When Donald J. Trump made his first overseas trip as U.S. president to Saudi Arabia and spent half of the time during his 36-minute speech addressed to 50 Arab and Muslim leaders trashing Iran, he made it clear that, in the quickly intensifying Sunni-Shi’ite showdown, he was siding with the Sunnis.
Trump’s inherent endorsement of the Sunni hub set in motion a series of potentially dangerous events — including a Saudi-led economic embargo of neighboring Qatar and a change in the dynastic succession of the House of Saudi — which have ignited even more tensions between the two opposing factions.
And Trump’s recent ambiguous warnings to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to not proceed with alleged intentions to use chemical weapons “or else,” along with his decision to take pop shots at Syrian warplanes, have stirred an already-churning stew of Sunni-Shi’ite territorial land grab ambitions even further.
While Trump may feel that, by cozying up to Riyadh, he is taking a stance that will help to quell the bitter centuries-old sectarian feud between the two factions and to leverage the Shi’ite camp (which accounts for just 20 percent of the Muslim’s World’s global population) into political submission to the dominant Sunni bloc (accounting for the most of the remaining 80 percent of the world’s Muslims), he seems to be ignoring the fact that the two groups’ hatred for one another is as integrately ingrained in their ethnic and social identity as their devout commitment to Mohammedism.
Clearly, after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and rhetorical tirades against Iran, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud felt emboldened — emboldened enough to lead a multinational severing of relations with Doha and to oust his heir apparent Mohammed bin Nayef from the role of crown prince and replace him with his own son, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, later putting his now-defunct nephew under house arrest in Riyadh.
But Iran and the rest of the Shi’ite league are not going to sit still quietly and let Saudi Arabia take political and territorial control of Iraq, Yemen and other sectarian borderline territories in the region.
The religious schism that is the dividing line between the Sunnis and Shi’ites began in 632, shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammed, and is at the crux of the eternal militarized tug-of-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
And it is not going to go away simply because Saudi Arabia now has more political weight to throw around.
Trump’s siding with Riyadh and verbal attacks on Tehran could incite regional sectarian tensions to explode into a full-fledged war, expanding the military confrontations that already exist in Syria and parts of Iraq into a conflict that could, conceivably, encompass the entire Middle East.
As part of its ambitious plan to gain control over the region, Saudi Arabia has for decades spearheaded a Sunni coalition through Wahhabism, an ultraconservative, fundamentalist brand of Islam that has become Riyadh’s engine for territorial and political expansion.
And it was Wahhabism that was the incubator and nurturer of what is now the Islamic State (I.S.) and Sunni jihadism (although Saudi Arabia is now regretting having ever conceived these horrific progenies that have since evolved into uncontrollable Frankenstein monsters).
Let me be clear: This is not to say that Iran has not cultivated its own brand of jihadist terrorism.
Iran has supported Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia responsible for numerous acts of terror, and has been linked to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia (although Iran emphatically denies this allegation).
Furthermore, Iran provides support to Palestinian groups that send waves of suicide bombers into Israel.
But, in terms of sheer strengthen and theological influence on terror groups, Iran is outgunned by Saudi Arabia.
But we are talking about a country that, despite more than three decades of economic sanctions from the United States and Europe, has always managed to maintain a sound and diversified economy and a solidly based (even if religiously biased) form of democracy.
Iran is no wimp, and if it feels threatened in its ambitions to gain political and territorial expanse in the region by an ever-more-aggressive Saudi Arabia, it will escalate its own military operations in the region.
Iran already supports the Assad regime in Syria and is supplying guns to the Zaydi rebels in Yemen.
In Syria, Ground Zero for the multifaceted sectarian war for land, tensions have already begun to escalate with Assad, Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias, Russia and the United States all veering for a piece of the action.
Operations against the Islamic State — which seems to be the only common ground for all the major actors involved — are approaching an endgame in both Mosul and Raqqa, which means that the major players will soon once again turn all their attention to fighting each other.
Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, is determined to fight to the death (albeit not necessarily his own death) to keep his country’s territorial integrity intact.
Beyond the religious element of supporting a Shi’ite ally, Iran has a vested interest in Syria maintaining the contested territories of eastern Syria because it represents access to a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Lebanon.
Russia is already heavily entangled in the conflict militaristically, and a more blatant U.S. presence in Syria will internationalize even further what six years ago started off as a civil war.
This would most likely force Israel to get involved in a conflict where it has maintained a carefully orchestrated observer role since the beginning.
In the end, the ensuing war could become inexorable.
There is not viable way to make peace between the Shi’ite and Sunni factions of Islam.
These two camps have always hated and mistrusted each other, and always will.
The best that can be hoped for is a simmering status quo and wobbly balance of power in the region.
Donald Trump’s decision to take sides has only served to fan the flames of hostilities, and could lead to a global confrontation the likes of which we have not seen since the end of the Second World War.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].