By David Gardner
June 14, 2013
President Barack Obama’s decision to send unspecified “direct military support” to Syria’s rebels may have as its proximate cause the now firm US conviction that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against them. But it will be seen across the Middle East as a choice by America to throw its weight behind a Sunni alliance against Iran-led Shia forces across the region – a conflict in which Syria is the frontline.
How could it be otherwise when, after two years of dither, the White House moved on the same day as a conclave of Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo declared a jihad against what it called a “declaration of war on Islam” by “the Iranian regime, Hizbollah and its sectarian allies”? Or, as former president Bill Clinton put it, chiding Mr Obama’s hesitation over Syria, “now that the Russians, the Iranians and the Hizbollah are in there head over heels, 90 miles to nothing”.
While his words revive memories of the western contest with the Soviet Union in the Middle East, the cold war was straightforward in comparison to the Sunni-Shia conflict driving events across the region, not just in the Levant but from Turkey to the Gulf.
This primordial struggle within the Muslim world dates back to the great schism inside early Islam at the end of the 7th century. A latent contest between the Shia minority and overwhelming Sunni majority has reignited in the past three decades – and western leaders brought up to distinguish black hats from white tend to see just a blur of turbans.
When the region was bound into a cold war straitjacket, even tumultuous conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 or the mainly Muslim-Christian civil war of Lebanon in 1975-90 could be constrained. The sectarian viciousness of the current Sunni-Shia battle knows no boundaries. It is bursting through the arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French a century ago.
First Lebanon, then Iraq and now Syria have all been convulsed by ethno-sectarian civil war. But what had been a Sunni-Shia subplot in the drama burst on to centre stage after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That catapulted the Shia minority within Islam (a majority in Iraq) to power in an Arab heartland country for the first time since the fall of the heterodox Shia Fatimid dynasty in 1171. It thereby tilted the regional balance of power in favour of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Shi’ite, Persian, with ambitions as a regional hegemon to rival Israel – and fanned the embers of the Sunni-Shia stand-off into millenarian flame.
Iraq became a sectarian bloodbath, grinding minorities such as its ancient Christian communities between the wounded identities of the Sunni and Shia. Syria, similar in its ethno-sectarian make-up, is heading the same way. But sectarianism is the consequence not the cause of this conflict, which started as an Arab spring-inspired civic uprising against the Assad clan, which has built a lucrative tyranny around its Alawite minority sect, another esoteric offshoot of Shi’ism.
Now, the decision of Iran and Hizbollah, its Lebanese paramilitary proxy, as well as the Shia Islamist government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, to help the Assads crush Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels has polarised the region and set the scene for a car-bombing contest from Beirut to Baghdad.
In 2006, when Hizbollah was able to appear as the champion of Arabs and Muslims, Sunni and Shia, after holding its ground against Israel in a five-week war, a Syrian Sunni town near the Lebanese border called Qusair took in hundreds of Shia refugees. Last week, Hizbollah fighters stood in the rubble of Qusair, which they boasted of liberating from Sunni jihadi fanatics.
Sunni hierarchs hitherto at odds closed ranks: Abdelaziz al-Sheikh, the Wahhabi mufti of Saudi Arabia; Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the grand sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar university; and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, all chanted from the same prayer sheet to denounce Hizbollah and Iran. On Syria’s eastern border, rebels killed dozens of Shia they dismissed as “apostate rejectionists”, as the old Wahhabi poison about Shi’ite “idolaters” oozed north from the Arabian peninsula. It is contagious.
An under examined aspect of Turkey’s present crisis, for example, is the deteriorated relations between the increasingly Sunni ruling party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the minority Alevis, a heterodox and varied Shia sect of up to a fifth of the population. Mr Erdogan’s initiative to make peace with Turkey’s Kurds has as its subtext drawing Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurds into a Sunni Turkosphere. With the Shia Alevis, by contrast, dog-whistle politics are the order of the day. His government wants to name a third bridge over Istanbul’s Bosphorus after Selim the Grim, Ottoman Sultan and the first Caliph, who massacred the Alevis during his war against Safavid (and Shia) Persia in the early 16th century.
This, then is the arena Mr Obama, and his post-imperial British and French allies, are entering. Their timing – just after the Hizbollah siege of Qusair – looks deeply suspect in a suffocatingly sectarian environment.
Giving rebels the chance to tilt the battlefield against Bashar al-Assad’s savage regime and draw support away from Sunni Jihadis on the rebel side is still worth a try. Standing back, and subcontracting arming the rebels to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Qatar has contributed to polarised extremism. Despite support from Russia and Iran, the Assads cannot win, as their dependence on Hizbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shows. There is a certain school of realism that believes it is better to let the Shia Islamists of Hizbollah and al-Qaeda sympathisers such as the rebel al-Nusra front fight it out, like scorpions in a bottle. But Syria is not some sort of Jihadi fight club that can be contained.
Afghanistan, in the mountains of central Asia, incubated al-Qaeda and 9/11. Leaving Syria to its present devices will create an Afghanistan in the eastern Mediterranean.