The War for the Arab World

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

Marc Lynch

A Few Good Saudi Men

Saudi Arabia hounded this lawyer out of the country because he stood up for human rights. Now, he explains how the kingdom is launching a new crackdown on dissent.

On March 11, Saudi lawyer Abd al-Aziz al-Hussan went to see his clients Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, two of the kingdom's most prominent human rights activists, in prison. He tweeted that he found them in handcuffs, and prison officials were unwilling to remove them. Saudi authorities denied that the defendants had been shackled, though other witnesses supported Hussan's account.

The Saudi government didn't appreciate Hussan drawing attention to his clients' case. In less than 24 hours, the 32-year-old American-educated lawyer found himself the target of the same crackdown that had claimed his clients. He was summoned for interrogation over his tweets, targeted by pro-government media, and his license to practice law was challenged by the Ministry of Justice.

While Saudi activists have tried to rally to Hussan's side, his case has received virtually no international attention. This is in rather stark contrast to the unusual and constructive attention paid to the struggles of Saudi human rights activists early this year, when Qahtani and Hamed were profiled by the Washington Post, CNN, and Foreign Policy (by me). Even that attention, however, has not been enough: On March 9, Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Hamed to five years for their political activities.

It didn't help that the United States never stood up for Qahtani and Hamed's rights. The State Department spokesperson expressed generic concern in response to a question, but neither Secretary of State John Kerry nor Attorney General Eric Holder had anything significant to say in public during their visits to Saudi Arabia, which took place around the time of the sentencing. The issues of Saudi human rights has now largely disappeared from the international agenda -- since March, the media has focused more on Saudi women possibly riding bicycles and playing sports in school than on the human rights campaigns.

This represents a stark turnaround from the beginning of the year, when reformers seemed to have some momentum on their side. Back then, Qahtani's Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) was pursuing a novel strategy of challenging the government in the courts. The rapid growth of Twitter marked the unprecedented emergence of an independent Saudi public sphere, highlighting a wide range of dissenting views and undermining official efforts to control the terms of debate. Protests and clashes in the Shia-dominated Eastern Province continued -- and even more worryingly for the regime, demonstrations stirred in Sunni areas such as Burayda and Riyadh. And in March, popular Islamist cleric Salman al-Odeh published a scathing open letter warning the regime that "people here, like people around the world, have demands, longings and rights, and they will not remain silent forever when they are denied all or some of them."

Hussan is currently in the United States, where he is planning to take a temporary academic appointment. During a conversation in Washington this week, Hussan emphasized that this was not just a personal matter. He told me that his case was part of a broader crackdown on human rights activists, lawyers, and reformers. Since the sentencing of Qahtani and Hamed in March, he argued, the Saudi regime has been on the offensive against human rights activists and Sunni protesters. Activists and lawyers such as Fawzan al-Harbi and Abdulkarim al-Khoder have been harassed and interrogated, and security forces have arrested hundreds of demonstrators, holding many of them for weeks without access to lawyers. The Saudi government also appears determined to explore the possibilities for monitoring and controlling social media, particularly Twitter.

As a result, a bit of the wind has gone out of the sails of the protests. The regime appears emboldened by the limited response to the wave of arrests from both the international community and the Saudi street. Qahtani and Hamed's detention, he pointed out, produced no equivalent of the massive mobilization in Kuwait over the arrest of the opposition politician Musallam al-Barrak. Nor has it received much mention in the international media since the verdicts.

But Hussan, like many Saudi reformers, thinks that the regime's sense of control is an illusion. Even if a revolution isn't on the immediate horizon, it would be dangerous to assume that Saudi Arabia will forever be a "Kingdom of No Surprises." The anger now being vented on Twitter represents the very real frustration of a broad cross-section of Saudi society, which finds few formal channels to express their concerns. The weakness of civil society may seem like an advantage for the regime -- but it could also make it more difficult to sustain a disciplined, non-violent protest movement during the inevitable coming rounds of popular contention.

There are so far precious few openly revolutionary voices in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudi human rights and civil society campaigners insist they only want reforms that enhance transparency, accountability, and the rule of law, not regime change. But Bahrain should be a sobering reminder of what could follow from the repression of such moderates.

Riyadh should be reaching out to these reformists instead of imprisoning, interrogating, harassing them, or driving them abroad. A stable political system should be able to find the space for reformists to engage without fear of reprisal, and should welcome nonviolent appeals for transparency and accountability. The Saudi authorities could see the growth of Twitter as a positive sign -- a potentially constructive open space for debating the kingdom's problems and developing a sense of civic participation. But like too many of the Gulf regimes, it seems intent on silencing dissent, playing on sectarian divisions, and taking advantage of international indifference toward its domestic behavior.

The United States is doing its ally no favors by enabling such behavior. It should be far more forceful about pushing Saudi Arabia publicly on human rights issues. Washington may convince itself that now is not the time to rock the boat: U.S. officials no doubt feel that they have more than enough problems in the region to deal with at the moment, and there is little prospect of significant political change in the next few years. That's usually how the argument goes -- but such caution would be a mistake.

The transformation of Arab political culture and the relentless expansion of public contention is not going to fade any time soon. At a minimum, Washington should more effectively support the opening of political space for reformist voices in Saudi Arabia and all of its regional allies. Pushing for such reform is crucial for reshaping America's engagement with the region, not an irritating distraction from the real issues. International attention, particularly from the United States, could make a difference at a critical time in Saudi political development. Better to do so now than to wait until the next crisis.

Getty Images News