Islam’s great divide: Is Assad winning by default?

Across the Middle East, tensions between Sunni and Shia are being increasingly inflamed in what has been dubbed a “new regional Cold War”.

assad making a small sign 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
assad making a small sign 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ask your man-in-the-street in the West – and that might just as well include Israel – what he knows about Islam, and you are likely to get a blank stare. Many people are aware that the religion has two main branches – Sunni and Shi’ite − but as for the differences between them, or where each is mainly practiced, most people haven’t a clue.
Classic explanations of Islam’s great divide usually include a statement like: “The so-called division of Muslims between Shia and Sunni is akin to the differences between Catholics and Protestants” – the implication being that a state of tolerant acceptance has been reached between two major branches of the religion. However true that may once have been, it demands significant qualification in the current circumstances. The Sunni-Shi’ite division is now far from “so-called,” and the present situation within Islam can best be compared to the intensive and bloody intra-Christian religious conflicts that ravaged Europe on and off for three centuries. In Islam now, as in Christendom then, doctrinal differences have been transmuted into political altercation, which in turn have inevitably become a no-holds tussle for power and domination.
Across the Middle East, tensions between Sunni and Shia are being increasingly inflamed in what has been dubbed a “new regional Cold War,” to use the evocative phrase of Toby Dodge, a reader in international relations at the London School of Economics. In this overarching struggle, as columnist David Blair has pointed out, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the key antagonists: the former, staunch upholders of the Shi’ite tradition of Islam; the latter guarding the Sunni Arab heartland and its holiest places. Both use the language of sectarian loyalty to rally supporters and demonize foes.
The great fault line that runs through Islam is the key to what is happening in Syria, where the Sunni-Shi’ite partition has been polarized, and the so-called “Cold War" has heated up.
The régime of Syrian president Bashar Assad represents the Alawite tradition of Shi’ite Islam. Assad's fall would cost Iran an invaluable foothold in the heart of the Arab world. Hezbollah, the Shia-Islamist terrorist organization lodged in the body politic of Lebanon, would lose its main protector, and also the route through which it receives vital Iranian weapon supplies. Thus, on Tehran’s instructions, Hezbollah has been flinging more and more troops into the battle. Some 150,000 Hezbollah fighters – created, funded and armed by Iran – are now estimated to be in the thick of the Syrian civil war. Assad’s recent successes are due in no small measure to their presence. They may even have helped him turn the tide.
On the Sunni side of the battlefield are the forces of the official opposition who draw support from the 70 percent of Syrians who are Sunni. They are being armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Jordan providing vital supply lines. But joining in the battle are also a vast number of Sunni jihadists, Islamists and extremists, including al-Qaida, all of them seeking long-term advantage out of the current chaos, none concerned one jot about the cause of those seeking to rid themselves of the despotic Assad régime.
This explains why the West, although anxious to see Assad’s downfall, and with it Iran’s excessive influence in the region, hesitates to offer more than token support for the rebels. Weapons supplied indiscriminately to the anti-Assad forces, they fear, would almost certainly find their way into the hands of al-Qaida and its associates, with unforeseeable consequences both in the Middle East, and further afield. Therefore while the US, the EU and the UN hesitate – “willing to wound,” as 18th century poet Alexander Pope so aptly put it, “but afraid to strike” – Assad has been strengthened, perhaps to the point where he could survive, and thus enhance Iran’s dominance in the region and Hezbollah’s stranglehold on Lebanon’s body politic.
The great divide in Islam goes back to the very origins of the religion. When the prophet Muhammad died in 632, he left an Islamic state on the Arabian Peninsula of about one hundred thousand followers. He also bequeathed a dispute over who should succeed him and lead the fledgling religion and nation. His followers could not agree on whether to choose bloodline successors or leaders most likely to follow the tenets of the faith.
The group now known as Sunnis went for the latter option, and chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph. Shi’ites, on the other hand, favored Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and he and his successors are called Imams. The two branches of the religion have developed along their chosen paths ever since.
The imbalance in the numbers of followers of the two segments is another aspect of Islam that is little known. Something approaching 90% of the world's one billion Muslims are Sunni; only some 10%–20% are Shia. Although a minority in many Muslim countries, they constitute a majority only in the states known as the “Shia Crescent” – Iran and Lebanon, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, where a Shia-majority population lives resentfully under a Sunni monarchy sustained by Saudi Arabian troops.
Syria’s revolution is a Sunni-led rebellion against the Shia-associated government, but it has become a magnet for global jihadists pursuing their own intra-Islam conflict: Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas on Assad’s side; al-Qaida, militants from Iraq and Turkey, and Sunni extremists from as far afield as Europe for the opposition. Fundamentalism in one branch of Islam has inevitably fostered fundamentalism in the other, as sects in each camp seek to outdo one another in their religious zeal. The Syrian conflict has become a paradigm of the division between the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam.
It is surely not beyond the wit of man to evolve a way to strengthen the genuine anti-Assad opposition forces, while ensuring that any weaponry supplied is kept beyond the reach of terrorist elements on the rebel side. The Syrian Opposition Coalition, and the Supreme Joint Military Command (SMC) are two interconnected but independent bodies that are designed to impose a top-down national strategy and governing structure for the political and military arms of the Syrian opposition. Instead, the two bodies have displayed a limited ability to manage or control the myriad of opposition groups and civilian councils in Syria. They need to get a grip on the situation. Improved structure within the opposition forces and the imposition of a strict code of discipline would be a good start.
All the same, continued procrastination by the West will simply mean that one day Assad could well emerge, bloodied but unbowed, from the conflict; Syria would have become an Iranian satellite, and Hezbollah -- whose military wing has just been declared a terrorist organization by the EU -- would be immensely strengthened within Lebanon and beyond.
Is that, in Shakespeare’s immortal words, “a consummation devoutly to be wished”?
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (