Last month, the Iraqi foreign ministry urged its Saudi counterpart to replace the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad, Thamer al-Sabhan, for his controversial views on the Shia militia, and the threat his comments pose to diplomatic relations. In the latest update on the story, local media reported that Sabhan was indeed expelled (though he issued a denial of details of that report, including the claim his cousin died fighting for ISIS, on Twitter). Either way, al-Sabhan's concerns regarding Shia militias are not new and nor are they unique to Saudi Arabia.
ISIS' regional appeal is built more on a perception that Sunni Arabs are the victims of a 'Crusader-Shia' alliance of convenience than on any military successes. The conditions that allowed former Baathists and al-Qaeda members to grow in strength and number in 2007, and which eventually led to the formation of ISIS, were arguably mild compared to today. In 2007, the US did not turn a blind eye to Shia militias and fought Muqtadr al-Sadr's Mehdi Army as much as al-Qaeda insurgents.
The US sees Shia militias as crucial to battling ISIS in Iraq.
A risky strategy
A 'menage a trois' between the US, Iran, and Shia militias may have become a strategic necessity in the fight against ISIS, but it is a policy disaster for Saudi Arabia and a risky strategy for the US. While the US looks to straddle Iranian and Saudi relations over Syria and Iraq, they have failed to convince Riyadh that it can contain Iranian influence in the region.
Sectarian divisions over the perception of the liberation offensives have been notably rising, and this is largely considered to be due to the prominence of Iranian-backed sectarian militias. In the Arab media, the battle for Fallujah was deeply controversial and evidence of human rights abuses on Sunni refugees mounted against the Shia militias who participated alongside the US and the Iraqi army.
For this, the Saudi ambassador's concerns reflect the widespread belief of Arab nations that Sunni Arabs are alone in the fight against ISIS. Such narratives, whether warranted or not, fuel the social and political fire that contributed to the rise of ISIS in the first place, and by association, drag the US, and anyone else who coordinates with the militias, into disrepute.
Backing Iraq's Shia militias could lead to sectarianism in the long-term.
In December last year, the decision to reopen the Saudi embassy in Baghdad was spurred on by the replacement of the deeply sectarian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a more approachable Haidar al-Abadi. But since then, the Shia militias have only gained allies in the Iraqi parliament, and the groups are tied to powerful politicians, armed and financed with government money.
The Saudi embassy's only option to keep Iraq as a bulwark against Iranian regional influence will have been to form relations with Iraq's Sunni tribal leaders, particularly in Anbar and Mosul. The Shammar tribe, for example, have members living in both Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and are natural allies to the kingdom. In fact, Saudi policy in Iraq and Syria is now largely characterised by tribal links more than official ones. To reduce Iranian or ISIS influence, Sunni clans will be Riyadh's preferred dominant military force on the ground.
The necessity for such identity politics only entrenches sectarian dynamics in Iraq, when we so desperately need to try and patch up a country deeply divided. Saudi reservations towards the Shia militias may be motivated by sectarian and domestic concerns, but the ambassador's warning has implications for us all.
If we continue to back Shia militias for short-term gain, we have to be prepared for the long-term repercussions of a body of armed, sectarian groups and the effect this will have on mounting sectarian violence when ISIS is defeated. ISIS has shown that localised sectarian tensions can give rise to global terrorism, and that marriages of convenience can come back to bite us.