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'Death to America': Shia-Sunni Rivalry and the Realignment of the Middle East

02/22/2015 09:47 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2015
ATTA KENARE via Getty Images

On January 20, 2015, Houthi militants from the Ansar Allah militia (Supporters of God) attacked the Presidential Palace in Sana'a, Yemen. Two days later, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah tendered their resignation to the Yemeni parliament. On February 6, the Houthis announced they were dissolving parliament and that a Revolutionary Committee led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi would assume full control of the government. The coup culminated a four year long civil war, although its origins went back to 2004, which had seen the Ansar Allah militia take possession of the northwest corner of Yemen along with the capital, Sana'a and de facto control of much of the rest of the country.

The Houthis belong to the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam. Although the Zaidi are a uniquely Yemeni sect, they share many similarities with the Shia communities in Iran and Iraq. They make up about one-third of the population. Iran has been a strong backer of the Houthi militia. The Hadi government had claimed that Tehran has supplied money and arms as well as training, via the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force and Hezbollah militants, at a secret base in Eritrea. It also claimed that it had evidence that a number of arms shipments, destined for the Houthis, that had been seized by the government had originated in Iran. Both Iran and Hezbollah denied those charges.

The Hadi government had been seen as strongly pro-American and had been actively cooperating with the United States in its conflict with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The U.S. was alleged to have operated a "secret base" from which it conducted drone attacks against AQAP militants as well as the related Ansar al-Sharia group. The drone that was used in the 2011 attack against Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP's leader, was actually launched from a "secret" CIA operated air field in Saudi Arabia. Although it's hardly a secret anymore as you can find it on Google maps.The base is just across the border from Yemen. References in the media to a "base in Yemen" may be describing a forward command post used to coordinate drone attacks rather than a facility where the drones are actually based. In addition, the U.S. also has special forces units stationed in Yemen. The overthrow of the Hadi government was seen as a significant setback for American interests in Yemen, and especially to the covert war it had been conducting against AQAP.

Following the coup the U.S., as well as several other European countries, closed their embassies and withdrew their diplomatic personnel. American diplomats organized a hasty departure to the Sana'a international airport where they boarded whatever international flights had open seating. The marine security guards were required to relinquish their weapons before being allowed to depart and Houthi militants seized embassy vehicles that were left at the airport. The embassy, however, was not touched, and at least American diplomats were spared the indignity of being paraded blindfolded through the streets of Sana'a. In an epilogue all too disturbingly familiar, Houthi militants celebrated their success with street demonstrations and the accompanying mandatory "Death to America" chants.

Privately however, the Houthi told the United States that they wanted U.S. special forces in Yemen to stay and that the U.S. could continue to operate the "covert drone base" there. Moreover, they also indicated they were prepared to work with the United States in the ongoing operation against AQAP. For the Houthi, looking to consolidate their position in Yemen and fearful that the situation in Yemen could quickly degenerate into a Houthi/Shia versus AQAO/Sunni all out civil war, a quiet alliance with the United States made a lot of sense. The other two main political groupings in Yemen, the largely secular, Marxist inspired Southern Movement, and the traditional Sunni tribes in the east and center, are unlikely to be much help in fighting AQAP. Washington now finds itself considering a de facto alliance with a conservative, jihadist, Iran backed, Shia militia -- much as it has already done with similar, Iranian backed, Shia militias in Iraq.

The issue underscores a much broader trend that has been steadily gaining momentum in the Middle East, a fundamental realignment of the regions politics along a Shia-Sunni axis. For much of the postwar history of the Middle East, the regions politics were played out within the framework of Soviet-American Cold War rivalry. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly became the centerpiece of that rivalry with Soviet and American client states lining up behind their respective patrons. Israel, after a brief flirtation with the Soviet Union, quickly aligned itself with the United States. Secular, socialist "front line states" like Egypt and Syria found common ground with Moscow. The Jordanians, a conservative monarchy never quite comfortable with the Kremlin's communist rhetoric and always better adept at maneuvering between rival superpowers, managed to stay in everyone's good graces.

Lesser, although not necessarily less bloody conflicts, Syria-Lebanon, Iraq-Iran, Iraq-Kuwait and civil wars in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen, resulted in similar alignments of each superpower's respective proxies. The arrangement, bloody conflicts notwithstanding, was remarkably stable. From time to time countries would switch camps, Egypt flipped from the Soviet camp to the American as a result of the Camp David Peace accords, and Iran flipped from the American to (more or less) the Soviet camp as a consequence of the Iranian revolution. Ethiopia flipped from the Western camp to the Soviet and back to the Western camp. Somalia flipped from the Soviet camp to the Western camp and then flipped into chaos. On the whole, these arrangements, along with Middle Eastern governments and their leaders, proved to be remarkably long lived, typically continuing for decades.

Historians are often prone to point out "inflection points," historical events that have a disproportionately significant impact on a country or region. These are events that "reset a region's historical trajectory" in a new, and often, wholly unexpected way. Invariably the significance of such inflection points does not emerge until years after the fact. Such is the benefit of hindsight. In recent years it has become obvious that there have been two significant inflection points in recent Middle Eastern history. The first was the 1979 Iranian revolution. Not only did that revolution replace a Western ally with a militant anti-Western and anti-American government, but more significantly it heralded the rise of political Shi'ism -- combining the power of a large, oil rich nation state with a militant pro-Shia political agenda.

The second event was the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which resulted in the fall of the Hussein government and its replacement by a Shia dominated one. Not only did the overthrow of Saddam Hussein remove an existential threat to Iran, but its replacement by a pro-Iranian Shiite government proved to be the linchpin in a broad, geopolitical arc of Iranian influence across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories that came to be called the "Shia Arc" or the "Iranian Arc of Influence," and was seen as a clear manifestation of a "Shia revival."

At the moment there are three civil wars in the Middle East -- Iraq, Syria and Yemen -- that pit Sunni dominated militias and military forces against Shia based ones. In addition, significantly large Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Emirates are growing increasingly restive. In Bahrain, a key American ally in the Gulf, Shias are in the majority and outnumber Sunnis by better than 2 to 1. Bahrain has seen a widespread and growing, Iranian backed, Shia militancy. Significantly, most of Saudi Arabia's largest oil fields are in regions where the population is predominantly Shia. Iran's growing assertiveness in the Middle East in general, and in the Persian Gulf in particular, especially among the Shia population there, has brought it into sharp conflict with Saudi Arabia. It has also raised Saudi fears that any American reconciliation with Iran would come at their expense and cement Tehran's role as the preeminent local power in the Gulf.

At the same time as this growing rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh, a second equally significant rivalry is emerging between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two historical American allies, for the de facto leadership of the Sunni world. Historically, Saudi Arabia has been perceived as the leader of the Sunni community, a role it could claim both as a consequence of its stewardship of Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina as well as its prodigious oil wealth and its funding of Islamic charities and new mosques around the world. Turkey's president, Recep Erdogan, however, has increasingly tried to position himself as the de facto leader of the Muslim ummah -- the billion plus Sunni community.

On February 12, for example, during a press conference in Mexico City, Erdogan sharply criticized President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry for "their silence" after the murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. American officials were flabbergasted by Erdogan's comments on what they say as a purely, domestic criminal matter. His comments were carried live on Turkish television, however, preempting currently running programming, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, underlining his self-assumed role as leader and spokesman of the worldwide Sunni community.

Ankara's competition with Riyadh has sparked a range of additional conflicts between them, from sponsorship of different militant groups in the Syrian civil war to a competition in Cuba to see who can get Havana's permission to build a new mosque in the city. The two governments have sharply different views on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi's have always seen the Brotherhood as anti-monarchy and an existential threat to the continuation of the Saud dynasty. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party trace its roots to the Turkish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and has historically been a strong supporter of the organization. Lately, however, given its concern for the need to build a broad, Islamist coalition to oppose both al-Qaeda and Islamic State, Riyadh has been signaling that it may soften its historic opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Given Russia's long standing ties with Syria and Iran, at first glance, it would seem that the Kremlin is aligning itself with the "Shia" pole of the growing Sunni-Shia rivalry. In reality, Moscow sees significant opportunities in the Middle East given both what it perceives as the incoherence of American policy there and the political realignment that is taking place. In recent months, Russia has reached out to improve its relationship with Turkey, a longstanding foe, by offering preferential pricing of natural gas exports as well as the possibility of a new natural gas pipeline to carry Russian natural gas to the Mediterranean. Egypt too, has been the focus of particularly active Russian diplomatic attention.

Some of America's European allies have also seen the lack of a clear American strategy as an opportunity to better position themselves with the Sunni Arab kingdoms in the Gulf. This diplomatic initiative has resulted in the curious situation of a French Socialist government taking a particularly hard line on the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program as a way of assuring the Saudi's and the Gulf states that they would stand in the way of any "unreasonable" White House concessions to the Iranian government.

The rivalry between Islamic State and al-Qaeda will also have an impact on the larger issues of Shia-Sunni relations in the Middle East. Islamic State has made its attacks on Shias a critical element of its strategy of terror and jihadist violence. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has generally ignored the historic antagonisms between Shias and Sunnis in favor of creating a broad Muslim coalition against what they perceived as the "far enemy" -- the United States. The Islamic State's virulent anti-Shia strategy may force al Qaeda to adopt a similar orientation as it competes with Islamic State for the heart and soul of international jihadists. This already seems to be happening in Pakistan, which has the second largest population of both Shias and Sunnis in the Islamic world, (India actually has the second largest population of Muslims overall, second only to Indonesia) where al-Qaeda affiliated groups appear to be leading a campaign of rising violence against the Shia community there.

North and West Africa have recently become the centers of new jihadist inspired conflict. In West Africa the militant jihadist group, Boko Haram, has repeatedly praised Islamic State and there have been reports that it has officially pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi and recognized him as Caliph of the Muslim ummah. Islamic State has not, however, publically acknowledged that allegiance. Nonetheless, Boko Haram has emerged as a smaller version of Islamic State and is increasingly adopting the "Islamic State template," especially in regard to its social media. In Libya, al-Qaeda and Islamic State inspired groups are waging war both against each other as well as the "government" of Libya; in as far as there is one. North and West Africa are overwhelmingly Sunni, and the small percentage of Shias gets progressively smaller as you travel west. While there are few Shia communities in North Africa to target, the growing rivalry between al-Qaeda and Islamic State there may precipitate more anti-Shia violence elsewhere as each side tries to burnish its claim for the leadership of international jihadism.

For the United States the growing Sunni-Shia rivalry in the Middle East offers both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, it allows the United States to play a balancing role, manipulating, assisting and constraining both sides, as great powers are prone to do, in pursuit of its own strategic objectives there. On the other hand, the rivalry cuts across the present alignment in the Middle East, threatens to put historic American allies at odds with one another, and often creates de facto alliances with countries or their proxies that Washington has been at odds with.

At a basic level, the U.S. finds itself in a situation where it is fighting radical, Salafist-inspired jihadist movements, with an explicit anti-American agenda, that its historic Sunni Arab allies have, at times, been ambivalent about attacking. Moreover, many of their citizens are sympathetic towards these jihadist groups and they have often provided them, privately, with financial assistance. On the other hand, it also finds its agenda in the region increasingly aligned, at least in as far as fighting Salafist jihadists is concerned, with Shia militias. Historically, outside of Lebanon and Iraq, these militias have not expressly targeted Americans for violence but their sponsor, Iran, has usually been diametrically opposed to U.S. policies and interests in the Middle East.

At this point, we are not even in a position to argue that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", in fact, we're not even entirely sure who all of our enemies and our friends are. In this rapidly changing environment, U.S. foreign policy needs to be both fresh and nimble. Sadly, it has been neither, preferring instead a seat of the pants approach that only serves to emphasize its policy inconsistency and its strategic incoherence.