The Region: No one should misunderstand the situation. This is fundamentally a struggle for political power and wealth.
Of course, there is nothing new about the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but it is indeed new as a feature on the regional level in modern times. After all, as long as there were secular-style regimes preaching an all-inclusive Arab nationalist identities, 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 with strategies, tactics and goals.
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-Iraq war 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 US-led international force opened up the question of communal relations in Iraq. Iraqi Shias are a three-to-one majority over their Sunni neighbors, so they will automatically win any election, especially with Iraqi Kurds opting out for what is, de facto if not de jure, their own state in the north. Despite the anti-American and al-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, now the main Sunni emphasis will be on negotiating the best possible division of power.
In Lebanon, too, the Shia triumphed, led by Hezbollah 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 against Sunni Arab governments. The situation in Syria is far more complex with an Alawite non-Muslim regime that pretends to be Shia Muslim and is allied with Iran, opposed by a variety of groups. 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 need Iran 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 Yusuf al-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 an orphan. While the PA can depend on general Arab, Iranian and Turkish support, it has no regional patron, and Hamas is currently the group enjoying the Sunni Islamists’ warm support. 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 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 they will each seek to exploit it for their own interests.
By the same token, however, the hope for moderation is minimal. In a region where 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 if they feel believe 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 still rule even if the old regimes have fallen.
[The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a featured columnist at Pajamas Media. His new book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January.]