Sunni-Shiite hatreds are the least of the Middle East's problems -- it's the struggle within the Sunni world that will define the region for years to come.
A video of a rebel commander eating the lung of an enemy fighter and the horrific scenes of children massacred by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are only a few of Syria's ever-growing catalog of atrocities. This stuff of nightmares has raised fears that Syria's civil war is spreading Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict across the Middle East -- fears galvanized by the escalating body count in Iraq, the dismal standoff in Bahrain, and the seemingly uncontainable tensions in Lebanon.
Many now see this sectarianism as the new master narrative rewriting regional politics, with Syria the frontline of a sectarian cold war permeating every corner of public life. The Sunni-Shiite divide, argues Brookings Institution fellow Geneive Abdo in a report released last month, "is well on its way to displacing the broader conflict between Muslims and the West ... and likely to supplant the Palestinian occupation as the central mobilizing factor for Arab political life."
Perhaps. But think about how little deep Arab sympathy for the Palestinian cause has actually produced effective or unified Arab official action in its support. Will Sunni solidarity be any more effective?
The sectarian master narrative obscures rather than reveals the most important lines of conflict in the emerging Middle East. The coming era will be defined by competition between (mostly Sunni) domestic contenders for power in radically uncertain transitional countries, and (mostly Sunni) pretenders to the mantle of regional Arab leadership. Anti-Shiism no more guarantees Sunni unity than pan-Arabism delivered Arab unity in the 1950s. Indeed, if the vicious infighting among Arab regimes during Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's years is any guide, the competition between "Sunni" regimes and political movements is likely to grow even more intense as the sectarian narrative takes hold.
That certainly seems to be the story thus far. Sunni identity is hardly unifying Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia -- just look at the raucous political debates occurring in each of these countries. The rise of Islamist movements since the Arab uprisings, especially the public emergence of Salafi trends with noxiously anti-Shiite prejudices, has certainly introduced a new edge to the region's sectarianism. But that's nothing compared to how it has affected intra-Sunni politics. Muslim Brothers and Salafis are at each other's throats in Egypt, while Tunisia's Ennahda Party has just cracked down hard on its own Salafi challengers.
Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia have also divided the Arab Sunni world more profoundly than they have united it, antagonizing Saudis and Emiratis rather than unifying them around a Sunni identity. Newly open political arenas, like the war in Syria, have provided new opportunities for the region's would-be leaders to compete with each other. Qatar similarly faces a fierce Saudi and Emirati-driven backlash despite their common Sunni identity, partly because of its alleged support for the Brotherhood, but mostly due to the long-standing competition for power between these Arab Gulf states.
The sectarian narrative radically exaggerates both the coherence of the "Sunni" side of the conflict and the novelty of a long-standing power struggle with Iran. It is better understood as a justification for domestic repression and regional power plays than as an explanation for Middle Eastern regimes' behavior. Arab autocrats, particularly those in the Gulf with significant Shia populations, find Sunni-Shiite tensions a useful way to delegitimize the political demands of their Shiite citizens. Shiite citizens of Saudi Arabia in the kingdom's Eastern Province and the Shiite majority of Bahrain who attempt to protest their systematic dispossession are demonized as an Iranian fifth column because this is useful to the ruling regimes.
Similarly, Arab leaders (and Washington) often found labeling their rivals as "Shiite" a valuable way to undermine the popular appeal of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah "Resistance Axis." This isn't to say that some leaders don't genuinely dislike Shiites -- Saudi King Abdullah famously distrusted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as an Iranian agent -- but their personal beliefs aren't really necessary to explain their behavior.
For this reason, a "Sunni" conquest of Syria is unlikely to turn the country into a reliable ally of other Sunni regimes in the region unless such alliances happen to serve the self-interest of the new leaders. The traditional rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has reasserted itself in Syria -- competition between their networks of rebel groups has been one of the major factors hindering the unification of the Syrian opposition. Should a Sunni coalition of some sort take power in Syria, it will likely be the object of similarly fierce battles for influence among ambitious external players.
Remember, we've been here before -- and recently. Today's sectarianism looks very much like that of the mid-2000s, when Iran and Hezbollah seemed ascendant, Vali Nasr warned of the "rise of the Shia," Jordan's King Abdullah fretted about a Shiite Crescent, and the sectarian cast of the execution of Saddam Hussein infuriated even those Sunnis who felt no love for the fallen dictator. Particularly during George W. Bush's administration, Washington appeared to view such sectarianism as useful to policy goals such as containing Iran, undermining Hezbollah, and cementing its alliance of "moderate" Sunni dictatorships.
The sectarian rages of the mid-2000s had faded by the end of the decade, however, along with the worst days of the Iraqi inferno. But the anger, resentment, and political identities which were forged during those days didn't disappear entirely, and proved all too easy to mobilize when Syria's conflict escalated. The great mass of Syrians or Iraqis may have rejected sectarianism at first, but such restraint grows harder in the face of massacres and massive displacement based on the victims' Sunni or Shiite identities. Local horrors travel quickly in the new Arab media environment, as images of sectarian massacres and the rhythms of sectarian rhetoric too often go viral online and satellite television stations too eagerly adopt sectarian frames. Arab regimes then happily use the horrors of Syria to justify their refusal to reform -- "look how bad it could get!" -- and deploy sectarian language to demonize any political mobilization by their Shia citizens.
The fact that sectarianism is being ginned up for political ends does not mean that the hatreds won't be internalized over time -- to deadly effect. The shift toward a sectarian worldview among Arab publics, evident not only in Syria's bloodbaths but in bigoted banners in Egypt and the burning down of a Shiite residence in southern Jordan merits more attention than power politics dressed up in sectarian drag. The cultivation of these sectarian animosities could consolidate dangerous fault lines constantly available to ambitious, unscrupulous elites that would prove very difficult to reverse.
Preventing the conditions for pogroms against Shiite in Sunni majority countries, not cultivating another Axis of Sunni Moderates against Iran, should be at the top of the agenda. And the key to that may be accepting an imperfect political solution in Syria and de-escalating its horrific violence.
John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images