The Shia/Sunni Conflict in the Middle East Wars – Syria into Focus


The Muslim world with the Middle East, The Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, have been plagued by political instability since, what it seems, ever. In modern time no country in the region has had any democratic or economic development of Western standard, with the exception of a few rich Gulf States that have built appropriate prosperity for their peoples but are as far behind as the others when it comes to political development. Another (half) exception is Lebanon that has managed to create some kind of haltering democracy but despite this still experiences a high degree of political instability.

The lack of socio economic development has fed social unrest and armed conflict in the entire region, while the colonial history and the Cold War are present as important historical causes. But there is also a wide-ranging conflict that is unknown for many, the strife between the Shia and Sunni orientations of Islam. This cause of conflict is more seldom mentioned in the debate, but represents a clash of enormous proportions that reaches back some 1400 years and continues to characterize the conflict dynamics in the Middle East today.

The conflict between Shia and Sunni has in the wake of the Arab Spring escalated and is therefore more relevant as an explanation of conflict than ever before.
Up until the outbreak of the Arab revolution in 2011, most countries in the region were characterized by authoritarian strongmen who had, as it seemed, held power forever with powerful allies (including Western powers) that had supported them for decade after decade.

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring a new era has certainly commenced in the Muslim world, and that isn’t a day too early. But the nations have a long and hard way to go before their societies will develop into stability and prosperity. The tensions between Shia and Sunni, then, is perhaps the most difficult obstacle, an obstruction that goes deep down in the population layers as well as deep into the regional big politics.

The two Islamic orientations of Shia and Sunni emerged in association with Prophet Mohammed’s death in year 632 and were based on disagreement of who should become the new head of Islam – Mohammed’s most competent follower (Sunni) or his closest male relative (Shia). Religious war thus broke out between the two groups during the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, and today this conflict is more significant than ever, a destructive force that was further provoked by the power vacuum of the Arabic revolution.

The states of the Middle East are today clearly divided between Sunni dominated states on the one hand and Shia dominated states on the other, a fact that is especially evident in the on-going war in Syria. Shiite-dominated Iran and Iraq as well as Shia-led Syria are allies against Sunni-dominated states like Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, the rich Gulf monarchies and parts of North Africa. Armed groups like Shia Muslim Hezbollah in Lebanon stand on the Iran/Syria side and both Iran and Hezbollah have sent soldiers into Syria to fight on the regime’s side. Sunni Muslim Hamas in Gaza on the other hand has allied itself with the Syrian rebels and is said to have trained rebel soldiers against the Assad regime.

In Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime was ousted by the US military, a Shia-led regime was installed in line with the majority population in the country. The US has thereafter lost much of its influence in Iraq and instead Iran is believed to control much of the Iraqi events.

Today, Sunni-dominated states are almost exclusively the friends of the West in the region and thereby the western powers have allied themselves with (some) of the Sunni rebels in Syria. The exceedingly bloody Syrian civil war is thus on the verge of turning into a serious regional – and global – conflict.

Examples of an escalated regional conflict with Sunni-Shia ties are several. Pakistan, with its 30 million Shia Muslims in minority, is today a country with a violent anti Shia sectarianism on the roll. In January 2013 a bomb killed 121 people and injured 82, an attack directly aimed at Shiites. The attack was conducted by Sunni extremists and during 2012 some 400 Shiites were killed in similar attacks throughout the country.

Gulf state Bahrain was hit hard by the Arabic Spring and the royal Sunni regime has cracked down severely against the Shia dominated protests. The government responded by destroying 35 Shiite mosques and other holy sites, imprisoned and tortured an unknown number of activists and sent many protesters to lengthy prison sentences followed by confessions after torture.

The events in the country also had regional political consequences since Iran actively supports the revolting Shiites. Iran has also encouraged the Shia Muslims to revolt against the Saudi Arabian rule in the eastern part of the country where they are in majority. The western allied regime in Riyadh is Sunni, just like the majority in the country as a whole.

In Iraq, which was plagued by a full-fledged civil war between Shia and Sunni groups during 2006-2007, the sectarian violence is once again on the rise and it’s been reported that the country is now on its way back towards a new civil war. The tensions have been provoked by the Shiite-led government’s hard crack-down against the Sunni population and elements within the Iraqi government and western media are now saying that the current conditions are even worse than they were before the last war. The increasingly authoritarian Iraqi government does certainly not wish for a Sunni extremist power seize in Syria, and is therefore actively supporting Assad.

Syria has since independence in 1946 always been in the claws of a ruthless dictatorship, more or less stable. The Assad family has ruled the country with a hard hand since 1970 and has systematically favored its own ethnic minority, the Shia Muslim Alawites. Despite the massive repression with its horrific torture chambers, Hafez Al-Assad (current president’s father) managed to hold the Sunni majority in check, for instance by letting them make money in a fairly open business climate.

With Bashar Al-Assad’s overtaking of power following his father’s death in 2000, however, the Alawite power elite started to seize assets and thereby created a widespread dissatisfaction among the Sunni majority. Encouraged by the Arabic Spring in North Africa also the Syrian people raised against the dictatorship, a system that made it impossible for the people to utter discontent in other ways than taking it to the streets.

The response was immediate and exceedingly violent. The Syrian regime was one of the world’s most repressive already before the revolution and the fierce reaction with extreme assaults on its own population radicalized the opposition and led to a spiral of violence of mighty proportions.

The initially peaceful protests thus developed into armed struggle and the conflict quickly attracted foreign elements that streamed into the country, some to fight against the Assad regime and some to fight on his side against the rebels.
There is no unified opposition. The Free Syrian Army that was created by defected Syrian military officers in August 2011 quickly gained competition from other armed groups that were more or less politically and religiously extreme.


Also there is tension within the Free Syrian Army that contains both moderate/secular Muslims and Islamic extremists. The most powerful and efficient armed groups consist of foreign jihadists and Al-Qaeda, and consequently the West has currently no obvious ally that is strong enough to seize power once Assad has fallen. Support for the rebel side is therefore a considerably risky balance act for the western powers.

Assad’s most important allies – Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah – are both long-term supporters of the Syrian Ba’ath regime and are both deeply involved in the conflict. Iran has sent funds as well as thousands of soldiers to the country and also the Hezbollah warriors are directly involved in the fighting on the ground, inside Lebanon as well as in Syria.

The regional Shia-Sunni conflict has thus concentrated itself to a Syria that has exploded, with more than 100 000 killed and two million refugees created. How many that has been tortured, mutilated and raped is unknown but can surely be counted into the hundreds of thousands.

The spill-over effects into the neighboring countries are enormous. Jordan is cracking under the weight of half a million Syrian refugees and the authoritarian royal government is worried that it might get a Sunni rebellion of its own, inspired by the Syrian uprising. Likewise, the fragile Lebanon has received a wave of refugees, something that puts even more strain on the country that is already a ticking bomb; there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the country that haven’t been let into society, a complication that certainly spawns radicalism in the crowded refugee camps.

Furthermore, Lebanon is directly dragged into the war through Hezbollah’s armed support to the Assad regime, and Lebanese border cities have been infected with full-fledged combat between Shia and Sunni groups, while the Syrian air force has bombed inside Lebanese territory. Consequently, the risk of a larger armed conflict is imminent also in Lebanon, a state that already is balancing on a fine line between Shiites, Sunnites and Christians.

Turkey turned its back on Assad early on and has seen the heaviest influx of refugees. The Turkish and Syrian armed forces have also been involved in skirmishes along the border. The conflict in Syria has henceforth spread from a local level to a regional level and then finally to a global level where the big powers and the UN have involved themselves to the full.

The already sinister US-Russia relations have deteriorated by the Syria issue, where the US is ready to attack the country following the gas attack that killed some 1400 people in Damascus and where Russia has promised to continue its military support to Assad and thus resist a possible US attack.

The Russia-Syria friendship is based on the fact that Russia needs an ally in the Middle East to maintain its influence in the region, and since it wishes to deter all Islamist Sunni activity close to home, something they have been fighting in the Caucasus for a long time. Furthermore, the vetoes from Russia and China have completely stalemated the UN Security Council, and there are also several different views within the European Union on how to tackle the Syrian issue. The killing is thus allowed to continue just as before.

Conflict causes and possible solutions

The above mentioned conditions indicate that the whole region might be on its way towards a sectarian, full-fledged war where Syria serves as the epicenter. Today Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and Hezbollah stands on one side with Iraqi and Syrian Sunni rebels on the other, backed by Turkey, the Gulf states and the western powers. In between we have the jihadists and Al-Qaeda that are amongst the most powerful rebel groups in Syria and that are unlikely to accept a secular or democratic government once the Assad regime has finally been toppled.

Through the chaos in the neighboring country, Lebanon risks destabilizing and getting pulled even deeper into sectarian tension, but will hopefully not follow Iraq’s tragic spiral into civil war, an awful situation created by a failure to create a working power-sharing system between the ethnic groups. If Lebanon is going to make it, the political parties representing the Shias, Sunnis and Christians need to come together and work towards a lasting stability. Unfortunately recent reports have shown they are now heading in the other direction.

The reasons for the regional conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims are multi-faceted. The strong animosity has (in a century-long perspective) been affected by the colonial powers and the Cold War, but the current strife must be described with more precise and present-day arguments. The most significant reason can be the lack of democracy and socio economic development in all countries of the region.

The leaders of these nations are accustomed to use the means they think necessary to consolidate their power and to favour their own ethnic group, in environments that lack proper public institutions. Therefore they do it without any regard to human rights or constitutional rules and therefore they use corruption as their tool. The populations thus have no opportunity to influence their situation through political channels which makes revolution the only possible solution. And after decades of repression and inequality a tiny spark is the only thing that is needed to get the ball rolling (remember Tunisia, December 2010).

In order to break the downward spiral of tensions and violence there are a few key factors that need to be considered. One stumbling block is the west’s (and Israel’s) conflict with Iran that needs to be solved. Iran stands behind several armed, terror-labeled organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and is therefore viewed as a strong inhibiting force in the bumpy road towards democracy and stability in Palestine and Lebanon.

Iran is certainly also an obstacle in the long way towards peace between Israel and Palestine. Finally, the country’s support to the Assad regime is the very prerequisite for his continued struggle to keep power in Syria. Without Iran’s massive support Assad might have had to reach a political solution much earlier and thus ended the war.

To get Iran to sit down at the negotiating table in order to stop its destructive activities, including the suspected nuclear weapon programme, might be a utopia considering the values on which the Islamic Republic is based. It should be mentioned, however, that a softer standpoint can be seen since the installation of a new, more moderate president recently. The alternative is revolution also in Iran, but we can barely sit down and wait for it; the Iranians have managed to put down the protests that have occurred and such a development would certainly be highly unpredictable and dangerous, and none of the big powers is likely to have such a wish.

Moreover, it’s a complicating factor that nearly every country in the region that constitutes the Middle East, the Arabic Peninsula and North Africa, supports the armed groups that serve their own strategic purposes, something that almost exclusively follows Shia-Sunni lines. How this is going to end and how the parties in all these countries are to sit down at the negotiating table with serious notions to stabilize their societies is written in the stars.

In order to find even the thinnest thread of hope to solve the current escalating conflicts in the region, where Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq and Syria play the main roles, the international community (with the main forum in the UN) at least has to invest considerably more amounts of money and political engagement into the problem. But first the great powers have to start working in the same direction, setting apart their own short-sited interests in favor of a long-lasting peace where negotiated solutions and serious aspirations towards democratic societies with working economies have to be the ultimate goal.

These aspirations might have to be preceded by one or several peace-making efforts, i.e. with military power, within the framework of the international law (meaning UN resolutions in the Security Council). An utopia? Perhaps, but there is no other alternative.


Filip Ericsson


Militias on the regime side

Shabiha (Shiite/Alawite; criminal gang/militia led by the Assad regime. Supported by Iran. Commits serious crimes against the population on orders from the regime)

Hezbollah (Shiite; Lebanese, Islamist paramilitary/political party. Supported by Iran/Syria)

Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade (Shiite; militant militia, consists of Syrian and foreign Shia Muslims)

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (Shiite; Iraqi militia/resistance movement. Fought against the US military following the Iraq occupation in 2003. Supported by Iran)

Kata’ib Hezbollah (Shiite; Iraqi militia/resistance movement. Fought against the US military following the Iraq occupation in 2003. Supported by Iran)

Rebel groups/opposition

Suquor al-Sham (Sunni; moderate Islamist, ”political Islam that is compatible with democracy”, part of Free Syrian Army)

Umma Brigade (Sunni; moderate Islamist, ”political Islam that is compatible with democracy”, 90 % Syrian)

Ahrar al-Sham (Sunni; Islamist including Salafists, conservative Islamists & Jihadists. One of the largest and most efficient. Have established local government)

Farouq Brigades (Part of Free Syrian Army, started by defected military officers)

Abdullah Azzam Brigades (Sunni; Islamist terror organization created in 2009 by a Saudi citizen. Allied to Al-Qaeda. The group has conducted terror attacks throughout the Middle East since 2009)

Fatah al-Islam (Sunni; Islamist group started in 2006 by Palestinian refugee, Shaker al-Abssi, in Lebanon. Al-Abbsi fought with Al-Qaeda in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003. The group is linked to Al-Qaeda)

Jabhat al-Nusra (Sunni; Syrian Jihadist group, links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. One of the most efficient. Established local government)


Free Syrian Army (Created by defected military officers in August 2011. Includes Islamists)

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Political coalition created in November 2012 by several rebel groups. Is seen by the US as the legitimate representative for the Syrian people. Not Islamist)


The Independent:

The Daily Mail:

Understanding war:

Understanding war:


Information clearing house:

This entry was posted in International politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s