Ted Galen Carpenter
Vice President Joe Biden has reportedly apologized to the leaders of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle East countries for his previous comments that they had, perhaps inadvertently, supported Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war. The uproar occurred because Biden had stated that Turkey, Qatar, and the UAE had given “billions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons” to Syrian Sunni fighters seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Those governments, he charged, had been willing to give aid to “anyone who would fight Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
It is unfortunate that Biden felt the need to retract those comments, because his criticism was quite accurate. As I point out in a recent article on Aspenia Online, the rise of ISIS is the latest phase of a regional struggle for power between Sunnis and Shiites. The primary arena is Syria, where a fight rages between largely Sunni insurgents and Assad’s governing coalition of Alawites (a Shiite offshoot), Christians, and other religious minorities who are petrified about possible Sunni domination. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE enthusiastically backed the insurgents, and although the Obama administration might prefer to forget its role in the rise of ISIS, the United States provided aid to them as well.
The other, closely related, arena is Iraq with its continuing sectarian animosity. Eliminating Saddam Hussein’s rule ended decades of Sunni domination of that country’s politics and economy. The new Shiite-led government was in no mood for conciliating the displaced elite that had stifled their faction for so long. Instead, the regime seemed to go out of its way to marginalize and humiliate the Sunni minority. Iraq has seethed for years because of sectarian hatred, drifting to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007, and finally exploding into a full-blown internecine conflict this year. Some Iraqi Sunnis may harbor worries about the extremist nature of ISIS, but they also see the group as the one entity capable of mounting a serious armed challenge to the Baghdad government.
Although the Saudi, Turkish and Gulf governments now refuse to admit their role, they did heavily back Sunni forces in both Syria and Iraq that subsequently went rogue and formed the core of ISIS. Saudi Arabia’s involvement was especially malignant, since Saudi aid to Syrian and Iraqi factions was channeled primarily to the most radical elements. That development was hardly accidental or surprising, given the Saudi government’s long-standing promotion of the extremist Wahhabi strain of Islam. Saudi leaders may now realize that they helped create a Frankenstein’s monster, but Washington’s belief that Riyadh, as a member of the anti-ISIS coalition, will work to strengthen “moderates” in Syria and elsewhere is extraordinarily naïve. The Saudi government will more likely try to back other hard-line Sunni elements that, perhaps for sufficient financial inducements, might be willing to break with ISIS and take guidance from Saudi patrons.
Biden was undoubtedly under pressure not to antagonize members of the ramshackle international coalition that President Obama has assembled to combat ISIS. But truth is truth. And the vice president’s original comments about the deleterious role that Riyadh, Ankara, and other capitals have played were the truth.