Mosul and Aleppo are trees in larger forest of Shia-Sunni conflict

While battles in major cities Mosul and Aleppo are well known, the public discourse largely and regrettably misses the forest for the trees. Ditto for White House’s failed policies on the Middle East.

Debates over Iraq and Syria during our presidential elections have ironically worsened the problem. Since last summer, Americans have heard media celebrities ask two dozen candidates the same stale, superficial questions about how they would defeat ISIS and protect civilians. Would you send ground troops? If so, how many? Would you establish no-fly zones? What about safe zones?


This has fueled misplaced obsessions over tactical details, while mostly ignoring the big picture.

Meanwhile, candidate gaffes have stolen the spotlight.

Who could forget Libertarian Candidate Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonWhere Biden, Trump stand in key swing states Amash decides against Libertarian campaign for president The Hill’s Campaign Report: Amash moves toward Libertarian presidential bid MORE asking on MSNBC last month,“What is Aleppo?”  

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE said at the final presidential debate that Mosul in northern Iraq was “on the border with Syria.” It’s actually 75 miles away — the distance from New York City to Pennsylvania.

So instead of a serious conversation about long-term Middle Eastern stability and American security, we’re discussing would-be misfires on Jeopardy!

It’s also unfortunate to see a highly partisan blame game for the rise of ISIS. Some fault George W. Bush because he toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, unleashing chaos ever since. Others blame Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE because he withdrew our troops from Iraq in 2011, creating a power vacuum that allowed ISIS to seize much of the country.

Both narratives are partially true. Yet they miss the point and obscure the larger truth, i.e. the forest.

And that is:

The Iran vs. Saudi Arabia driven Shia-Sunni conflict is today’s Cold War — leading to both our Iraq Wars, the rise of global jihad, and a mass extinction of human rights since 1979. Every single U.S. president has seen Americans killed as collateral damage since then.

Two events in 1979 set the Iranians and Saudis on a collision course, against one another — and Western society.

Event #1 was the Iranian Revolution, toppling the Western-friendly Shah. Tehran’s theocratic regime has exported hardline Shia Islam while restoring the Persian Empire’s ancient glory ever since. Revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy and held Americans hostage for 444 days. The Ayatollah fired up the Shia population of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led Iraq across the border. The resulting Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988, killed and wounded over 1 million.

Struggling to repay war debt, Saddam seized Kuwait in 1990, sparking the Iraq War under George H.W. Bush. Next, a decade of no-fly zone enforcement under Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWill the ‘law and order’ president pardon Roger Stone? Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden The sad spectacle of Trump’s enablers MORE to protect Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish populations, plus fear of Iran, led to Saddam’s defiance of UN weapons inspectors. Which led to the Iraq War under George W. Bush, on a mission to destroy potential threats in the aftermath of 9/11. The chain of events speaks for itself. 

Event #2 was Sunni extremists seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site. That forced the King into a death pact with ruling clerics to globally export hardline Sunni Wahhabism and its 7th century interpretation of the Koran. Riyadh has reportedly spent $100 billion on such efforts. This financed Sunni jihadist groups like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and created terror networks Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and ISIS.

It forced Saudi puritanical customs on the Muslim world, compelling women and girls to trade the modernity of skirts for hijabs, niqabs and burqas. Hostile Imams began preaching hate speech against infidels from Western European city slums to Somalia to Pakistan. Elitist academics and politicians smeared those questioning such developments as “Islamophobic” and yes, a “basket of deplorables.” Again, the chain of events is not complicated.

Meanwhile, the Iran vs. Saudi showdown burning down the Shia crescent — population zones extending from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and skipping across the Arabian Peninsula to Yemen, is both religious and territorial. Once dictators are marginalized in places with ancient rivalries, conflict erupts. Especially over oil and locally scarce resources like fresh water and farmland.

Mosul and Aleppo, the second major cities in Iraq and Syria with pre-war populations of roughly 1.8 and 2.3 million respectively, are both located in predominantly Sunni areas close to Turkey. They are now under siege by Shia-led, Iran-allied central governments in Baghdad and Damascus, which Sunni major powers like the Saudis and Turks naturally oppose. So while these battles are part liberation from Sunni jihadists, they are also Shia-led re-conquests — supported by airstrikes from the Americans in Mosul and Russians in Aleppo. What a nightmare.

Given the jigsaw puzzle of geography and a complex web of ethnic, religious and tribal alliances, any lasting peace requires a political solution whereby those governing must have either legitimacy to rule or absolute power over those governed. Preferably the former.

Perhaps Joe Biden was right in 2006 to suggest autonomy of Iraq’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions. Though he didn’t follow through as Vice President, he could add Syria to the list today. 

Bottom line, Americans ought to focus more on solving the big picture and less on partisan bickering over the details. Most importantly, until the Iranians and Saudis stop their Cold War against each other and halt exportation of hostile religious extremism, we’ll remain a target.

Gordon is a former Pentagon spokesman who served from 2005-2009 and is a retired Navy Commander. He has also served as a Senior National Security & Foreign Policy Advisor to Republican Presidential Candidates Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain.


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

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