurds drove ISIL steadily back, and are now closing in on Raqqa, its capital in Syria. And in all that time, Obama avoided taking sides between Shiites and Sunnis in what most Arabs now see as a Shiite-Sunni war.

Obama even managed to maintain America’s traditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He successfully walked a fine line in the Middle East for six whole years.

It’s doubtful that Donald Trump has the skill, knowledge and patience to go on walking that line. His instinct is to treat Iran as America’s most dangerous enemy in the Middle East, which would certainly please Saudi Arabia. But Iran is Russia’s close ally in the Syrian war, and Trump’s instinct is also to get very close to Vladimir Putin.

There’s a similar problem with Turkey. On one hand, Turkey is an important NATO ally and it has now sent its army into Syria allegedly to help destroy ISIL but in fact mainly to smash the embryonic state that the Syrian Kurds have been building across northern Syria. Those Syrian Kurds have been America’s closest allies against ISIL for years.

If Trump cozies up to the Russians instead, he will have to accept a close relationship with al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria (no problem there) and also with Russia’s main ally in the Syrian war, Iran (potentially big problem there). But various latent conflicts are likely to burst into flame as the big civil wars in Iraq and Syria stagger to an end. Trump will have to jump one way or another quite soon.