Is the Middle East moving toward a Shia-Sunni war?
Interview with Hojjatollah Joudaki. Analyst of Regional Issues and Iran’s Former Cultural Advisor to Egypt.
Perhaps, it would be no exaggeration if one claimed that the biggest war which is currently raging in the Middle East region is a war between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Not a single day passes by without mass media releasing reports about bomb attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. At the same time, the ongoing civil war in Syria is taking more of an ethnic and religious turn as time goes by. So, would it be exaggeration to talk about the war between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq? What should be done to deal with this situation? These and other similar questions have been put forth in the following interview with Hojjatollah Joudaki, an analyst of regional issues and the former cultural advisor of Iran in Egypt.
Q: Analysts of the Middle East issues have been talking about an evolving conflict between Shias and Sunnis in the region for quite a while. How serious do you think this issue really is?
A: The conflict between Shias and Sunnis in the region is quite real and nobody can ignore or deny it. The signs of this conflict have been clearly observed in the course of the regional developments during the past two or three years, especially in Iraq and Syria. A look at the region and its present condition will reveal that this sectarian conflict is clearly going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and other regional countries where signs of this war are already evident everywhere.
Q: Why do you think the current situation has come about?
A: I believe that the conflict between Shias and Sunnis in the region is according to a premeditated plan. I mean certain parties have worked on it to bring it about and have looked upon it as an alternative plan. They have spared no effort to bring about this war and their efforts in this regard constitute a long list. Last year, the Israelis elements held a meeting during which they reached the conclusion – which was even declared by the media – that the best way to counter threats posed by Iran as well as Islamist political forces in the region is to trigger a sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis. This clearly proves that the West has made plans in this regard because the West knows that through such a war, it will be able to achieve its goals more easily and reach better result at a low cost.
Before this, the West’s plan to counter the threat posed to its interests by Islamist forces led to military deployments in which the former president of the United States, George W. Bush, attacked Iraq and Afghanistan. It is true that they meant to show off the might of the United States through those wars, but the ensuing conflicts proved very costly for the United States. As a result, the politicians in Washington reached the conclusion that this is not a plausible way of countering Islamism. Therefore, they sought about other solutions to deal with this problem. It was as a result of that process that they decided to trigger off such a sectarian conflict. Therefore, and in view of the present situation in the region in which the conflict between Shias and Sunnis can be observed across the entire region, it seems that they have actually put their plan into gear. The crisis and war in Syria, I believe, will fan the flames of this sectarian war more than before.
Q: You noted that the West has made plans in order to foment a full-scale conflict between Shias and Sunnis in the region. What approach has been taken by the regional countries to this issue? Have they adopted a correct approach in order to neutralize the West’s plans in this regard?
A: Unfortunately, they have not. The West had based its premeditated plan for fomenting sectarian conflict in the region on a forecast, which has come true. That forecast was that the two parties to the conflict have powerful motivations to get engaged in it and need no further goading from the outside. If this [religious conflict] actually unravels in full force, the two sides have enough potential to continue that conflict for many years to come. The reason is the presence of traditionalist and reactionary forces alongside both the Shia and Sunni fronts which not only provide them with suitable grounds to fight, but also keep stoking resentment between the two sides. Just have a look at the various religious fatwas which have been issued in the Syria war. For example, one cleric has announced that the foreign-backed militants can take sexual advantage of Shia women. On the other hand, some reactionary Shias have also issued similar fatwas which are noteworthy. Sometimes, the remarks made by some religious preachers in Iran are also similar to those fatwas. Therefore, since reactionary elements are active on both sides, they can sow hatred. That hatred, in turn, will work as a source to feed a religious war especially taking into account that the aforesaid hatred has been already mixed with territorial and political issues, the willingness by some countries to take what other countries have, and an insatiable thirst for power.
On the other hand, in some countries the governments are basically spearheading this hate-fomenting campaign. For example, the government in Saudi Arabia has its roots in radical Wahhabi and Salafi tenets and has been abetting Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist groups for a long period of time. Iran’s policy is to denounce all kinds of religious war, but since the Iranian government has not succeeded in controlling the reactionary elements among Shias, it is possible that it would become a victim of this conflict as well. Publication of various books by Shias against Sunnis and vice versa can be assessed along the same line. The problem we are currently facing is this hate-mongering campaign which has been launched by radical figures on both sides.
Q: You noted that the crisis in Syria will further exacerbate this situation. To what extent do you think that the crisis in Syria is the result of a religious war? I mean is it true that Iran supports the [Syrian President] Bashar Assad because the government in Syria is topped by Alawites, or Saudi Arabia supports Assad’s opposition just because they are Sunnis? Are religious issues more important in stoking this crisis or the struggle for power?
A: I think none of these issues is the true cause of crisis in Syria. The crisis in Syria is now a regional crisis in which both sides have their own different attitudes toward the situation on the ground. The issue, as presented by Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the government of Syria; is that enemies want to destroy anti-Israeli resistance movement. Therefore, they have stoked this war in order to cut the link between Iran and Hezbollah and, finally, to break up the regional anti-Israeli resistance axis. Therefore, in their viewpoint, this is not a war between Shias and Sunnis, or even a war merely over the political power and government in Syria, but its ultimate goal is something quite different.
This is the main nature of the Syria crisis as seen on the side of Iran, Syrian government, and Hezbollah. On the other side of the conflict, however, the main concept is that the Syrian government is a dictatorship, which is of course true as the Syrian government is really a dictatorship. They also announce that they aim to topple the Syrian government as a continuation of the Arab Spring. The problem, however, is that certain political groups took control of the political developments in the country and turned Syrian people’s peaceful protests into an armed conflict and civil war. The people who started the protests had no weapons and were not able to turn the protests into a civil war. However, the other side of the conflict provided necessary grounds and succeeded to wage such a war. In order to boost their capacity for propaganda, they try to fan the flames of anti-Shia sentiments as well. The remarks made by the former head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Moaz Al-Khatib, after he resigned his post were quite indicative of this reality. After resigning his post as the head of the aforesaid coalition, Al-Khatib warned the Lebanese Hezbollah to avoid interfering in Syria’s domestic crisis so that the crisis would not turn into a war between Shias and Sunnis. The presence of the notorious Al-Nusra Front which is close to Al-Qaeda and has been put by the United States on Washington’s blacklist of terrorist groups, proves the involvement of radical Sunnis in Syria conflict. It is true that thousands of volunteer forces from across the world are currently fighting in Syria, but they will gradually transform into warriors at the service of the radical Islamist currents as a result of the vast investment that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and some other countries are making in Syria conflict. On the other hand, the West is willing to highlight a political current which is not favored by most of the world in order to prevent moderate currents as well as religious intellectual figures from coming on top. Meanwhile, when a full-fledged conflict between Shias and Sunnis is started, both sides of the conflict will eventually lose power. Also as a result of that conflict, the religious intellectuals would not be able to take control of the situation because when bipolar atmosphere reigns, they would come under heavy pressure to get close to one of the main sides of the conflict.
Q: New reports indicate that there is a will to get Hezbollah involved in Syria crisis. Judging from what you said about the remarks by Moaz Al-Khatib about the role of Hezbollah in Syria crisis, do you think that in case Hezbollah gets involved in Syria crisis it would add fuel to the conflict between Shias and Sunnis?
A: Yes. I believe that this will help make Syria conflict look more like a sectarian war. Of course, I think that the leadership of the Lebanese Hezbollah is wise enough to pay attention to this issue. I must, however, admit that I have no clear knowledge of the extent to which Hezbollah has been involved in Syria crisis, but if they have actually entered the crisis, they would have ventured in an arena which is by no means in their favor.
Q: Secretary-General of the Lebanese Hezbollah Hassan Nasrollah recently announced that “to help the Syrian army we will do whatever is necessary and within our ability.” Does this mean that Hezbollah is entering the Syria crisis?
A: It is quite possible, but I believe it is not the right thing to do. It is noteworthy that Hezbollah is a liberation movement and a military group which came into being with the main goal of fighting Israel. Hezbollah is not a country like Iran which has interests in Syria. It is a political current which is more of the nature of a movement. The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syria crisis is, in fact, falling into a trap which has been laid for a long time by those who seek to pour fuel on Shia-Sunni war.
Q: What do you think should be done to counter efforts aimed at intensification of the conflict between Shias and Sunnis?
A: We must first pay attention to everybody’s responsibilities and see what responsibility everybody should shoulder. In reality, old ideas such as the World Assembly for Proximity [of Islamic Denominations] are not useful anymore. At present, it would help nobody to dig up books of history to claim that centuries ago the situation has been such and such. I believe that the Islamist leaders among both Shias and Sunnis, who are truly concerned about the situation of the Muslim world, should be more realistic, clearly voice their opposition to the current situation, and denounce any form of conflict between Shias and Sunnis. If they don’t do this, they would be helping the continuation of the currently existing untoward conditions and, unfortunately, this conflagration will engulf the entire Islamic world.
Iran Diplomacy via Iran Review