A Gathering of Autocrats: Trump Puts US on Sunni Muslim Side of Bitter Sectarian War with Shias

Photo by Ninian Reid | CC BY 2.0

It was crude stuff. President Trump called on 55 Muslim leaders assembled in Riyadh to drive out terrorism from their countries. He identified Iran as a despotic state and came near to calling for regime change, though Iran held a presidential election generally regarded as fair only two days previously.

He denounced Hezbollah and lined up the US squarely on the side of the Sunni against the Shia in the sectarian proxy war that is tearing apart the Middle East.

The impact of US presidential visits and speeches abroad are generally over-rated and turn out to have far less influence than was claimed at the time.

Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 about the conflicts in the region was more sophisticated than anything Mr Trump said in Riyadh, but it turned out to denote no new departures in US policy. The same may turn out to be true of Mr Trump’s address.

The most important aspect of Mr Trump’s two-day visit to Saudi Arabia is that it took place at all. He chose to go first to the world’s most thorough-going autocracy where his speech will be lauded by the state-controlled media.

But the radicalism of what he said can be exaggerated because so far his policies towards Syria, Iraq, Turkey and other countries in the region are little different from what Mr Obama did in practice.

Almost all of the 55 Muslim rulers and leaders in the vast hall in Riyadh will have breathed a little easier on hearing Mr Trump’s repeated call “to drive out terrorism”, since they have always described anybody who opposes their authority as “terrorists”.

This will be a green-light to people like Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to go on imprisoning and torturing Muslim Brotherhood members. American pressure on the ruling Sunni minority in Bahrain to stop persecuting the Shia majority was always tame, but Mr Trump’s praise for the island’s rulers may make the situation even worse.

Mr Trump’s failure to refer to human rights’ abuses was criticised by some observers, but more serious than his words was his presence in Riyadh before an audience of autocrats.

Saudi leaders will be pleased by Mr Trump’s condemnation of Iran as the fountainhead of terrorism. This was the most substantive part of speech and is the one most likely to increase conflict.

The Saudis will see it as a licence to increase their support for proxy wars being waged against Shia movements and communities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond. Houthi militiamen in Yemen and Shia militiamen in Iraq and Syria are often referred to as “Iranian-backed”, which may or may not be true, but it is their Shiism which is by far the most important determinant of their political identity.

In targeting them, Mr Trump is plugging the US into the ferocious sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia.

This is not a war that is going to be won by either side, but the stance of the Trump administration will help ensure that it goes on being fought. Ever since Mr Trump was elected, Iraqi leaders in Baghdad have been concerned that a deeper confrontation between the US and Iran will further destabilise Iraq, just as the Iraqi security forces are getting control of the last enclaves of Isis control in Mosul.

An escalation in the war in Yemen by the Saudi backed forces could close the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea coast through which is imported much of the food reaching the 17 million Yemenis on the verge of famine.

In the last years of Mr Obama, US public opinion was increasingly focussed on Saudi Arabia as the country most to blame for 9/11 because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis as was Osama bin Laden and, according to a CIA report, the private financing for the operation. Senior US officials have repeatedly pointed to financing from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf as essential to the rise of Isis and al-Qaeda type organisations in Iraq and Syria.

Mr Trump himself blamed Saudi Arabia for 9/11 during the presidential election campaign, but this was all forgotten when he spoke in Riyadh. This might have two serious consequences: leaders of the Shia community fear that Isis may be nominally destroyed but the bulk of its fighters could simply join other anti-Shia paramilitary movements in Iraq and Syria.

As for driving out “terrorism” from Muslim societies for which Mr Trump called, one important aspect of the growth of al-Qaeda type movements has been the way in which Saudi Arabia has used its oil wealth for half a century to spread Wahhabism, its puritanical and fanatical variant of Islam. This has become an increasingly predominant influence over mainstream Sunni Islam, increasing its sectarianism.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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