Sunni Versus Shia: The Middle East's New Strategic Conflict / Prof.B.Rubin

04 Jan 2012
Of course, conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims are notat all new, but the fact that this is becoming a central feature on the regional strategic level is a dramatic shift. After all, as long as there were secular-style regimes preaching anall-inclusive Arab nationalist identity, differences between religiouscommunities were subordinated. Once there are Islamist regimes, theology becomescentral again, as it was centuries ago.

However, no one should misunderstand the situation. This isfundamentally a struggle for political power and wealth. When Sunni and Shiastates or movements battle they are acting as political entities not pursuing old theological disputes.

The growing power and influence of Iran’s Islamist regimeposed a tremendous problem for Arab Sunni Islamists. They generally did notlike Iran because it was Persian and Shia, yet it was the only Islamist game intown. Thus, Arab Sunni Islamist Hamas became an Iranian client. The Iran-Iraqwar reflected these antagonisms, as best seen in Iraqi propaganda. Yet Iraq’sregime was also able to keep the Shia majority there under control.

Saddam Hussein’s removal by a U.S.-led internationalintervention opened up the question of confessional relations in Iraq. The ArabShia were inevitably going to win any election, given their three-to-one advantage over the Sunni and the Kurds optingout for what is, in effect though not name, their own state in the north. Despite the terrorist, anti-American, andal-Qaida elements of the Sunni insurgency, it was essentially a last-ditchattempt by the Sunnis to reclaim power. It failed and while violence continues,the main Sunni emphasis will be on negotiating the best possible division ofpower.

In Lebanon, the Shia triumphed too, led by Hizballah and aided by Syria and Iran. But allof this was prelude to the year 2011. The “Arab Spring” was an overwhelminglySunni affair, their own equivalent in some ways of Iran’s 1979 revolution. Only in Bahrain, where they were repressed,did the Shia take the offensive.

Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya all had Sunni insurgencies againstSunni Arab governments. The situation inSyria is far more complex with an Alawite non-Muslim regime that pretends to beShia Muslim and is allied with Iran, opposed by a variety of rebels.Nevertheless, in this context, the upheaval is a Sunni-led (though far fromjust Islamist) revolt against a “Shia” regime.

Here’s the bottom line: Sunni Arab Islamists no longer needIran or even Turkey because they now have their own power. What is likely toemerge is at least a loose Sunni Arab and largely Islamist-flavored bloc consistingof Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Libya, and Tunisia along with the Muslim Brotherhood elementsin Jordan and Syria.

The key element hereis the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that doesn’t like Shia Muslims ingeneral and Iran in particular. Little events, like Brotherhood guru Yusufal-Qaradawi’s support for the Sunni regime in Bahrain against the Shiaopposition, show the direction of their thinking. The even more radical Salafists—a term nowused for the small revolutionary Islamist groups, are even more anti-Shia. Onefactor here is the continued unwillingness of the majority of Arab states towelcome Shia-ruled Iraq into their ranks. Iraq is not going to become a satelliteof Iran. It certainly feels more comfortable in a Shia bloc but will probablycontinue to be relatively uninvolved in regional affairs.

Note, too, that to a large extent this situation leaves thePalestinian Authority as an orphan. While it can depend on very general Arab,Iranian, and Turkish support, the Islamists prefer to back Hamas, especially the ever-stronger Sunni Islamists. This, of course, encourages the PalestinianAuthority’s (Fatah’s) alliance with Hamas while also weakening its leveragetoward that Islamist partner. (And that means a continued disinterest innegotiating with Israel, much less reaching a negotiated solution with it.)

Thus, despite appearances, 2011 was a defeat for Iran andTurkey because Sunni Arab Islamists are far less receptive to Tehran’sinfluence and view it as a rival, while Arab Islamists don’t want leadershipfrom Turks either.

Can these blocs unite effectively against the United States,the West or Israel? In a word: No. Theirpower struggles for regional power and for control of individual states(Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, and to a far lesser extent Iraq) will keep them inconflict. Even on the anti-Israel consensus each side will seek to exploit itfor their own, often conflicting, interests.

By the same token, however, the hope for moderation isminimal. In a region when regimes and movements are competing to prove their militancyand loyalty to a radical interpretation of Islam, nobody is going to want tomake peace with Israel. And regimes will only work with the United States I theyfeel that America can and will protect them, a rather forlorn hope with anObama Administration eager to make friends with Islamists.

There is also another aspect to this Sunni-Shia rivalry, theformation of blocs, the competition in militancy, and the battle for control ofindividual states. The region will continue to waste lives, time, and resourcesin political strife as the lure of ideology and power rather than pragmatismand economic productivity. This is still rule even if the old regimes have fallen.


Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters (without spaces) shown in the image.