Robert Kaplan had a real thought-provoker at RealClearWorld over the weekend – his thesis, that the US and its Western allies would be poorly served by picking a side in the growing Sunni/Shia feud which has already changed the Syrian revolution into a sectarian civil war and now threatens to spill over into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond.
Don’t defeat Iran. Shi’ism is not America’s enemy. It is not in the long-term interest of the United States to side with the Sunni Arab states against Iran or vice versa. Doing so produces an imbalance of power in the region as we learned with the collapse of the Iraqi state in the aftermath of the American invasion of 2003.
Kaplan’s callous-as-hell realpolitik is that the US certainly shouldn’t be backing the Sunni side of that imbalance – the side that gave us Salafist extremism, Al Qaeda, 9/11 and a host of dictatorial governments – when the Shia-dominated states of Iran and Iraq have at least a “semblance of a democratic foundation”. Instead, he writes, that as Syria collapses into chaos the West should be looking to give Iran and Shiites some help.
Weakening central authority — not the continuation of autocracy — remains the greatest danger to the region. Keep in mind that stability in the Middle East has never been a matter of democracy. To date,Israel has only signed peace treaties with Arab autocrats, men who ran strong states and who could purge members of their own power structures who disagreed with them. It is not democracy that the United States should primarily want, but a regional balance of power that will reduce the risk of war.
Now that Iran is being weakened by the slow-motion collapse of Bashar al Assad’s Alawite regime, a chaotic Syria will likely become — even more so — the fulcrum of a power struggle between Iran and the Sunni Arab world for years to come, preventing either side from being able to dominate the region.
Cold wars are tolerable precisely because they are cold. And a new cold war in the Middle East, assuming sectarian violence can be kept down at a reasonable level, will be something that policymakers in Washington may see as being in the American interest. A region balanced at least has the possibility to be a region at relative peace, with a Shiite bastion composed of Tehran and Baghdad facing off against a belt of Sunni revivalism stretching from Egypt to Anbar in western Iraq. It is for this reason that Barack Obama’s administration should not be in favor of a zero-sum result in Syria.
The problem here is that any taking sides – even taking both sides and trying for a balance of powers – is dangerous meddling with unforeseen consequences. “First, do no harm” might be a good principle to observe instead. That principle says we should stay the hell out of the Levant. There are already worrying signs of the Syrian war spilling over into other areas – most notably in Iraq where the Saudis and Qataris are funding resurgent Sunni militias but now too in Lebanon, with Hezbollah openly crossing the border to help the Assad regime just as Saudis are joining the rebels. The situation simply isn’t as clear cut as Kaplan would like either. While the Sunni/Shia feud is certainly the main power struggle going on, there’s also a feud for Sunni leadership between the Saudis and Qatar.
No, the best course for the US would be to not meddle, to stay the hell out of the Sunni/Shia feud even if it becomes a region-wide civil war. Unfortunately, the Beltway conventional wisdom has the US on a glide-path to intervention on the Sunni side.