Sectarianism seems to be spreading across the Middle East. Hussain Alghirani looks at the current situation, and asks, what’s next?
Sunni-Shia divisions have always been present in the Middle East, they have been systematically downplayed and exaggerated to suit external and internal political agendas and trends, but now they are geared towards a much more confrontational stage. What is interesting, is that it is the Shia minority that are on the aggressive forefront. The neighbouring Sunni countries are lost in fruitless diplomatic efforts, anticipating Western intervention, as the West rehearse their humanitarian rhetoric; hesitatingly wondering what kind of country this prolonged savage revolution will give birth to.
Despite America’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group, most Sunni Arabs considered it a champion for the Arab cause against Israel. Arguably, it was the only solid political uniting factor that the Shia and Sunni populations could agree with. However, with its involvement in the Syrian revolution, and Nasrallah’s pledge to the Assad government, Hezbollah has thrown away much of its legitimacy in the Arab world; siding with the Syrian Government against a majority Sunni revolution. This confirmed in the minds of many in the Arab world its true regional loyalties and agendas.
The Alawite ruling minority of Syria are very different to the Twelver Shias of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. However, their relationship was not born as a result of a united ‘we’ identity from a shared similar ideology, but more as a united ‘us’ against the ‘them’. It is effectively an alliance born from a fear of Sunni political hegemony in the region. The result of this alliance, although political at first, has become desperately ideological. It can be seen to have started as a preventive measure, which has not and will not bode well for any religious tolerance in the future.
What Hezbollah, alongside the Iranian and Iraqi (to an extent) governments in the Middle East have done, is effectively made the anti-Shia sentiment, which ideologically was present in scholarly debates and a small minority of Sunni hardliners, much more pronounced in the Arab world, and more so than anywhere else in Syria. What is worrying about this is that the region, described as a potential time bomb, has entered a struggle with little chance of any peaceful outcome; the time bomb has been activated. A free Syria will have problems with the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, which backed the Baathist regime of the Assads. What is becoming clear, is that the longer it takes for the Assad government to go, the more hostile a post-revolution Syria will be to its neighbours, and it is perhaps for that reason that neighbouring Shia countries have now completely backed, secretly or publicly, the Assad government, fearing this potential retribution.
Iran’s anti-American and anti-Western stance temporarily dissolved with the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Despite the anti-Western image projected, Iran is more fearful of its Sunni neighbours than the West. This leads many Sunnis to suspect that Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric is partly done to mobilise the support of Muslims from both sects. This is more directed towards the Sunnis who are more concerned with the Palestine/Israel conflict, and Israel’s Western support, thus raising doubts on Iran’s desire in ‘wiping out’ or militarily opposing Israel.
The Iran, Syria and Iraq state alliance (Hezbollah is not a state and in all matters generally subservient to Iran’s demands and whims) is an alliance bred against a fear of political Sunni hegemony. Iraq, the only ‘democratic’ government in the alliance, is led by the Shia dominated government of Prime Minister Maliki, which is subject to the regional pressures around it. However, it is undoubted that Iran has the largest influence in Iraq. Already the fragile Iraqi society, whose Sunni Arab minority are protesting against their government, over poor representation and discrimination, is holding its breath before what seems like the inevitable descent into civil war. The monthly death toll is ever rising, of both Sunni and Shia victims, to its highest since 2007. Iraq’s political landscape is mired in its own sectarian struggle of old, with both sides blaming the other of caving to regional influences and the agendas of neighbouring countries, which is likely to be true, but it is the Shia state of Iran that has the most influence over Maliki’s government. As he has accused regional powers of influencing the Sunni protests in the Anbar region, as part of their constant attempts to destabilise an Iraq yearning for peace, never mentioning any names (Saudi Arabia and Turkey), Maliki has assiduously not directed any complaint or hint towards Iraq’s eastern border (Iran). The official stance of the Iraqi government in the Syrian conflict has been neutral, however, it has been accused of being complicit in allowing Iranian planes to travel through its airspace to Syria unchecked. The great sectarian irony of the Iraqi stance of Maliki’s government is in the parallels, between its own past under a Baathist dictator, who quelled similar uprisings. On paper Iraq can relate the most to what the Syrian revolution is going through, but it is the Sunni majority of Syria that has led to the ‘neutrality’ of the Maliki’s government’s stance.
This triumvirate of states – Iran, Iraq and Syria – have at this juncture deemed it prudent to publicly declare war on anyone threatening any member of this alliance of anti-Sunni regional hegemony. Iranian revolutionary guards and trained Hezbollah fighters are reported in their thousands in Syria (as well as recent reports of thousands of Iraqis). They are fighting a mostly untrained poorly equipped civilian resistance. Many of these civilians may be bearded, shouting ‘God is Great’, and observed with a disconcerting fear by the media, as they lack the effective PR grooming required to appease us in their struggle for freedom, are still, despite the rising death toll of over 70,000, resisting. The demonising of the Sunni Muslim as the ultimate ‘terrorist’ has allowed the Syrian government and its allies to paralyse all foreign initiatives for intervention, all guilty of a gross generalisation of the Syrian rebels as potential radicals.
What is left then? As this conflict in Syria worsens, will the Sunni majority Arab world offer a unilateral response? Discontent and anger is ever growing amongst the Sunni populace of the Arab world, reflected poorly in the demure and cautious diplomatic criticism offered by the Arab League. Could the bubbling sectarian cauldron that is Iraq spill over Syria and the entire region? Have Hezbollah, under Iran’s directive, completely thrown away any future of religious tolerance? And will Syria and rest of the Sunni majority region tolerate this alliance, now it has been militarily consummated?
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