For the greater part of the 20th century the Middle East was dominated by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
However, by the end of the century this conflict was eclipsed by other sets of emerging conflicts which intersected with each other, thus complicating things even further. These conflicts are the religio-political Sunni-Shi’ite conflict; the ethno-national conflict, namely the Kurds against the nation states, and the Arab-Arab conflict, which started with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. All these conflicts have weakened the nation-state and changed dramatically the map of alliances in the Middle East. They have also had far-reaching consequences on Israel.
THE BLOODY SUNNI-SHI’ITE CONFLICT
The Sunni-Shi’ite strife is as old as Islam itself, starting from the seventh century. In the latest wave, which was termed by analysts The Thirty-Year Sunni-Shi’ite War, there were three important turning points: The establishment of the Islamic republic in Iran in 1979, the 2003 war in Iraq and the uprising in Syria in 2011.
The Islamic republic and the ensuing Iraqi-Iranian war (1980-1988) empowered the disenfranchised Shi’ites in the Arab world and at the same time downgraded the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The 2003 war catapulted the Shi’ites to power in Iraq, the first time in hundreds of years they managed to gain power in Arab lands. In fact, this was the second Shi’ite victory after the 16th century when Shi’ism was adopted as the official religion of the state in Iran.
For the Sunni world this has been an ongoing trauma.
The uprising in Syria and the existential threat to the Alawite regime, which is a far “relative” of Shi’ism, helped cement a Shi’ite bloc made of Iran, Iraq, the regime in Syria, and Hizbullah. This development challenged the Sunni radicals in the entire region while it also pitted Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shi’ite Iran, both of which initiated a proxy war in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Clearly all this increased the Sunni world’s sense of vulnerability. Thus, shortly after the Shi’ites assumed power in Iraq, Abdullah king of Jordan, and Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt, warned of the rising Shi’ite arc. Other officials, Sunni religious men and the media followed suit. The paradox in this Sunni threat perception is that although the Sunnis by far outnumber the Shi’ites, representing 85 percent of Muslims in the world, as against 15% Shi’ites, still Sunnis appear the threatened, vulnerable and victimized party.
For example there is an Internet site named “The site for the defense of the Sunna.” Indeed a quick look at the Sunni- Shi’ite polemics taking place on Internet sites show that the strife between these two Islamic sects is as vivid as it has been in its very inception.
It also shows a lot of absurdities.
For example the Sunnis keep referring to the Shi’ites as Jews. In fact, for extremist Sunnis the Shi’ites are worse and more dangerous than the Jews because, as it is claimed, Jews are a known enemy while the Shi’ites are enemies from within who infiltrate the Sunni ranks in an attempt to converge them to Shi’ism. The more extremist Sunnis go as far as to label Shi’ites heretics and to call for a jihad, a holy war, against them.
In this regard it must be stressed that throughout history the two camps have attempted to delegitimize the other.
One illustration of a religious delegitimization is, for example, that in Iran Sunnis are often forbidden to perform their rituals.
INTRA-STATE AND INTER-STATE CONFLICTS
In mapping the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict we should differentiate between the Sunni-Shi’ite intra-state and inter-state conflicts. The first is focused in the Fertile Crescent even though it has repercussions in the entire Muslim world and beyond. The bloodiest conflict is in Iraq where the Arab Sunnis who lost their hundreds of years of hegemony are doing their utmost to prevent the Shi’ites from consolidating power. The fact that Sunni extremist organizations such as al-Qaida are based there has turned the past decade into one of the deadliest in Sunni-Shi’ite annals, costing the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides.
The Shi’ites in Bahrain, who represent a majority, have been in a state of turmoil even before the so-called Arab spring. The Shi’ites in Lebanon, who represent the biggest community in that country, are trying to translate this demographic fact into a political asset.
In Syria the Alawites are conducting a life and death war. All in all, today two Sunni communities, in Syria and Iraq, are struggling to regain power, and another one, in Bahrain, is attempting to hold power.
On the interstate level the Sunni- Shi’ite strife caused deep changes in the geo-strategic map: Saudi Arabia and some other Sunni countries did not grant legitimacy to the Shi’ite government in Iraq and are in fact supporting radical Sunni groups against it. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aligned against Syria, conducting a proxy war against the Assad regime with the help of Sunni opposition as well as terrorist organizations. Turkey which until the 2003 war was Iraq’s main ally turned against it by supporting different Sunni personalities and opposition groups.
For their part Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah have formed an alliance which could not be imagined only a decade earlier. Thus, Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East have become divided more along religious denomination than national lines. One illustration of the dramatic change is that while in the past Iraq looked at Arab Sunni countries as its strategic depth now it looks at Shi’ite Iran. The same goes for Syria.
The juxtaposition of the religious conflict with the ethnic-state conflicts brought about strange alliances too: Turkey and the Kurds of Iraq, who are Sunni, are now allied against the Shi’ite government in Baghdad. Similarly, the Gulf countries are cooperating with Erbil (the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region) against Baghdad.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ISRAEL
The emergence of multi-foci intra-Islamic conflicts served to dwarf the Arab-Israeli conflict. Numbers speak for themselves and one recent example may illustrate this truism. In the latest civil war in Syria estimates put the number of casualties in only three years at 140,000. This number is 15 times higher than the number of Syrian casualties in all its wars against Israel in the past 66 years. No wonder then that Israel ceased to serve as the all-time scarecrow for frightening Arab states and people.
Indeed one can notice now a convergence of interests between Israel and some Arab Sunni states against the background of common threat perceptions.
For Israel the Shi’ite arc turned into the main threat, including as it does Iran, Shi’ite Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Concurrently the threat perception of some Sunni countries of Shi’ism helped deflect attention from Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, turned Israel into the lesser of two evils and enabled tacit relations between some Sunni states and Israel. In fact, the Shi’ite threat helped in forming a “virtual alliance” between Israel and the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
At the same time there is cold peace or quiet alliances between Israel and Egypt and Jordan. Finally, the rise of the Kurdish factor which helped in downgrading the centrality of the Palestinian problem on the one hand, and a possible successful Israeli-Palestinian peace process on the other, may legitimize Israel and open new vistas for it in a swiftly changing Middle East.
The writer, a professor, is Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. She is editor (with Meir Litvak) of “The Sunna and Shi’a in History: Division and Ecumenism in the Muslim Middle East”.