Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a stir last week when he blasted President Barack Obama’s attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. American television media covered little else for 24 hours. The prime minister and the president are still bickering about it this week on Twitter. Both have ignored a disturbing reality: any deal with Iran, good or bad, is likely to benefit ISIS.
President Obama is pursuing an agreement for understandable reasons. Far better to resolve the West’s differences with Iran diplomatically rather than violently. Prime Minister Netanyahu, likewise, is wary of the president’s plan for understandable reasons. A bad deal may be worse for Israel than no deal at all. Yet neither Obama nor Netanyahu seem to notice how an agreement, regardless of its content and efficacy, will be viewed by the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs, who are as alarmed as the Israelis are by Iranian ambitions.
The war against ISIS is being fought on two fronts in two countries, and the Middle East’s Sunni-Shia conflict rips right through the center of both. ISIS is the bloodthirsty wing of the Sunni jihadist movement, while Iran and its Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese allies make up the Shia resistance. In no way do average Sunni Arabs view ISIS as their standard bearer. Tens of thousands have lit out from its territory for squalid refugee camps abroad. But at the same time, most Sunni Arabs tremble at the rise of Iranian power and are reluctant to stand against the maniacs on their own side, especially when the U.S. and Europe appear to side with the Persians and Shia against them.
That’s not how it is, but that’s how it looks. Consider this: Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qasem Soleimani is personally leading the Iraqi operation to wrest control of the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from ISIS. When Iraq’s Sunnis see Shia militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops gunning for their territory, they feel a looming threat to their very existence. And at the same time, the West is bombing ISIS positions in both Syria and Iraq, while Washington is at least nominally allied to Baghdad and trying to cut a deal with Tehran. The Sunnis see the world’s only superpower teaming up with their enemies and gearing up to smash them to pieces.
It looks little better from a Sunni’s perspective in Syria. The U.S. hardly supports the malignant Assad, but all of Washington’s air strikes have landed on Sunni jihadist targets even after President Obama accused Damascus of deploying chemical weapons in civilian population centers. Like the government in Baghdad, the House of Assad is firmly in the Iranian camp. The state, along with the ruling family, is heavily packed with members of the Alawite minority, adherents of a heterodox religion that fuses Shia Islam, Christianity, and Gnosticism.
The Assads have had their boots on the necks of Syria’s Sunni majority since 1971, when the late Hafez al-Assad seized power, and they’ve been the Arab world’s staunchest Iranian allies ever since. Assad is also, along with Iran’s clerical regime, a patron and armorer of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, by far the deadliest Shia terrorist organization in the world and one which is actively and effectively fighting against Syria’s armed Sunni opposition on behalf of its masters. In light of all that, ISIS has an easier time presenting itself as the defender of the region’s Sunni Arab majority against an axis of Persian-Shia-Alawite perfidy.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has been out of the saddle since the United States removed Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the Shia majority naturally came to power in elections. Baghdad’s government is less oppressive than the Assad regime, to be sure, but it’s backed by a demographic majority that makes the Sunnis—only a rough 20 percent of the country—feel acutely and permanently endangered.
These people are hardly ISIS’s natural constituency. They fought and died to evict ISIS from their lands in the late 2000s when it still went by the name al Qaeda in Iraq. The only reason ISIS managed to conquer huge swaths of the country last summer is because the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, governed like an Iranian-backed Shia warlord. The Sunni tribes fear and loathe ISIS, but they fear and loathe the Iranian regime and Iraq’s Shia-dominated government, too—maybe more. Perhaps better, they think, to be lorded over by “their own” than face pitiless persecution at the hands of “the other.”
Both sides behave viciously—though the ISIS side wins in the atrocity comptetion. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the organization’s founding father under its previous name, described the Shia as “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom.” A huge percentage of Iraq’s Sunnis have viewed the Shia this way for more than a thousand years.
ISIS’s rhetoric is exterminationist. Its serial massacres of Shias, Christians, Yezidis, and Alawites stink of genocide. The West shouldn’t kid itself into believing that what happens in Syria and Iraq will stay in Syria and Iraq. ISIS truly believes it’s on a God-sanctioned mission to challenge and defeat European powers and bring about the apocalypse. “We will conquer your Rome,” it boasts in its glossy online magazine, Dabiq, “break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the Permission of Allah, the Exalted. This is His promise to us.”
It’s never going to happen, but ISIS and its supporters have already proved they’re willing and able to carry out deadly strikes in Europe. The recent killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris and the attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium last year are likely but prologues. And the odds that ISIS will be undermined internally by Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis while they’re facing what appears to be a Western-backed enemy alliance in Damascus, Tehran, and Baghdad are virtually zilch.
Does this mean the West shouldn’t cut even a theoretically good deal with Iran to prevent the regime from building nuclear weapons? I have no idea. But I’d like to know if anyone in Washington or Jerusalem is at least asking the question.