Yet another round in the 1,200 year old war between Shia and Sunni Islam is being fought in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The impact of this conflict can be seen in a recent opinion poll among Moslems regarding Hezbollah, an Iran sponsored Shia Islamic terrorist group in southern Lebanon. The main goal of Hezbollah is to destroy Israel and turn Israeli territory over to the Palestinians. Yet 55 percent of Palestinians, who are nearly all Sunni, have an unfavorable view towards Hezbollah. In Lebanon 88 percent of Sunnis have an unfavorable opinion of Hezbollah. In Jordan its 81 percent and 83 percent among Egyptians. Even the Arab citizens of Israel, almost all of them Sunni, are 65 percent against Hezbollah. Why this hostile attitude towards Hezbollah when the main goal of most Moslems is the destruction of Israel? Worse, there is a lot of more hostility towards Hezbollah since the brief 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets in Israel and killed over a 160 Israelis. Despite that heroic effort (that got nearly 2,000 Moslems killed) Sunni Arabs thought less of Hezbollah after 2005. In Turkey negative attitudes towards Hezbollah went from 75 percent in 2007 to 85 percent now. In Egypt it went from 41 to 83 percent. In Jordan it went from 44 to 81 percent.
It’s all about a long-simmering feud between Sunni and Shia Moslems that regularly erupts into periods of intense violence. This is all about whether Shia or Sunni should be the dominant form of Islam. This latest round of this ancient feud kicked off in the 1980s, when Sunni Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity after the Shia clergy in Iran overthrew the Iranian monarchy. It was a messy revolution and Saddam thought he could seize several major Iranian oil fields just across the border. That land grab failed and turned into a decade of war that caused over two million casualties and put the Shia clergy firmly in control of the Iranian government. This was a great tragedy because before the Iraqi invasion the revolution was on its way to replacing the monarchy with a democracy. The Once in control the Iranian clerics saw the war and their new power as an opportunity to cut the Sunnis (80 percent of Moslems and Saudi Arabia is sort of their leader) down to size. The Saudis had long feared this and that was why they supported keeping the Sunni minority (led by Saddam, or any other Sunni tyrant) in power in Iraq.
This was not a new idea. In 1990, the Saudis demanded that the American coalition organized to drive the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, not invade Iraq. This promise was no secret, but it made little sense to most Westerners (who knew little of the Sunni-Shia conflict). Thus the Saudis were not pleased when the Americans went into Iraq in 2003 and deposed Saddam and his Sunni dictatorship.
After 1990 the Saudis had agreed that Saddam was bad and said they would ease him out if need be. After more than a decade of effort (and financing over a dozen assassination plots or coup attempts) Saddam was still in power. The Saudis thought if they could replace Saddam with another Sunni strongman all would be well but Saddam was extremely resilient. So were his Sunni followers, who kept fighting after 2003. But now Iran had an ally, rather than an adversary, in Iraq, where the Shia majority voted itself into power in 2005. For the first time in over five centuries the Shia were running this area.
Meanwhile, the new Iranian religious dictatorship had taken advantage of the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon to turn most of the Shia minority there into a lethal pro-Iran militia and terrorist organization (Hezbollah) that came to dominate Lebanese politics. Neighboring Syria, where a secular dictatorship was run by a Shia minority and constantly at odds with Saddam’s Iraq, became an ally (and client) of Iran in the 1980s. These two allies provided Iran with tangible progress for its plan of making Shia dominant among Moslems. The Iraqi Sunnis were not happy with this and feared that the Iranians might take control of southern Iraq (where most of the oil and Shia religious shrines are) and eventually move into oil-rich Arabia. The Sunnis fear that even more with the Shia government in Iraq calling for help from the United States and Iran.
Unfortunately for everyone these Iranian achievements had deadly side effects. For example Syria had been a sanctuary for Arab terrorists (secular or Islamic) since the 1960s and was the main support base for the 2003-7 Iraq Sunni terrorist campaign. Iran encouraged that because the Iranian leaders (all Shia clergy) had long depicted the U.S. as “The Great Satan” and a foe of Moslems everywhere. This was popular with Moslems because it absolved them of any culpability and responsibility for their dismal situation. They could blame it on non-Moslems and the United States in particular.
That 2003-7 Iraqi Sunni terror campaign was crushed, but not destroyed, when the Sunni tribes, fearing major damage from Shia terrorism, turned on the terrorists. That did not bring all the material benefits (government jobs and a larger share of the oil income) many Sunnis expected, and that enabled the Sunni terror groups to continue recruiting and killing. In Syria, the Sunni majority noted the persistence (if not success) of the Iraqi Sunni terrorists and were advised by Iraqi Sunnis how to organize to fight a hated government. That led to the current civil war in Syria. That, and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, reignited the civil war in Lebanon (where Arab Christians are the largest minority, followed by Shia, Sunni, and several smaller groups). The Arabian Peninsula states (all of them Sunni run but with a lot of Shia subjects) were alarmed at this Shia expansion to their north. In effect, there was a “Shia wall” up there and the Iranian clerics were talking openly about how much better off Islam would be if Shia (led by Iran) protected (and administered) the most sacred Moslem holy cities of Mecca and Media instead of the Sunni Saud family. So yes, there is very much another Sunni-Shia war going on and Iraq is right in the middle of it. Sunni Moslems may still proclaim their hatred of the West and desire to destroy Israel. But when asked to describe their attitude toward the most anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Islamic terrorist group in the region, they all turn on Hezbollah rather than praise it. But not in Lebanon, where only 13 percent of Shia Moslems dislike Hezbollah. Nothing is ever as it seems in the Middle East.