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With news of Saudi F-15 warplanes carrying out airstrikes on Shia positions in Yemen, the formation by Egypt of a United Arab military force, Sunni militants seeking the violent overthrow of a pro-Iran regime in Syria, and bubbling tensions in Bahrain and Iraq, you would be forgiven for thinking an Islamic World War is on the near horizon.
You may well be right.
Having simmered and spat for over a decade now, Sunni-Shia hostilities seem to be rushing to the surface in every country in the Dar es Salaam. Despite the likely cost of a such civil war, no Western policy seems capable of arresting it, and the process has an energy detached from all economic or political consideration.
Before looking at where we, in the West, should stand on all this, let us first look at the military, or civilizational balance between the two sides.
The Shia Coalition.
According to outside analysis, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a military capacity roughly on a par with Saudi Arabia, with the latter’s technical edge sanded down by the former’s weight of numbers. Unlike Saudi’s quarter-million standing force, Iran’s army can marshal up to 900,000 soldiers (excluding state militias) and there is a wealth of dated yet still operational equipment from the Soviet Union for them to employ.
Despite the fact the two countries were once bitterly at war, it is increasingly naïve to consider modern Iraq as a separate political entity to Iran. Politically and diplomatically, the countries are in lockstep with one another, and the true source of Iraqi policy is now Tehran. All this means in practice is that Iran’s military-age population has increased by about 20 million and its oil reserves by 100%. If this integration continues, Iran will be a regional superpower, possessing or having influence over the greatest store of extractable oil in the world.
Iraq is yet to develop regular armed forces capable of acting independently
3. Southern Lebanon.
The Southern part of Lebanon (and to a limited extent, the national capital, Beirut) is currently occupied by Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist group loyal to Iran. At war, Hezbollah has proven to be surprisingly capable and it remains armed to the teeth due to historic weapons transfers from Russia, via Iran and Syria.
Hezbollah has between 4,000 and 65,000 fighters.
The Sunni Quintet.
By far the most militarily powerful country in the Islamic World, the Republic of Turkey is also increasingly aware of its position as a bulwark of the Sunni coalition. Having wrecked its alliance with Israel, elected an Islamist government, abandoned attempts to break into Europe, and made no attempt to resolve the conflict with the Kurds, Ankara appears readier than ever to play a part in a regional conflagration.
Turkey has already offered Saudi Arabia logistical aid in combating the Shia rebels in Yemen, and has vocally condemned Iranian activity in the region as a whole. The nation has pre-existing links with a variety of Sunni countries, including Egypt and Syria.
Of course, Turkey’s anti-Iranian sentiments may be due to more than religious conviction. Ankara is famously terrified by the aspirations of the Kurds, an Iranic people who possess strong links to Pan-Iranic Nationalists in Iran. Further complicating this is the fact that at least a quarter of Iran’s population are Turkic Azeris who routinely complain about Persian supremacism in the Iranian state.
Turkey can marshal roughly 1 million soldiers.
The only Islamic country to possess an independent nuclear force, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan must be taken into account in any analysis or projection. Virulently anti-Shia, riddled with extremism and perennially unstable, Pakistan has been warmly embraced by Sunni supremacists like Osama Bin Laden, and the country remains an invaluable ally for the Saudis, who are said to be close to securing a nuclear weapon from the Pakistani stockpile.
Pakistan can marshal over a million soldiers.
The state of Egypt and its future direction is hard to judge. Despite being over 85% Sunni and the historic birthplace of radical Islam, the government in Cairo claims (for now) to be intent on a pro-Western path of secular reform. Only time can tell us whether this is possible or sincere, but if it isn’t, then the Sunni side of the conflict would benefit immeasurably, Egypt having the second most powerful military in the Islamic world (1.3 million soldiers).
4. Saudi Arabia.
The spiritual, financial and historic executive of the Sunni world, Saud Arabia has the world’s fourth largest military budget and the largest known oil reserves on Earth. Saudi investment companies own a considerable slice of Western meta-economy, granting Riyadh considerable diplomatic influence over the modern world. Saudi’s standing army numbers around 250,000 soldiers, but there are plans to increase this.
5. The Gulf.
The states of the Gulf, namely, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar are among the richest nations on Earth, and possess small but very high-tech militaries. Gulf foreign policy is usually harmonious with that of the Saudis.
Combined, the number of active soldiers in the Gulf States is 105,000.
Sunni Quintet Military Forces – 3,655,000 – the larger Sunni world having 80% of the world’s Muslim civilian population.
Shia Coalition Military Forces – 930,000 – the larger Shia world having 15% of the world’s Muslim civilian population.
As should be obvious from this analysis, the Sunnis resoundingly outgun and outnumber the Shia. Indeed, if Iran was to fall apart or be drawn into a self-destructive war with Israel, the Shia would be left almost defenceless and vulnerable to outright genocide.
With that being said, a war as large as this can cause a lot of destruction before an inevitable outcome is reached.
Where Should We Stand?
Who should we side with in this developing conflict? In my own view, we should pick no side at all. A mad, religious conflict of this type has no relevance to the Western world, and neither the Sunni or the Shia have behaved in a such a way as to merit our allegiance.
Who will we side with? Well, given oil politics and the economic structure of the world, the West seems predestined to back up the Sunni-dominated order of the Middle East. The Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, Egyptians and Turks are currently allied with the EU and America, while all the Shia states (save Iraq) are considered enemies. This will mean a short but destabilising war, ending in a Sunni victory.
Along the way, America may use the aggression of Iran towards Sunni states as a green light for action against the Ayatollahs. Israel may feel compelled to act against Hezbollah. A direct confrontation between ISIS and the Iranians may occur in Syria and central Iraq. Nevertheless, the end result can be foreseen in photographic detail, a Muslim world unchanged in its fundamental poverty.
I’ll close with an obvious but vital reflection: As all this blood is pointlessly shed in faraway lands, we should remind ourselves how luxurious it is to live in a 21st century civilisation; a condition far from perfect, but one that is infinitely preferable to the alternative.