Syria War Tipping Mideast Balance Toward Sunnis
Assad’s fall would cost Iran a priceless foothold in the heart of the Arab world
Not long ago, Arabs everywhere listened when the leader of Hezbollah spoke. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s prominence, bolstered by his Lebanese guerrilla force’s battles against Israel, was a sign of the rising regional influence of Shiite Muslims and overwhelmingly Shiite Iran. Now, his speeches don’t necessarily make front pages even in Lebanon.
The change is emblematic of how the bloody conflict in Syria, now in its 18th month, has brought a shift in the Middle East’s sectarian power balance. For much of the past few years, Shiites were surging in power across the region, based on the central alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, with close relations to Shiites who took power in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
But now the region’s Sunni-led powers are appearing more confident, encouraged by the prospect that the Sunni-led rebellion could bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, dominated by members of the Shiite offshoot sect of Alawites. Assad’s fall would cost Iran a priceless foothold in the heart of the Arab world. Hezbollah would lose a bastion of support and a conduit via Syria for vital Iranian weapon supplies.
Already, Iran and Hezbollah have seen their reputations damaged by their support for Assad in the face of the uprising.
“Iran’s influence in the Arab world has taken a big hit recently,” said Alireza Nader, a Middle East expert from the Rand Corporation. Iran’s and Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime, he said, contradicts their support for Arab Spring revolts elsewhere. “This policy makes Iran, and Hezbollah, appear cynical if not hypocritical.”
Further boosting the Sunnis, the wave of uprisings around the Middle East since early 2011 brought greater political influence to Sunni Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt and Tunisia.
The announcement Saturday that Egypt’s new, Muslim Brotherhood-rooted president, Mohammed Morsi, will visit Iran on Aug. 30 — the first such visit by an Egyptian leader since the mid-1970s — likely reflects the growing confidence that Iran’s status is damaged and that Sunni Arab nations can steer the agenda.
Egypt has long shunned Iran and in recent years, former President Hosni Mubarak had joined with Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia in touting Tehran’s growing influence as the main threat to the Middle East. Morsi, who was elected this year in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster, has called for Assad’s removal and last month pledged Egypt’s “protection” of what he called Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” of Sunni Islam against outside threats, a thinly veiled reference to Iran.
But at the same time, Morsi’s Brotherhood has suggested it is aiming for a new policy of engaging with Iran and influencing it. During a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Morsi proposed the formation of a contact group of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey to mediate a solution in Syria. The proposal may have been largely symbolic, but Brotherhood officials touted it as a return of Egypt’s regional impact “that it had lost under Mubarak.”
“Sunni Arab countries are pushing back to make up for the losses they suffered after 2003,” said prominent Iraqi analyst Hadi Jalo. “With the civil war in Syria and the isolation of the government in Iraq, the Shiite tide is retreating.”