The arguments for a formal declaration of war against ISIS are mounting. In France, Russia, and the U.K. the debate is growing louder from the aftermath of the Paris attacks. In America, after the recent killings in San Bernardino, many of the media pundits and those in the presidential campaigns and Congress have been quick to support a congressional declaration of war on ISIS. The last such declaration was seventy-four years ago today following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
No doubt, ISIS must be put down, but the U.S. commander-in-chief has instead stressed a position of patience. A large military effort, at this time, would be a waste of lives and national treasure. Plus, it would not be successful for the primary objective of rooting out the evil of ISIS. President Obama is taking the right course. Who can say if he is doing so for the right reason? But the fact is that now is not the time to fight ISIS on the battlefield of its choosing. A better opportunity to destroy Sunni extremism will present itself.
To understand this, we can look at the Middle East’s four most prominent competing interests – the Sunni extremists represented by ISIS, sectarian and nationalist opposition to ISIS represented by Iran, the Sunni regimes represented by Saudi Arabia and the West represented by the U.S.
ISIS is striving for a Middle Eastern caliphate (Islamic state) governed under a caliph with extreme orthodox Sunni Islamic rule. The vision is a throwback to the times of the Prophet Muhammad. All Western influence and competing forms of Islam, such as Shi’ism, would not be tolerated. The power of the caliph would be absolute. Even the Saudi monarch would be threatened.
Sunni Islamists dominate the Middle East. It is estimated that their largest rival, the Shia Islamists, make up only 15% of the world’s Muslim population. But in the Middle East, that percentage is approximately one-third with the heaviest concentration of Shia in Iran and Iraq. The extremist Sunni movement (ISIS) is not only a threat to Shiite theological existence but also the nationalist interests of these two countries.
Iran, the leading Shiite Islamic state, is striving to regain a position of power in the centuries-old Shia-Sunni conflict. Over the last five decades, the balance of power has shifted toward the region’s Sunni powers, most notably Saudi Arabia. It started with the OPEC oil embargo against the West in the early 1970s and was followed by the Iranian Islamic Revolution with the takeover by the Ayatollah in 1979. The new sectarian Shiite regime would continue to be the center of controversy with the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and its paranoid nuclear ambitions of the 1990s and 2000s. All told, Iran lost power in the region, its economy was shattered and outcast status was bestowed on Iran by the world at large. But this trend is now reversing.
Both in the world and in the region, Iran is rebuilding its status and that means pursuing a strategy of military and economic strength. The West’s recent lifting of Iran’s nuclear restrictions and related economic sanctions will provide for both. To finance the rebuilding, Iran will sell much more oil into the world’s energy markets, the effect of which will be dramatic to the Saudi share of the Middle East oil market.
Oil is the greatest Iranian threat to the House of Saud. Currently, Saudi Arabia dominates the region’s oil production. If Iran came on line to its full capacity, it could force Saudi into dire economic conditions. Potentially, Saudi Arabia, with its economy heavily concentrated on oil, could go bankrupt if it lost further market share and continued to sell oil at currently depressed prices. The current situation is creating significant government deficits and depletion of Saudi Arabia’s foreign currency reserves. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that Saudi may be bankrupt as soon as 2020.
The Sunni regime – the royal House of Saud – is trying to maintain the status quo as best it can. Like Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine, Saudi Arabia is dominated by the Sunni and leaning conservatives make up more than half of its population. Salafism is the most prominent of the conservative movements and it has direct links with ISIS and al Qaeda. Over the last two decades, unrest by Sunni conservatives has grown right along with the rise in jihadi terrorism.
Will the Saudi king continue to hold the Sunni conservatives at bay? Even through the Arab Spring, the king averted the disaster of overthrow (unlike most Middle East regimes) by distributing oil wealth around the kingdom for conservative Sunni causes. But now, with the recent downward trend in his oil wealth, the king will find it harder to continue the strategy of buying off his support.
Unquestionably, ISIS and al Qaeda are both products of Saudi Arabia and ironically, even the tight grip of the king has not stopped Saudi Arabia from being the spawning ground of the Sunni extremists. These jihadist groups are threats not only to the West and Iran, but also to the Saudi monarch. Yet, they are supported by the kingdom’s oil wealth. This paradox is most disturbing to the West – the money flowing from its oil purchases is circulating back to its enemy and is seemingly unrestricted by the Saudi king, a Western ally.
Perhaps it is impossible for the monarchy to crack down and restrict the backing of the terrorists without the loss of its own power. For if King Salman, the custodian of Mecca and Medina – two of the most holiest shrines to Sunni Islam – took a harder line with the conservative Sunni movement, the House of Saud would run the risk of overthrow, much the same as what the Shah of Iran experienced in the late 1970s or more recently, like the other regimes throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring revolts.
The Saudi monarchy is in a terrible position that cannot be sustained. It is directly opposed to the rising power, the oil, and the theology of Iran. King Salman also walks a tightrope between the West on the one hand, and domestic Sunni extremists, on the other. The West’s demands to halt jihadi terrorism and its oil influence directly conflict with the Sunni fundamentalist vision. ISIS, Iran, the West, and the Saudi monarchy – their interests are incompatible and will not be reconciled into coexistence. In Saudi Arabia, sooner or later, either the Sunni extremists or the king will go, likely with terrible conflict.
Which brings us to a further look at the U.S. interests. First, due to its tenuous economic condition, the U.S. must run its economy on the cheapest oil from the Middle East whether from Iran or Saudi. Second, the Saudi incubator of the Sunni terrorist threat must be stopped and the best place to start is by cutting off its funding. If Iran’s oil goes back on line, the obvious choice for U.S. oil purchases would be Iran. The competing interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, whether those of the king or those of the Sunni extremists, now put the two countries on opposite sides of the table.
What happens if the Saudi king is eventually threatened with overthrow? Although unimaginable to many, this is a very real possibility given the current state of affairs. If that happens, the caliph would inherit a national homeland and become an identifiable target of a coalition war to root out and destroy the extremist Sunni threat in a way that is most advantageous to the U.S. military – modern-day versions of the way that the South was undeniably united with North, the way that the Nazis were exorcised from Germany, the way that Japanese fascism was ended with total war.
Of course, there are many other cards in play that cannot be ignored. For instance, would China step in to become Saudi’s new preferred oil customer, putting itself at odds with the U.S. and its allies? Would Iran and Russia ally with the U.S. in a war against Saudi Arabia? Would Israel fall in line with the U.S. and Iran? Unfortunately, the cards are all pointing to an increasing risk of war with global involvement.
A multi-dimensional chess board has been set in the Middle East. For now, the best way to cripple ISIS is through cutting Saudi’s oil wealth. Prior to this happening, it would be premature to commit any significant U.S. military force to the region. The U.S. must be vigilant and patient and must endure the increasing threat of terrorist attacks. Anything more would be to our longer-term disadvantage. The president is pursuing the right course.
Christopher Petitt is the author of the book, The Crucible of Global War: And the Sequence that is Leading Back to It. It is available for sale at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and for order at bookstores everywhere.