The last decade has been marked by the rise of the Shiites in the Middle East. Through the bullet and the ballot box, Shiite parties have risen to power from Baghdad to Beirut -- thereby extending Iran's reach into the heart of the Arab world. Sunni rulers have viewed with much anxiety the new "Shiite crescent" that extends from Iran all the way to Lebanon.
But as a popular -- and now military -- uprising in Syria becomes more powerful, the Shiite ascendancy is coming to an end. With every day that passes, President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power seems to weaken: The United Nations assessed on Nov. 1 that Syria had entered a state of civil war and the country's economy is projected to contract by a disastrous 12 percent to 20 percent this year. And now, the regional Sunni powers are hoping to exploit the turmoil to launch a counteroffensive that could reverse their losses.
Shiite empowerment in the Middle East began with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which had the perfectly predictable effect of strengthening Iran -- not only its ruling theocracy as such, but also its hegemony over "Twelver" Shiites across the Arab world. In Iraq, most importantly, the Shiites have long outnumbered the Sunnis, but were marginalized and persecuted by the Ottoman Empire and then by all subsequent Arab regimes, down to the initially secular Saddam Hussein, who became a Sunni paladin after launching his war against Iran in 1980. Today by contrast, the U.S.-imposed democratic system virtually guarantees a Shiite-dominated government, with a natural affinity for the fellow Shiites of Iran.
In Lebanon, likewise, the Shiites have long been more numerous than the Christians or the Sunnis, but they were altogether weaker politically -- indeed, for most of Lebanon's history, they were more ignored than opposed. Today, by contrast, it is the emphatically Shiite movement Hezbollah -- which modestly calls itself the "Party of God" -- that is by far the most powerful party in the current Lebanese government, and its armed militia is stronger than the national army.
Then there is the very special case of Syria, where the Sunni majority is subjected by a nominally secular regime run by extremely heretical Muslims, chiefly backed by non-Muslim minorities both Christian and Druze.
The ruling Assad family's control of Syria has been a strategic boon to Iran due to its readiness to act as if they were fellow Shiites -- thereby connecting Iran, Iraq, and southern Lebanon into a contiguous "Shiite crescent," in the words of an alarmed Jordanian King Abdullah II. That is richly ironic, because President Bashar al-Assad and his inner core of followers who dominate the security forces are Nusayris, only re-branded in the 1920s as Alawites ("followers of Ali") to better claim a Muslim identity as Shiites ("partisans" of Ali), but whose very un-Islamic doctrines would expose them to murderous repression in Iran -- just ask a member of the post-Islamic Bahai community.
For ultra-Sunni Saudi Arabia, as well as its smaller neighbors -- Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates -- the Shiite advance has been most unwelcome. Religious differences have greatly widened in recent years: Shiite devotions, particularly in Iran, have increasingly focused on the hidden Twelfth Imam, whose actively implored world-ending return leaves Muhammad himself by the wayside. Equally, Shiite pilgrimages to the Hassan and Hussein shrines in Iraq -- idolatrous for rigorous Sunnis -- inherently compete with the Mecca pilgrimage.