Hopes by the George W. Bush administration for
the emergence of an implicit Sunni-Israel alliance against an Iranian-led "Shia
Crescent" have faded over the past week as Arab public opinion has become
increasingly united by outrage over the Jewish state's continuing military campaign
in Lebanon and Washington's refusal to stop it, according to Middle East experts
Fueled by saturation television coverage of the destruction and suffering wrought
by Israel's attacks, popular sentiment in both Shia and Sunni communities has
moved strongly behind Shia Hezbollah, whose leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah,
has become a symbol of resistance to Israeli and U.S. power, these analysts
"Resistance rises above sectarianism," according to Graham Fuller,
a former top Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and
the Rand Corporation. "Sunni masses by and large are not concerned whether
Iran, Syria's rulers, or Hezbollah are Shi'ites; they applaud them for their
steadfastness and willingness to fight and even die."
The growing Sunni-Shia unity in support of Hezbollah defies hopes by Bush administration
officials and their Israel-centered neoconservative supporters here that fears
of an Iranian-led Shia axis stretching from Lebanon across Syria to the new
Shia-dominated government in Iraq would provoke Sunni-led states to form a de
facto alliance with Israel.
Those hopes were bolstered when, in a break with traditional Arab solidarity
over any confrontation with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt denounced
Hezbollah for "adventurism" in abducting two Israeli soldiers along
the Israel-Lebanon border, the incident which precipitated the violence and
destruction that followed.
Their statements, which were welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice as evidence of the emergence of a "new Middle East," were also
cited as evidence, particularly by neoconservatives, that Iran, Hezbollah's
most-important source of arms and external funding, had displaced Israel as
the Sunnis' greatest threat.
The theory was most eloquently expressed by Michael Rubin, a hardline neoconservative
at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). "Across Lebanon and the region,
Arab leaders see Hezbollah for what it is: An arm of Iranian influence waging
a sectarian battle in the heart of the Middle East," he wrote in a July
19 column in the Wall Street Journal titled "Iran Against the Arabs."
"An old Arab proverb goes, 'Me against my brother; me and my brother against
our cousin; and me, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger,'" he
went on. "Forced to make a choice, Sunni Arabs are deciding: The Jews are
cousins; the Shi'ites, strangers."
But most regional specialists now dismiss this analysis, at least at the popular
level. If anything, they say, the impact of Israel's military campaign in Lebanon
has confirmed its status as the "stranger," while Hezbollah's resistance
has elevated it and those who support it to "cousin," if not "brother"
to the Sunni Arabs.
there is more of a rapprochement between the Sunni and
Shia," according to Jean Francois Seznec, a Gulf specialist at Columbia
University, who noted that Shia Hezbollah and Iran both support Sunni Hamas
in the Palestinian territories and that Sunnis in Syria could be expected to
rally behind the Alawi Assad regime if Damascus, which also supports Hezbollah,
is drawn into the current conflict.
"[T]he real split here is between the Sunni autocrats and their very own
citizens," wrote Fuller in an article for Global Viewpoint. "These
Sunni regimes are terrified that Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and even Sunni Hamas
are all creating inspirational models of independent mass resistance against
reigning U.S. and Israeli power in the region."
That Sunni leaders now feel compelled to follow public opinion was made evident
by several developments this past week, beginning with Egypt's rejection of
Washington's proposal to hold Wednesday's emergency international conference
on Lebanon at Sharm al-Sheik. As a result, the conference, at which Rice was
found herself completely isolated in rejecting calls for an immediate cease-fire,
was held in Rome instead.
Tuesday's angry and unusually harsh denunciation by Saudi Arabia of what it
called "unremitting Israeli aggression," which also warned Washington
in particular of unpredictable "repercussions befalling the region, including
wars and conflict that will spare no one" if a cease-fire is not quickly
achieved, was also taken as a major reversal of its previous views.
"The Saudis thought they could get a cease-fire and be the heroes,"
said Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at Williams College who follows the
Arab media closely. "When it became clear that that wasn't going to happen
and public opinion was getting really mobilized, then they did a 180-degree
turn. That is very significant."
Finally, Thursday's appearance on al-Jazeera of a new video by al-Qaeda deputy
leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he implicitly called for unity between Sunnis
and Shia against the "Zionist-Crusader alliance," suggested that the
most radical Sunni jihadis are eager not only to identify themselves with Hezbollah's
resistance, but also see the current crisis as an opportunity for broadening
"Just as Iraq served al-Qaeda's strategy by supplying an endless stream
of images of 'heroic mujahideen' fighting against 'brutal Americans'
and became less useful as images of dead Iraqi civilians began to complicate
the picture the Lebanon war offers an unending supply of images and actions
which powerfully support al-Qaeda's narrative and worldview
complications posed by [Abu Musab] Zarqawi's controversial anti-Shia strategy
in Iraq," wrote Lynch on his widely
"In that regard, al-Qaeda's open support for Hezbollah might even help
to heal the Sunni-Shia breach which Zarqawi worked to hard to open [in Iraq]
against [Osama] bin Laden's and Zawahiri's advice," he added.
Even before the current Israel-Lebanon crisis, al-Qaeda had been trying to
undo the damage caused by Zarqawi's anti-Shia campaign. In his most recent audio
message, released July 1, several weeks after Zarqawi's death, bin Laden referred
to Shi'ites as "cousins" and called for al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia, as
Zarqawi's group is known, to make U.S. forces and their collaborators
rather than the general Shia population its primary target.
"The Sunni-Shia divide is real, and it's not just being invented by the
neocons, but if you look at mainstream public opinion, a lot of the Sunni-Shia
stuff that the neocons and the press are picking up on is the invention of the
[Sunni-led] regimes, especially in the Gulf, where Sunni leaders really are
afraid of Iran and their Shia populations inconveniently happen to live on the
oil fields," Lynch told IPS.
"For the Arab regimes, playing on Sunni-Shia differences is really a divide-and-conquer
[strategy] to prevent the rise of a unified movement against them. But the fact
is you're now seeing even very Sunni movements like the Muslim Brotherhood rallying
to Hezbollah as the fighter against Israel, while these corrupt, impotent, pro-American
governments aren't doing a thing."
(Inter Press Service)