Elazar Gabay

Sunni-Shia Geopolitics: Maintaining the Balance of Power in the Levant Through Intervention

Sunni/Shia Map Showing Shites Percentage of Muslim Populations (Credit: Pew Research)
Sunni/Shia Map Showing Shites Percentage of Muslim Populations (Credit: Pew Research)

Maintaining a Balance of Power in the Levant is as crucial to the stability in the Middle East as it is to global economic stability and security. The ongoing Sunni-Shia sectarian civil-war in Syria, has more implications in the Levant’s balance of power than initially meets the eye. What began as a popular uprising (crossing sectarian lines) has fast degenerated into a violent civil war and is quickly escalating into a regional Sunni/Shia conflict with global implications. While the conflict has raged on for two years, neither the UN, The US, the Arab League or any of Syria’s Sunni neighbors have actually taken any steps to defend the Syrian Sunnis. It remains up to the US to either intervene on its own, or coerce its allies to do so for their mutual benefit.

Syria is a largely Sunni populated country, being run by the Assad regime who are Alawites -an offshoot of Shia Islam. Iran and Iraq have the regions largest Shia populations, with the former hovering at over 90% and being run by an extremist Shiite government bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Lebanon’s mostly Muslim population (54%) are split 50/50 Sunni-Shia, however with the introduction of Iranian Hezbollah into the Lebanese territory and political sphere, this has shifted the old, once multicultural, shared power of government to one where the Shiites (via Hezbollah) now have veto power.

Hezbollah at the bequest of Assad and the Iranians, has entered the Syrian civil war, as a sectarian fighting force to be reckoned with. Its foray into the Syrian civil war should make its intentions crystal clear: Hezbollah serves as a Shia fighting force and is an attempt by Iran to spread radical Shia Islam in the region, challenge the Sunni regimes and gain further geopolitical control and regional influence. Effectively drawing a violent Shia dominated territorial line stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and the Persian gulf. One shouldn’t underestimate the risk of an attempted or successful Iranian closure (or an attempt thereof) of the Strait of Hormuz, a passage that handles a significant percentage of the worlds oil transport.

Russia’s involvement has been steady since the start of the conflict. Moscow supported the Assad regime inasmuch politically as it did with arms contribution militarily. America on the other hand, waited far too long to get involved only to then provide too little support, too late on in the conflict. Not only does this weaken the American position and that of its Sunni allies, but more importantly it also emboldens Assad, Iran and Hezbollah on the ground in Syria (and elsewhere) and risks ensuring a Shia win to the conflict. America was mistakenly more concerned about its ideological appearance than with a geopolitical shift in the region’s balance of power.

Although unfortunate that some of the rebel Sunni groups have ideologies sympathetic or even similar to al-Qaida, nevertheless, America stands to gain more influence in both the current and future courses of the conflict –if its involvement is more substantial. America’s direct involvement may even pacify some of the rebels and perhaps even encourage a future government, sympathetic to it. It may even empower the US when dealing with other Sunnis in the region, such as in negotiations with Palestinians and building a more influential alliance with Egypt’s new Sunni-Islamist government. Not to mention the strengthening of the Lebanese Sunnis, Christians and Druze -who have been forcibly silenced by Hezbollah and previously by Syria directly. Moreover Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and Qatar -all Sunni controlled states, stand to have increased influence and stability in the region, and as a result -can continue the exportation of their oil uninterruptedly, without fear of an Iranian shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz.

In principle the Arab League, absent up until now, should have been the first to intervene, at the very least with a humanitarian aid and an Arab coalition –but we all know that is not going to happen. Hence it is up to the United States, to either directly support the Sunnis in Syria, and or rally up its (Sunni) Arab allies and stop the Iranian Shia expansionist push towards the Mediterranean.

Turkey is perhaps best suited for this intervention, it shares a border with Syria, currently hosts the largest amount of Syrian refugees in the conflict, has been attacked a number of times and is a NATO-member -but has its own internal issues to deal with currently. Jordan, while also having a large amount of Syrian refugees, has been advocating for greater Arab involvement since the onset of the conflict -but doesn’t have the will or military capabilities to achieve anything substantial on its own. However there are plenty of other Sunni states with a direct interest in limiting Iranian-Shia influence, and the military prowess to do so, namely the U.A.E, Saudi-Arabia, Egypt. Yet it remains up to the United States -both in terms of risks and rewards, to encourage and rally up its Sunni allies for an intervention in the conflict -one that will guarantee a Shia loss and a win for the US, its allies  as well as for the people of Syria.

About the Author
Elazar Gabay is an entrepreneur, author, volunteer EMT, husband and father to three beautiful children. He is a Political Scientist, a graduate of Concordia University, Long Island University and Université de Montréal. He writes about Technology, Politics and Religion.