Ryan J. Suto's Blog

17 September 2012

America's Shi'a Problem

This post about the Shi'a Crescent was written for INSCT's blog and can be here.

The Arab Spring has been the dominant narrative about the Middle East since February 2011. However, a deeper current runs to which the US must pay attention. That is of the Shi’a Crescent. The Shi’a Crescent informally consists of all the states whose concentration of Shi’a Muslims is greater than the global percentage of Shi’a, about 15%: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
Many of these countries represent continuing and growing threats to regional stability. Most obvious at present is Syria. The country is engulfed in a civil war which has stalled the UN Security Council and has claimed thousands of deaths. While Assad is Allawite, a Shi’a sect, the Obama administration has shown support for the Syria opposition—consisting mostly of the majority Sunni population. This conflict has renewed tensions in Lebanon with conflict spill-over and floods of Syrian refugees. Part of that spill-over includes sectarian kidnappings which have been perpetrated by Shi’a in Lebanon this summer. These incidents still hold memories of Lebanon’s own civil war. In Lebanon many Shi’a still support Hezbollah and the Assad regime, as well. Spill-over from Syria—or an overthrow of Assad—could destabilize Iraq, as well.
While US combat troops have now withdrawn from Iraq, the sectarian stability and internal security of the state are far from reliable. This summer has been violent, with concerns that the al-Maliki government could fold under a joint Sunni Arab-Kurdish vote of no confidence.
US-Iran and Israel-Iran tensions continue to be high. The Iranian government has continually defied US-led sanctions. This past summer Iran threatened to close the strategically invaluable Strait of Hormuz in reaction to the sanctions. While this did not occur, the Persian Gulf remains tense. Bahrain had its own trouble last year: the US stood behind her interests and kept silent while the majority Shi’a population rallied against the Sunni King and his government. The Bahraini Shi’a with whom I spoke, felt that the US supports the Sunni-led government so as to prevent a successful Shi’a-led revolution in Bahrain.
Some commentators have predicted a clash of civilizations, evidence of which may be visible in Benghazi, Cairo, and Sana’a. However, the Sunni-Shi’a divide, exposed most dramatically by the Arab Spring, has lead to a clash within a civilization. In Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Bahrain the US is clearly situated in conflict with Shi’a (only in Iraq have our actions proved more favorable for them). For domestic viewers America’s actions—and inactions—toward Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and Bahrain paint a picture of concern toward expanding Iranian influence. However to some Shi’a they paint a picture of anti-Shiism. Because of this, many Shi’a will likely continue to view the US as kingmaker, leading to more of the same resentment which has fueled terrorism over the past two decades.
When considering the views of the ‘Shi’a street’, it is in both America’s national security and public diplomacy interests to explicitly connect our foreign policy decisions with our powerful ideals of self determination and religious liberty. The next president must construct this preventative foreign policy, which is necessarily cognizant of this ancient fault line which has reawakened in the region.

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