Sunni states, increasingly militant for both sectarian and nationalist reasons, began stepping up their reaction to the steadily rising prospects of Shi’i states several years ago. Just as the murder of the archduke was the spark that set off the WWI firestorm, Assad’s slaughter of peaceful democracy demonstrators in Damascus seems to have been the spark for the ensuing Sunni crusade that continues to heat up in February 2016. Obama’s nuclear breakthrough with Iran critically changed the international environment but seems only temporarily to have slowed the regional Sunni-Shi’i confrontation: it is now more difficult for warmongers in either the U.S. or Israel to exploit Mideast sectarianism since they can no longer credibly wave the emotion-laden flag of nuclear threat but the regional sectarian/nationalist conflict between, at its core, Riyadh and Tehran, is still intensifying. Moreover, Washington continues to pour gasoline on regional flames by arming Saudi Arabia and backing its military intrusion into Yemen even as Russia copies the failed Iraqi Neo-Con strategy in Syria. In addition, Turkey’s steady move toward open military involvement gives the Sunni crusade the enormous advantage of a credible army to supplement Riyadh’s money. Unfortunately for the militant Sunni camp, the Salafi onslaught of ISIS–partially toyed with, partially funded, and greatly exploited–failed to restore Sunni control of the region, and now Iran finds itself in fairly good control of a Shi’i region neatly bisecting the region and protected by Moscow.
Putin may well go the way of the Neo-Cons he is copying, but for the moment he has a dike around the Shi’i world that will make the Sunni crusade vastly more difficult and dangerous than it appeared when delicately launched five years ago. Then, Iran lay under nuclear threat from Israel; today, Iran stands firmly on the world stage, dealing in almost normal fashion with Washington and European capitals while enjoying the protection of Moscow. Then, Washington bowed to Riyadh; today, the questioning of the value of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia is open. Then, Riyadh was a hidden financial actor of mythic capabilities; today, Riyadh faces its own financial issues and stands exposed as a bungling military novice that in a savage and nearly year-long campaign seems unable to pacify next-door Yemen. Then, Syrian Sunni rebels symbolized Arab aspirations for democracy, or at least liberty; today, they appear to be little more than Salafi proxies for authoritarian regimes striving for empire.