View from Turkey: A Sunni-Shia War?

Even if a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is prevented, proxy wars between these two countries will most probably increase in number in the coming years. One analyst advises Turkey to stay away from these tensions.

Posted on 01/6/16
By İhsan Yilmaz | Via Today's Zaman

Iran SaudiIs the escalating conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran a conflict between Sunnis and Shias? Not exactly. Similar to many other so-called religious wars, this is a political, economic and geo-strategic problem that is translated into religious language. Nevertheless, since politicians have been abusing religious sentiments for centuries, the issue has become complicated and thus there is a religious dimension to the conflict.


The Saudis are afraid of their Shia minority and have been oppressing them. Similarly, Iran is afraid of its Sunni minority and has been oppressing them. The issue has, of course, a transnational dimension, too. Thus, while Saudi Arabia sides with the Sunnis in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, etc., Iran sides with the Shias.


Yet all this must not obscure the fact that the motivations of both the Saudi and Iranian elites are not religious. What they do in their countries does not have anything to do with Sunni Islam or Shia Islam, either. They are just like authoritarian despots in other parts of the world. What they are trying to achieve is not related to Islam, either. Islam has been rhetorically manipulated to entice their peoples and to get international support. If Muslims all over the world can get rid of their obsession of looking at conflicts through sectarian lenses and can look at the concrete evidence and material facts, they will be more just and will not be deluded by despotic elites.


What is really happening between Saudi Arabia and Iran is to a great extent related to the US and the West.
What is really happening between Saudi Arabia and Iran is to a great extent related to the US and the West. The US and the West have decided to work with Iran and this infuriates the Saudis, who are a staunch and long-term ally of the US. Yet, the US wants to work more closely with Iran for a variety of reasons. It made a tremendous mistake invading Afghanistan and Iraq on fabricated lies. These two countries are now in worse condition than they were before the invasion. Millions of people have lost their lives and the conflicts and civil wars may continue for another 20 years. Iraq is de facto divided in three and Sunnis and Shias will continue to kill each other, Sunnis supported by the Saudis and Shias supported by the Iranians. Now, more or less the same problem exists in Syria, thanks to the Western, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish over-encouragement of the Sunni opposition in Syria. The administration of US President Barack Obama does not want to get deeply involved in these crises anymore and presumably, even if the US has a Republican president next, this policy will remain intact for a variety of reasons. First, the sins of Iraq and Afghanistan are not forgotten. The heavy price the US paid is still unaccounted for. Second, the US no longer needs Middle Eastern oil as much. Third, it wants to focus on China.


Yet, all this has been helping the Iranian influence that is increasing in the region, which the Saudis hate. Iraq has become an Iranian ally. Syria will remain so, despite its Sunni majority. Bahrain and Yemen may come under Iranian influence. And, Saudi Arabia’s Shias, some 20 percent of the population who predominantly live in oil-rich regions, are not happy at being oppressed. The void that has been left by the US’s partial departure is being filled by Iranian ally Russia and this is not good news for the Saudis, either. The Saudi dynasty has serious internal tensions among its own elite. The Saudi population has been becoming politically more active. Moreover, many Saudis have been radicalized for a long time. Just remember that 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudi citizens. It is doesn’t take rocket science to know that the Saudi ideology of Salafism/Wahhabism has been a conveyor belt to the so-called jihadism of violent groups such as al-Qaeda. Furthermore, there are many allegations of financial support to these groups by some of the Saudi elite. On the other hand, Iran has been militarily involved in the Syrian war and has been supporting Hezbollah.


Even if a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is prevented, proxy wars between these two countries will most probably increase in number in the coming years. Turkey must never become involved in any of these tensions. The only thing that it can do is lobby third parties such as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU, NATO, Egypt, India, etc. to force the two parties to reach a sustainable settlement. I know, this is almost impossible but the alternative may simply be World War III.


This article first appeared at Today’s Zaman, one of Turkey’s largest daily. Click here to go to the original.

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