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Forget Arab Spring: It’s the Sunni Surge

Another day, another several dozen dead in Iraq. Americans are doing their best not to think about the violence there. We are tired of news from the country. Especially bad news. And we are immensely relieved that American soldiers are no longer involved.

But to understand the turmoil sweeping the Middle East we have to keep an eye on Iraq. The American legacy media still mostly thinks of the Arab Spring as the rise of liberal revolutionaries against authoritarian regimes. A few people voiced hope that something similar would happen in Iraq too. But the Twitterratti of the Middle East are not really what this is about.

The big event in the Middle East isn’t the triumph of the twittering libs; it’s the Sunni surge. Sunni Islam is becoming a vital force, winning most if not quite all of the political contests in Sunni majority countries and rising against the Shia where the two communities coexist.

Think about it. The Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni) took over the Egyptian “revolution” from liberal protestors, overthrew a hated dictator and shepherded Egyptians through their first ever democratic election, and are now the custodians of the Arab world’s first Islamist government. The Brothers’ decades-long struggle against the power of the military continues, and while Via Meadia thinks the Egyptian generals still have what it takes to control the “deep state”, the Muslim Brothers are stronger than at any previous point in Egyptian history. In Syria it’s the predominately Sunni rebels versus Butcher Assad’s Alawite clan, a minority Shia regime that controls almost all the top positions in government, the military, and the business world; they do so with help from the Shia theocracy in Iran. When the (almost entirely Shia) protestors rose up in Bahrain against the (Sunni) ruling family, the Saudis, fearing Iranian instigation, drove tanks across the causeway to scare protestors and put down the rebellion. Turkey’s combined new focus on Islam and its neighbors to the east is another reinforcement to Sunni ranks.

The Middle East is a complicated place, and not every country dances to the same tune. Libya and Yemen in particular are off on their own paths, but in general from Morocco to Anbar and from Turkey to the Gulf, the Sunni surge is driving events.

The Sunnis started at a disadvantage. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein flipped Iraq from the Sunni world (though nominally secular, Saddam’s regime institutionalized the dominance of Sunni Arabs over Iraq’s majority of Shia Arabs) and tilted the sectarian balance of the Middle East. Shia Hezbollah’s growing power in Lebaon, backed by the Iranian-aligned Shia/Alawite regime in Damascus, meant that the Sunni world was split in two and on the defensive.

The fightback, with a lot of Gulf Arab involvement, has been intense. The civil war in Syria is the most obvious front, but the new activism among Sunni Arabs in Iraq is a significant part of this picture.

If the regime in Syria falls, not only will power in Lebanon shift back toward the Sunnis; Sunni Arabs in Iraq will demand a better deal and more say than they now have—and they will have more weapons and more fighters to back up their demands.

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  • Harry Allan

    Sadly, I find myself saying: “That’s what these people do.” We have elections — they have massacres. “And so it goes.”

  • alex scipio

    Good. Now if Sunni Saudi Arabia nukes Shia Persian Iran, maybe we can all go home again and stop worrying about the Middle East. No more Sunni-Shia/Arab-Persian conflict just about the time fracking frees us from the ME despots anyway.

    Now if we can get Obama OUT of office so we can actually USE our own reserves, we all can move ahead. And the Arab and muslim worlds, once powerful and intellectual before they let their clerics take over (Read: What Went Wrong; Bernard Lewis), can just sink back into history.. or overthrow their clerics and begin to modernize themselves.. by FIRST putting their “religion” back in its place – OUT of government.

  • Eric

    When boiling a frog you have to raise the temperature very slowly. AK Party in Turkey are very good at this. But in Egypt the Sunnis have made two recent strategic mistakes: to stack the consitutional convention and to try and overturn the dissolution of Parliament. Both make them seem impatient for power and alarm the military and the non-Sunnis.

    In Turkey AK allowed the military to come under pressure to reform and when the chance came they colonised them by purging secular nationalists in favour of sympathetic officers. This now won’t be feasible in Egypt.

  • Keith McLennan

    predominately? predominantly!

  • Russ

    Not sure this entirely adds up: this article makes the classic American analysis error of thinking that the Sunnis are monolithic.

    For instance, the Saudis are clealry waging a proxy war against the Alawite Syrian regime. However, the Saudis do *not* support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — they’ve been all-in (to the tune of several billion dollars) for SCAF.

    I suspect we see it as a Sunni Surge primarily because that’s the primary religious and ethical base of the populations of the region. And then, what of Libya, where the Liberals appear to have blunted the Islamists in the party elections?

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