The Looming Sunni-Shia Battle

25 Apr

It’s an old habit, but I like to visit into far-off places at times of big change. (This was an especially useful talent to have in my days as a foreign correspondent, but also keeps life interesting now).

I just returned from a longish trip to the Mideast including Lebanon and Turkey and this post is mostly about the perspective one gets from such travel. As a telecom and technology executive, I was fascinated to see up-close the powerful role mobile and social technology are playing in the popular uprisings currently shaking so much of the Arab world. And it was so interesting – and invaluable – to meet and speak with to speak with so many people who are using new mobile technology to create a new landscape in the region.

Just over the past week, unrest in Syria left over a hundred people dead and underscored a widening of the popular uprisings that have already occurred this year (in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia and Libya) to Lebanon’s neighbor to the East. There surely is more upheaval to come.

I spent much of the past week in Lebanon, traveling from the southern Shuf Mountains to the northern city of Tripoli. I had a memorable time seeing a beautiful, diverse country that is rebuilding and seems on the move despite all the obstacles stacked against it.

In contrast to the impression one has from afar, Beirut today and its suburbs nowadays are a bustling hive of construction sites, highway projects and a busy international airport. Years of civil war have left deep scars of course, and opened the door for such rivals as Dubai to eclipse Beirut as a regional center. But with such awe-inspiring construction projects as the center-city Solidere redevelopment site – one of the largest engineering projects in the world – it is possible to imagine Beirut once again becoming the ‘Paris of the Mideast.’

Of course, the outward appearance of modernity and economic progress may prove fragile, as it has so many times before by intervention from its neighbors and internal civil strife.

To say it’s a complex neighborhood is a deliberate understatement.

Regardless, one principal impression stays with me after 10 days spent in the region:

The coming fault line of conflict in the Mideast will be within the “neighborhood” of Islamic Arabia itself, and it will NOT principally be a battle of Islam with the rest of the world. The United States and the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa are not at the center of this reformation. Nor is the Palestinian-Israeli issue the key. In fact, this isn’t even principally a battle involving nation-states.

Rather, the confrontation is shaping up as a battle for the soul of Islam – between extremist Shia and Sunni groups.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and now Syria have thus far not illustrated this in the early rounds. But I have a hunch we will see the Sunni-Shia extremist conflict emerging soon as a central narrative in the so-called Arab Uprising of 2011. When? It may be a while, because so many institutions of post-authoritarian regimes need to be rebuilt. But there is very little question it is coming, and in some places possibly soon.

How can this be? Many of the worst repressive regimes kept “bottled up” the worst kinds of the religious conflicts among the two main strains of Islamic faith. Now, as these regimes crumble, the prospects for more openness and democracy increase, but so do the possibly of internal civil war.

The principal Shia action groups on the list are very familiar: Iran, Amal, and of course Hezbollah (which in Lebanon these days seems as much the huge force it is in the mainstream of political life, with visible signs of its power plastered all over, especially in the south, not at all a marginalized splinter group it is sometimes portrayed outside the country). On the Sunni side, the names are less well-known to non-Mideast experts but no less lethal. Perhaps the most terrifyingly brutal are the extremist fighters belonging to the Salafi orthodox Sunni sect, who claimed responsibility for the brutal murder of a pro-Palestinian Italian activist kidnapped and murdered in Gaza while I was traveling here.

In Syria, there is a scenario in which Syrian strongman Bashar Al Assad losing his grip on the country, and setting up a conflict between Sunni majority in the country, and the Shia and Alawite minority who have dominated the political landscape for 40 years. In the region, Christians, Druze and other religious minorities all fear becoming caught in the cross-fire. Such a shift in the balance of power in Syria could put Hezbollah and Iran on the defensive, and then usher in a new period of realignment in the region.

Despite the West’s strong interests and involvement in the region, the heart of the issue is essentially local in nature. It does not revolve around Washington, London, Beijing or other world capitals. Which may be worth remembering as the calls for global action, especially for the U.S., escalate.

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One Response to “The Looming Sunni-Shia Battle”

  1. larry December 23, 2016 at 4:03 am #

    Greetings, I was speaking with my daughter about you and shared this post with her. I often share with my children my Ranney friends, Larry. Hope all is well with you, your brother and family. LD

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