In the Sunni parts of the Mideast, both authoritarianism and fundamentalism are on the rise. The national security interests of Western societies are undermined by treating a state in either category as an ally. Authoritarian and religious regimes do not share core Western values. Cooperation with such regimes is certainly possible on a case-by-case basis but viewing them as allies grants them a dangerous and inappropriate hold over the freedom of maneuver of the West.
Getting too close to Mideast states that mistreat their own populations and promote a state religion has hobbled Western foreign policy for decades, entangling the West in alliances that are set-ups for increasingly dangerous and expensive blow-back. The long list of examples, from the first Afghanistan war to 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the rise of the Islamic State, is no secret, but Western regimes remain blind to the harm they are voluntarily causing. Arming the Saudis to serve as a proxy army to attack Yemen now, six months later, seems certain to lead to unnecessary blow-back against the West in the near future. The toleration of Israeli mistreatment of its Palestinian subjects and its interference in Western efforts to find a nuclear compromise with Iran have plagued and undermined the national security interests of the West for years. The reliance on jihadi militias far more sympathetic to the ideology of the Islamic State than to Western principles of nonsectarian democracy for the purpose of overthrowing Assad is another thoughtlessly short-sighted tactic, as Obama has now begun to recognize.
A deal with Moscow to partition Syria and recognize Rojava would address Western national security concerns and the interests of the Syrian people better than the further stimulation of Sunni radical militancy.
The extremism of authoritarian regimes at war is just as bad as the extremism of religious movements at war, and in the Mideast the one cannot be separated from the other.Given the dangers inherent in encouraging Sunni extremism, a better short-term approach would include the following:
- developing a joint policy with Moscow to recognize Rojava, provide the Kurds with defensive weapons, and encourage the Kurds to practice the non-sectarianism they preach in return for recognizing Russia’s interests in preserving its Damascus position;
- terminating the policy of encouraging the Saudi military intervention in Yemen and promoting a government of national unity with the implicit assumption that Yemenis are the ones who have the right to run Yemen, not Saudis;
- employing diplomatic, economic, and judicial pressure to put hold key figures across the region responsible for their mistreatment of civilians; ineffective as that may be over the short term, it would still constitute a major step forward from the traditional international practice of letting the major political criminals escape unpunished;
- defining the saving of as many Syrian refugees as possible this decade’s global goal, analogous to the far less significant “man on the moon” program of an earlier era;
- making it absolutely clear to regimes that receive Western largesse that making war on civilians for sectarian reasons, be they Kurds or Palestinians, is behavior unacceptable in the 21st century.
The list of Mideast reforms consonant with genuine, long-term interests of Western societies is long, but war is an extremely expensive, unreliable, and inefficient way to achieve these reforms. Indeed, war is counter-productive. Even military victory for the West in a Mideast war constitutes a strategic defeat for the West. Riyadh’s Yemen adventure has not just empowered jihadis in Yemen but weakened Saudi Arabia, while making the most aggressive forces within the Saudi regime more bold. Ankara’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Syria is profoundly entangled with its increasingly sectarian stance toward its own Kurds. If the cost of eliminating Assad turns out to be the destabilization of Turkey, and we are already well on the way to that outcome, it will be far too high a price to pay. If the cost of achieving a military zero-sum victory in Yemen is a Saudi-Iranian war or just the defeat of Iranian moderates and further alienation of Iran it will be a Pyrrhic victory for the West. Far more effective over the long run would be a Mideast policy emphasizing support for those Mideastern societies that reject expansion, military solutions, sectarianism, and fundamentalism. Such societies and regimes do exist in the Mideast (e.g., Tunisia, the Kurds, Morocco), and the West would serve its own interests well by establishing a policy that sends a clear message to the world that such states will benefit from their rejection of prejudice and repression. Conversely, the states that occupy minority regions to which they have no legal right, discriminate against minorities, promote proxy wars, or promote educational systems that teach fundamentalism should know that they will pay a price.
Cooperation with regimes that are authoritarian, sectarian, or religious should never be automatic. Rather, it should be cautious, with judgment made on a case-by-case basis. The default diplomatic position of the West regarding states that promote sectarianism, repression, or religious discrimination should be keeping one’s equilibrium…like a judo wrestler: maintain distance, watch carefully, search for positive-sum interactions, verify…don’t trust. In this spirit, Western arms should be offered only for strictly understand and controllable defensive purposes. A situation in which it is rational for the West to encourage a Sunni state that is fundamentalist or moving toward greater sectarianism and greater authoritarianism and greater religious extremism is rare in the extreme and not remotely justifiable today.