The battleground between Sunnis and Shiites

Iran, Saudi Arabia and neighbors have tremendous interest in fate of Assad regime.

bahrain protesters_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
bahrain protesters_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a late 2011 article, I argued that Syria’s upheaval thrusts Turkey and Iran into a collision course because of their opposing geostrategic interests in Syria. Four months later, it has become increasingly clear that the Syrian uprising transcends Iran’s and Turkey’s strategic interests. It has become the epicenter of conflict between Sunni and Shiite communities throughout the Middle East.
The rift in Syria divides along a clear sectarian line: the Sunni axis led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the Shiite axis led by Iran. The new political order that will emerge in Syria will determine not only the success or failure of Iran’s aspiration to become the region’s hegemon but also whether or not the Sunni Arab world will maintain its dominance. Hence, the conflict will be long, costly and bloody, reflecting the troubled history between the two sides that has extended over a millennium.
History may not repeat itself, but it remains instructive. The Sunni-Shiite schism goes back more than a thousand years, starting in 632 with the death of Prophet Muhammad and subsequent dispute over the Islamic Caliphate and carrying through to the conflict in the 16th and 17th centuries between the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Persia and the Sunni Ottoman dynasty in Turkey.  This conflict has, in fact, shaped the geography of Shiite Islam to this day: Persia and its periphery are Shiite, and Sunnis are located to its East and West. There were periods of conflict and periods of peace, such as the epoch that existed between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the secular Pahlavi dynasty in Iran in the 1920s. This period was broken by Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, whose vigorous attempt to export the revolution to its Sunni Arab neighbors met with fierce resistance and ultimately led to the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
There is no greater evidence of the intense sectarian conflict than in Bahrain, where the Saudi military helped squash a Shiite uprising to ensure Sunnis remained in power.. In Iraq, the Sunni insurgency continues to terrorize the Shiite majority, and dozens of innocent civilians on both sides die each week. The Shiite’s Hezbollah group in Lebanon continues to support the Syrian government’s violent crackdown on its citizens, killing by most estimates more than 10,000. Sunni Hamas, which has enjoyed financial and military support from Iran while simultaneously receiving political and logistical support from the Syrian Alawite regime (an offshoot of Shiite Islam), has left its headquarters in Damascus and now condemns the Syrian Authority’s bloodletting against its Sunni population.
Diplomatic tension rose last week between Ankara and Tehran over statements from Iranian officials about moving the nuclear talks to a more “neutral territory” such as Syria, Iraq or China, resulting in an angered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who bluntly criticized the Iranians’ “lack of honesty.” A dichotomy on Syria exists between Iran and Turkey: whereas the former supports the Assad regime with everything he needs, the latter hosts the main opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC). This is indicative of their interests in dominating a country that provides both an opportunity to assert themselves as the region’s hegemon. Above all else, however, the Sunni Islamic movement, in the same vein as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), adamantly opposes a Shiite dominance in its neighborhood.
At greater stake in Syria is the national interest of Saudi Arabia as the conservative leader of the Arab Sunni world. A consolidation of Iran’s grip over Syria would transcend the Shiite influence over the entire crescent of landmass between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. Though Saudi Arabia did not pay much heed to the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s ultimate fate (who once threatened to invade the kingdom), handing Iraq to Shiite Iran on a golden platter in the wake of the Iraq war of 2003 remains deeply troubling to Riyadh. The fact that Iraq is ruled by a Shiite regime closely allied with Tehran explains why Saudi Arabia provides refuge to Iraq’s top Sunni political figure, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, whose political conflict with the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resulted in him being sought by Iraqi authorities on terrorism charges. It is critical for Saudi Arabia to pull Syria out of Iran’s belly, which explains why the Saudi government is supportive of arming the rebels in Syria in the hope of toppling the Assad regime.
Moreover, there is no love lost between Iran and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood – a regional Islamic Sunni movement whose local parties will certainly form the new regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Although all three countries are undergoing a difficult transitional process, they would cheer the collapse of the Assad regime and would do whatever they could to support the emergence of a Sunni government in Syria. The new transitional governments in Libya and Tunisia recognize the SNC as the legitimate authority of Syria. Similarly, the turmoil in Egypt did not prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from clearly indicating that they do not see eye to eye with Iran. In fact, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee in the Egyptian parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party member Dr. Essam al-Arian, stated ominously that the Arab Spring would also reach Iran.
As Iranian leadership started to feel the bite of international sanctions, they agreed to re-engage in negotiations with the UN Security Council and Germany over their nuclear program. Equally motivating to Tehran, however, is the situation in Syria. The deteriorating conditions of Syria and Iran’s nuclear issue have become intertwined because the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons is driven not merely by national security considerations but essentially by Tehran’s desire to secure nuclear weapons to bolster its regional hegemony. Assad’s Syria is crucial to this strategy, and its fall would further increase Iran's isolation in a mostly-Sunni neighborhood and cut the direct links between Tehran and its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon. Also, if Assad’s Syria unravels, Iran’s influence on Iraqi politics would certainly diminish. Indeed, it is more than likely that Iraqi nationalism would eventually trump the internal Sunni-Shiite divide as Iraq historically takes pride in its unique place as the cradle of Arab civilization.
It follows that Iran may well be willing to demonstrate flexibility in the nuclear talks by using its Russian patrons to convince the West to curb the pressure on the Assad regime, and buying time to prevent an attack on their nuclear facilities by Israel and/or the US. From the Iranian perspective they can always resume the nuclear program once the Assad regime is re-stabilized. One can only hope that the West would not fall for the manipulative mastery of the Iranians. Note that the sacrifice of a pause in the nuclear program in return for higher political purpose was tried successfully by Tehran in 2003.
In the wake of the imminent collapse of UN peace envoy Kofi Anan’s plan to end the conflict in Syria, the leading Sunni countries Turkey and Saudi Arabia now have the opportunity and the obligation to bring an end to the Assad regime, end the massacre and pave the way for the emergence of a Sunni government in Damascus. To achieve that, both nations (deriving their legitimacy from the Arab League) must provide military assistance to the rebels. Turkey should carve a significant landmass along its border and with its NATO allies, enforce a no-fly zone to protect the Syrian refugees and the Free Syrian Army. Moreover, both nations should make every effort to enlist the international community to bestow legitimacy on the SNC to provide the foundation for a transitional government.  Such an effort will save Syria as well as the national interest of the Sunni states in the region while depriving Iran of its aspiration to become a regional hegemon equipped with nuclear weapons.
Anything short of that would mean handing Iran a complete victory and surrendering the Middle East to an inevitable, but wider, violent conflict between the two axes of Sunnis and Shiites.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.