Sunni-Shia Split Fades as Israel Presses Campaign

Hopes by the George W. Bush administration for the emergence of an implicit Sunni-Israel alliance against an Iranian-led "Shia Crescent" have faded over the past week as Arab public opinion has become increasingly united by outrage over the Jewish state’s continuing military campaign in Lebanon and Washington’s refusal to stop it, according to Middle East experts here.

Fueled by saturation television coverage of the destruction and suffering wrought by Israel’s attacks, popular sentiment in both Shia and Sunni communities has moved strongly behind Shia Hezbollah, whose leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has become a symbol of resistance to Israeli and U.S. power, these analysts agree.

"Resistance rises above sectarianism," according to Graham Fuller, a former top Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Rand Corporation. "Sunni masses by and large are not concerned whether Iran, Syria’s rulers, or Hezbollah are Shi’ites; they applaud them for their steadfastness and willingness to fight and even die."

The growing Sunni-Shia unity in support of Hezbollah defies hopes by Bush administration officials and their Israel-centered neoconservative supporters here that fears of an Iranian-led Shia axis stretching from Lebanon across Syria to the new Shia-dominated government in Iraq would provoke Sunni-led states to form a de facto alliance with Israel.

Those hopes were bolstered when, in a break with traditional Arab solidarity over any confrontation with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt denounced Hezbollah for "adventurism" in abducting two Israeli soldiers along the Israel-Lebanon border, the incident which precipitated the violence and destruction that followed.

Their statements, which were welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as evidence of the emergence of a "new Middle East," were also cited as evidence, particularly by neoconservatives, that Iran, Hezbollah’s most-important source of arms and external funding, had displaced Israel as the Sunnis’ greatest threat.

The theory was most eloquently expressed by Michael Rubin, a hardline neoconservative at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). "Across Lebanon and the region, Arab leaders see Hezbollah for what it is: An arm of Iranian influence waging a sectarian battle in the heart of the Middle East," he wrote in a July 19 column in the Wall Street Journal titled "Iran Against the Arabs."

"An old Arab proverb goes, ‘Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger,’" he went on. "Forced to make a choice, Sunni Arabs are deciding: The Jews are cousins; the Shi’ites, strangers."

But most regional specialists now dismiss this analysis, at least at the popular level. If anything, they say, the impact of Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon has confirmed its status as the "stranger," while Hezbollah’s resistance has elevated it and those who support it to "cousin," if not "brother" to the Sunni Arabs.

"In fact … there is more of a rapprochement between the Sunni and Shia," according to Jean Francois Seznec, a Gulf specialist at Columbia University, who noted that Shia Hezbollah and Iran both support Sunni Hamas in the Palestinian territories and that Sunnis in Syria could be expected to rally behind the Alawi Assad regime if Damascus, which also supports Hezbollah, is drawn into the current conflict.

"[T]he real split here is between the Sunni autocrats and their very own citizens," wrote Fuller in an article for Global Viewpoint. "These Sunni regimes are terrified that Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and even Sunni Hamas are all creating inspirational models of independent mass resistance against reigning U.S. and Israeli power in the region."

That Sunni leaders now feel compelled to follow public opinion was made evident by several developments this past week, beginning with Egypt’s rejection of Washington’s proposal to hold Wednesday’s emergency international conference on Lebanon at Sharm al-Sheik. As a result, the conference, at which Rice was found herself completely isolated in rejecting calls for an immediate cease-fire, was held in Rome instead.

Tuesday’s angry and unusually harsh denunciation by Saudi Arabia of what it called "unremitting Israeli aggression," which also warned Washington in particular of unpredictable "repercussions befalling the region, including wars and conflict that will spare no one" if a cease-fire is not quickly achieved, was also taken as a major reversal of its previous views.

"The Saudis thought they could get a cease-fire and be the heroes," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at Williams College who follows the Arab media closely. "When it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen and public opinion was getting really mobilized, then they did a 180-degree turn. That is very significant."

Finally, Thursday’s appearance on al-Jazeera of a new video by al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he implicitly called for unity between Sunnis and Shia against the "Zionist-Crusader alliance," suggested that the most radical Sunni jihadis are eager not only to identify themselves with Hezbollah’s resistance, but also see the current crisis as an opportunity for broadening their base.

"Just as Iraq served al-Qaeda’s strategy by supplying an endless stream of images of ‘heroic mujahideen’ fighting against ‘brutal Americans’ – and became less useful as images of dead Iraqi civilians began to complicate the picture – the Lebanon war offers an unending supply of images and actions which powerfully support al-Qaeda’s narrative and worldview … without the complications posed by [Abu Musab] Zarqawi’s controversial anti-Shia strategy in Iraq," wrote Lynch on his widely read blog.

"In that regard, al-Qaeda’s open support for Hezbollah might even help to heal the Sunni-Shia breach which Zarqawi worked to hard to open [in Iraq] against [Osama] bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s advice," he added.

Even before the current Israel-Lebanon crisis, al-Qaeda had been trying to undo the damage caused by Zarqawi’s anti-Shia campaign. In his most recent audio message, released July 1, several weeks after Zarqawi’s death, bin Laden referred to Shi’ites as "cousins" and called for al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia, as Zarqawi’s group is known, to make U.S. forces and their collaborators – rather than the general Shia population – its primary target.

"The Sunni-Shia divide is real, and it’s not just being invented by the neocons, but if you look at mainstream public opinion, a lot of the Sunni-Shia stuff that the neocons and the press are picking up on is the invention of the [Sunni-led] regimes, especially in the Gulf, where Sunni leaders really are afraid of Iran and their Shia populations inconveniently happen to live on the oil fields," Lynch told IPS.

"For the Arab regimes, playing on Sunni-Shia differences is really a divide-and-conquer [strategy] to prevent the rise of a unified movement against them. But the fact is you’re now seeing even very Sunni movements like the Muslim Brotherhood rallying to Hezbollah as the fighter against Israel, while these corrupt, impotent, pro-American governments aren’t doing a thing."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.