Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Shia-Sunni conflict continues

The conflict in Syria started as an uprising against the Assad regime, but it has become a deeper sectarian conflict between Alawite control of Syria and the Sunni majority.  The Alawites are ca. 12% of the population, but have maintained a grip on Syria since the commander of the Air Force, Hafez Assad, took power in a Ba'ath Party coup in 1971.  Ever since the Sunnis have been suppressed by the Assad police state.  The "Arab Spring" gave the Sunnis the impetus to rise up against the regime.  But, now the conflict is clearly a sectarian one that is part of the larger Shia-Sunni clash that is occuring throughout the Muslim world.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, Sunnis and Shia are blowing each other up and continuing their age-old conflict.  Only yesterday a group of Shia in a convoy going on a pilgrimage to Iran were blown up in their buses and 60 were killed.  The Sunnis in the Free Syrian Army are being supported and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the leaders of the Sunni world.  Meanwhile the Syrian Government is being armed and supported by Shia Iran. Shia Hizbollah is saving its military in case it is necessary for it to fight to save its position in Lebanon should the Assad regime fall. 
The Shia-Sunni conflict goes back to the beginnings of Islam, when it was unclear who should be the successor to Mohammed when he died in 632 ce.  In the absence of a clear successor, his major followers fought it out and chose one of their number to be the first Caliph.  But, there were those who thought this was against God's will and Mohammed's successor should be of his family.  His only male successor was his son-in-law Ali. The followers of Ali as the natural heir became the Shia, the "faction" of Ali.  A battle was fought in 680 ce between the Caliph's army from Baghdad and the Shia led by Ali's son Hussein, grandson of Mohammed, in Kerbala in southern Iraq and the Shia were decimated.  Since then they have been a heretical minority to the Sunnis, but have a majority in Iraq and Iran.  Every year in the bloody ceremony of Ashura they commemorate Hussein's martyrdom.
Recently articles have appeared in the Saudi press indicating that Israel is not such a great enemy of the Sunnis.  The intepretation of this is that the Saudis see Shia Iran as the greater enemy and would rather see Israel strong enough to counter Iran, for its own reasons, rather than trying to tear it down.  This may also explain why the Sunni states often offer support for the Palestinians, but rarely follow through.  Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon is not only or even primarily to threaten Israel, but also to pursue their historical imperative to settle the dispute with the Sunnis. Age-old conflicts such as the Sunni-Shia split do not die.  On the contrary, according to Isaiah Berlin, every movement has within it the seeds of its own destruction (for example, the Catholic-Protestant conflict, the Bolshevik-Menshevik conflict, the Sunni-Shia conflict).  It is my major prediction for the New Year that during 2013 we will see a sharpening of the Sunni-Shia conflict and a concomitant lessening of the Israel-Arab conflict.


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