Analysis: Fighting ISIS from the inside-out

The deep hatred between Sunnis and Shi’ites is preventing any real Arab action against the group.

(photo credit: ISLAMIC SOCIAL MEDIA)
The idea gaining traction in some quarters that a local Sunni military force is needed to take on Islamic State is unrealistic, especially when Sunnis see Shi’ites and their allies as the biggest threat.
The centuries-deep, Sunni- Shi’ite divide is raging across the region and is much more important than any intra-Sunni rivalries or threats.
Sunni Arabs are not in a rush to put too much energy into cracking down on Islamic State, partially because many see it as a bulwark against advancing Iranian and Shi’ite allies across the region.
Approximately 87-90 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis, and most Shi’a live in four countries – Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq, according to the Pew Research Center.
In addition, significant Shi’ite populations can also be found in Lebanon and the Gulf states.
The outnumbered Shi’ites have a bunker mentality and fear being slaughtered by the Sunni masses.
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called on Sunday for a ground force to destroy Islamic State, and McCain said it would be possible but not easy to rally Arab allies to contribute to the proposed ground force in Syria, Reuters reported.
However, Arab allies have pulled back from the US-led campaign, and one Pentagon official involved in the fight against Islamic State told The Washington Times in a report on Monday that the Saudis have not used their air force against the group in nearly three months.
The official said that Jordan also stopped flying missions against the group in August and UAE since March.
Who, then, will supply the ground troops to defeat Islamic State? “They won’t be Sunnis, so let’s assume they will be Shi’ites. Where will they come from? Our pals in Iran? Perhaps, but not under US leadership,” wrote John Lawrence, in an article on the San Diego Free Press website.
The deep hatred between Sunnis and Shi’ites is preventing any real Arab action against the group, and a by Yotam Feldner, director of the MEMRI TV project and vice president of operations at MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), details the recent history of Shi’ite-Sunni attacks on each other through their media.
Feldner told The Jerusalem Post, “In the past few years, we have been exposed to endless Sunni-Shi’ite exchanges on Arab TV channels and social media platforms, but an analysis over time shows that there is no real parity between the two camps.”
Although both sides engage in this media war, he said, “Sunni extremists have built media empires dedicated to Shi’ite-bashing, and their rhetoric has been much more violent and inciting.”
“Although, ideologically, these media Salafists are not that different than Islamic State, legal authorities in the Arab world have demonstrated lukewarm commitment to countering this phenomenon.”
Harold Rhode, a distinguished senior fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, told the Post on Wednesday that the US has a tendency to intervene in Shi’ite-Sunni battles in the Middle East using a flawed approach.
“America doesn’t like to win. It prefers negotiations before victory, which is a recipe for disaster in the Middle East, where people believe negotiations come after victory,” argued Rhode.
America seems to have a need to stop conflict, but contrarily, wars often tend to clarify things and lead to longer periods of peace, asserted Rhode.
When America gets involved in conflicts around the world, “does it unintentionally acerbate problems by not letting one side win?” “Historically, the Sunnis by and large reaped havoc on the Shi’ites, who had almost no choice but to accept their fate.”
However, in the 1970s the Shi’ites began to go through a revival, and since then they “have been giving the Sunnis a run for their money, fighting back in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere,” continued Rhode.
Therefore, “the Shi’ites looked for an outside protector – which is what the Russians are doing today both with Iran and with the Syrian Alawites, who also suffer the same fears as do the Shi’ites.” The Chinese have also played this role, as they, like the Russians, fear their own domestic Sunni fundamentalism.
Referring to the number of Shi’ites in Arab countries, Rhode said that no one really knows the exact figures, since Sunnis “have a vested interested in playing down the number of Shi’ites and playing up the number of Sunnis.”
Commenting on his personal experience, Rhode said that the American government has always feared an inflammation of Sunni-Shi’ite tensions and has done its utmost to deny it was happening.
“But one senior US official – with very deep insight and years of experience – once told me, that’s their problem. Why should we care? Let them fight it out,” said Rhode.
Brandon Friedman, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told the Post that the reported meeting of the non-Islamic State rebels in Saudi Arabia is an important development, but it will be focused on defeating Syrian President Bashar Assad and his supporters.
“The Sunnis in Iraq don’t really feel they have a non-Islamic State alternative, and many of those that aren’t willing to submit to the group have either fled or joined one of the Shi’ite or Kurdish militias to fight it,” he said.
“Yes, the Gulf states see the first priority as reducing Iranian ‘meddling’ in the Arab states,” such as in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain. “If Iran is removed, they believe it will be easier to raise the local Sunni forces needed to defeat Islamic State,” he added.
Therefore, creating an adequate local military force to decisively take on Islamic State in the region is not in the cards, and any real ground force will have to depend on Western forces.
Reuters contributed to this report.