By James M. Dorsey
The struggle for greater political freedom in Syria is emerging as a lightning rod for a far greater schism in the Middle East and North Africa – one that is more worrisome and that threatens to divide the region and several of its societies not only along political lines but also along sectarian lines.
A majority of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia have in the last week for the first time since anti-government protesters took to the streets in March condemned Syrian president Bashar al Assad’s crackdown not because they are abhorred by the regime’s brutality or because they favor political and economic change but because Mr. Assad enjoys the backing of predominantly Shiite Iran.
By viewing the protests sweeping the region as a product of subversive Iranian policies inspired in some cases by deep-seated Sunni prejudice against Shiites, Arab leaders led by Saudi King Abdullah are seeking to further isolate Iran, Syria’s staunchest ally, and taint demands for far-reaching change as the product of foreign intervention rather than a homegrown, grassroots movement that is challenging decades of autocratic rule.
Bahrain has so far emerged as the Arab state most effected by the Sunni-Shiite divide but the schism is also impacting politics in Iraq and potentially could stoke tension in Lebanon. Syrian protesters have succeeded, at least for now, in preventing a series of recent sectarian killings from transforming their pro-democracy movement into a struggle between Sunnis and Alawites, a minority sect associated with Shiism to which Mr. Assad belongs.
Bahraini King Khalifa, backed by King Abdullah and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders succeeded in turning what started in February as protests by Sunnis and Shiites standing shoulder-to-shoulder in favor of more equitable housing and land policies, fairer representation in parliament and constitutional reform into a dividing line that separates the communities. The GCC-backed violent squashing of the protests in March has left the island deeply divided with Shiites and Sunnis distrustful of one another. Government efforts to heal the wounds appear to have only thrown salt into them. The country’s major Shiite opposition parties have vowed to boycott next month’s parliamentary by-elections called to fill the seats of 18 deputies who resigned in protest against the crackdown.
Lebanon has so far proven itself remarkably immune to the turmoil just across its border even if pro- and anti-Syrian factions are battling it out in the country’s media. More importantly, the reputation of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon widely seen as a bastion of resistance against Israel, has suffered significantly because of the group’s siding with Mr. Assad and the recent indictment of four of its operatives on charges of having been involved in the 2005 killing of prime minister Rafik Hariri. Nonetheless, concern remains that the turmoil could ultimately upset Lebanon’s fragile sectarian apple cart.
In Iraq, however, the sectarian schism has deepened political divisions with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, standing out as the one major Arab leader to have refrained from condemning Mr. Assad’s crackdown. Instead, he has called on the protesters not to undermine the Syrian state and has hosted a delegation of Syrian government officials and businessmen to discuss closer economic ties, including the construction of a gas pipeline that would run from Iran through Iraq to Syria. Mr. Maliki further hosted Syria’s foreign minister in Baghdad in June.
By contrast, the Sunni speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Osama al Najafi, accused the Syrian government of suppressing the freedom of its people and condemned the crackdown on protesters as unacceptable. Mr. Najafi said the government had the obligation to protect the lives and property of its people and called for an end to the bloodshed.
Mr. Maliki’s reluctance to condemn Mr. Assad despite Iraqi allegations that jihadists who wreaked havoc in Iraq had been able to enter the country from Syria is as much a function of the prime minister’s relationship with Iran and the fact that Syria granted him asylum while Saddam Hussein was in power as it is that Saudi Arabia’s deep-seated fear of Shiite rule has strained relations with Iraq and stopped it from opening an embassy in Baghdad. In fact, Saudi Arabia has made sectarian identity a cornerstone of its policy in the region.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia has good reason to want to isolate Iran. The Islamic republic has sought to cast the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as a success of its own revolution that overthrew the Shah 32 years ago. Alleged Iranian agents have been uncovered in Bahrain and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are legitimately concerned about Iran’s nuclear program.
The timing of Saudi Arabia’s stepped up effort to further corner Iran could not be better. Iran’s longstanding claim that it is the first and only Middle Eastern nation to have thrown off the shackles of a subservient relationship with the United States no longer holds with the toppling of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, who were widely seen as US lackeys. The fall of the Syrian president would constitute a further major setback for Iran, depriving it of its major Arab ally and complicating its ability to furnish a politically weakened Hezbollah with arms.
Exploiting Iran’s weakening position as a result of the Arab revolt is one thing; casting the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in sectarian terms is another. Sectarianism may delay but will not stop the inevitable course of history and could unleash forces that ultimately could prove far more detrimental to regional security and stability.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.