The big fault line between Shi’ite and Sunni branches of Islam in the Middle East, centered on the rivalry of Iran and Saudi Arabia, is influencing conflicts in countries throughout the region, including Syria.
Today the Arab League monitors from the Persian Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and allies) left Syria, saying that their presence was not effectively changing the violent behavior of the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad (backed by Iran). The rest of the Arab League monitoring mission remains, and the League as a whole extended the mission and is expected to send replacement monitors, but the League’s head also called on the UN Security Council to help out. (In my opinion the pullout is not a bad thing, as both the Gulf states and Iran are too close to Syria to play as useful a monitoring role as other Arab states or the UN might.)
The Sunni-Shi’ite conflict was simple back in the 1980s. Iran, the world’s only Islamic Republic and a Shi’ite country, was locked in a war with Iraq. The war would kill close to a million people through trench warfare, the use of chemical weapons, and rocket attacks on each other’s cities. Backing Iraq and its Sunni leader Saddam Hussein were Saudi Arabia, the other Arab countries, and tacitly the United States.
Things are actually more complicated than that. No countries are purely Sunni or Shi’ite. Most have an interwoven patchwork of these sectarian communities — a village here, a city there — as this map shows (high res here):
Two countries next to Iran — Iraq and Bahrain — had Shi’ite majorities ruled over and repressed by Sunni minority regimes. In the past decade, of course, Iraq is no longer Sunni-led but, thanks to George W. Bush, led by Shi’ite parties. (One U.S. official claimed that Bush didn’t know the distinction between Sunni and Shi’ite before deciding to invade Iraq.)
A step further from Iran is Syria, with a Sunni majority ruled over by a Shi’ite-based (Alawite) minority. That is the regime we are all focused on currently, the one the Arab League is monitoring to no avail. Moving along westward, Lebanon is almost half Shi’ite and that community is the base of the armed militia Hezbollah. After decades representing the disempowered and fighting Israel, and after being implicated in the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s liberal prime minister, Hezbollah last year became the dominant party in Lebanon’s government.
To the south, meanwhile, in Bahrain last year the Shi’ite community rallied for democracy and was violently repressed with help from Saudi armed forces. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, stayed pretty quiet. A quarter of the Saudi population is Shi’ite but they are in no position to cause trouble and the Saudi royal family has the money to buy out any discontent in the Kingdom. In Yemen, where Shi’ites make up more than 40 percent of the population, the Shi’ite Houthi tribe in the north has been in armed conflict with the central government for decades, even as Sunni al-Qaeda radicals wage war in the south.
Thus, in recent years the Arab side of the Persian Gulf (or is it the Arabian Gulf?) has remained firmly in Sunni control, while across the Gulf four countries in a line now have Shi’ite-affiliated regimes — Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Of these, Iraq and Lebanon have been relatively neutral on Syria (mixed interests and their own problems at home), but Iran has been the Assad regime’s most important external backer (along with more powerful but less enthusiastic Russia).
The emergence of a more solid Shi’ite bloc stretching from Iran to Lebanon is not a positive development in my view. It tends to polarize the region and to extend the ambitions of Iran, which acts in defiance of international norms on important issues. It also raises a legitimate concern that Iran’s creation of a nuclear weapon in the coming years would spark a rush by Saudi Arabia to follow suit. The danger of a terrible war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with their respective allies, is worth worrying about.
In the middle of it all, of course, is oil. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia all share one interest — they are the world’s three top oil exporters. They benefit from reliably high prices for oil on world markets (high price spikes that lead to crashes are less useful). On the other hand, both the western powers and China share an interest in a low, stable oil price. And there was China’s prime minister recently visiting Saudi Arabia, not Iran, for a friendly chat. Turns out that although China is Iran’s largest oil customer, China actually buys twice as much from Saudi Arabia, whose total oil exports are almost triple the level of Iran’s. China wants assurance, which it no doubt received, that Saudi Arabia would fill any gap in China’s supply created by new sanctions on Iran.
The United States supports the Saudi side, and Russia the Iranian side, but China really just wants oil and doesn’t care where it comes from. The main interest of China and other consuming nations is political stability in the Middle East, to keep oil prices stable and the spigot turned permanently on. In the past, although oil is the world’s most traded commodity in terms of value, its price has seen wild swings triggered by political events like wars and revolutions. A little stability would be a really good thing for the world economy. Saudi Arabia alone has the vast reserves to keep world supplies steady even if another OPEC member stops exporting. And hence the Chinese prime minister’s visit.
As for the UN Security Council, its ability to play any meaningful role in Syria will depend entirely on Russia. As some Kremlin officials suggest their patience with Assad is wearing thin, the western powers are pressing Russia to back the Arab League’s recent call for Assad to step down. When that question comes to the Security Council, soon, Russia will have to decide exactly where it stands.