The horrific early morning gas attack on the suburb of Damascus that killed hundreds – possibly more than a thousand – of men, women and children screamed to the world: Syria is dying. Its agonies are spelled out daily as the death toll rises and refugees continue to escape bringing firsthand accounts of the destruction and deprivation of civil war. Also dying are hopes for the creation of a secular, nationalist, democratic government in the immediate future. Instead, Syria has become the locus of a proxy war, no longer just among world powers with competing economic and oil interests in the region, but fast becoming a battleground between Sunni and Shia, the two main branches of Islam.
The schism between Shia and Sunni has been a historical reality for Islam since its beginning, and the current impact has been described by Barry Rubin as “equivalent perhaps to the Sino-Soviet conflict’s effect on world affairs in the Cold War era.” The unrest is global, affecting Muslim communities all over the world. Once united by the common enemies of Islamophobia and economic disparity, Muslim communities today increasingly seek their individuality through sectarian identity. Islam, it seems, is quickly becoming a house divided and instead of the debate taking place in scholarly surroundings, it is happening on the bloody battlefields of places like Syria.
The rhetoric of the highly influential Sunni cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi exemplifies the sectarian animosity gripping the Arab world. At a rally in Doha in May 2013, he called fellow Sunni Muslims to join the rebels fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, denouncing Assad’s Alawite Shia supporters as being “more infidel than Christians and Jews.” He said that the Shia Lebanese militia Hezbollah should not be called “the party of God” but instead “the party of the Devil.”
In response, Sheik Hassan Nasrullah, leader of the Hezbollah, has accused Sunnis of being fanatical “takfiri” jihadists and therefore un-Islamic. However, Nasrullah’s participation in the Syrian war with more than 50,000 seasoned fighters supporting Assad’s army with arms and financing from Iran has made him seem more Iranian puppet than a Lebanese statesman. He is now complicit in assisting in the massacre of Sunnis by a ruthless dictator.
Israel is no longer the lead nemesis in the Middle East now that the struggle has shifted to Arabs versus Persians, Sunnis versus Shia. At stake is regional leadership following the dramatic upheavals in countries upended by the Arab Spring. With Egypt and Tunisia in turmoil, and countries on Syria’s borders in a state of heightened tension, Israel is getting a temporary reprieve as civil war within Islam unfolds in Syria.
The role of other Muslim countries is changing. No one now looks to Turkey for regional leadership or to follow its model of “secular” Islamic democracy. Egypt forfeited its chances of regional leadership with the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the military’s return to power. Morsi had sharply criticized the Assad regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood had supported the Syrian insurgents. It’s been suggested that the military deposed Morsi because its leaders feared he would eventually commit Egyptian forces to help topple the Assad regime. Egypt’s generals for all their faults, have national, not religious interests at heart.
Iran’s alliance with the Shia in Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq has helped polarize sectarian interests in Syria, shifting the balance of power with the Iran/Shia bloc in the ascendency. Instead of nation pitted against nation, the struggle is defined as Shia against Sunni, making the quest for civil government, democracy and good citizenship seem almost quixotic.
Such events should not sideline Syria’s revolution however. The opposition and international supporters still hold a sense of mission and vision, despite the sectarian struggle’s complex morass. The Syrian Opposition Council, formed in November 2012, is working to organize and bring political leadership to the disparate factions fighting to bring down the Assad regime.
A functioning bureaucracy will be central to any transition plan due to the need for continuity of a government, according to Fred Hof of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He warns of the consequences of inaction and further delay in offering the Syrian people a visible, credible alternative to the Assad regime and wrote in a 2013 essay for the Atlantic Council that “the Assad poison pill of sectarianism” is slowly paralyzing the idea and reality of a united Syria.
The way forward then requires formation of a provisional transition government free from sectarian allegiances, with revolutionary credentials to satisfy those who have fought and suffered for the cause of freedom and, at the same time, pragmatic enough to assuage civilian fears about the future.
It’s useful to examine Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolutions, now struggling to defend its new democracy against political and religious polarization. The democratically elected ruling Islamist party Ennahda is aware of the grievances that had brought down Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and has avoided a coup by accepting a mediated solution, with the government stepping down to allow a neutral interim cabinet of technocrats prepare for new elections. Tunisia also avoided secular division by leaving sharia out of its new constitution, aware of the wisdom of separating religion and state when possible. Ennahda's latest move of declaring the Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafist group believed to be responsible for the murder of opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi, as a terrorist organization and banning them from elections is a confirmation of this new thinking.
It would be folly for the international community to expect that a solution for Syria can ignore the Sunni-Shia enmity and assume that a mediated solution can be reached on purely legal and secular grounds. Yet this is what the provisional government must attempt to do, by elevating the discourse to the level of humanitarian concerns and universal human rights and finding an overarching authority based on international ethics to which everyone can adhere.
After all, on the shattered streets of Syrian villages, the organizations often in the forefront of rebuilding clinics and distributing food and medicine are not the International Red Cross or the United Nations but Salafi militants from the al-Nusra brigades. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they understand that winning hearts and minds begins with food and social services, and this humanitarian response from an often-maligned branch of Sunni jihadis could offer a point of convergence to build upon in the future.
Of course, all differences, religious and otherwise must be laid aside in universal condemnation of Assad’s regime for the use of chemical weapons against his own people, which may become the tipping point between indifference and action by the international community.
We can only hope that Shias and Sunnis will put aside their enmity in the face of this latest atrocity and build upon common humanity instead of continuing bloody violence. After all, Shias and Sunnis have lived peacefully all over the Middle East and India for many centuries, often attending the same mosques. It is a common history that should be built upon and could be the first step in rebuilding the Syrian nation.
Azeem Ibrahim, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Chicago and a fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. In 2009 Ibrahim was a Yale World Fellow. Rights: Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. YaleGlobal Online