Syria and the New Great Divide in the Greater Middle East

With news of a series of bombings and attacks in Iraq, of kidnappings and reprisals in Lebanon, and an ongoing Civil War in Syria, anyone who looks at the map of the Greater Middle East cannot fail to see a new Great Divide.

The Great Divide has three dimensions.

1. First, it pits the Shanghai Cooperation Council (Russia, China and the Central Asian states, along with Iran as an observer) against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO wants Bashar al-Assad to step down and is attempting to strangle Iran via financial and trade sanctions. Russia and China are supporting the Baath government of al-Assad and are opposed to increased sanctions on Iran.

2. Regionally, the Great Divide ranges on the one side: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and on the other Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council more generally, along with Libya and Egypt. This regional conflict is not exactly along sectarian lines, but sectarianism is an element in it. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are Sunni-ruled, whereas Iran and Iraq are Shiite-ruled. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing RPGs and other weapons to the Syrian rebels. Iran is charged with training and equipping not only the Syrian army but also the Alawite shabiha or ‘Ghost Squads’ that carry out massacres of Sunnis in places like Houla (yes, that was a regime massacre). Syria’s Alawite minority, a branch of Shi’ism, predominates at the upper levels of the Baath Party, but the Baath is secular. Lebanon’s Miqati government depends heavily of the country’s Shiites and on their Christian allies, and leans toward al-Assad.

3. Locally and nternally, within each of the regional powers, a conflict is going on between supporters of al-Assad and those who want to see the Baath fall. Again, there is a sectarian dimension here, though it is not the only thing going on. On the whole Iraq’s Sunni Arabs support the Syrian rebels, as do Lebanese Sunnis. Lebanese Shiites largely support al-Assad.

This local conflict is hot today.

In Lebanon, kidnappings and clan reprisals have spiked as the Syria conflict spills over on its small neighbor to the west.

In Iraq: Radical Sunni insurgents deployed bombings and shootings to kill nearly 60 people. The Iraq Sunni-Shiite conflict appears to have been reinvigorated by the events next door in Syria, where some radical Sunni Iraqis have gone to fight the al-Assad regime.

In Bahrain harsh repression by the Sunni monarchy of dissidents, especially those of Shi’ite heritage, continues,
with a twitter micro-blogger getting a 3-year sentence for his critique of the regime.

In Syria itself, the civil war continued on Thursday, and Friday morning. Syrian oppositionists decried the government air strike on Izaz that killed dozens of civilian non-combatants, including children. A UN inquiry concluded that regime elements and death squads were responsible for the Houla massacre in June — not, as regime loyalists whispered– the Free Syrian Army.

Fighting continued between insurgents and the state in the suburbs of Damascus and in Aleppo and other cities and towns around the country.

France24 reporters in the Damascus area describe how the rebels are getting secret help from regime insiders, and how they continue to gather forces for confrontations with loyalist troops:

The Great Divide in the Greater Middle East continues to devour its partisans on both sides and to introduce new forms of instability into the region. That it has three levels makes it intractable. In Libya, where one of the levels, the international, avoided deadlock and international actors could act decisively, they certainly shortened the conflict– a development that is unlikely to occur with regard to Syria, at least for the rest of this calendar year. In Libya, moreover, there were no sectarian divides. Only when al-Assad falls will there be hope for a return to relative peace in the region, and that event could be a ways off.

Posted in Bahrain,Iraq,Syria | 33 Responses | Print |

33 Responses

  1. Sorry if I have missed this, and I do know this is your blog and you are not a news agency so I dont expect you to cover every nitty gritty detail. But how come you have not mentioned the kidnapping of Lebanese pilgrims in Syria by the FSA, and their subsequent lies about how the hostages are Hezbollah? link to

  2. I blame the enablers, Karl Rove, Mark McKinnon, and Ralph Nader, the “quiet” monsters of contemporary history. Nader? Let’s see. Saved possibly several thousand lives through auto safety activism versus a million killed by Bush, Cheney, & Neocon demons in the 21st century wars so far? Tongue in cheek, but barely. Nader’s the one with resentful destructive hubris, not me!

  3. “Only when al-Assad falls will there be hope for a return to relative peace in the region, and that event could be a ways off.”

    I suspect the fall of Assad will bring about as much peace as the fall of Saddam Hussein.

  4. “Only when al-Assad falls will there be hope for a return to relative peace in the region …”

    I’ve read that the fall of al-Assad will usher in a period of anarchy and civil war. Are you speaking of the “Peace of the Dead ?”

  5. During the Cold War, there was a fundamental symmetry between the interests of the two sides. The Soviets were interested in local conflicts because of their implication for the Soviet/Western contest, and so were the Americans.

    This doesn’t seem to be true anymore. The Russians and Chinese seem to be most interested in Syria in terms of checking American power in a global contest, while United States finds itself in a spat with the Russians and Chinese not as a purpose in and of itself, but as a consequence of the American interest in 1) the Syrian conflict itself and 2) the regional implications.

    It’s a bit like when the Yankees play the Orioles. The Orioles are thinking about their great rivalry with the Yankees, while the Yankees don’t realize they have a rivalry with the Orioles, and are thinking about winning the division and playoff seeding.

    • No, Kazakhstan is there, labeled as “RUSSIA.”

      Russia would be that small piece top center sandwiched between Georgia and the Ukraine/ Sea of Azov.

  6. Juan: I don´t understand: You say “Only when al-Assad falls will there be hope for a return to relative peace in the region”… Wouldn´t that be detrimental for the Shanghai bloc? Because after Syria falls, next comes Iran..effectively blocking China and in a way, Russia. So why do you think Al-Assad is the only block to peace in the region?

  7. “The New Great Game”, as it were, but it looks more like the New Rome vs. the New Parthia this time.

    • “Carthago Delenda Est!” We even got our own Cato, the Institute, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, PNC (Post-National Corporatocracy). link to

      And in the end, there’s that bit of doggerel about “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings…”

  8. How does Israel/Palestine figure? Why have not Russia and China proposed hard anti-occupation resolutions in UNSC? Is it just that they don’t care? That China has Tibet? That there is no reason to do so except concerns for H/R and I/L and neither Russia nor China (like the USA) cares a fig for either? Might such draft resolutions not show up the USA and EU as supporters of Israeli lawlessness and slow down the nonsense about Iran and Syria?

    • It is better for a hegemonic power if the promotion of their interests/suppression of their opponent’s interests in a region is seen as coming from locals, not from the foreign power.

      Why would Russia and China bother to sponsor such resolutions and promote such debate, and be seen to do so, when there are plenty of local countries doing so on their own?

  9. Saying Turkey is Sunni is not really correct. Sure the people of Turkey are mostly Sunni but Turkish foreign policy is not driven by that and Turkey doesn’t exactly make common cause with Saudi Arabia on that basis

  10. I’d add: Only when the House of Saud divorces itself from its Wahabi religious handlers will there be peace in The Levant. The recent OIC gathering in The Kingdom had appearances of progress, but to me it looks like King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud was holding out an olive branch to Iran & the Shia while poisoning the tree.

    • House of Saud is used by the great White House policies & intrigues according to the need of the time.

      Peace is impossible in The Levant until America looks its interest first & not the interest of ADL, AIPAC or Israel no matter who is in the white house a protestant, Catholic or a Mormon. First, they have stop proving who is more Jewish.

      Regan & others were asked, “What you will do for Israel”, they did not ask what you would do for New York or America where they live.

      An American has to be an American first to serve America first.

  11. What can I say? There are evil groups in both blocs, but our media will teach Americans over the next few years to view everyone in the enemy bloc as a new Hitler. It’s really more like the cynical alliances that led to World War I, with the czar and two racist colonial empires composing the “liberal” Allies.

    Worst of all, no one worked harder than the Bush Administration to convince Arab monarchs that the Iranians were aggressors. Peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran was rumored as possible before that. Now the dynamics of hostile alliances will make it impossible, just as it was made impossible between the Austrians and the Slavic nations in the years before 1914.

  12. A request: At some future point, can you riff on the likelihood of the country fragmenting into Alawite-Christian and Sunni sub-states – as well as the implications of any such fragmentation.

  13. This is even more complicated when you factor in the Kurds! The KRG-KNC-Ankara axis vs Assad Regime-PKK-PYD. KRG training KNC refugees as peshmerga to protect their communities after the war is over, KRG Peshmerga blocking Iraqi national army from approaching border near them.
    Ankara nervousness about Gulf sponsored Wahhabis and/or Jihadis in the neighborhood. Turkish jihadi, brother of one of the Istanbul synagogue attackers, killed in northern Syria. Armenia thinking to possibly settle Syrian Armenian refugees in Ngorno Karabagh; 8,000 Syrian Abkhaz trying to get to their ancestral homeland with little help from either the Georgian government or the Abkhaz authorities. Syrian Turkmen and Arabs fighting in the Turkish refugee camp. Sectarian conflict among the Syrian Turkmen. Circassians confused.

  14. I wish your map had shown the most powerful player in this tragedy, the one to the north and west, which are not included. I know I’m nit picking, but being a university trained geographer/cartographer myself your map leaves much to be desired in this narrative that you discuss. If geography were to matter, the “local’s” (ie. the SCO) have a much stronger cause for involvement in the region, than the one’s on another continent.

  15. What’s in this for Turkey? I really thought the Turkish were geniuses for avoiding the Iraq mess and their ‘good neighbor’ foreign policy. I don’t understand why they are abandoning the ‘good neighbor’ policy in favor of intervening in Syria?

    Based on your article the Iraq adventure was the stupidest thing they could have done. Syria/Lebanon would be more or less surrounded.

    • The Turks, like the Americans, like the Saudis, didn’t cause the Syrian Arab Spring to happen.

      They are reacting to a situation that has come about whether they like it or not, and settled on what they think is the best policy.

    • Turkey most certianly did not invite this mess when they sought to give Bashar advice, open their borders to refugees, or confer with NATO about solutions. They did not need another point of friction in relations with Iran or the Maliki government in Iraq. More than anything else, they did not need another front in the conflict with the PKK or the possibilty of a Saudi/Qatari backed reactionary state on their southern borders. Finally, they did not need complications to the various pipeline dreams being explored in the region.

  16. I’m sure only positive things will come by overthrowing every single government in the middle east and marginalizing shia at every juncture. /sarcasm

  17. That Turkey is blue is because of many reasons: First, for the “zero problem with neighbours” policy to be implemented the regimes should be stable, but it is not in Syria now because a small minority dictated there up to now. Second, Turkey traditionally in favor of democratic regimes. So, nobody can expect it to support a policy similar to Russia or İran. İndeed, Russian policy is nothing to do with peoples. The world observed Russian policy in Bosnia in the near past, where it did not care massacres of Serbs.

  18. link to

    Interesting analysis from AP claiming waning Iranian influence in Arab world.

    The theory is that Morsi is willing to visit Iran because of growing confidence of Sunni world vis-a-vis Shitte.

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