The regional power struggle between Shias and Sunnis is evident throughout the Middle East. This conflict dates back more than a thousand years and stems from religious differences between the two sects. Moreover, Shia and Sunni leadership capitalize on these differences to increase both their and their groups sphere of power, prestige and influence. This is evident in the Syrian conflict, which has aggravated divisions in the Islamic world with Shia Iran supporting the Assad regime and Sunni nations, such as Saudi Arabia supporting the opposition.
Given the magnitude of the Syrian conflict, the political framework that will eventually emerge will have profound strategic consequences in the Middle East and beyond. Based on opposing strategic interests, sectarian conflict will continue to shape not only Syri, but the region as a whole in the foreseeable future. This highlights the importance of understanding the role of sectarian conflict within the region’s political and security landscapes. By better understanding the Shia-Sunni conflict, the West will be better able to protect its interests and security by adapting its strategies based on emerging realities and challenges.
The Arab Spring brought hope throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that the region would enter into a new era of democracy and growth. Despite the hope that millions had, the Arab Spring soon evolved into an Arab winter for much of the region. Since the mass uprisings, the MENA region has been experiencing volatility and conflict. Much of the conflict is rooted in the historical animosities between Sunnis and Shias dating back to the death of Prophet Mohammad. It is also associated with the use of these ancient grievances as tools by regional leaders, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to expand their sphere of power and influence. In order to better understand current sectarian conflict it is essential to have a historical context from it stems from. By understanding the root of the animosity and competition between these two groups we will be better able to understand the complexities associated with sectarian violence in countries such as Syria.
The split of the Muslim community into two denominations occurred soon after the death of Prophet Mohammad in 632. The dispute was over his succession. The individual that would succeed him would serve as both a religious and political leader of the expanding Muslim world. Sunnis asserted that the successor should be appointed and the Shia argued that the line of succession should be based on lineage. The split occurred when Abu Bakr, Prophet Mohammad’s father in-law and close friend was appointed as the next leader—first Caliph—of the Muslim world. The Shias or the party of Ali, did not accept Abu Bakr’s succession. They viewed it as a Coup e’tat. The Shia believed that Ali should succeed Prophet Mohammad, because Ali was his cousin, son-in-law and close friend. Shias further believed that Prophet Mohammad explicitly named Ali as his successor at Ghadir Khumm and as such the Muslim leadership belonged to him.
This core disagreement between the two sects has served as the premise for conflict between them for over a thousand years. Similar to today, the schism was as much about religious leadership, as it was about power and influence. It is being used to fan the flames of animosity and distrust that has existed between Sunnis and Shias since 632. Leaders are still using sectarianism as a tool to protect and strengthen their own legitimacy, power and influence. Similar to the competition of supporters of Abu Bakr and Ali who were fighting for leadership and hegemony over the Muslim world. Today, Sunni and Shia leaders are fighting for the same, to be leaders of the Muslim world and to have hegemony over their region. The competition between these two sects continues and is now visible throughout the region, including Syria where sectarian violence has reached destructive levels and created a humanitarian crisis.
During the Arab Spring, protestors spilled in the streets of Syria calling for democratic and economic reforms.  As the civil protests continued and gained strength, police responded violently hoping the violent crackdown would quell the protestors. They were not successful. As a result, both the number of protestors and protest sites substantially increased. This further escalated the conflict. The government then deployed the army, which employed large-scale military operations and brutal methods against the protestors.  This served as a catalyst for the civil uprisings to evolve into an armed rebellion utilizing asymmetric tactics. The conflict was no longer only a struggle for democracy and economic reform. Ethnic and religious divisions seeped through the forefront and began to tear the nation apart at its seams. More specifically, it quickly turned into a sectarian conflict between a Sunni led opposition and a regime dominated by Alawites, a Shia offshoot. Most of the Sunni majority supported the rebels and the Alawite religious minority supported Assad’s regime.
Syria is now mainly a battlefield where Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a proxy war with devastating sectarian repercussions. Each side is supporting its respective Islamic sect with propaganda campaigns, intelligence, weapons and men.  As a result, escalating levels of sectarian violence in Syria is linked with the proxy war between these countries. For example, the rebels were and continue to be backed by Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, and the Alawite dominated government forces are backed by Shia Iran. As such, Saudi Arabia exercises considerable influence on Islamist rebels and Iran is crucial to Assad’s survival. Each of these external players have tapped into ancient animosities and have entered this war for the sake of their own geopolitical agenda.
The impact of the sectarian war in Syria has been devastating. While both countries are vying for greater influence in a new Middle East the Syrian people are left suffering. In Syria, “more than 110,000 people have been killed, 4.25 million have been internally displaced and over two million have fled to neighboring countries.” As of May 21, 2014, approximately 2, 732,503 Syrian refugees have registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency. In addition, millions of Syrian children are at risk of becoming a lost generation. These numbers reveal the devastating impact that Syria’s sectarian war is having on its citizens and only scratches the surface on its impact on neighboring countries.
The magnitude of this conflict and the role of external players on its continuation not only has immense consequences for Syria today, but it will have profound strategic consequences for this country, the region and the international community far into the future. There are many uncertainties associated with Syria’s future and its people. However, in light of the devastating affects of this war, its impact will likely be for many generations. By understanding the complexities of the Sunni-Shia conflict and how it “will play a large role in defining the Middle East as a whole and shaping its relations with the outside world…” the West will be better able to develop appropriate strategies for Syria and the region as a whole.
Master of Arts in International Relations at Boston University
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