With the many overlapping conflicts by which the Middle-East is now agitated, it is difficult to find a central leitmotiv to it all. Yet also as events progress, the reality of objective alliances is more visible every day. The Saudi kingdom is less and less bashful about allying with Israel; Hezbollah’s ostentatious and effective role in Lebanon and in Syria brings into plainer light its role as a major decider on the ground, and through that the extent of Iran’s influence beyond its borders; the United States has abandoned any pretence of being anything other than an Israeli safeguard and the government of Syria will not likely soon forget it owes its survival to the enemies of that duo.
At first glance, it would be easy to explain this as a war of religion between the Sunni and the Shia. Though I would say this is not the base cause of today’s events, this perspective must not be discarded outright.
There is indeed a correlation between the presence of a Shia majority or government and the country’s affiliation to the Iranian side. We might also mention the way in which the repression of IS in Iraq was divided up on a sectarian basis. However, from there to establishing religion as the main cause of conflict ignores too many elements.
Firstly, this view does not explain why, for instance, Turkey (mostly Sunni) is currently siding with Iran, and even less why it is doing so after having pursued the opposite policy until recently. Similarly, why does Iran support the resistance of the Palestinian people, among which there is hardly a Shia at all, or conversely why, if religion is so important to them, Saudi Arabia would rather fight other Muslims and befriend a country like Israel which is not just non-Islamic but an occupant to an Islamic people and holy city – Jerusalem?
In fact, the difference between Shiism and Sunnism is not as much theological as it is about a historical dispute over the name of the rightful Calif in the 8th century. Passionate as one can get over matters of God and truth, one wouldn’t expect this archaic and ultimately esoteric dispute to lead to actual warfare today; indeed even in countries where those two communities exist, like Iraq or Lebanon, there have been much fewer examples than people think of purely religious violence between these groups: the civil wars of Lebanon were mainly fought between Christians and Muslims, the government in Damascus in the hands of a Shia president is nonetheless supported by its mostly Sunni population and conversely the Shia peoples of Iraq and Iran have not escaped fighting among each other during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 and though it’s true Saddam Hussein himself was Sunni, remember he also reserved his most terrible violence for other Sunnis in Kurdistan.
So, what is genuinely behind this apparent revival of medieval quarrels?
The situation of Iraqi resistance against IS and the way in which it was divided by sect provides some clue. Iraq, like Syria, has been for the past few years the battleground of wider regional interests embodied by major powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia in a fight of which the main goal is not so much to conquer your enemy but to isolate him by making more allies than him. Anyone can see that it is easier to form an alliance with someone who has similar values and traditions; it follows that when Iran seeks power over a region, it would prefer to do it through Shia groups or people, whereas Saudi Arabia would find Sunnis more convenient to deal with. Hence, these countries support stooges and satellite groups in divided countries throughout the region accordingly; this in turn creates the feeling among those groups that they are rival, since they are sponsored by rival powers; this renewal of sectarian conflict means each group is more and more in danger from the other and seeks closer protection from its foreign sponsor, and so the cycle continues.
This is very like the reality of the Cold War. On the face of it, it was a conflict of philosophies between communism and free markets; however, beneath the surface it had much more to do with geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the United States. Because communist groups across the world would look to Russia as a model, they were the ideal people with which for Russia to exert influence in the world (and the same with America and liberal parties); so naturally each side wanted to repress those who shared the ideology of the other. But when a communist country like China or Yugoslavia was as decidedly communist as it was independent from Moscow, the United States did not see them as a real enemy at all. Conversely, when a government like Nasser’s was in confrontation with the West, it did not matter that communism was not part of Nasser’s philosophy for Russia to put its support behind him.
Ultimately, Russia’s ambition to resist any hegemony too powerful meant they positioned themselves as effectively as they could against the expansion of whichever power was the hegemon, in this case the United States. This is also why, by the way, the current relation between the two countries is strikingly similar than in those days; although the regime has changed, really, nothing has changed.
Going back the Orient, a war of domination on the same model would in any case take on a religious aspect. For one thing, the demographic opportunities are too big for the Shia to pass up: when looking at a map of the Middle-East, you can see there are only two Shia countries, Iran and Iraq. This leads most people to see the Shia as a small minority. Actually, taking into account that Iran and Iraq combined are much more populous than Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria put together, the Shia population over the Middle-East (excluding Egypt and Turkey, which are less involved) is a clear majority.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, could hardly rally anyone who wasn’t a fanatical Muslim himself to the cause of its obscure, very violent and frankly soulless way of Islam.
But like in any pursuit of power, the pivotal element of the strategy will always be whoever is currently in power. Yet, which is the highest power over the region, one that is to the Orient what the United States was to the Eastern bloc? In point of fact, in every way that power can be measured, it is clearly the Israeli-American duo.
Israel is really only mentioned when it is nominally involved in current events, and is usually left out of the analysis of issues of the Levant surrounding it.
This is a mistake. In fact, though the “Sunni-Shia divide” should not be understated, the most systematic criteria by which a group or state in the region is either on one “side” or the other is simply: are they pro-Israel, or are they not? There you have clearly Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Turkey and of course Palestinians on the one hand, and Israel, America, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the other. This critical point is superimposed on a more global divide of being either with or against American expansion, hence Russia being on the “anti-Zionist” side with Iran and Bashar Al-Assad, despite having no particular stake, sensitivity or purchase over the Palestinian issue itself.
This is where the developments of recent months become more significant. The outcome of the civil war in Syria, though not certain yet, is foreseeably such as to keep Syria firmly on the “anti-Israel” side, especially now its government knows exactly who saved it from the 2011 insurrection and the role Israel, and the West as a whole, had in supporting it. Not least among those fighting on the government’s side is Hezbollah, one of a few forces that demonstrated their ability to rival the Israeli Defence Force.
Furthermore, the fact that the United States is making its own position of total support for Israel more explicit by his policies towards Israel itself and towards Iran, and the ineffectiveness of the protest by which these are always followed, could ultimately push Palestinians and those who support them to conclude that warfare is the only recourse. This would then give centre stage to revisionist forces in the Middle-East, i.e. those who try to balance against Israeli and American supremacy, on the “anti-Zionist” side.
This is the fault line of the Orient’s cold war. Sectarian divisions are indeed a factor but I think they should be understood as conducers of a conflict whose more basic roots are in the desire of certain countries to resist subordination by the US and Israel – or to replace them, or the decision by others to protect themselves by seeking refuge under the hegemons’ wings.
Bow Group International Affairs Research Fellow