The Battleground Between Sunnis and Shiites
In a late 2011 article, I argued that Syria’s upheaval thrusts Turkey and Iran into a collision course because they have opposing geostrategic interests in an outcome that neither party can afford to ignore. Four months later, it has become increasingly clear that the Syrian uprising transcends Iran’s and Turkey’s strategic interests, as it has become the battleground between the Sunni and Shiite communities throughout the Middle East. The Syrian uprising has drawn 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 eventually emerge in Syria will determine not only the ultimate success or failure of Iran’s aspiration to become the region’s hegemon but 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 with the dispute over the Islamic Caliphate following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 and carrying through to the conflict between the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Persia and the Sunni Ottoman dynasty in Turkey in the 16th and 17th centuries. 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 and the latter’s fierce resistance manifested in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Given this enduring rivalry, the superficial political effort made by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to obscure the conflict between the Sunni and Shiites has now been thrown into the spotlight for all to see.
There is no greater evidence of the intense conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites than the violent clash in Bahrain where Saudi Arabia directly interfered militarily to quell the Shiite uprising to ensure continued Sunni dominance. However small Bahrain is, it represents a microcosm of the Sunni-Shiite conflict that has engulfed the region. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq continues to terrorize the Shiite majority, resulting in a weekly death of dozens of innocent civilians on both sides. 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 openly condemns the Syrian Authority’s bloodletting against its Sunni population.