Tom West, West Words

Tom West

Back when he was in Congress, former 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan once told me the best way to understand the Middle East was to think in terms of the split between Sunnis and Shias. It’s helped me to better understand that cauldron of discontent — until now. Donald Trump’s chaotic governance is confusing matters.

To begin at the beginning, when Mohammad died in 632 A.D., Muslims split into Sunnis and Shias over who was to become caliph or “deputy of God.” They have been fighting over the right of succession ever since. Today, 87 percent of Muslims worldwide are Sunni and only 11 percent are Shia. In a 2012 poll, 24% of Sunnis rejected the idea that Shiites were even Muslim.

Only four nations have more Shias than Sunnis: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and India (and India is 80 percent Hindu and only 13 percent Muslim). Ever since Muslims overthrew the shah of Iran in 1979, and then took 52 of our diplomats hostage, the U.S. has considered Iran to be an enemy and the primary exporter of terrorism.

However, the 9/11 hijackers all came from Sunni-predominant nations. Fifteen of the 19 were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates and one each from Egypt and Lebanon. Al Qaeda (founded by Osama bin Laden), ISIS, ISIL and the Taliban are all Sunni extremist groups.

Most Islamic nations, including all those in northern Africa as well as the former Soviet Islamic republics except for Azerbaijan, are at least 95 percent Sunni.

Since 2011, Syria has been involved in a civil war designed to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is 87 percent Sunni, and only 13 percent Shia and Alawite, but Assad is an Alawite. The Alawite sect is Shia, but is more secular than is acceptable to many orthodox Sunnis or Shias.

The attempt to oust Assad was primarily carried out by an alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which included the majority Sunnis, the Kurds and Arab militias with the support of U.S. armament. In March, they defeated ISIS in Syria, but not Assad, who was also receiving support from Iran and Russia.

The United States’ interest in the Middle East is maybe threefold. First, to prevent any Islamist extremist group from ever gaining a secure training ground from which it can launch another terrorist attack on us. Second, to stop nuclear proliferation, particularly to nations such as Iran who probably would have little hesitation in selling a nuclear weapon, once developed, to any number of zealots who put their beliefs ahead of their lives. Third, to keep the international shipping lanes open to facilitate global trade.

This week, President Trump announced that he was pulling the last 1,000 U.S. troops out of Syria. Critics say that this will open the way for Turkey to attack our ally, the Kurds, who stood by the U.S. even during the darkest days of the Iraq War 15 years ago.

Since Turkey has 355,000 soldiers on active duty, 1,000 U.S. troops may not have been much of a deterrent. Regardless, the Turks hate the Kurds, one of the world’s un-nationed peoples, who live at the juxtaposition of Iraq, Turkey and Syria. By leaving Syria and thereby abandoning the Kurds, not only is the U.S. appearing to be an unreliable ally, it also appears to be strengthening Iran for whom Trump had done no favors up to now.

Suddenly, it appears that the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia are out of favor. A month ago, somebody, most likely Iran, bombed Saudi oil refineries. The response from the U.S. was muted.

Then, in a seemingly unrelated matter, the wife of a U.S. diplomat to Great Britain fled that country after being involved in an accident that killed a 19-year-old British motor biker. That raised questions about whether diplomatic immunity, granted under the Vienna Convention, should be waived or if she should be charged in the U.S.

(As an aside, a textbook example of diplomatic immunity occurred in 2011 when a U.S. diplomat murdered two men in Lahore, Pakistan, whom he said were trying to rob him. He was initially jailed, but then the charges were dropped, he left the country, and the U.S. paid $2.4 million to the families of the victims.)

The issue of diplomatic immunity may confuse what came next. The Oregonian, a newspaper in Portland, Ore., reported Oct. 1 that Saudi Arabian nationals, not diplomats and therefore without immunity, have been disappearing from the United States while facing criminal charges, including rape and manslaughter. To date, 25 Saudis have escaped prosecution in eight different states, including seven in Oregon alone. It is believed the Saudi government helped them flee on private flights.

In January, Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, co-authored a bill to impose sanctions on foreign consulates who aid non-diplomats in escaping criminal prosecution here. Minnesota’s senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, have been pre-occupied with other things like impeachment, so have not signed on to the bill.

Whether we still consider Saudi Arabia an ally or not, it may be time to give the Oregon senators’ bill a hearing. Otherwise, perhaps the president can explain just what his vision for the Mideast is. These days, it’s hard to tell.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at

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