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."
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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