The driving force behind President Obama’s motivation to sacrifice a great deal to Iran in the interest of at least temporarily removing nuclear war from the equation is due to the battle being waged in the southernmost corner of the Middle East. This conflict has not been deliberated on by Congress, and it has not been extensively covered in the media. Nevertheless, it is effectively with Iran.
Those of us who grew up in the ‘90s are familiar with Somalia largely because of CNN and Black Hawk Down. Al-Qaeda metastasized in the wound opened by the Battle of Mogadishu, and Osama bin Laden affirmed to Peter Bergen that he helped fund and train the rebel soldiers that would kill 18 Americans in that fateful 1993 standoff. Across the Gulf of Aden, one of al-Qaeda’s most lethal branches took root in the wreckage on the on the southern border of Saudi Arabia, and now Iranian forces have built up there as well.
Saudi Arabia, not Israel, has been the centerpiece of American foreign policy for the past few decades. The American economic engine that dragged us from the Industrial Revolution to the Technological Revolution was literally powered by Saudi reserves.
(Not pictured: Canada – our largest oil trading partner and ride or die homie for life)
Israel is a strategic and moral ally; the Saudi royal family is a necessary one. Saudi Arabia is home to the Sunnis, while Iran is the ideological center of Shia Islam. If you want to make cogent arguments in any debate about Middle Eastern politics, you cannot do so without first addressing this fissure borne out of the death of Muhammad. It factors into every single conflict in the region. Christianity went through something similar with the Catholics and the Protestants, except if the Catholics and Protestants had all their neighbors replaced by monarchies beholden to foreign oil sales.
Iran is considerably outnumbered in this fight. Eighty-five percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunni. Other than that whole CIA-admitting-to-overthrowing-their-democratically-elected-government thing, the main reason Iran is so antagonistic towards the US is because of our unflinching support for their prime adversaries.
Putting Israel aside, we chose to ally ourselves with the purveyors of the Sunni Wahhabist ideology which produced death cults seeking our extermination—all while positioning ourselves against a more than five-to-one minority. Given what they’re up against, can you really fault the Iranians for pursuing a nuclear bomb? People have no ground to stand on when they criticize Iran for espousing radical ideological biases while dismissing criticisms of Saudi Arabia. Those who do are either laughably uninformed or drunk on oil money. 19 of the 20 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Royal family enforces a very old and arcane form of Wahhabism. Wahhabism is the inspiration for groups like ISIS. Osama bin-Laden was born in Saudi Arabia. This isn’t hard.
We pay for the weapons pointed at our soldiers, all while powering them with the oil exchanged for the incoming fire. It’s beyond psychotic, but that’s business as usual in Washington thanks to the oil lobby.
Which leads us to Yemen of all places. Sunni Islam has inspired groups hellbent on world domination like al-Qaeda and ISIS, but there are no proportionate examples of Shia extremist groups. Most Shia insurgencies have regional aspirations and are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Iranian government. Hezbollah is simply a brigade in the radical Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the Houthis in northeastern Yemen are a lesser version of the same model. Note the specific divisions in the Middle East in this map, which illustrates the dueling influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region.
Yemen followed the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2011, with thousands protesting Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year presidency. The standard model of these struggles soon played out: Saleh resisted, then said he would step down in 2013, larger protests then followed, and the government forces fired on protestors, killing 52 in a pivotal massacre in Sana’a. The response in this instance was a planted bomb (or a fired shell, neither has ever been fully confirmed) on a mosque in the presidential compound that injured Saleh. He fled to Saudi Arabia, and transferred power to his Vice President who ran unopposed in Yemen’s 2012 “election.”
This obviously did not sit well in this forgotten zone, which is the size of Florida and Montana combined. Especially with the Houthis up north, who are a Shia fundamentalist political party whose motto is “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.” They battled the Saleh government several times over his tenure as President, and were the faction most against the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council agreement that distributed power to several sects within the country. The Houthis retreated to their territory, took up arms, and demonstrated yet again that men with guns are the true purveyors of history. Ironically enough, Saleh helped broker a deal that granted them more power in the region.
Fueled by Iran, the Houthis have become a power player in this newly fractured nation, rapidly evolving from a small fighting force of 5,000. Imagine if Russia had 100,000 troops sitting in Tijuana, sinking Guatemalan ships and firing on Canadian destroyers in the Pacific, and that’s what Saudi Arabia is facing right now. They dispatched their stand-in armies in the region along with units of their own military, and are now fighting a proxy war with Iran on their southern border. Now the United States is firing on what is effectively Iran’s training and weapons. This is why wrestling the nuclear bomb away from them is so important; war is inevitable so long as we are sutured at the hip with Saudi Arabia.
Yemen isn’t the only Middle Eastern enclave home to these surrogates. Bahrain is one such example, as it has been caught in the middle of the Saudi-Iranian struggle since well before its popular uprising in 2011. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the new ruling party called to topple all monarchies and replace them with Islamic nation-states. Saudi Arabia bristled at this challenge, as they are the prime financial backers of despots across the Middle East. The majority of citizens in Bahrain are Shia but the government is run by Saudi Arabian-backed Shiites. Their violent crackdown on the revolution led to the US abandoning much of its support for this tiny kingdom, and as a result, they have reached out towards Russia for additional support. However, the aid they are able to receive is extremely limited due to the Saudi-US alliance, despite the American withdrawal. This is the definition of a clusterfuck.
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Russia has limited influence in the Middle East, as their only military base there is located in Syria, the theater for the largest ongoing proxy war on the planet. Russia is wholly dependent on the Assad regime for influence in the region, and Assad doubles as Iran’s puppet. Iran and Russia provide military and logistics support for Assad’s war crimes, and Saudi Arabia is backing the ISIS-flavored militias fighting back against the regime. The United States has been cautious to follow their ally’s lead, as the lessons of arming Osama bin-Laden against the Soviets still reverberate to this day. One such group the US sent weapons to was the Hazzm Movement, which eventually merged with the Levant Front, a coalition of five major insurgent groups which was supposed to represent the moderate factions fighting Assad.
A source in the Free Syrian Army’s exiled General Staff told the London-based Saudi newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat that the dissolution of the Levant Front was due to “many problems, most importantly the lack of intellectual and ideological cohesion, particularly on the leadership level, as well as differences over questions of strategic planning on the battlefield.” The central conflict was clear; the coalition was comprised of non-ideological rebels like the Hazzm Movement and the Mujahideen Army, and hard line Salafists like the Tawhid Brigade and the Saudi-backed Islamist Asala wa-Tanmiya Front.
The Levant Front was only held together by its need for supplies and its common enemies in Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. It even fought alongside the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s most powerful remaining outlet. The Nusra Front soon attacked the US-backed Hazzm Movement, and not long after, the coalition disintegrated. Now it is unclear who exactly is fighting the Iranian-backed Assad government, but given the history in the region, we can be certain that Saudi Arabia has a hand in it. Effectively, there are three proxy wars taking place in this area fractured by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement: Iran vs Saudi Arabaia, the US vs Iran, and the US vs Russia.
Russia has intermediaries all over Eastern Europe, as the battle over Ukraine is clearly demonstrating. However, in the Middle East they have to lean heavily on Iranian connections and support. Their main contribution is their air force. The Soviets claim to be fighting “terrorists,” but as a cursory search of their recent activity in Aleppo shows, they are simply bombarding those who remain in Syria and oppose the regime (side note to Donald Trump: if you think Aleppo has “fallen,” why is Assad bombing it nonstop?). Because no one else in the world ever steps up in these situations, the burden always falls upon the United States military to intervene, and we have now been paralyzed by decades of confusion.
The impending attack on Mosul is a mishmash of the Iraqi army, various Sunni factions, and even Iranian-backed Shia militias. We spent the last century funding and arming surrogates across the region, only to see their descendants take up our arms against us. After the debacle in Iraq, Americans have no tolerance for “boots on the ground” anymore. By opposing American military forces in the region, we are essentially enforcing a proxy war on our military. Dropping bombs only goes so far; if you really want to drive ISIS out, you must send ground forces in to hold the territory once they’re gone. This paralysis in decision-making has cost hundreds of thousands of lives while driving millions out of their homes.
There is a stunning lack of leadership in the world right now. The Middle East is bursting at the seams, with regional hegemons competing for power despite the new world demanded by their citizens. Europe is most at risk to ISIS, yet the battle against them is largely being waged by only the US, UK, and France. Putin turned Russia into a full-fledged kleptocracy, and China has little to no interest in maintaining global stability. We are the world’s police mainly because no one else can or will do the job, and leaving a conflict unattended results in horrors like what is currently happening in Syria, or what occurred in Rwanda, or when Neville Chamberlain placated Hitler. Inaction can have graver consequences than bad actions.
We all contribute to this lack of leadership by maintaining an unrealistic expectation of our military. We believe we can resolve conflicts simply through our air might without ever having to put an American in harm’s way. As long as we maintain our position of “no American ground forces” in the region, we will continue to have proxy wars. History is littered with these small-scale skirmishes and they largely have two destinies: creating our enemies of the future or escalating the conflicts of the present. Leadership and diplomacy are the only safe routes out of quagmires like Yemen, and the world is sorely lacking in those respects. If we do the unthinkable and elect a fascist cheeto in three weeks, these surrogate battles could wind up becoming the stepping stones to nuclear war.