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Getting the Arab World & Geopolitics Right

“Sunnis have been killing Shia since the massacre at Karbala in 680 AD. If we wait until they stop killing each other, we will stay for a thousand years or more. I agree with @realDonaldTrump. Bring the troops home.”

The above was a tweet published by U.S. Senator Rand Paul, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. It is a reminder that religious literacy and historical awareness is often in short supply among elected U.S. officials, particularly when it comes to Muslim communities worldwide, and especially the Arab world. Such ignorance — of the history, the culture, the social complexity and political dynamics of Muslim-majority communities — is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least because elected officials should have more depth on such well-known subjects.

However, this specific genus of ignorance has wider geopolitical repercussions. As far as Senator Paul is concerned, there is an amorphous Sunni population that has been killing an amorphous Shia population since time immemorial. Of course, the data shows that this is rather tenuous. If the Sunni community, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide, had genocidal tendencies toward the Shia, the situation of Shiite communities would be far more precarious in history.

The Spanish Inquisition, for example, sought to eradicate all Muslims and Jews from Iberia in the 15th century – and largely succeeded. If the Shia harbored similar intentions, there would be probably no Sunnis in present-day Shia-majority Iran. Of course, the two communities have been in engaged in sectarian struggle, but it is historically inaccurate to declare that they have been “killing each other” since the 7th century. The Karbala example is especially ill-informed.

That massacre was not between Sunnis and Shia, who had not become clear-cut groups yet. Indeed, both Sunni and Shia historians remember the victims of the massacre as heroes and martyrs – hence, to describe it as an example of Sunni-Shia internecine conflict is fallacious. But this way of looking at history is not an innocent error. Rather, it is an instrumentalization of a false history to justify a contemporary policy point: the underscoring of the need to redirect American power to avoid upholding the notion of international law as the basis of international order.

A Factual Approach

There are many reasons to oppose U.S. involvement in Syria and the wider Arab world. The disastrous U.S. engagement in Iraq in 2003, for example, would provide a great deal of evidence for the argument that American engagement overseas is doomed to failure. But it is important to balance that concern with a recognition that in other circumstances, American power has ended conflict. U.S. intervention in the former Yugoslavia ended the Bosnian genocide.

Had the United States pushed for international intervention in Rwanda in the 1990s, it is likely the Rwandan genocide could have been averted. Is the Syrian conflict one where a more direct American involvement could have reduced the death toll? Historians likely will argue about that question for years. But insisting that local populations inevitably will kill each other is not a way to begin a fruitful debate based on facts.

It simply abjures the United States from the responsibility to use its power in a way that is congruent with international law – including the right to protect. Washington should be asking how that duty is fulfilled rather than ignoring the question altogether and avoiding involvement. As President Donald Trump continues to promote an “America First” foreign policy, it is likely we will see the selective dissemination of this non-interventionist idea. (It is clearly selective because there is an obvious trend in the Trump administration to urge conflict with Iran and to back the Saudi-led bloc in the Arab world against Tehran.)

Making Responsible Policy

U.S. policymakers may make assessments based on what they perceive to be in the American national interest. However, they should do so with two major factors in mind. The first is to uphold international law as the basis of international order. The meaning of this is clear: that all states uphold international treaties they have signed up to, and that when they fail to do so, the international community should respond in a proportional and deliberate matter. Washington should carry out this responsibility, large as it is for one of the world’s most powerful nations, rather than shirking its international duties — which, alas, several administrations have done several times in recent years.

To ignore international law as the bedrock of the international order is to encourage by default its breakdown, and to encourage other modes of international order underpinned by the proverbial law of the jungle. We have already seen outcomes of that approach in the disastrous conflict in Yemen, the Khashoggi murder, the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population, and more recently, the Uighurs’ situation in China. The second is to be correctly informed about different conflicts and their historical roots.

Policy makers need far more resources in this regard; otherwise, misinformation such as that in Sen. Paul’s tweet will become even more widespread. Reliance on uninformed analysis, which does not root itself in expertise and local knowledge, is all too common. Against that background, autocrats and dictators, who have no interest in being bound by international commitments and international law, are given far more latitude to commit abuses against their own populations and other countries. If we are keen on reducing conflict worldwide, accurate knowledge and informed analysis is not an optional extra, but a direly needed obligation.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Senior Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Dr. Hellyer is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington, D.C. He tweets at @hahellyer. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.