The Sunni-Shia civil wars in Iraq and Syria are both nearing their end and, in both cases, the Shias have won – thanks largely to American military help in Iraq’s case and to a Russian military intervention in Syria. Yet Russia and the United States are not allies in the Middle East.
At least not yet. President Donald Trump may get in bed with the Russians and the Shias eventually, but he doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought yet. So for the moment, US policy follows the line laid down by Barack Obama.
Ex-president Obama was determined not to send American troops into another Middle Eastern war. Even as the Sunni extremists of Islamic State (IS) and the Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda under another name) expanded their control in Syria and then seized much of Iraq, Obama restricted the US intervention to training local troops and deploying American air power.
In Iraq, government troops were mostly Shia – as is most of the population – and US support was sufficient without committing American troops to ground combat. The Iraqi army is in the final stages of reconquering Mosul, IS’s capital in Iraq and an almost entirely Sunni city. Yet there have been no massacres of Sunnis.
In Syria, the US strongly opposed the Shia-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but it did not fight him. Obama found local allies to wage a ground war against Islamic State in the form of the Syrian Kurds, who are Sunni, but more interested in a separate Kurdish state than a Sunni-ruled Syria.
That collaboration worked well, too. With US training and air support, the Syrian Kurds drove IS steadily back and are now closing in on Raqqa, its capital in Syria. And in all that time, Obama avoided taking sides between Shias and Sunnis in what most Arabs now see as a Shia-Sunni war. He successfully walked a fine line in the Middle East for six whole years.
It’s doubtful that Trump has the skill, knowledge and patience to go on walking that line. His instinct is to treat Iran as America’s most dangerous enemy in the Middle East, which would certainly please Saudi Arabia. But Iran is Russia’s close ally in the Syrian war and Trump’s instinct is also to get very close to Vladimir Putin.
There’s a similar problem with Turkey, an important Nato ally which has sent its army into Syria, ostensibly to help destroy IS. But Turkey is ruled by the authoritarian President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a mini-Trump who sprays abuse at anybody who crosses him. In 2015, Erdogan deliberately re-started a war against Turkey’s own Kurdish minority in order to attract right-wing votes and win a close election.
Now, he has sent the Turkish army into Syria, allegedly to help destroy IS but in fact mainly to smash the embryonic state that the Syrian Kurds have been building across northern Syria. Those Syrian Kurds have been America’s closest allies against IS for years.
If Trump cosies up to the Russians, he will have to accept a close relationship with Assad’s brutal regime in Syria (no problem there) and also with Russia’s main ally in the Syrian war, Iran (potentially big problem there). But various latent conflicts are likely to burst into flame as the big civil wars in Iraq and Syria stagger to an end. Trump will have to jump one way or another quite soon.