It is time now to say what has never been said this explicitly: the Shia-Sunni divide in Islam is its unquestioned soft underbelly. And Syria, in its current manifestation, is the most unfortunate exhibit of this.
It has mostly been a case of avoiding controversy and ignoring the dormant monstrosity of this latent divide. The bloody consequence of this is round the corner; and this soft underbelly is about to give way.
True, the bloody face of the lurking fear has been visible now for some time, but it has usually been treated as anomalous rather than a worrisome repetitive eventuality. In each Muslim nation where both sects inhabit – which is frequently the case – societies have learnt how to deal with an odd seasonal disturbance.
But to transcend to a global level where the Muslim world finds itself aligned into two distinct camps along the ultimate divide is the fearful reality that has finally arrived.
Syria just happens to be the ground zero of this final enactment in the long line of challenges that Islam has had to contend with. In the end, those who carry more geopolitical power and influence to shape events have the Muslim world dancing to their tune while the Muslim world itself is increasingly becoming a victim of its own concoction of hate.
The Arab spring got its name late, but it germinated in the minds of Bush Junior’s neo-conservatives, who from a position of unquestioned unipolarity in global politics set about to shape the world in their own colours.
Democracy was the rallying cry – unless, of course, the target state was a kingdom with oil, and hence already bequeathed to the orbit of the world’s sole superpower.
How this political restructuring has shaped is more an indication of the socio-political context in which it was triggered, but the results bear striking similarities. Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt and, soon, Turkey are the final exhibits of a process that has come knocking even as administrations have changed in Washington.
What was sown a long time back is bearing fruit only now and the final pickings are on its way.
There have been four regular wars since the US became the unquestioned king of the world: the two Iraq wars that the Americans imposed; the war in Afghanistan that sucked Pakistan into its inferno; and, the Iran-Iraq war that the US was not shy of sponsoring by equipping both sides with the required tools of destruction.
While the jury is out on what becomes of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Syria as the final act is already in play.
As each stands – save Turkey that has some safeties shielding it from caving in – these nations exhibit consequences of internal turmoil where their traditionally strong militaries are now fighting on multiple internal fronts in an attempt to save the state.
Arab autocracies ruled by strongmen by decree were devoid of regulatory legal and constitutional conventions, which were necessary to underwrite dependability in governance.
As the Arab spring unleashed pent-up sentiment seeking inclusivity and representative rule, and the existing order was overturned, the void in governing structures only added to the destabilisation process even when those filling in wore representative colours (read: Morsi).
Untreated political distortions have given rise to religious replacements that have been waiting in the wings for decades. A dormant third force, Islamist in thought and structure, found relevance in the shape of Morsi and the Brotherhood; Ennahda in Tunis; the Noor Party in Egypt and the Nusra Front in Syria – all vying for power and control of these nation-states.
The TTP in Pakistan betrays similar ambitions. Each of these reactionary politico-religious movements is ultraconservative and fed on a diet of hate and exclusivity.
This has set the stage for a final showdown along the inherent fault lines of political Islam. In Syria, it is all coming home to roost.
That is the consequence. But, what primarily drives this consequence, along with ‘project restructuring’ gone awry, is some sophisticated geopolitics. Here is how it goes. Iran lies at the centre of the ‘Shia Crescent’ – there isn’t a more insidious formulation in characterising the Muslim world than creating two crescents; Shia and Sunni.
Geopolitically Iran finds sustenance from as far as Syria, where the battle for its defence is currently being fought; such is the sophistication in the conception of Iran’s Ayatollahs.
Syria in turn has supported groups like the Hezbollah and Hamas on behalf of itself and Iran as their immediate succour in a complex security environment centring on Israel. This is the squeeze that also affects Israel, and therefore, needs implicit redress.
Arrayed against this line up are Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikhdoms who are fearful of their own resident Shia sentiment – for example the recent upheaval in Bahrain and its extended influence in eastern Saudi Arabia.
If Syria survives an impending onslaught, Iran stands emboldened, as will Hezbollah and Hamas. Bahrain yet might innervate and find renewed surge. Not only Israel, but Saudi Arabia too will find that discomfiting.
If however, the US does resort to a limited military action, it just might provide a stunted ‘spring’ in Syria some renewed impulse beyond the moral mantle that such action will be driven by. In its more intense evolution, the neighbouring Hezbollah and Hamas can be successfully sucked in to add more cinder.
With the rebels being constantly bolstered by increasing numbers of the Al-Qaeda warriors from the world over, what better spectacle could have been hoped for by those enflaming the passions of emotive hate than to see Islam bleed from within – literally?
There are threats galore of retaliatory action. If the US attacks Syria, Iran threatens to put Israel on fire. It is another matter that the country is already in talks with the US ‘on Syria’ and ‘mending’ their relationship by removing irritants by disavowing nuclear ambitions.
The Russians will play their cards right – and carefully. They are already in the game offering to move Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control. That in itself has the making of some rather ominous precedent.
The world better watch out.