Sunni v Shia: The ME’s new strategic conflict

By Barry Rubin, Rubin Reports

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 religious communities were subordinated. Once there are Islamist regimes, theology becomes central again, as it was centuries ago.

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

The growing power and influence of Iran’s Islamist regime posed a tremendous problem for Arab Sunni Islamists. They generally did not like Iran because it was Persian and Shia, yet it was the only Islamist game in town. Thus, Arab Sunni Islamist Hamas became an Iranian client. The Iran-Iraqwar reflected these antagonisms, as best seen in Iraqi propaganda. Yet Iraq’s regime was also able to keep the Shia majority there under control.

Saddam Hussein’s removal by a U.S.-led international intervention opened up the question of confessional relations in Iraq. The Arab Shia were inevitably going to win any election, given their three-to-one advantage over the Sunni and the Kurds opting out 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-ditch attempt 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 all of this was prelude to the year 2011. The “Arab Spring” was an overwhelmingly Sunni 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 in Syria 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 from just 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 to emerge is at least a loose Sunni Arab and largely Islamist-flavored bloc consisting of Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Libya, and Tunisia along with the Muslim Brotherhood elements in Jordan and Syria.

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

Note, too, that to a large extent this situation leaves the Palestinian 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 Palestinian Authority’s (Fatah’s) alliance with Hamas while also weakening its leverage toward that Islamist partner. (And that means a continued disinterest in negotiating with Israel, much less reaching a negotiated solution with it.)

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

Can these blocs unite effectively against the United States,the West or Israel? In a word: No. Their power struggles for regional power and for control of individual states(Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, and to a far lesser extent Iraq) will keep them in conflict. 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 is minimal. In a region when regimes and movements are competing to prove their militancy and loyalty to a radical interpretation of Islam, nobody is going to want to make peace with Israel. And regimes will only work with the United States I they feel that America can and will protect them, a rather forlorn hope with an Obama Administration eager to make friends with Islamists.

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

January 4, 2012 | 8 Comments »

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8 Comments / 8 Comments

  1. Hi, Stan

    He and his supporters are Tra[n]s-nationalists. They have openly said so. Their ultimate sim is to cause chaos in the world, destroy national states and institute an international collectivist organization led by an intellectual elite to govern the world.

    This is approximately the “One World Government” theory. It makes sense that the atheist elite of politicians, academics, rich people, etc. believes that they are the “chosen” ones to rule the world — a “Master Mini-Race”, if you will. It also makes sense that once something like this gets rolling, there will be an internal power struggle and one person will come out on top. The logical one to do so would be the US President or someone who controls him. This leader and group could also acknowledge some “messiah” for show, and that messiah could be an Arab Muslim. In fact, it is possible to be a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew at the same time. Obama would be all three, if his mother were of maternal Jewish descent, for instance.

    I was just expanding on your “One World Government” “transnational” scenario. It’s not far-fetched. The mathematician Leibnitz spoke of an ideal “Republic of Scientists” in the 1600s; it’s an old idea. Even so, I can’t understand why Obama and his crew would deliberately try to lose face in the Middle East, and also lose control of the world’s oil supply. Obama’s personal power comes from being the Pres. of the US. Why would he want to diminish his power base?

    It could be that B. O. has simply gone mad, along with Achmadinejad and the others. I do not consider that an implausible explanation at all. When I posed the question, I was hoping to find a rational explanation for US policy; and as yet, I can’t see one.


    The one thing they all have in common is an intense hatred of Jews and Israel.

    I agree.

  2. regardless of what is happening exactly in my view the conclusion for Israel should be preparing for regional war, abandoning any peace processes until the smoke fully clears,being prepared for major attacks by being ready to pre-empt. Planning to make strategic gains in the event of any war such as seizing land and resources and expelling any hostile populations(facts left on the ground will prevail after the next war. There is great danger but also there is great opportunity for Israel to remake the paradigms.


  4. In the most simplistic analysis what is going on in the Mideast since the overthrow of established regimes,thanks to Bush and Obama, is a conflict for power amongst any number of competing political/religious/ethnic factions. The one thing they all have in common is an intense hatred of Jews and Israel. I think it’s in the best interest of Israel that they continue fighting themselves rather than uniting in any effort against Israel.Of course this will result in the deaths of thousands of innocents but this has been going on in this region since time immemorial.

  5. BlandOatmealhasoutlinedthe problems in the Middle East exactly and Ashe writes what America (Obama?) is doing makes no strategic sense. So if a sutuation makes no sense what does one do? One must re-xamine one’s basic premisses. Major premisses one is that Obama and those who control him have America’s best interests at heart. Change that premisses to they want to bring America down and destroy it as a super power and things make far more sense. Obama is not an “American”. He and his supporters are Trabs-nationalists. They have openly said so. Their ultimate sim is to cause chaos in the world, destroy national states and institute an international collectivist organization led by an intellectual elite to govern the world.
    Major premisses two is that Obama et al are interested in such concepts as freedom and capitalism. In effect they are making a bet. They are using our lives as chips in a far larger enterprise. They are calculating that the power behind Trans- nationalism will win out in the future battles between Islam and the West, between the West and China, between the West and Asia (read India), between all of the former and a possible resurgent Russia.
    Cancel that premisses and again things make more sense.
    Is all this fantastical nonsense? Yes. Was the Thousand year Reich fantastical nonsense? Yes and yes. But such nonsense has never stopped our race from throwing up individuals with such dreams to torment us before. Sometimes there is an actual conspiracy.

  6. If there are any heads out there not completely engaged in Freemason, Antisemite plots led by Ron Paul and financed by George Soros to provoke the Haredim to force Canadian students to wear Islamic/ Islamist hijabs, maybe I can find someone to talk with about the security situation. Here are some things that interest me:

    1. The US has just evacuated Iraq — leaving, essentially, an enormous security hole on top of a country with immense oil wealth. There are really only two contenders to fill that hole: Iran and Turkey. I dare say that before 2012 is over, those two contenders will either have amicably divided the place between themselves, or they will be bitterly fighting over it. There is an obvious Sunni/Shi’a divide in the country, just above Baghdad, which makes a convenient line of separation.

    2. The fate of Syria is a foregone conclusion. If all goes according to plan, Assad will either have the sense to take refuge in a friendly country like Russia or North Korea, or he will become Qaddafi II. The new government will be Islamist, pro-Turkish and unquestionably anti-Israeli

    3. Egypt will be an ineffective mess, and Sinai will be a nest of terrorists. What else is new?

    4. Turkey wants to forge an alliance with Iran. This does not seem to jibe with American policy, and I see a conflict in the works.

    All the above is a given, and I’m not personally that interested in it at the moment. What DOES interest me, is what Obama and his military and State Department advisers have in mind. They have abandoned Iraq. If they don’t want to lose control of the Persian Gulf as well, they will have to somehow stand up to Iran. This puts them into a common cause (of convenience only) with Israel, and opposed to the long-range aspirations of Turkey. Either they are intent on losing the Gulf, or they honestly think they can win with this strategy. I’m sure the Saudis would like to know what they have in mind here; and if they can’t discern a plausible explanation, they will go full-tilt on a nuclear program of their own. This MAY be Obama’s intent: A NATO-GCC axis, with a frontier at the Persian Gulf.

    A NATO-Arab alliance has been a’formin’ since at least around 1990. In Gulf War I, we had the Saudis, Egyptians and Syrians, among others, as allies. Every major NATO operation since then has also included Arabs, right up to the Syrian incursion currently underway. Curiously, Obama has stabbed two of our three major Arab allies in the back: Egypt and Syria; and the Saudis no longer trust him any further than they can throw him. Obama has been bending over backwards to get both the Turks and Israelis on board, at least tentatively; but he plans to dismember Israel and turn it into Herodian-style subservient states; and he’s kidding himself if he thinks he can make a satellite out of the Turks. And if the GCC doesn’t trust him, what does he think he will get out of the deal? Libya? It really seems as though our entire national security structure has been smoking wacky tobaccy.

    I sure would like some input on this, if anyone here is free from other entanglements.

  7. Yamit,

    You’re being lazy again, posting links instead of thinking. Why should I waste half an hour listening to some gal babbling on about Islam, and you waste no more than a minute finding and posting a link. At least the links I gave you are funny, if not poignantly true at the same time.

    I don’t give a damn about Islamic plots to take over America. If they do take over the US, it will be for the same reason that they are taking over Europe: They are having children, and we are aborting ours. Europe is a pushover; but if the Isalamies want the US, they will have to do something about the Mexicans first; and that will take some doing.

    Meanwhile, this article is not about America; it is about a presumed “Sunni vs Shi’a” split. I have already addressed this issue, and it has drawn no comments. The split will be resolved, by the estimate of the Salafist clerics themselves, by 2024 — when a Sunni Madhi, acceptable to the Shiites, is proclaimed the Fifth Imam.

    Concerning “Sunni” Turkey and “Shi’a” Iran, a Turkish embassy is in Iran right now, working out arrangements between them. Turkey wants to skirt the coming oil embargo against Iran, in exchange for Iran not attacking it when they attack the Americans. The US missile defense battery in Turkey, which Israeli leaders are counting on for their own protection, will probably be a sacrificial lamb: The Turks certainly won’t attack it, but neither can they defend it; but if the Iranians want to have a go at it, it’s the Americans and not the Turks who will try to stop them.

    It looks like the Turks and Americans are advancing the calendar is Syria, so Israel cannot have the initiative by striking Iran. Once Assad is dumped by the Iranians and thrown under the bus, there will no longer be any serious outstanding issues between Turkey and Iran: Turkey can have Syria and northern Iraq, and Iran can do what they want in southern Iraq. Iran can continue to supply Hizbullah, this time by a continuous land corridor through (friendly) Turkey and its puppet (anti-Assad) Syria.

    Notice that the serious fighting is happening in southern Syria, backed up by US special forces in Jordan. I think NATOrabia would like to cut off Assad’s ability to attack Israel, before doing him in. If he could direct a convincing war with Israel, that would force Iran to back him and complicate the relationship with Turkey. If Assad has to go down WITHOUT being able to do this, the Syrian front will be in place without any problems for the Islamic side (Sunni/Shiite phooheyite. They are after the Jews).

    The above done, the NATOrabians, led by the US, can “deal with” the Iranian nuclear issue — that is, they can continue their charade until Iran has nukes and Israel is a virtual dhimmi. The rest will be saber-rattling on both sides, unless Israel itself does something about it.

    Lunch is ready. Ciao.