US finds Sunni-Shia rift difficult to navigate

WASHINGTON — A decade after the United States’ invasion of Iraq ignited a season of deadly bloodletting between Sunni and Shia Muslims, this ancient divide in Islam is deepening throughout the Middle East, aggravating political and ethnic tensions, inflaming emotions and complicating US policymaking in this strategic, turbulent region.

Syria’s tableau of sanguinary carnage, which has flooded neighboring states with nearly 1 million refugees, is the latest example of how this sectarian conflict can spiral out of control. It also depicts how the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran — at once religious and geo-strategic — is fueling sectarian tensions as both nations exert influence through proxies around the region.

A fount of Islamic civilization, Syria today is ground zero in that rivalry. Iran is giving critical support to the government, dominated by adherents to an offshoot of Shia Islam, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are deeply involved in backing the mostly Sunni rebel fighters.

“Sunnis and Shiites are fighting over control of the Middle East and… Syria is in the middle of that struggle,” said Syria expert Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, during a recent public debate in Washington.

Their enmity has sharpened in recent years because of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states fear that this would give Iran a huge advantage in its ambition to become the region’s dominant Islamic power.

Saudi-Iranian antagonism also was augmented by the unintended consequences of US policies in Iraq. Failing to appreciate the depth of sectarian feelings, the US-led push for democratic elections facilitated the rise to power of a Shia government and the spread of Iranian influence in this key Arab country.

Pro-invasion policy-makers in Washington “puffed themselves up into believing that religion didn’t matter anymore in the Middle East,” Landis said in an interview. “They really enabled the ‘Shia crescent’ to take shape…[by giving] power to the Shia in [an] Arab country in the Ottoman lands. This was a terrible insult to many Sunnis who had always believed and always identified Arab nationalism with Sunni Islam.”

Iraq illustrates what happens “when we operate in the Middle East based on our own conceptions of what are the issues and who are the players,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shia Islam and Dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Our conceptions become at odds with reality and that proves to be catastrophic. [In Iraq] we thought it’s all going to be about democracy and dictatorship and our entire strategy was upended by another axis of conflict that we were completely taken unawares by.”

Sunni-Shia tensions that go back 1,400 years are more volatile nowadays in part because they coincide with widespread anti-American feelings, and a rise in religious conservatism. In addition, the two sides have access to more lethal weapons than in the past. They also have adopted more sinister methods for indiscriminately murdering civilians, including remotely controlled car bombs and suicide missions.

This lethality is evident in the Shia-Sunni violence in recent months that has scarred the land stretching from Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast to the mountains of inland Pakistan, where Sunni extremist attacks on Shia communities have become endemic. Last month, 84 civilians were killed in the bombing of a vegetable market in Quetta. In Baghdad on February 28, a series of bombings in Shia neighborhoods killed 22. In December, clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, a Shia-related sect dominating the Syrian government, in Lebanon’s seaside city of Tripoli left 17 dead.

Sectarian conflict “is going to get worse regardless of how Syria goes in the next several years,” said a US State Department official in a recent interview. “It is rapidly becoming the axis around which much of Middle Eastern politics is organizing… What’s interesting is that the dynamic is becoming important even in some countries where there aren’t any Shia.”

For example, Egypt’s minuscule Shia population is hardly a threat. But during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit there he was treated to a public tongue-lashing from clerics at Al Azhar, the renowned center of Sunni learning, for allegedly trying to spread Shia Islam in Egypt.


US policymakers are keenly aware of the baleful influence of heightened Sunni-Shia tensions. But grappling with the Sunni-Shia rift in policy terms is a conundrum. It is forcing US officials — unaccustomed to discussing religion in policy debates — to be more mindful of religion’s role. It also makes it more difficult for Washington to be seen as neutral in conflicts that participants and governments view through a strictly sectarian lens.

Virulent sectarianism also means that US officials are confronted with a dynamic that runs counter to values meant to guide US statecraft, such as equality, religious tolerance, compromise and non-discrimination. Promoting such values becomes more difficult, even suspect, said Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center’s Middle East program who is examining sectarianism in the wake of the Arab Awakening

Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, she noted, tend to view calls for democracy “as part of a subversive Shia agenda” to bring them down.

In the recent interview, the State Department official said that while the Sunni-Shia fault line’s “growing importance is well understood,” it is more a backdrop to US policymaking than a focus of it. “There isn’t an actual policy towards it nor is our policy discussed in those terms. It’s not the overlay through which we actually decide our policy…[because]…it doesn’t actually provide much of a guide for us…on a daily basis.”

The US experience in Iraq has chastened US policymakers and lowered expectations for being able to manage peaceful political reform in the region, US officials and outside analysts say.

“The lesson we have learned is that the domestic politics of countries like this are incredibly complex, that we can’t hope to master them and control them, and we can’t predict the consequences of disturbing them,” the State Department official said. US leaders, he added, have acquired “a general humility” from Iraq that has “definitely informed the Obama administration policy toward Syria over the last two years. And still does.”

Some outside observers say that despite lessons learned in Iraq, Washington still needs more nuanced polices and greater understanding of the Sunni-Shia divide.

“I think the Americans have a better sense of it after Iraq, but they don’t quite understand the complexities of it and don’t understand it in an adequately sophisticated way…and how it relates to broader regional dynamics in the Middle East,” said Shia expert Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

“Sometimes we ignore [sectarian tensions] completely, as we did in Syria at the beginning and in Iraq in the beginning, and sometimes we have a very simplistic black-and-white view of it,” he added. “Given how important this is becoming to the region and how complicated this is, we’re not there yet in terms of our understanding.”

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and a leading pollster of Arab public opinion, said that the rising profile of Sunni-Shia tensions sometimes tempts decision makers to see each side in monolithic terms, blinding them to other factors in play.

“To have a coherent policy and a full understanding of who’s trying to do what you have to go beneath the surface, and they don’t go beneath the surface,” he said.

Often “the extent to which [the two sects] move into confrontation is less a function of their theological differences and more a function of the politics around them,” Telhami said. While religious differences are present, it is necessary to see when they are being highlighted “to deflect from real problems.”

In Bahrain, Telhami notes, the Sunni monarchy repeatedly blames Iran for the Shia community’s ongoing protests. “But if you look at the issue of civil and human rights in Bahrain, I don’t think you’d have any independent analyst who wouldn’t say, Iran or no Iran, you got a problem here,” he said.

Despite its best efforts to be neutral, the United States is sometimes seen favoring one sect over the other. Currently, “there is a sense that we have it in for the Shia,” said a State Department official who recently served in the Gulf. This perception stems in part from Washington’s antagonistic relationship with Tehran because “most Shia…still have a lot of sympathy for Iran,” he said. “Even secular ones have some kind of cultural affinity. And the fact that [Iran is] a strategic adversary….doesn’t always play that well.”

Some foreign policy analysts say that reducing that antagonism could help dampen Sunni-Shia tensions. “I don’t think we’re going to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon if it is determined to do so. So I would tone down the rhetoric about that and tone down the demonization of Iran,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and director of the Brookings Institution Intelligence Project. “We’re not going to resolve Sunni-Shia differences, clearly,” Riedel said at a recent seminar. “But we might help to tone down the conflict a little bit.”


As part of the “traditionally Sunni heartland,” says Landis, Syria is “the big plum today” for Sunnis seeking to enfeeble Iran in the region. In the view of some analysts, it may be a long battle.

“The likelihood is an intensification” of the Iranian-Saudi struggle, said Riedel. He noted that Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was recently “made head of Saudi intelligence to get the Iranians. And to get [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. That’s his job basically. He’s supposed to deliver the head of Bashar al-Assad to the king.”

Iran is assisting Assad’s government with money, weapons, military training and advice, according to US officials. It also has brought in thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and organized a civilian militia to back up government forces.

In a December press release, the US Treasury Department asserted that since mid-2012, “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and Hezbollah have provided training, advice, and weapons and equipment” as well as “millions of dollars” to the militia, Jaysh al-Sha’bi, which is “modeled after Iran’s own Basij, a paramilitary force” responsible for “serious human rights abuses” in Iran.

“Al Qods force people on the ground…seem to be undertaking activities…roughly analogous to the activities that the US army was undertaking at the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, meaning going in the field…with Syrian regime forces to advise on tactics and weapons usage,” Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and until recently a senior advisor on Syria at the State Department, said in an interview.

Iran’s support is now far more critical than that of Syria’s other main ally, Russia, say US officials and outside analysts. Assad “is utterly dependent on the Iranians,” Hof said. “If, for some reason the Iranians were induced to pull out of Syria, his regime would not last very long.”

On the other side, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states are supporting Sunni rebel fighters, though exactly which ones is murky. Despite their shared Sunni tradition, big differences separate the rebel groups.

Initially, Salafi groups like Arar-Al-Sham that share Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Islamic outlook and want Syria to be an Islamic state were being funded either by the Saudi government or private donors or both, Landis said. “They go and recruit in the Gulf because they share a common ideology, which is that Islam is good…It’s like America supporting democracy; it’s our religion. And the Saudi Gulf religion is Islam…so they see nothing wrong in supporting these people.”

In recent months, however, Riyadh appears to have switched to supporting more moderate, nationalist rebel militias, largely at the urging of Washington, one analyst said.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar are assisting fighters of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which does not have good relations with Riyadh. Wealthy Kuwaiti individuals also are supporting Salafi militias such as Ahrar-Al-Sham, Gulf expert Emile Hokayem told a recent gathering at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

At the most extreme end of the opposition, the radical jihadi organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, has set up a branch in Syria under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the State Department, which has designated al-Nusra a terrorist organization. It noted that since November 2011 al-Nusra had claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks, including more than 40 suicide missions. Both groups are said to be funded by private individuals and clerics in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. How much control the Saudi government has — or wants to have — over these private donations is a difficult matter to assess, analysts say.

The United States is also a player and last month announced a small uptick in its involvement. Secretary of State John Kerry disclosed February 28 that the United States would give $60 million to the Syrian Opposition Coalition to help it provide public services such as schools, policing and sanitation to Syrians in rebel-held areas. He also said that Washington would begin providing non-lethal aid — food rations and medical kits — to the military wing of the Coalition. Washington supports the supplying of arms to Syrian rebels by other nations, Kerry added, provided the recipients hold moderate views.

Because of the sectarian nature of the conflict, Obama “doesn’t want to get involved in Syria and he’s struggling like mad to come up with reasons not to get involved,” said Landis. “And Washington is circling the wagons around him trying to embarrass him into getting involved.”

Washington’s reluctance may be wise, given Landis’ pessimistic view of Syria’s future. “It’s a failed nation and it’s a sectarian battle,” he said. “And if America gets in the middle of it they’re going to have to become the cops adjudicating how the Sunnis and Shia are going to get along in Syria…. I think that’s what Obama thinks. He just sees a lose, lose, lose situation in Syria.”

Shia expert Nasr adds that however Syria turns out will have regional repercussions. “One scenario is that there will be civil war for a long time to come and in fact if Assad goes, it is arguable that violence and conflict will increase” he said. “It will be more like Lebanon in the 1970s and there won’t be a government in power, which would include more brazen ethnic cleansing, grabs for territory, greater sectarian divisions. And that could spread much more heavily into Lebanon, into Iraq, into the Persian Gulf region.

“In other words,” Nasr said, “if Assad goes, the sectarian dimension doesn’t go away with him. That genie is out of the box. And here is where US policy is not quite attuned to what the dynamic is. We’re operating on the assumption that the problem is Assad. That this is purely a political issue. Assad is a big problem, he is the cause of this. But the problem now is much bigger than that. The problem is that now there is an open wound of sectarian conflict in Syria and that is spreading rapidly in the region. And that’s not going to go away with Assad going.”