Shias and Sunnis battle it out for Mideast control


SECTARIAN ISSUES: Sunnis would love to break the dominance of Shias

W Scott ThompsonUSUALLY looking at a map is the way to start analysing an issue in world politics. Syria, for example, is surrounded by six countries: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

Turkey equals an overlapping Kurdish minority but safe havens for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Iraq as a Sunni-dominated country was one thing, but now as a Shia-dominant country, it is scary to the Sunni majority of Syria.

Jordan, a Hashemite kingdom, plays a balancing act but counted on a "stable" Syria, as did almost everyone in the region prior to the Arab Spring.

Especially Israel. The Assad family was militant in its declaratory policy, but never really took on the Israeli army after the 1967 war when Israeli forces occupied the Golan Heights, looking down on Israel proper.

The Palestinian territories are watching the way of the wind, and Hamas in Gaza is already helping FSA. Lebanon is the fall guy. Since 1975, Syria has tried to dominate Lebanon and succeeded for a few decades.

But halt. These aren't the underlying issues. It's not just the lines on the map that count, it's the sectarian fissures. It's so, so difficult to understand cleavages in "other people's" religions, especially when they stem from what happened almost a millennium and a half ago.

But what's really going on in the Middle East is the struggle for dominance of Shias versus Sunnis. Sunnis would dearly love to break the juggernaut that developed once Sunnis lost out in Iraq, with the consequent huge gain to Iran, the only significant majority Shia state.

Small wonder it's Sunni states that fund the Syrian revolution, to end once and for all the Syria-Iran alliance, occasioned not just by geography but by Alawite (a Shia sect) control of Syria, thence Hizbollah and other smaller entities.

Though still a secular state, Syria now could, and probably now is, easily become a set of fractured entities divided principally by religion.

I tend, however, to pay even more attention to long-time observers of "hard counties" like Syria. Patrick Seale published his first and the greatest book to that date on Syria, almost 50 years ago.

Apart from sharing an esteemed Oxford college with me, he shared part of his life with a Syrian wife. He knows of what he speaks.

Recently, he observed that, apart from the Arab Spring itself, Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen "failed to grasp the revolutionary potential of two key developments: Syria's population explosion and the long-term drought that the country suffered from 2006 to 2010, the worst in several hundred years.

"The first produced an army of semi-educated young people unable to find jobs; the second resulted in the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of farmers from their parched fields to slums around the major cities.

"Herders in the northeast lost 85 per cent of their livestock. It is estimated that by last year, some two to three million Syrians had been driven into extreme poverty. No doubt climate change was responsible, but government neglect and incompetence contributed to the disaster."

So youth unemployment and rural disaffection caused the outbreak of Syria's civil war in March last year, after yet another brutal suppression by the regime. It "spread like wildfire".

Assad is a weak dictator -- it's the family that has the backbone, but that's never enough -- and he was too busy enjoying his wife's interviews in fashionable Western magazines and other such vital endeavours to get serious about the uprising.

It looks to me as if the real loser in this mano-a-mano is Israel, apart from the victims of violence. Quite apart from the Golan Heights issue, Israel has appreciated a "stable" state, that can't even react meaningfully to the Israeli destruction of its only nuclear development site, at al-Kibar, in 2007.

The totalitarian aspect of Assad family rule has never bothered the Jewish state.

For now, the new regime in Egypt has agreed to honour its security ties with Israel, but the United States can no longer enforce it. At least Washington can no longer deal with Egypt through one person, a client if there was ever one.

I don't believe the Muslim Brotherhood is "warlike" as Israel likes to portray it. Don't be so sure in Syria, where the Brotherhood has serious settling of scores in its sights. Remember how Bashar's father struck at it, maybe 20,000 dead in the massive show of force in Hama over 30 years ago.

But it's Israel to look at. It has alienated its most crucial regional ally, Turkey, just when Islamic forces were on the rise; its western border's security depends on continued instability in Egypt; it knows the danger of taking on Hizbollah in Lebanon from its 2006 battle; and the best outcome for it in Syria is continued chaos, with a break-up along sectarian lines. And the two-state solution is now a long-past heresy. The region has changed forever. And the US is pivoting to Asia.

W Scott Thompson is emeritus professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, United States

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