Discorso “The clash between Sunni and Shia in an unsettled Middle East “

21 Novembre 2014

Commemorations of WWI last August centred on lessons to be learned. It is tempting to ask whether the increasing tensions around us accrue the risk of a global security crises. Although during the last seven decades regional tensions did never spare us, they are now happening at a pace and to extent unheard of in the past; with ethnic and religious conflicts; civil wars; implosion of dysfunctional States; surge of old and new terrorist organisations.

This epidemics occur along a huge arc of crises and in our immediate neighbourhood: from Mosul to Tikrit and Samarra; from Gaza to Bengasi, Misurata and Tripoli; from Somalia to Nigeria, Mali and RCA; from Donetsk to Sloviansk and Marioupol.


*THE SEEDS OF INSTABILITY affecting also our countries are mostly planted in the “Great Mediterranean”: the wide geopolitical reality stretching from Gibraltar to Mesopotamia.

Iraq, Syria and Libya, three countries of a key importance for the European security and economy, can be almost considered as “failed states”. Three countries with more than 62 million people, with huge natural and human resources, and very young populations, positioned at crossroads critical for the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Their sectarian strikes are spilling over their already unstable regions and, in a way, over our Countries.

Hundreds of thousand of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Lybia land on our shores; sunni militants of the Islamic State represent a direct threat for the entire Middle East and even for us; the Shia-Sunni clash intensifies; while intra Sunni divisions multiply; and horrible violence and persecution of Christians, Yazidis and Kurds add to an already bleak picture. As a consequence, Christians presence in those areas has dropped from 20 to 5% in just a few decades.


Gaza has flared up three times since 2008, but no substantive negotiation towards a “Two States solution” is currently alive even if the Us and the Eu, like many Israelis believe that the status quo is untenable.

Against this overall background the historic struggle between Sunnis and Shias in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf, in my opinion, represents by far the major cause of concern and even more so, since it interacts with other critical factors: with power sharing arrangements in Lebanon; with the Iranian regional role and its nuclear program; with the relations among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The long waves of the Sunni- Shia struggle reach Egypt, Lybia, Algeria, Somalia Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, and everywhere else fundamentalist organizations exploit to their own advantage each point scored by their associates in other parts of the Muslim world.



A fair reading of current events should first of all connect the present situation to the fall of Saddam Hussein and of Iraqi institutional structure. That gave way to the sudden empowerment of Iran as regional kingmaker and uncontested Shia leader.

At a time when the Bush administration was still considering the military “surge” in the Anbar and Neniveh Provinces, Professor Vali Nasr wrote an important essay “The Shia revival”:

“In Iraq, Vali Nasr said, Iran’s primary objective is to ensure that Baathism and Arab nationalism -Sunni rule in an altered guise-do not return to power. The more violent the Sunni insurgency becomes and the more Shias it kills, the more determined Iran grows…They see Iraq’s pacification under a Shia leadership as a strategic objective: what they were not able to win in the Iran-Iraq war, they can now get courtesy of coalition forces and the Shia Government in Baghdad…The war in Iraq came at a time when Sunni extremism was on the rise in the Muslim world…The decade preceding the war had witnessed the growing influence of Wahabi and Salafi trends….The Iraq war provided a new arena for this militancy”.

This assessment, pronounced eight years ago for Iraq, still explains the Iranian and Shia strategy in SYRIA today.

“The conflict now unfolding- Henry Kissinger notes in his World Order- is both religious and geopolitical. There is a block lead by Shia Iran witch backs Bashar Al Assad portion of Syria Nuri Al Maliki’s central and southern Iraq, Hezbollah militias in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and there in a Sunni blog consisting of Saudi Arabia, the gulf states and to some extent Egypt and Turkey. Iran aims for regional dominance by employing non state actors tied to Tehran ideologically.”

Teheran has immediately perceived the existential threat of the “Arab spring” for the Iranian Regime. Tens of thousand are still jailed in Evin or other high security prisons; many have been intimidated, tortured, hanged, after the demonstrations against the stolen presidential election in 2009.The mass murders of PMOI’s in Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf, UN protected persons, are a further example of the violent repression the Iranian regime applies against political opponents inside and outside the Country.



In the spring 2013 Ayatollahs Khamenei addressed a conference of Muslim clerics and gave the Arab Spring meaning a new twist by calling it “Arab Awakening”: “the world of Islam, said Khamenei, has now emerged out of the side-lines of the social and political equation, opening the door to a global religious revolution. All parts of the Islamic Ummah should achieve the position specified in the Holy Quran”. By saying so the supreme Leader was echoing both the Iranian constitution where it refers to the Quran- “your community is a single community and I’m your Lord- and to his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, when he stated Islam refuses to recognize any difference between Muslim country and it is the champion of all oppressed people”.

I did quote the two Supreme Leaders because it is important to understand that the unity of Islam they were and they are advocating should take place under the sole banner of Shia, with the coming of the Mahdi returned from “occultation” to assume all is powers and to “ fill the world with justice and beauty”.

Iran synthesizes complex legacies driven by internal dynamics by an ultra millenary and diverse culture, and by a whole century of dramatics shifts in the country struggles between its Persian soul and it’s theocratic allegiance. Contemporary Iran seams decided to be a cause before being a country. A cause for expanding the pre-eminence of Shia forces regionally and globally.

The Arab Spring and the growth of Sunni Jihdism at Iran’s frontiers maybe producing second thoughts in Teheran but it seems more lightly that the Iranians are seeing their strategic landscape as one developing in favour of a revolutionary course: in the region with the destabilization of the Sunni monarchies opposed to Teheran; worldwide, as a revolution against the westphalian order and the western influence.

How could the Ayatollahs have taken the risk of losing the Shia-Alawite minority Government in Syria? How could they have given ground to reformist movements? How could Khamenei have allowed a real pluralism in Damascus and in Baghdad, with Governments opened to the Sunni majority in Syria, and to the Sunni minority in Iraq?

As we all know, Iran didn’t want to take any risk in Syria or elsewhere. An expeditionary corps of Hezbollah, led by IRGC officers was send early into the fight to support Assad. Iran engaged in a full scope diplomacy, helped by Russia and to a lesser extent by China taking all the opportunities given by the hesitance and lack of common strategies of western Countries.



When Samuel Huntington wrote in the early ’90s “The clash of Civilizations” the common wisdom was that cultural, religious and ethnic fractures between the “West and the Rest”, between Christians and Muslims, Buddist and Communist, were much deeper THAN the fractures WITHIN the Muslim world itself: much deeper THAN the divide between Sunnis and Shias, between the secular and the religious forces of the political Islam.

Although al Qaeda and the plethora of Jihadist groups have never ceased to threaten both the Muslim world and our societies, many fear that a worrisome, millenary “clash” will re-emerge today. The so cold “islamic civil wars”, hundreds of years before the Crusaders, did mark the age of the four Caliphs, the massacre of Karbala, the killing of Husayn ibn Ali. The memories of that age still resound loudly in the incitements of the mullahs and Imams, and keep alive doctrinarian and sectarian divisions been nurtured for centuries. “Tantum potuit religio suadere malorum” sang Lucretius Caro one Century B.C.

Over the past year, starting with the 2013 United Nations General Assembly and the telephone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani, the Us has been trying to engineer an acceptable way to bring in Iran from the cold, and to transform the region by elevating Iranian influence in a constructive, non-confrontational fashion. The Obama Administration has been led by popular mood until last August. The opinion polls did show until then a clear reluctance of Americans to engage armed forces abroad.

More recently, the gruesome images of James Folly and Steven Sotlof fbeing beheaded have suddenly reversed the trend. Even if some of the weariness about sending boothson on the ground remains, Washington has been transformed from the capital of a reluctant super power in to the cheerleader- as somebody said- for recommitting the US military into another potentially intractable conflict in Iraq and Syria. The shifting sense of American politics are all on theese figures: in November 2013, 51% of Americans (Pew research) thought that the country was doing to much to solve global problems. Last September figure dropped to 39%, while those who believe that the US is doing to little surged from 17 to 31%. About two thirds of Americans support air strikes against ISIS. Combination of Ukraine and ISIS have created a spring time for neo conservatives. There is a new environment in a Congress only one year ago the option of bombing Bashir Al Assad in Syria was rebuffed to great disarray of the Free Syrian Army. Now the US Congress is giving a green light to operations against ISIS and Syria as well as to the funding the so cold “moderate Syrian rebels”.

The main question still lays on the overall approach to Iran. Has the regime changed its basic posture since Rouhani election? Is the nuclear agreement considered in Washington and in Brussels a sufficient evidence that Teheran will became a constructive partner in the other most difficult regional issues? Or should Washington re-focused it’s priorities, as suggested by the Israeli Prime Minister?

The Administration still hopes that a working relationship with Iran means sway over the action Assad and Hezbollah, and facilitate a decent outcome in Iraq.

But how does the Us Administration hope progress with Iran would impact on efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict? “Well, I don’t know. I mean, honestly, I don’t think anybody has any idea “was a few months ago the candid answer of an Us official to Paul Dahanar recorded in his book on the New Middle East.

“One step at a time” is a remark repeatedly made by Secretary Kerry. Is the West making up its policy in the Middle East as it goes along? Or is this a case of American and European pragmatism versus Islamic millenarism?

On both sides of the Atlantic, the definition of a solid and coherent strategy remains dangerously unaccomplished .Secretaries Clinton and Gates on one side, and President Obama on the other were clearly on a different footing when the White House did object to a decisive support to the Syrian National Coalition during the second half of 2012.

In February 2013 I hosted in Rome a ministerial meeting of the core group of the friends of the Syrian Nation Coalition, encouraged by Washington in order to provide a more effective support to moderate opposition groups. The decisions taken on that occasion unfortunately didn’t follow trough.

The debate weather that would have closed the doors to Al Nousra and to Isis in Syria, and now in Iraq, is still on-going. In Europe, even under the extremely dramatic circumstances of a possible genocide, there is still no clear, common vision. The green light the Eu Foreign ministers gave, last August 15,to Member States which are willing to arm the Kurdish Regional Government is an important precedent for the EU members wich have always objected to provide military support without a proper UNSC authorization. Still, the EU Council decision seems a far cry from a true Eu political and security strategy in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and especially Iran.

The important deliberations taken by the Cardiff Nato summit and the subsequent initiative “for a coalition of the willing” against ISIS and the important conference held in Paris last week may well serve the purpose declared by President Obama in September 10th: to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS militarily, financially, and ideologically, gaining legitimacy by virtue of it’s Arab and Muslim backers and restoring the credibility of the American power. While coalescing the Sunni Arab states against the “cancer” spread by the Islamic states in the Sunni world this strategy still appears to narrowly designed:

  • first because the need to sanitize western and Arab attacks against the Islamic State from any cooperation with Assad and with Iran is not sufficiently understood in our Countries;
  • second, because it is all but evident how this war against the Islamic State will benefit western and Sunni Arab security interests instead of a further empowerment of Iran and Shia factions;
  • third, because the lukewarm reactions of the Sunni Arab countries show that this strategy is not gaining yet the hearts and minds of the population where the conflict between Sunni and Shia is more acute. Jean Marie Guehenno was right when he underlind has he did in the N.Y.T that support to the rebels in the greater Aleppo should have been immediately increased, and that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey should have coordinated incentives and conditions for the different factions in the field.
  • If the birth of the “Islamic State” in Syria has been encouraged by the absence of timely prevention, the “Islamic State” is coming of age also in Iraq after years of sectarian behaviour by the Maliki Government, and its observance of diktats imposed by Iran.


In the Iraqi political scene, Teheran has a wide control of all Shia factions: that is true for Al Maliki’s Dawa, as for the nationalists of Moqtada Al-Sadr, for Abdel Aziz Al-Hakim Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Irak (SCIRI),as for the radicals of Asaib Ahl-Al Haq. Until last 12 August no pressure from Washington or European Capital has had any effect on Al-Maliki stubbornness to stay in power. But on that day a short press release from Teheran which endorsed Haidar Al – Abidi was enough to convince Al Maliki to give in to the Iranian expectations. Does the appointment of the new iraqi PM, welcomed also by western capitals, really mean that Iran is opening up to compromise, under the threat of a Sunni Caliphate in Irak and Syria? The measure by which the Iranians have been helping militarly Baghdad indicates their true priorities. The iranians have invested heavily in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in the Gulf. Their priority is to strengthen the Shia foothold in the entire region. Al-Abidi may represent a signal in a different direction. But he must be tested very carefully.

The new “unity cabinet” is fragile and contains only token Sunni representation. The Interior and Defence Minister, two portfolios that Al Maliki kept for himself in order to reinforce the Shia control over the security apparatus have been strongly reclaimed by Teheran.

For that reason the two position where not immediately assigned. Iraq will survive as a State only if Teheran and its Shia proxies will allow Sunnis and Kurds to gain real influence in governing the country.

In order to get rid of Isis the Sunni tribes and the former Ba’athist groups must be convinced again that people in Baghdad are trustworthy and not enemies. That is extremely difficult. Over the last five years Sunnis have only gone trough total disillusionment and disenfranchisement. After having fought hard in western ad central Iraq to chase in 2007 an 2008 Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations, the Sunni tribes have again been terrorised and pressured. The prerogatives granted to them by the Constitution have been sistematically overlooked.

It will be equally difficult for them to repeat a second time the “Awakening” against terrorist groups, without knowing for sure that the Sunni’s can be masters of their own destiny. Along the same line the story goes for the Kurds.

The Eu-Us military involvement in protecting the Kurd Regional Government from the IS, needs to be matched with a firm understanding with Iran on two points:

  • that the Iraqi constitution must be immediately implemented;
  • -the era of one party-Shia domination is over.


Otherwise, as Gen. Petraeus famously put it, in the name of keeping Iraq together the US air force would have act on behalf of the Shia militias. Let’s be honest: Western interventions have strengthened Shia factions in Iraq already three times: in 1991, in 2003 and in 2007. The last two interventions have considerably empowered Shia Factions in the region, encouraging later on the Iranian support to Assad and the consequent rise of the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq.

It would be a mistake to believe that the military eradication of the IS could, by itself, mitigate the Iranian appetite and wipe away the roots of the Sunni Shia divide.



Although IS gives us the image of eighth century marauders executing non belivers, buring alive women and children, pillaging at will, the organization is sofisticated, financially savy, and has build a structure which may survive for years. Traditional counterterrorism methods to target the Islamic State wealth can only have little effect, given that most of its money is raised and spent inside Iraq and Syria. It has for a long time. Like many revolutionary movements and insurgents around the world, the IS has raised funds trough threaths, coercion and cooptation.

Documents captured by Us forces in Iraq since 2005 show that IS is financially self sustained and doesn’t rely on fereign patrons; contrary to what Al Qaeda always did, the IS has kept meticulous records of its “revenues”. they show racket, extortions, oil trade, blackmail of religious communities and minorities, kidnapping for ramson.

The Islamic State is the offspring of various Qaedist and tribal forces which have been regrouping under benevolent eyes of Bashir Assad in Syria. They have achieved impressive military results since last spring in Syria, against other much less organized rebel groups, and in Iraq. Iraq is where Isis has bet all its cards since last June.

Al Baghdadi has engaged in a struggle against a current Al Qaeda leader, Ayman Al Zawhairi, a struggle which has even led to the assassination last february of Abou Khaled Al Souri, tasked by Al Zawahiri to mediate.

Contemporary political Islam has certainly broken with its secular tradition of being a force of unification of Arab tribes and fragmentation of Sunni Jihadism has alwayas existed. In Irak, Abou Moussab Al Zarkawui kept his distance from Bin Laden. In Syria Mohammad Al Joulani, head of Al Nousra,has been competing with Isis until recently. If it is therefore true, as Vicken Cheterian wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique, that the sectarian confrontation proves the political and economic disintegration of the Muslim society in Irak, and Syria. Confessional motives should’nt therefore overestimated. But the Sunni-Shia clash is becoming more evident by the day.


Beyond the military support provided by President Obama and some Europeans, an effective strategy needs to align local population against the IS.


  1. That means in Iraq a radical switch from the current Shia rule to a new unity Government which empowers at the national level Sunnis an Kurds, decentralize the whole structure of government, distributes large portions of the national budget to Sunni-majority areas, provides economic assistance and subsidies to local sunni communities that feel now attracted by the IS.


  1. B-Us and Eu should engage with a new Iraqi government on a different level then before, when Al Maliki doublegames, ambiguities and complete dependence from Teheran led to disaster. Security arrangements, political inclusiveness, respect of previous commitments- human rights come fully into the picture- must be the “lode star”, if western Countries effort in Iraq has any sense. A shared strategy with the new Government should aim at key priorities: to contain and possibly reverse the IS expansion in Iraq and consequently in Syria: to dry up its financial resources; to displace IS from oil wells in northern Iraq and impede refinement at facilities in Eastern Syria.


  1. C-a new Iraqi government should also commit to go off on a fresh tack in its relations with the Assad regime. Western support shouldn’t have been granted in absence of this key step. It would be wise for the EU to seriously adress this issue, the sooner the better. Al Maliki involved Baghad in the syrian civil war sitting side by side with Assad, channeling iranian military aid, and making Iraq an even more obvious field of operations for Isis. To go off on a fresh tack implies also a very different Iraqi approach vis a vis Turkey, Jordan and the Syrian Kurds: not only in terms of control of oil wells and refineries, but also with a broader view of government decentralization and local security structures. It would seem unreasonable to pretend that a national Iraqi Army largely directed and organised by iranian advisers, staffed and led almost exclusively by Shia servicemen and officers, constantly “helped” by Shia militias specialized in sectarian “dirty jobs”, may be perceived and trusted by Sunnis and Kurds as a guarantee for their own security and for the peaceful future of a united Iraq.


  1. D- a gradually more independent, secure, well armed Iraqi Kurdistan, connected to the Syrian Kurdistan, should emerge as the common national interest for the regional stability: as the main actor against the IS; as a driver for economic development; as a moderate Sunni, secular political force in the Iraqi-Syrian disintegration, ready to save refugees and religious minorities. The innovative approach of PM Erdogan to the kurdish question over the last year gives to EU and US this vital opportunity to take in the relationship with Ankara.


  1. E- In a mid August interview with Tom Friedman, President Obama framed a number of points and conditions. “We are not sending a bunch of US troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things. You are going to show us that you are willing and ready to mantain a unified Iraqi Government based on compromise…to build a non sectarian, functional security force answereble to a civilian government… we are not going to let them to create some caliphate in Iraq and in Syria, but we can only do that if we know that we have partners on the ground who are capable of filling the gap…we can run IS off for a certain time, but as soon as our planes are gone, they are coming back in.”


  1. The question therefore rises on how loose must be an Iraqi federation or the confederation in order to bring stability to the whole region.



The debate on a possible “Three State solution” splintering the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish region started just a few months after G.W. Bush’s declaration “Mission accomplished”. The vision prevailed that such a solution would have immediately ignited slaughters and ethnic cleansing, even worse than those which had happened in Bosnia, given the stakes in Iraq: mixed families, different communities living side by side in the same urban and social context; uneven distribution of natural resources, above all water and oil; past histories of killing and revenge; interference by external players.

According to some views, a loose federation could represent a compromise. On the other hand to remain united and to be convinced the this was the best option the different factions should be given strong incentives, in term of power sharing, equitable access to common resources and revenues, security guarantees. The formula enshrined in the 2005 Constitution was, therefore, federalism with decentralization of power to the regions and limited role for a central government tasked essentially with controlling defence, foreign affairs and equitable distribution of wealth.

The Al-Maliki efforts have gone in the opposite direction. He has constantly challenged an honest decentralization, sought absolute power for the Shiites, build up a complete integration with Iran strategies.

A full implementation of 2005 Iraq Constitution should lead to a “containment “of the Iranian expansionary policies in Iraq and Syria, and to some correction of the Shia power in both countries. Teheran may have learned from the latest developments that a direct clash with Sunni fundamentalism is a lose- lose situation and would undermine the Iranian position in the whole region. It may therefore be the right time to address the Kurdish issue trough a swift implementation of Art. 140 of the Constitution (census plus referendum in the contested territories),and recognition de facto of more self governing powers to the Sunni regions.

All this requires a well coordinated foreign and security agenda among Europeans and Americans. Efforts with all main Iraqi factions, with turks, russians, Arab League members, and, finally, the Iranians must be closely planned and executed. The challenge is much wider than an anti terrorist action against the IS. The Iraqi and Syrian crises cannot be dealt with in a piecemeal approach if we recognize a strong national interest in defusing a furtherance of Sunni-Shia clash which is already affecting our security.

©2024 Giulio Terzi

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