A development of huge importance is happening in the Middle East, equivalent
perhaps to the Sino-Soviet conflict’s effect on the Cold War: the division of
revolutionary Islamists into separate Sunni and Shi’ite camps.
there have always been tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, notably
bloody fighting in Iraq. Islamists often attempt to portray this as a Western
conspiracy, but most Muslims know it is a historical reality within
Iran’s regime tried, with some success, to bridge this gap,
becoming a patron of Sunni Hamas and majority- Sunni Syria. Similarly the
non-Muslim (it pretends otherwise, but most Muslims know the truth)
Alawite-dominated Syrian regime claims to be Shi’ite, and sold itself for a while
to Sunnis as a cross-confessional champion of resistance against Israel and the
The Sunni-Shi’ite fighting in Iraq did not break this attempt to
forge cross-confessional Islamist alliances.
But now two other events
have done so. The most important is the Syrian revolution. Everyone must take
sides. Iran and Hezbollah (itself a Shi’ite group) sided with the Syrian regime.
Egypt’s increasingly powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood-spawned
Hamas are against the Syrian regime, hoping that their Muslim Brotherhood allies
will take over in Damascus.
Those who don’t understand this situation
think that choosing to oppose the Syrian regime is some proof that the Turkish
stealth Islamist government is moderate.
No such thing. It is simply
taking the Sunni side, also hoping that a congenial Islamist state will emerge
as an even closer ally than President Bashar Assad has been.
event was the Egyptian revolution. Finally the Brotherhood has the hope of
establishing a Sunni Islamist power. Possibilities also exist for a Sunni
Islamist regime in Libya, and at least a stronger Islamist political presence in
Tunisia. Who needs Iran when you have your own Islamist, or at least
moving-toward- Islamism, state?
Make no mistake. Both Islamist blocs hate the
West, and want to expel its influence from the Middle East and expand their own
power by overthrowing additional regimes. Both Islamist blocs hate Israel, and
want to wipe it off the map. Neither group will be moderate in any
But with inevitable competition, there will be less cooperation.
Once again, the dream of unity ends in quarrels. There are now zero caliphates.
In future, there are more likely to be two than just one.
How will this
competition manifest itself?
Egypt: Since there is no Shi’ite option there, Iran
will try to get along with Egypt as a state, whether it is more Islamic and
anti-American or becomes dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. But the
Brotherhood will see Egypt – just as the Arab nationalists once did – as the
rightful leader of the Arabic-speaking world. Better Egypt-Iran relations are
certain; an Egypt-Iran alliance is unlikely.
Competition over being the patron of Hamas. Egypt and the Brotherhood will win
that one. The Palestinian Authority, lacking a reliable Arab ally – since the
Saudis are still angry about Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein’s aggression
back in 1990 – will be weakened in its competition with Hamas. The PA’s
response? Staying intransigent so it can’t be outflanked by the
Syria: If the regime survives, it will align with the
Shi’ites, and if it falls, the question is who takes over – but it will
certainly leave the Iranian bloc. An Islamist Syria would align with Egypt.
While antagonistic toward Hezbollah – Syria’s Lebanon policy would be very
interesting – it would back Hamas completely.
Lebanon: Currently the
Shi’ite Islamist Hezbollah and other clients of Iran and Syria prevail. Sunni
Islamism has been weak in Lebanon. Perhaps the Sunnis would build up Sunni
Islamist groups and perhaps even align with the moderate, non-Islamist Sunni
forces that oppose Hezbollah-Syria hegemony? Iraq: Too many possibilities.
Perhaps, despite appearances, there wouldn’t be much change, but any sign of
Baghdad moving closer to Iran will scare the Sunni side.
The Saudis already play the game this way, viewing Iran as a Shi’ite threat and
protecting the smaller Gulf Arab states (notably Bahrain) against Shi’ite reform
or revolutionary movements. The Saudis already take an anti-Syria stance and
oppose Syria- Hezbollah-Iran (Shi’ite) hegemony in Lebanon. They are also taking
Jordan under their umbrella.
What does this mean for the West and Israel?
Given both Islamist blocs’ hostility, there’s no possibility of working with one
against the other. US policymakers might make that error, however, given their
soft line on the supposedly moderate Brotherhood. That’s a danger.
US policy should do is support all the anti- Islamist forces, but moving vans
will have to pull up to the White House before that happens.
Islamists will be weaker, subverting each other’s attempts to take over or
control various countries and movements. Yet growing sectarianism can also lead
to really nasty communal massacres of Muslims by Muslims, as has already
happened in Iraq. Syria is the place to watch for that
Finally, in competing to show their militancy and
effectiveness in backing terrorism, the rate of attacks by both sides could well
increase. Trying to prove that one is the “proper” Islamist side representing
“authentic” Islam will also likely lead to reckless risk-taking, which a naïve
West – assuming everyone wants to be a moderate and acts “rationally” – will be
ill-equipped to handle.
A new phase in Middle East history is opening,
and the West must evaluate and act on it. Since, of course, Western governments
haven’t even caught up to the last two stages – revolutionary political Islamism
is a huge strategic threat and is best equipped to take advantage of the Arab
Spring – they are unlikely to comprehend this one, either.
The writer is
director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. He is
a featured columnist at PJM (http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/) and editor of
the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.