Revenge of the Sunnis

What the Arab Spring is really about.

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.



Now Hear This, Moscow

It’s time for President Obama to talk tough about Russia’s rigged parliamentary elections.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's clear and repeated condemnation of the Kremlin's efforts to rig Sunday's Duma elections was refreshing to hear. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was certainly less pleased, accusing Clinton on Thursday of having incited protests in Moscow. But her comments were invigorating to civil society activists with whom I met at a gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania earlier this week -- and not just those from Russia but those from elsewhere in Eurasia. In the clearest, strongest language uttered by a Cabinet-level Obama administration official to date, Clinton unambiguously stood with those who protested against Vladimir Putin and his party of power, United Russia, both in the voting booth and on the streets of Moscow on Monday and Tuesday.

Her remarks are  worth reprising here: "We have serious concerns about the conduct of those elections," Clinton said in her speech before the Ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe in Vilnius. "Independent political parties, such as PARNAS, were denied the right to register. And the preliminary report by the OSCE cites election day attempts to stuff ballot boxes, manipulate voter lists, and other troubling practices.

"We're also concerned by reports that independent Russian election observers, including the nationwide Golos network, were harassed and had cyber attacks on their websites, which is completely contrary to what should be the protected rights of people to observe elections, participate in them, and disseminate information," Clinton added. "We commend those Russian citizens who participated constructively in the electoral process. And Russian voters deserve a full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation … The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted. And that means they deserve fair, free, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them."

Not surprisingly, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had a different take on her remarks, describing them as "unacceptable."  It went on to say: "With regret we are compelled to establish that in Washington, some long-exhausted stereotypes persist, and they continue to hang labels (on Russia), without even trying to figure out what is really going on in our electoral field," according to the MFA's statement on Dec. 6. "We consider that in future the American side will refrain from unfriendly attacks that run contrary to the general positive trend of development in bilateral relations," the statement continued.

The manipulation of elections by Putin and his clique is not new, but the extent and desperate quality this time around stooped to new lows. The opposition People's Freedom Party, which was denied registration to participate in the elections, described the campaign and voting day on Sunday as "neither free nor fair" and added that the "results are not credible." The OSCE's preliminary analysis of Sunday's election described the playing field as "slanted" and noted that the election itself was marred by "the convergence of the state and the governing party," countless "instances of apparent manipulation," and "ballot box stuffing" on vote day, its statement said.

What is perhaps most striking is that despite the Kremlin's efforts -- rampant harassment of opposition and civil society groups, cyber attacks on liberal platforms like Live Journal and the independent election monitoring organization Golos, and pervasive fraud and ballot stuffing -- the ruling United Russia party still couldn't muster 50 percent of the vote. By comparison, it managed to secure 64 percent support in the 2007 Duma elections

Between 2007 and today, the level of frustration among Russians has reached its highest levels -- and concomitantly United Russia's and Putin/Medvedev's polling has hit new lows. A growing number of Russians talk about emigrating from the country, fed up with their political stagnation and never-ending corruption. Many more voiced their unhappiness Sunday, going to the polls and voting for any party but United Russia. Putin's anticipated return to the Russian presidency has been unable to reverse the declining support for his party. Instead, the Russian people sent a clear repudiation to Putin and United Russia -- and importantly, Clinton stood on their side.

Indeed, Clinton's statements were an important boost to those fighting for democracy and human rights in Russia -- those pressing for the ability to exercise their fundamental rights, establishment of the rule of law, and a level playing field on which to compete.   

Even better would be to have her words echoed by President Obama, particularly given the Russian MFA's statement that it viewed the criticism as contrary to bilateral relations. He should lay down the expectation that Washington will be watching the conduct of next March's presidential elections, thus dispelling the myth that his "reset" policy means the United States will remain silent when things go wrong in order to keep relations friendly and warm. Given how much time Obama has invested in the reset with Russia, it is important for him to speak out and reinforce Clinton's assessment. It matters who in the U.S. government conveys these messages. In these days of revolutions and uprisings against authoritarian regimes around the world, the president should not be unclear in his position vis-a-vis Russia, as he was with Iran in June 2009 and to some extent with his hesitation on Egypt and Syria in 2011.

That said, Washington should not pick favorites in Russia -- that would be the kiss of death for whomever it might endorse. Instead, the United States should stand unequivocally for democratic processes, rule of law, and respect for human rights.  Russia's combination of political stagnation and growing corruption under Putin is destined for crisis (as in the Mideast). Putin's authoritarianism was bound to hit a wall. In the end, a U.S. policy that is consistent with American values is one that simultaneously supports democratic accountability in Russia. When Russian officials behave in blatantly undemocratic ways, as they did on Sunday and in the lead-up to the election, they should not get a pass from the White House because of fear that criticism of their actions might upset the reset.

The reset was already under stress, with increasingly anti-American rhetoric coming out of both Medvedev (who threatened to target Russian missiles against the U.S. missile defense plans) and Putin (up to his old rhetorical tricks). The reset hit its high point more than a year ago with passage of the New START nuclear reductions treaty, but it has been on a steady but undeniable decline since, notwithstanding the agreement for Russia to join the WTO. This decline is not due to increased criticism from the Obama administration of Russian officials -- such talk is much too recent.  The deterioration in relations instead is largely because Russian officials do not share our values.

In fact, it was only a matter of time and quite predictable that the reset would hit a brick wall, given the Neanderthal views of Russia's corrupt leadership. But we can build a new foundation with the people of Russia. Support for principles and not individuals will rarely do us harm, and Secretary Clinton, to her credit, put in place the first bricks for such a foundation.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images