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.
Least important doctrinally, but perhaps most important in reality, has been the greater visibility of practices and rituals that are suspect or even disgusting to Sunnis. These include the dubious "temporary marriage," invented by Iran's clerics, who use it liberally in lieu of prostitution; the rhythmic Shiite prayer drill that seems un-Islamic and downright menacing to Sunnis; and the more extreme Ashura rituals. They are far from new, but it is only now that many Sunnis are exposed to the spectacle of processions of self-flagellators over pavements slippery with their blood and of Shiite mothers proudly cutting their babies' foreheads with razor-blades to bleed them in memory of the martyrdom of Hassan and Hussein.
It is, however, the crescent's potential to extend southward that has transformed it into a strategic threat to Saudi Arabia and Sunni neighbors. Shiites outnumber Sunnis not only in Bahrain and Kuwait, but also -- and most importantly -- in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern Province, where the money comes from. New protests have broken out in the region in recent weeks, resulting in the deaths of several protesters.
From the Saudi point of view, the damage inflicted by the United States in 2003 by destroying Saddam's military strength was compounded by the failure to defend deposed President Hosni Mubarak's government in Cairo. The Egyptian regime had other merits for the Al Saud family, including a respectable rate of economic growth, which is now a receding memory. Its chief virtue in Saudi eyes, however, was Mubarak's systematic opposition to Iran and its allies, and even the Shiites as such. Egypt's post-Mubarak rulers are hardly likely to embrace either Iran or its doctrine -- the country is solidly Sunni -- but there is no guarantee that they will emulate Mubarak's very active anti-Iran policy, which was strengthened by pragmatic cooperation with Israel. Indeed, the first act of the post-Mubarak interim regime was to call for the restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran -- even if to no great effect so far.
But having greatly damaged the Sunni front by sweeping away Mubarak, the "Arab Spring" is now greatly helping it by weakening the Assad regime in Syria. The rulers of Qatar and of Saudi Arabia are untroubled by the obvious contradictions in their policy toward this year's Arab revolts: They are defending Bahrain's ruling family against the majority Shiite population while loudly criticizing and sanctioning the Assad regime for oppressing its own majority Sunni population. And they are demanding democratic rule in Syria while accepting none of it at home.
Qatar's Al Jazeera television channels have, from the start, sided with Assad's Sunni Arab enemies. But Qatari policy has followed the more cautious Saudi lead. The Saudi and Qatari rulers only demanded action by the Arab League after months of bloody repression in Syria -- when the death toll exceeded 3,500 -- and even then delayed their actions in light of Assad's "promise" to stop using force against his own population.
That was a trap, of course. Assad was left with only two choices: Stop using force, lose control, and at best flee the country; or else suppress the opposition with lethal force, losing Arab League support and provoking increasingly severe sanctions. The latter option was Assad's preference, and the Saudi and Qatari rulers duly reacted by calling for Arab and international sanctions, while probably supplying money to Syrian resisters who happen to be almost entirely Sunni.
It is obvious that the Gulf monarchies of absolute rulers are not in the fight for the sake of a future Syrian democracy. For Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, the purpose of overthrowing Assad is to break the "Shiite crescent": bringing Damascus under Sunni rule, repudiating its alliance with Iran, and cutting off Hezbollah from its logistic base in Syria, thereby allowing Lebanon's Sunnis to regain power along with their Christian allies. A further aim is to provide backing for Iraq's outnumbered Sunnis, just across the border. A broader goal to be achieved by denying Tehran its only Arab ally is to reduce Iran's acceptability to Arab populations everywhere.
Achieving these aims would add up to a winning "knight's move," restoring the Sunni ascendancy after the setbacks of recent years. And as Assad does not have the mettle of his father -- who silenced his own Sunni-Islamist opponents by massacre -- it is easy enough to predict the victor. Democracy may not be the winner, but the Sunnis certainly will be.