by Patrick Cockburn
The Shia and Sunni split has other serious implications. The struggle between these two Islamic traditions, so similar to the battle between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, has been escalating since the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 and Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq in 2006-7 deepened the hatred between the two sects. Of course it was always much in the interests of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad clan in Syria and the al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain to play the sectarian card and demand communal solidarity from their co-religionists. As far back as 1991 I remember Saddam Hussein bringing the mutilated bodies of Baathist officials back from Najaf, where they had been lynched by Shia insurgents, and the terror expressed by Sunni friends in Baghdad, previously opposed to the regime, that the same fate awaited them if Saddam was toppled.
The Sunni-Shia rivalry goes some way to explaining why the Arab Spring won successes in North Africa that it has not achieved east of Egypt. Each side has been led by religiously inspired states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have struggled for supremacy in the region for 30 years. Embattled regimes and their insurgent enemies automatically gain allies. The Assad government might be isolated, but not quite to degree that Muammar Gaddafi was before his fall. Iran will do almost anything to keep its most crucial ally in the Arab world in power. By the same token Iran’s many enemies, unable to overthrow the government in Tehran, are determined to weaken it by changing the regime in Damascus.