The Sunni-Shia conflict: correlation of power

Brian M Downing 

Hostility between the Sunni and Shia sects began in the seventh century as a fight over succession to leadership of the Islamic world. Was it to be descendants of the Prophet or his generals? The issue was settled, more or less, when the generals defeated Ali’s forces in what is now Iraq – appropriately enough, a theater in the sectarian wars of today.

Hostility intensified with the Iranian Revolution (1979), the American overthrow of Sunni power in Iraq (2003), and the ongoing Syrian civil war. Today Sunni powers, aligned with Israel and the US, are determined to drastically reduce Iranian power across the Middle East. The conflict will be long and costly.

An obvious comparison is to the Iran-Iraq War which lasted eight years and took the lives of several hundred thousand people, military and civilian. Cities and oil assets (tankers and rigs) were targeted. The stalemate, barbed wire, trench lines, and poison gas recalled the western front of World War One.

GDPs and armies

The Sunni-Shia conflict of today will involve several exceptionally wealthy states and their less prosperous allies. The Sunni side includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan. The Shia states are Iran and western Syria. Each side has important irregular forces on its side, which will be addressed separately.

The combined GDPs of the Sunni states are $3.6 trillion. Naturally, most of the wealth is based on oil and gas. The figure for the Shias is $1.6 trillion, almost all of it from Iran whose economy is similarly based on oil and gas though more diversified (arms, mines, textiles) than that of Saudi Arabia.

Population also favors the Sunnis – 140 million to 82 million. The same is true for military personnel, active and reserve – 1.8 million to 1.25 million.

Though GDPs, demographics, and military personnel greatly favor the Sunnis, the advantages are not as compelling as they seem. The likelihood of an all-out war between both sides is unlikely. Further, the armies of the Sunni oil monarchies are not effective. Rulers spend lavishly on them but are reluctant to use them in war. In Yemen, for example, Sunni monarchs pressed Egypt and Pakistan to send troops into the fight, but were unsuccessful. Some Emirati troops have seen action and a small contingent of Saudi ground troops is deployed in rear areas. Saudi pilots fly numerous sorties but show no great skill.

The two best armies are Egypt’s and Iran’s. The former is preoccupied with internal security matters. The latter was thought to have benefited from government spending and Russian training but its showing in Syria was unremarkable. Putin is thought to have been keenly disappointed in their ground actions his air force supported.

The disposition of the Iraqi army, now a Shia force, is uncertain, as Baghdad has steered a neutral path between Washington and Tehran and between regional rivalries. The army is much less effective than it was under Saddam Hussein, as demonstrated by events at Mosul. When ISIL swept in (2014), regular units showed their heels. The campaign to retake Mosul has been conducted by elite units, while the bulk of the army remains in blocking positions or garrisons.

Irregular forces

A reprise of the Iran-Iraq War cannot be ruled out.  But much of the emerging conflict will be fought by proxies in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

The Syrian Democratic Forces comprise two dozen or more Arab and Kurdish militias. Approximately 25,000 are Arabs who are fighting ISIL and also carving out territory for a Sunni statelet in eastern Syria.

A less organized force is the Sunni tribes of western Iraq. They have a checkered past, to say the least. Sunni Iraqis were the backbone of Saddam’s army, security forces, and the resistance to the American occupation. They later sided with the US against al Qaeda in the Anbar Awakening. They are presently armed by the US and fighting ISIL pockets. Like their Sunni counterparts in western Syria, they want no part of Shia government and prefer a Sunni statelet. The Saudis will help them.

The disposition of the Kurdish forces, Syrian and Iraqi, are unknown. Both forces have shown effectiveness in the ISIL War, dealing the jihadis their first defeat at Kobane and steadily wearing them down at Sinjar, Raqqa, and the approaches to Mosul. The Kurds want to maintain good relations with Sunnis and Shias alike and a long sectarian conflict would benefit Kurdish independence.

Shia proxies abound as well. Hisbollah is the best known and most formidable. It began as a resistance movement to Israel’s invasion and occupation in the 1980s. Trained by Iranian special forces, Hisbollah fighters wore down the Israeli army – no mean feat this – and are propping up Assad in the Syrian civil war.

Iraq’s Shia militias began amid the war with Iran and proliferated during the resistance. They played important roles in stopping the ISIL offensive of 2014 and driving them out of several cities. Their loyalties to Tehran may be about the same as to Bagdad.

The Houthis of northern Yemen began as a movement opposed to the rise of Wahhabism and attendant loyalty to Saudi Arabia. The spread of Wahhabism, of course, was funded by the Saudi government, as it is in other parts of the region, especially Egypt. The Houthis drove Saudi-backed forces from the north and are currently engaged in a costly stalemate.

Iran has trained and led international Shia brigades which operate in western Syria. Recruited from poor Shia in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have shown determination and taken very high casualties. Unlike most irregular forces, they can be deployed far from home.

Most of these irregular forces are umbrella groups which comprise numerous factions. As the sectarian conflict continues, rival powers will recruit more avidly, thereby engaging larger populations and further polarizing and militarizing the region.

Insurgents and terrorists

Both sides will support insurgent groups in the other side’s territory, chiefly in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such operations have been underway for decades and they will become more prominent.

Kurdish fighters wage a low-level struggle against Persian domination. They have long been supported by Israel. In the southwest, Baloch forces also seek autonomy from Tehran. Support from Saudi Arabia has been intermittent as aid flows in from Pakistan, which has its own Baloch insurgency and isn’t eager to see one prosper in Iran. Western Iran’s Khuzestan has an Arab population that shows occasional signs of unrest. The Kurds are mainly Sunni, the Khuzestanis Shia.

The United States may be poised to increase support for insurgents inside Iran. Money may be forthcoming in large quantities, special forces in smaller ones.

Saudi Arabia has a sizable Shia population concentrated along the Yemeni frontier and the oil-rich Eastern Province. (Mischievous geophysical gods placed oil in Iran’s Arab west and Saudi Arabia’s Shia east.) The Shia once predominated in the Kingdom’s labor force as most Sunnis were nomadic and indisposed to work discipline. Over the years, the Shia were displaced by increasingly settled Sunni workers, leaving the Shia underemployed and oppressed – second-class subjects.

As the conflict wears on and sectarian passions deepen, the Shia may move from disgruntlement to insurgency. Iranian special forces may be deployed to encourage the transition, if they have not already. The same can be said of the larger Shia populations in Bahrain and the UAE.

Both sides may avail themselves of terrorist organizations inside the territory of opponents. The Mujahideen-e-Khalq assassinated several Iranians involved in their country’s nuclear program. It’s been removed from the State Department’s list of terror groups and may soon figure in US foreign policy. ISIL has cells in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. As wars wear on, Machiavelli enjoys renewed appreciation.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.