Published on November 21st, 20120
Haunted by History – The Power Politics of the Sunni-Shia Divide
By M. Clark
It may sound strange that a battle for succession among Caliphs around 650 AD should lay the foundations for an ongoing power struggle between modern nation states almost 1400 years later, but then history is full of oddities. And to be fair, several more tangible and comprehensible developments over the last centuries and decades have contributed to shape the political division that increasingly seems to converge with the two main branches of Islam in the world’s most volatile region.
Resisting the temptation to return back to the Caliphs and the First Fitna (فتنة مقتل عثمان) one could settle for a slightly less ambitious approach by identifying the two modern actors on the Sunni and Shia sides, the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, respectively. Today, they are probably the two most influential states in the region due to their various attributes: Saudi-Arabia with its oil wealth and guardianship of Islam’s most holy sites, Iran with its sizeable population, imperial history and more or less open ambition to join the world’s exclusive nuclear club.
With money, arms and religious authority they both cultivate clients throughout the region, both at state level and among ethno-religious communities. Still, one should not forget that both states over the last decades have operated in conjunction with the interests of other, even more influential powers that have, to paraphrase their critics, tended to use the Middle East as their playground. The most powerful of them all, the United States, until the late 1970s counted both Saudi-Arabia and Iran among its allies. Now only one is left, the other having transformed itself into an implacable enemy.
The US cold war alliance
Parts of what will be referred to as the Sunni bloc could in the cold war era be perceived as components of a US-led anti-communist alliance; in addition to Saudi-Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, non-Arab states like Turkey, pre-revolutionary Iran and Israel were included. Confronting these were a number of Soviet-backed Arab republics that had rid themselves of western-oriented regimes (in most cases monarchies) and embraced pan-Arab socialist policies. Notable among these were Iraq, Syria and Libya. In other words, the appeal of radical anti-colonialism in the Arab street during the 1960s and 1970s was so strong that the US had to rely on a jumbled mixture of monarchies and non-Arab states in order to maintain its influence in the Arab world.
Its worst fear was that one of the remaining monarchs would lose popularity and be overthrown in yet another pan-Arabic republican triumph. But when it happened it took place in non-Arab Iran in 1979, forcing the humbled great power take its client monarch and flee a popular uprising that encompassed a whole range of political factions, but in which the Islamic one under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini in the end was able to monopolize the revolution.
The United States had lost an ally and gained an enemy. At the time, it must have been a small comfort for US policy-makers that the new Iran was extremely unlikely to switch to the Soviet camp. Instead it pursued an independent position between the two blocs, which made it vulnerable to the military adventurism of next-door neighbour Saddam Hussein – a development welcomed by the Americans who urged the region’s Arab states to support Saddam against Khomeini. They were largely successful in doing so.
The Shia-dominated “Axis of resistance”
One of the Arab states that refused to come onboard was Syria, one of the pan-Arabic states where the Baath party clique of Hafez al-Assad had risen to power after an exhausting power struggle involving both external enemies and a number of inter-party fractions. Not only did the new Syrian rulers consider fellow Baathist Saddam Hussein a much greater threat than Iran; it was also aware of its own Sunni community’s cultural proximity to the regime in Iraq and its own, slightly more diffuse, connection to the Shias of Iran. So secular military rule and theocracy became bedfellows and the two states soon identified other areas of common interest apart from resistance to Saddam Hussein.
One of them affected the Palestinian issue. Even if Syria at times proved to be an unreliable partner for Yasser Arafat in his lengthy Lebanon-based campaign, the Palestinian factions could always count on Iran and Syria when directly confronting their arch foe Israel (and not Lebanese groups). But the most significant development within the alliance was the inclusion of the mainly southern Shia Muslims of Lebanon, an impoverished and rapidly growing community that were particularly angered by the Israeli occupation during the 1980s.
For Iran, the task of building up a loyal military and political ally in Lebanon could hardly have been easier; in spite of its mainly Persian identity the religious and ideological kinship with what during the 1980s developed into Hezbollah secured a strong and lasting bond – and a strategic gain versus Israel. When the Fatah leadership in the early 1990s decided to sign the Oslo Accord with Israel, the rivaling Hamas movement on the Gaza strip was drawn closer to Iran and Syria. In spite of Hamas being Sunni, it found allies in a Shia-led grouping that with time would refer to itself as “a resistance” – against Israel, the US-backed Sunni monarchies and the United States itself.
The western-leaning Sunni bloc
What the Americans called “the loss of Iran” was soon compensated by what the US considered to be Egypt’s new positive development under Anwar Sadat, who first took his country out of Nasser’s favoured Soviet alliance and then went on to sign the Camp David Accords with Israel. After Sadat’s assassination his successor Hosni Mubarak moved the country even closer into the US camp which now constituted the Gulf States, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi-Arabia, whose loyalty to the Americans went back to the 1930s when King Ibn Saud made what was for him a rewarding peace with Standard Oil of California. That America’s Arab allies, notably Saudi-Arabia, refused to have any dealings with Israel was a minor concern for the US policymakers. The members of the western-leaning Sunni bloc had an almost perfect track record in respecting fundamental American interests in the Middle East.
During the 1980s a seemingly stable pattern emerged along these lines. Even if Iran and Saudi-Arabia were looking increasingly more like natural rivals they both had to confront the common challenge of Saddam Hussein. After Saddam failed in his bid to take over Iran (or whatever he was attempting), his attention turned to areas in the Gulf where the US was no longer so happy to cheer him on.
With the invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War the US made three moves to contain Saddam Hussein; divide Iraq into no-fly zones, subject the country to harsh sanctions and station thousands of troops in Saudi-Arabia. The last move would underline how anxious the US was about its energy interests on the Arabian peninsula. They were hardly able to see that it could also make them an attractive future target for jihadist Sunni elements in the area.
New instability and the emergence of open Sunni-Shia strife
The irony that the US sent its troops into Iraq due to a terrorist attack carried out by extremist Saudi-Arabians who were angered by a US troop presence on their own soil probably escaped the attention of a few observers. Regardless, one of the most significant effects of the war in 2003 was the emergence of a violent confrontation between the country’s old ruling community, the Sunnis, and the Shia, the backbone of the new regime in Baghdad. During its worst sequences, the conflict amounted to ethnic cleansing in the formerly mixed neighbourhoods of the major urban areas of Iraq.
At the same time, the Iran-led Shia alliance had all reason to become more tightly integrated. The (not officially expressed) joy in Teheran over the removal of Saddam Hussein as well as the prospect of getting a lot of their old anti-Saddam allies into power in Baghdad was offset by the fact that the US now had thousands of troops stationed on the Iranian border and that George W. Bush had grouped Iran in the same category as Iraq before going on to invade the latter. That the most adventurous officials in the Bush-administration were smarting for a showdown with Iran is not too far-fetched an assumption, but the turmoil and chaos in Iraq soon rendered any such ideas unrealistic even from a neo-conservative point of view. Iran and Syria left the radar as the US became stuck in its shambolic state-building project.
The prestige and power of “The axis of resistance” probably reached its climax in 2006 when Israel launched a botched operation into Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah after the group had fired across the border at an Israeli army checkpoint. Having prevented Israel from reaching its ambition while inflicting significant casualties on what is perceived to be the most advanced army in the region was considered a huge victory from Beirut to Teheran and also boosted the Shia militia’s standing in most, if not all Middle Eastern countries. Hezbollah’s increasing influence also reflected in Lebanese politics where it was able to form a government along with its allies in the summer of 2011. But at that time another and more significant development had started threatening to destabilize a vital component of the axis.
The Arab spring and its consequences
Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’ son, at least in his official speeches expressed that Syria’s position as a member of “the axis of resistance” would save it from the fate of the US-friendly regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. But as the population in the Sunni areas of Syria grew increasingly more restive there was all indication that Bashar’s gut feeling had failed him. The regime’s harsh measures to quell the rebellion soon started to take its diplomatic toll. Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States were the first to condemn the regime, which was predictable as they never had been on friendly terms with it in the first place.
But Turkey under the leadership of Erdogan and his moderate Islamist party had steadily moved away from its formerly good relations with Israel, instead preferring to view Syria as its closest regional partner. Within a few months it was all over and Erdogan turned into one of the most outspoken Bashar-bashers in the Middle East. When hitherto loyal Hamas emptied their Damascus offices it was clear that Syria now almost exclusively relied on support outside the Sunni communities in the region.
For Iran it was not an option to ditch their old ally. But it was inevitable that Ahmedinejad’s prestige, for years boosted through fiery speeches against Israel and the United States, was declining in the Sunni Arab street. The same was the case for Hezbollah; the memory of the 2008 bravado against IDF overshadowed by its unflinching loyalty to a regime that most Sunni Muslims had had enough of. Not surprisingly, and fitting perfectly into the pattern of the increasingly more clear-cut Sunni-Shia divide, Iraq was one of the few countries that refused to condemn Syria during Arab League meetings. Iraq’s Shia rulers signaled that they would rather stand by an Alawite regime than lend supports to the Syrian equivalent of their own Sunni rebels.
This was hardly a time to enjoy the problems of the Iranian-led bloc among the members of the traditional Sunni bloc. On the contrary, its own encounter with the Arab spring had already been even more troublesome insofar as it had caused the demise of its most significant member, Egypt and the regime of Hosni Mubarak. The monarchies now faced the moment of truth. The most vulnerable of them was Bahrain, a Sunni royal family on top of a Shia majority population. When people started filling the streets of Manama it came as no big surprise that Iran seized the opportunity to express its solidarity with the protesters.
Saudi-Arabia now hinted at Iranian meddling in the Gulf state and sent in its tanks to prevent what it called an Iranian-led coup attempt. The two major players in the latent Sunni-Shia conflict became engulfed in game of undermining their rival’s allies, Saudi-Arabia backing the Sunni rebels in Syria and Iran embracing the Shia opposition against the Al Khalifa family in Bahrain. Open conflict along the lines of the Sunni-Shia divide was now evident across the region; in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Lebanon, where pro-Assad militias allied to Hezbollah were fighting Sunni forces backing the Syrian rebels in the north.
A third bloc?
While the Arab spring had contributed to bring the Sunni-Shia conflict to what used to be secular Syria it caused a quite different effect in Egypt where the demise of Mubarak and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a dominant force had caused great concern for the United States. Its old Sunni alliance now looked more fragile than ever, depending to a large extent on monarchies that had made few attempts to democratize and modernize. Democratization had caused moderate Islamists to rise to power in first Turkey and now, as a result of the Arab spring, in Egypt – and this had repercussion for the foreign political orientation of the two countries.
It is becoming increasingly clear that both countries have left the pro-American traditional Sunni camp, probably for good. Still, this has caused neither of them to drift into the Iranian-led “resistance coalition”. It seems clear that both Egypt and Turkey are staking out an independent course, retaining bonds to both Washington and Teheran while refusing to back one of them against the other.
Their formerly close links to Israel have been severed; they openly champion the Palestinian cause, rather preferring to hold meetings with Hamas officials than Benjamin Netanyahu. They both strongly sympathize with the Syrian opposition and have turned their backs on the Assad regime. These shared positions comes on top of their common identity as moderate Islamist governments with a popular mandate. Egypt’s president Mursi recently referred to Erdogan’s government as “a source of inspiration for the region” and the countries are in late 2012 planning common naval exercises. As the countries seem to have embraced democracy one could argue that another governing party or president might readjust the current course and switch the countries back to their old agendas. But such a notion does not take into account that their former foreign political orientations were determined by now discredited military regimes and that their new approach to regional issues has a popular mandate.
We have seen how the Arab spring in many areas has resulted in intensified conflict between adherents of the two main religious branches of Islam. Though in a parallel process, the weakening of the Syrian regime and the fall of Egypt’s former regime, have dealt a blow to both the Iranian and Saudi rivaling camps. Both Teheran and Riyad are almost certain to remain among the power centres of the Middle East for the foreseeable future, though they are no longer likely to dictate the regional issues on their own. This is not least due to the emergence of other ambitious players who refuse to join either of the two opposing camps. A future multipolar Middle East may be much more complex and harder to analyze than before, but we should all hope that the emergence of new powers that operate independently of the self-proclaimed leaders of Sunni and Shia worlds would help the Middle East to escape the specter that has haunted the region since the ancient battle of Karbala.
*Cover photo by Paolo Porsia, third photo by Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, fourth photo by Nick Taylor, fifth photo by Kent Spillner.