America has the attention span of a cat. We move from issue to issue quickly and tend to view each problem we face as if it were a unique thing, unrelated to other, broader problems.
United States was born in an outburst of oppositional behavior disorder. We continue to exhibit symptoms. We tend to see issues from a strictly oppositional perspective. If it is different, it is bad. .If it is bad, it is a threat. If it is a threat, it must be eliminated. We extend this sense of opposition to everything in our world. Capitalism is either good, or it is bad. Sugar is either good, or it is bad. Fossil fuels are either good, or bad. We have no sense of nuance so every position on every topic must be won, completely, or the argument is viewed as being lost. Every conflict is seen as unique. All previous alliances and opponents are forgotten in the heat of the current issue, which can be won. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The Middle East is playing by a completely different set of rules.
In the 7th century AD, a dispute arose over who should succeed Mohamed as the leader of the Muslim world. One group, now known as Sunni, supported the succession of Abu Bakr, and the other, now known as Shia, backed Ali ibn Abi Talib. The two factions have fought ever since, often in very bloody and very brutal ways.. The Sunni faction spread Islam West and South through North Africa beginning in the decade following the death of the Prophet. It was a bloody, convert or die process. Shia Islam spread in the old Levant (Syria, Jordan), and east through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today there are significant Shia populations in Turkey and Yemen as well.
While there have been frequent, brief rests, these two factions have been killing each other since 678 AD. That’s how far back their attention span goes. ISIL is merely the most recent incarnation of this battle, and even a surface read of history will show that is not the most viscous.
The conflict between Sunni and Shia predates the entire history of the United States by more than a thousand years. What Hubris we must have to think we can solve it. While over the years there have been different organizing principles in the Islamic conflict, both sides have found that finding a common enemy can help achieve a short term victory. For the past 50 years or so, The United States has filled that role. Every attempt we make to “solve” the Middle East problem solidifies our position as the “The Great Satan” against whom Islam must battle. But, as Bernard Hayke wrote in a recent New York Times op ed piece, for the Sunni and Shia, “the enemy of their enemy is still their enemy”. Shia and Sunni will never unite. They may ally themselves, temporarily, against a common enemy. But the United States is only serving to bolster one side or the other in this eternal conflict between two resolute opponents.
There is no strategy that will lead us to victory here. We can form a coalition to defeat al Quida, or Boca Haram, or Al Shabaz, or ISIL. But unless we find a way to extricate ourselves from that long standing religious war, we will find ourselves playing a continuous, giant, lethal game of Whack-a-Mole, a game with no winners.