If it’s true that war is how Americans learn geography, then war in the Middle East is how Americans learn about that region’s rampant sectarianism, which is why the region is going to remain this way for the conceivable future.
On Wednesday, warplanes from Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign in Yemen to weaken positions held by the Houthi rebels — a Shia faction that overran the presidential palace in Sana’a two months ago and subsequently dissolved the parliament. The air raids, which also include planes from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan, came less than 24 hours after Yemen’s president was forced to flee, and less than a week after bombs went off at two mosques where Houthis were praying.
Those blasts killed more than 130, with ISIS claiming responsibility. Whether the claim is true or not, the Sunni ISIS and the Houthis believe in different successors to Muhammad going back to the seventh century. Shiites believe that Muhammad’s cousin/son-in-law Ali was his rightful heir, while ISIS belongs to a Salafist strain of Islam that recognizes Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr as the successor. The Salafist ISIS advocates jihad against non-Muslims and even Shia Muslims, as evidenced by ISIS’ execution of three Shia truck drivers last year.
According to unnamed officials in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, the Houthis have received funding, training, and weapons from the predominantly Shia Iran, which is the chief rival of the Sunni-run Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia. No doubt the Saudis have been closely watching nuclear talks between Iran and the United States, perhaps with consternation as an agreement appears near — one that will see heavy sanctions on Iran eased and perhaps its influence in the region enhanced. These bombing runs may be the Saudis’ way of telling Iran that they won’t tolerate a Shia government on its peninsula.
The Houthis haven’t just been battling government forces in Yemen, but also Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which will seek to capitalize on any Houthi weakness resulting from the air strikes. For its part, the U.S. is providing logistical and intelligence support for the operation, dubbed “Decisive Storm.” The aim is to restore to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is currently in Saudi Arabia, to power. It seems unlikely this can occur without a ground assault into Yemen to remove the Houthis from the capital and also to prevent Al Qaeda from notching additional gains or support. Therefore, Saudi Arabia may have to march troops into Yemen as it did to crush an uprising in Bahrain in 2011. However, this task will prove more formidable given that Yemen is much bigger and the opposition is more numerous and heavily armed. Meanwhile, Sunni Egypt has indicated it may send troops.
Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, ideologically is not all that different from ISIS. In fact, the Wahhabism of the House of Saud and the Salafism of ISIS are often viewed as being two sides of the same coin, if not the same. Both use a strict interpretation of the Quran to justify and enforce their rule. Both prohibit Bibles, consumption of alcohol, homosexuality, and both regard Muhammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr, as the proper successor to Muhammad. The main difference at the moment is that the Saudis aren’t looking to impose a caliphate over the entire region, and Saudi Arabia is recognized as an actual state while ISIS is not. Despite the ideological similarities, that hasn’t prevented Saudi Arabia from bombing ISIS inside Syria while simultaneously sending money and weapons to other rebel forces opposed to President Bashar Al-Assad, even as the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly intimated that ISIS receives funding from Saudi Arabia.
Speaking of Syria, there are some 20 rebel groups with varying political, cultural, and religious beliefs all looking to topple Assad in addition to ISIS and also the Al-Nusra Front, which in 2014 split with ISIS. There are now rumors that the ANF has split with Al Qaeda, which has already split with ISIS, which of course came out of the Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in Iraq, not to be confused with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or just plain Al Qaeda.
Let me point out that this post has only discussed — quite superficially might I add — the internal divisions in two Middle East countries, and yet it seems as though we’ve just been through a dizzying whirlwind. (And never mind Israel and Palestine.) It would be one thing if these divisions were merely nominal or surface-level differences, but they’re not. The theological disagreements above have very real consequences because the people having them take them very seriously, and some are even willing to die over who Muhammad’s rightful successor was in 632 A.D. because, they believe, he was chosen by Allah to give the final revelation from the heavens.
The religious fervor partially responsible for the mess in the Middle East will not be easily tempered and certainly not by non-Muslim forces. Whatever reform comes in Islam and or the region will have to come from within, and hopefully it comes fast because the world can’t wait another 1,400 years.