Syria as a Linchpin

Syria's return to the Sunni world would not be without problems: It would broaden the circle of countries ruled by Sunni Islam that surround Israel.

Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh
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Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh

In 1965, the eminent British journalist Patrick Seale published an important book titled "The Struggle for Syria." Its main thesis was that anyone who wants to acquire dominant status in the Middle East must control Syria or have friendly relations with it. The primary reason for Syria's importance in the regional system stemmed, in his opinion, from its geostrategic location in the heart of the Middle East. This status led, in the 1950s and '60s, until Hafez Assad's ascent to power in 1970, to the fact that Syria became a focus of both the struggles between Egypt and Iraq for hegemony in the Arab world, and between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The current civil war in Syria has restored that country, to a great extent, to the period when it was a battleground between forces more powerful than itself in the regional arena. The basic thesis laid down by Seale (who for many years was close to the Assad family and even wrote Hafez's biography ) remains the same, but the players and circumstances have changed.

If in the '50s and '60s the main struggle in the region was between supporters and opponents of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, or between supporters of pan-Arabism and those of territorial nationalism -- now the axis of struggle revolves around the Sunni-Shi'i rivalry. The revolutions in the Arab world brought to power religious Sunni Islamist parties (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia ), which have joined the Islamist revolution in Turkey that has been going on for the past decade, ever since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power there. This axis also takes in the Sunni Islamist countries in the Persian Gulf (especially Saudi Arabia ), for which religious ideology was always a central element in their foreign policy. In this context we may also mention the strengthening of Hamas, which has become an important political factor in the wake of last month's war in Gaza.

The Shi'i axis has also undergone important changes over the past decade, bringing some to speak in terms of the Shi'ite Crescent, which includes Iran (not an Arab country ), the new Iraq, which has been controlled by the Shi'ites ever since the American occupation in 2003, and Hezbollah in Lebanon (where Shi'a constitute the major sect ). The linchpin of this crescent is Syria. Even though a majority of its population is Sunni, the Alawi minority -- which from a religious standpoint views itself as related to the Shi'a -- elected to sever itself from its Sunni-Arab front and forge an alliance with Iran, from the beginning of its war with Iraq in 1980.

The Syrian-Iranian alliance -- a product of military, economic, political and religious interests -- held for two decades, with the exception of a brief period of Syrian cooperation with the Sunni Arab world and with the West (roughly two decades ago, after the fall of the Soviet bloc, the war in Kuwait, and the Madrid Conference ).

Syria is therefore at a crossroads. The struggle in and over it is not just domestic, between the regime and its opponents, but rather also between the various players in the region, who would like to see Syria as part of their camp. Taking part in this struggle are not only states, but also non-state organizations, such as Hezbollah and Al-Qaida. The toppling of Assad's regime and rise of a Sunni regime (perhaps led by the Muslim Brotherhood ) would in effect constitute a writ divorce to the alliance with Iran and with the Shi'a in general. In that situation, Syria would largely go back to its natural place in the Arab world, as part of the Sunni axis.

A possible severing of Syria from the Shi'i axis with Iran would of course be good news for Israel and the West, which have always sought a way -- including in peace talks with Syria -- to disconnect Syria from Iran. But Syria's return to the Sunni world would not be without problems: It would broaden the circle of countries ruled by Sunni Islam that surround Israel. Such a move could have implications for the standing of Jordan's King Abdullah versus the Muslim Brotherhood opposition in his country. Nevertheless, we should remember that there are disagreements and rivalries within the Sunni axis as well. Egypt, for example, is suspicious of Turkey's leadership intentions, is strenuously opposed to the Hanbali Islam of Saudi Arabia, and is resisting the leading role little Qatar is assuming for itself.

In Gamal Abdel Nasser's time, it also seemed like pan-Arabism and Nasserism were taking over the Arab world, but that is not what happened, because the rivalries between Arab countries and the desire to preserve their respective national identities overcame other considerations.

Political Islam has not yet replaced pan-Arabism, but we are not to conclude from this that the Arab countries (and Turkey ) will now be more united than in the past. Doubtless they will display solidarity of one kind or another with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel, as was evident in the latest war in Gaza, but beyond that it looks like state interests will continue to rule the roost.

Elie Podeh is a professor of Islamic and Middle-Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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