Skip to main content

by Jon P. Dorschner

In his May 23 speech at the National Defense University in Washington D.C., President Obama announced significant changes to American counter-terrorism policy.  He was responding to growing public outcry over U.S. use of drones and the continued detention of “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, Cuba.  The President inherited a set of bad options from the previous administration and was forced to work within them.  The GW Bush administration dramatically increased counter-terrorism efforts after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but its poor decisions limited President Obama’s options.

Although Al Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden, perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, President Bush inexplicably declared a “global war on terror (GWOT).”  Rather than pursuing the clear objective of destroying Al Qaeda and bringing the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice, Bush embraced the ill-defined goal of fighting a “global war on terror,” with a conceivably unending target list.  In pursuit of this erroneous policy, he invaded Iraq, which played no role in the 9/11 attacks.

Osama bin Laden repeatedly stated that the 9/11 attacks were meant to “bleed” the United States, which he hoped would commit enormous economic and military resources in an emotional knee-jerk response.  Bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  The United States will spend trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the decades to come and on unprecedented counter-terrorism efforts both domestically and internationally.  The impact on the American economy, society, and political system has been devastating.  Thousands of American military personnel and many diplomats have been killed and injured in the GWOT, as well as hundreds of thousands of civilians.  Repeated scandals involving torture of suspects and other purported outrages by American troops and intelligence agencies also badly damaged American prestige.  This counterterrorism effort also entailed a vast increase in government surveillance of American citizens, with details provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

President Obama inherited this policy and quickly concluded that it was not sustainable and was causing irreparable harm.  He has been trying to bring the “war on terror” to an end ever since he came to office.  The President hopes to replace the “war on terror” with a scaled down counter-terrorism effort, while ruling out large-scale military intervention in the Muslim world.  It has long been apparent that the United States can no longer afford to invade countries halfway around the world in response to terrorist attacks.

President Obama hopes to “rationalize” counter-terrorism policy by applying the restrictive parameters rejected by President Bush.  He wants to limit American counter-terrorism efforts to targeting specific perpetrators of terrorist attacks using limited and effective methods, while repairing our damaged relationship with Muslims around the world.

While President Obama’s goals are laudable and long overdue, our entire counter-terrorism policy is being subsumed and overtaken by what is likely to be a protracted and bloody conflict within Islam between followers of the Sunni and Shia sects.  As this conflict expands, the United States will face increasing pressure to become involved.  This is exemplified by the protracted and expanding civil war in Syria.  This conflict, which began on March 15, 2011, started as a popular uprising against the repressive dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, but has since degenerated into a Shia/Sunni conflict.  Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, while most of his opponents are Sunnis.

Both sects harbor terrorist groups and they have rushed to Syria to join the fighting and champion their causes.  These are the same Sunni and Shia terrorist groups that have attacked the United States.  This means that regardless of which side the United States supports in this conflict, it will find itself allied with terrorist groups that have aggressively attacked the U.S. and its interests around the world.

President Obama is well aware of the moral ambiguity surrounding the conflict within Islam and has attempted to keep the United States out of it.  However, Obama now feels compelled to act after Assad launched an August 21 gas attack against his own population and has pressed for a military response aimed at Syrian chemical weapons capability.  His response to this provocation demonstrates how decisions taken now could potentially drag the United States into a lose-lose situation with enormous potential consequences.

The current war in Syria is only the most prominent inter Islamic conflict that could potentially escalate out of control, touching off a worldwide Sunni/Shia war that could prove far more devastating than the terrorist attacks that the United States has endured for decades.  A worldwide Sunni/Shia conflict would disrupt the world economy, cause crippling energy shortages, and potentially involve the world’s greatest powers.  We already see this pattern developing in Syria, where Russia is arming and supporting the Assad regime, while the United States and its allies increase their support for Assad’s Sunni opponents.

The Syrian civil war is the current epicenter of the Sunni/Shia conflict.  Iran views the Assad regime as a Shia government under attack by Sunni terrorists.  Iran is determined to ensure that Assad wins the war and remains in power.  As the leader of the Shia world, Iran has committed Revolutionary Guard advisers and specialists to aid Assad’s forces.  Iran has also enlisted the forces of the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon to fight for Assad.  Hezbollah, longtime clients of Iran, have pledged to fight in Syria until victory.

What has morphed into a bloody civil war, started out as a civil disobedience movement aimed at bringing democracy to Syria.  Originally, it was not cast in sectarian terms.  The Assad family has long ruled Syria with an iron hand, and long-suppressed resentment broke out as part of the Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East.  As the conflict intensified, committed Sunni extremists, many connected with Al Qaeda, joined the fighting.  This alarmed the Shia who have come to view the civil war in sectarian terms.  Sunni Muslims around the world are following suit.  Within the worldwide Shia community, many see the Alawite regime in Syria as under attack by militant Sunni forces, bent on establishing a radical Sunni state in Syria.  Iran has long felt threatened by the Sunni states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia.  This, rather than fear of the United States, is the primary impetus for the Iranian nuclear weapons program.  Iran and Saudi Arabia and their Shia and Sunni allies, long ago concluded that a sectarian conflict is inevitable and have been preparing for it.

Iran has concluded that if Assad is defeated and driven from power, Syria’s majority Sunni community will purge the country of Shias and impose a Salafist state.  There is some justification for this conclusion.  Militant Sunnis, influenced by Salafist ideology, are playing an ever-larger role in the anti Assad insurgency.  They do not view Shias as Muslims, but rather as heretics.  In their view, Shias must either abandon their heretical faith and rejoin the Islamic fold, or face eradication.

Iran has concluded that its conflict with Sunni Islam is a do or die effort and that it cannot afford to lose.  Shia/Sunni violence has been ongoing throughout the Muslim world for decades, and the intensity and ferocity of this conflict has exponentially increasing in recent years.  While Americans were focused on the threat posed to them by “Islamic” terrorism, they failed to perceive that most victims of this terrorism were Muslims.

The death toll in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere among both Sunnis and Shias has been incomprehensible.  In Pakistan, for example, militant Shias and Sunnis have long been engaged in armed conflict that has devolved into tit for tat terrorist attacks.  Bombs aimed at innocent civilians of the rival community are almost a daily occurrence in Pakistan.  Thousands of men, women, and children have been killed and maimed in these attacks, and the Pakistani security forces seem powerless to stop them.  The same trend is being repeated in Iraq and could soon spread to Lebanon and elsewhere.

What is frightening about this conflict is the increasing dominance of sheer hatred.  The senseless bombing attacks against civilians all over the Islamic world appears to have sunk to the level of nihilism.  The participants in this conflict are bent on causing as much death and destruction as possible.  They present no positive program, but want only to eradicate their opponents.  On the Sunni side, this has been compounded by the glorification of suicide (“martyrdom”).  A Sunni suicide bomber takes his own life to take the lives of innocents whose only crime is membership in the rival community.

Iran and Russia have, for the time being, turned the tide of battle in Assad’s favor.  This is unlikely to last.  The Sunni community is crafting a strong response.  Sunni “volunteers” from around the world are joining the conflict, while Sunni states are increasing their funding, arms shipments and training to the rebels.  Many Sunnis, facing pressure on the battlefield, want the United States to provide the means to overthrow the Assad regime

The United States has openly thrown its hat into the ring on the side of the Syrian rebels.  This means the U.S. has allied itself with the Sunni states in this sectarian conflict.  If the United States launches a military strike against the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons, most Sunnis will view this as active American military involvement in support of their side.  While the United States contends that any military action is aimed solely at Syrian’s chemical weapons capability, the Sunnis would view it as an American effort to compel regime change in Syria.

Even if current diplomatic efforts to deprive Syria of its chemical weapons capability succeed and the United States never launches a military strike, the U.S. and its Sunni allies, will continue to arm and train Sunni surrogates to fight in Syria.  The U.S. insists its aid does not go to Sunni extremists, but to “moderates,” bent on establishing democracy in Syria.  Our Sunni allies have no such qualms.  The Arab states in particular, are happy to arm and train Salafi groups that share the same ideology as al Qaeda, to join in the “jihad” against Shia Islam.

Iran has formed its own Shia alliance to fight this proxy war in Syria and has enlisted its own big power patron.  Russia backs a Shia military effort in Syria, while the U.S. will be the superpower patron of the Sunni side.  Russia has provided the Assad regime with game changing weapons such as aircraft, artillery, and armor and these have provided the Assad forces with a military edge over their opponents.  However, it will not be long before Sunni forces obtain the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons they need to counter this advantage.  While this would enable rebels to negate Assad’s air power, artillery and armor, it does not assure a military victory.

Instead, the Syrian conflict could devolve into a mini World War One stalemate that would gradually engulf the Middle East in perpetual conflict.  The infusion of new weapons into rebel hands could enable them to blunt Assad offensives and perhaps retake some territory, but as the Assad forces adapt and respond, the battle lines could harden and fortify, leading to a long-term and bloody stalemate.  The war could then become endless.  As the conflict is protracted, it could increasingly draw in neighboring states, leading to conventional military clashes involving Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, and possibly the United States, and Israel.

As usual, Israel is the wild card.  As a Jewish state loathed by both Sunnis and Shias, Israel purportedly has no interest in this conflict.  However, Israel would like to see Assad defeated and his regime replaced by a Sunni government opposed to Iran.  A Sunni government would sever the Iranian supply line to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon and dull one of Israel’s principal threats.  Defeat in Syria could be a major setback for Iran.  If victorious Sunnis purge Syria of Shia and Iranian influences, it would effectively diminish Iranian influence in the Middle East.  This could embolden Sunni forces to then go after Hezbollah in Lebanon, as part of an effort to “cleanse” the region of Shia Islam.

A Sunni victory could backfire on both Israel and the United States, however.  The anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan serves as a useful precedent.  When United States backed Sunni forces defeated Soviet forces in Afghanistan, it did not bring peace and progress to the country.  Instead, it plunged Afghanistan into bitter internecine conflict.  Something similar could take place in Syria.  Should hardline Salafist forces come to power in Syria, they could turn on Israel and encourage more anti-Israel violence by Hamas and other Sunni forces in the region.  Reinvigorated Sunnis could reignite the Lebanese civil war and plunge that country back into sectarian bloodletting and chaos.  This could increase the chances for a renewed war between Israel and its neighbors or between Iran and a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

The United States has already aligned itself with the Sunni forces.  Just as our Sunni allies turned on us after winning the war in Afghanistan, the Sunni fighters in Syria could quickly turn their American supplied weapons on Israel and the United States.   The end of the Syrian conflict could only be the beginning of protracted conflict throughout the region that could draw in the United States.

The United States has only recently emerged from a long Cold War that divided the world, threatened international stability and wasted enormous resources that could have been used for economic development and to meet impending environmental threats.  A Shia/Sunni conflict has the same potential for disruption and is far more threatening to the United States and the international system than terrorism.  This new development requires a total re-evaluation of American foreign policy.

For a start, the United States will have to rethink its approach to terrorism.  Terrorism has been an over arching concern of the U.S. for too long and far more pressing concerns require American attention and expenditure.  The U.S. has squandered far too many resources on the GWOT.

Because of its terrorism obsession, the United States lashed out with disproportionate military force.  It invaded two Muslim states, Iraq and Afghanistan.  While the United States succeeded in deposing an unpopular and tyrannical Sunni leader in Shia majority Iraq, its lack of a postwar strategy quickly devolved into conflict between the United States military and Shia militias supported by Iran.  The invasion of Iraq thus reignited Shia resentment against the United States.  Iraqi Shias, who originally welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Husain, were quickly alienated.  The United States therefore found itself facing both Sunni and Shia hostility.

The narrow focus on terrorism based on the U.S. status as the victim of terrorist attacks, diverted American attention away from the enormous developments taking place within Islam.  The United States paid insufficient attention to the Sunni/Shia divide within Islam and its implications for the Muslim world.  We will now have to pay the consequences.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

Jon P. Dorschner
Jon P. Dorschner

A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects.

From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer.A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington.

From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.


Comments are closed.