FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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

August 11, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy
Paul Street
Defund Fascism, Blue and Orange
Richard C. Gross
Americans Scorned
Andrew Levine
Trump and Biden, Two Ignoble Minds Here O’erthrown
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Nationalism Has Led to the Increased Repression of Minorities
Sonali Kolhatkar
Trump’s Presidency is a Death Cult
Colin Todhunter
Pushing GMO Crops into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success
Valerie Croft
How Indigenous Peoples are Using Ancestral Organizing Practices to Fight Mining Corporations and Covid-19
David Rovics
Tear Gas Ted Has a Tantrum in Portland
Dean Baker
There is No Evidence That Generous Unemployment Benefits are Making It Difficult to Find Workers
Robert Fantina
War on Truth: How Kashmir Struggles for Freedom of Press
Dave Lindorff
Trump Launches Attack on Social Security and Medicare
Elizabeth Schmidt
COVID-19 Poses a Huge Threat to Stability in Africa
Parth M.N.
Coping With a Deadly Virus, a Social One, Too
Thomas Knapp
The “Election Interference” Fearmongers Think You’re Stupid
Binoy Kampmark
Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under
Alex Lawson
34 Attorneys General Call to Bust Gilead’s Pharma Monopoly on COVID Treatment Remdesivir
August 10, 2020
Gerald Sussman
Biden’s Ukrainegate Problem
Vijay Prashad – Érika Ortega Sanoja
How the U.S. Failed at Its Foreign Policy Toward Venezuela
Daniel Warner
Geneva: The Home of Lost Causes
Mike Hastie
The Police Force Stampede in Portland on August 8, 2020 
Jack Rasmus
Trump’s Executive Orders: EOs as PR and FUs
Rev. William Alberts
Cognitive Without Conscience
David Altheide
Politicizing Fear Through the News Media
F. Douglas Stephenson
Is Big Pharma More Interested in Profiteering Than Protecting Us From Coronavirus?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Money Plague
Howard Lisnoff
Revolutionaries Living in a System of Growing Fascism
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump is Defeating Himself
Lynnette Grey Bull
The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Human Rights Emergency is Not a Photo-Op for Ivanka Trump
Victor Grossman
Some Come, Others Go
Binoy Kampmark
Death From the Sky: Hiroshima and Normalised Atrocities
The Stop Golden Rice Network
Why We Oppose Golden Rice
Michael D. Knox
After Nagasaki, the U.S. Did Not Choose Peace
Elliot Sperber
A Tomos 
Weekend Edition
August 07, 2020
Friday - Sunday
John Davis
The COVID Interregnum
Louis Yako
20 Postcard Notes From Iraq: With Love in the Age of COVID-19
Patrick Cockburn
War and Pandemic Journalism: the Truth Can Disappear Fast
Eve Ottenberg
Fixing the COVID Numbers
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Every Which Way to Lose
Paul Street
Trump is Not Conceding: This is Happening Here
Robert Hunziker
The World on Fire
Rob Urie
Neoliberal Centrists and the American Left
John Laforge
USAF Vet Could Face ‘20 Days for 20 Bombs’ for Protest Against US H-Bombs Stationed in Germany
Andrew Levine
Clyburn’s Complaint
Kavaljit Singh
Revisiting the Idea of Pigou Wealth Tax in the Time of Covid-19
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail