The Rise of the Sunnis and the Decline of Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah: The Middle East in 2013

2013 will see Iranian influence in the Middle East continue a decline
that began with the Arab upheavals of 2011. Iran’s two major allies in
the Arab world are Syria and Lebanon. In Lebanon, Iran arms the Shiite
party-militia Hizbullah, and does so overland through Iraq and Syria.
Since Israel controls the Mediterranean off Lebanon and can, when it
wants to, control Lebanese air space, the land corridor for Iranian
supplies to Hizbullah is key to the latter’s ability to confront Israeli
expansionism into Lebanese territory.
Hizbullah could well have its Iranian lifeline cut. Its
secretary-general, Hassan Nasrullah, has come out strongly in favor of
the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, because both of them are
Iranian clients. If Syria falls to the Sunni Arab revolutionaries, the
latter will have a grudge toward both Iran and Hizbullah for supporting
the Baath government, and will likely cut the latter off from resupply
through Syrian territory. Instead, Syrian support will go to the Sunnis
of Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli, Akkar and the Biqa Valley.
Between 2003 and 2012 the United States, in a fit of
absent-mindedness, made Iran a regional hegemon. Washington overthrew
the Taliban in Afghanistan and delivered it into the hands of the
Northern Alliance, a set of strong Iran allies. A brake on Iranian
influence in Afghanistan was removed. Then the Bush administration
overthrew Saddam Hussein, the Sunni ruler who subjected the Shiite
majority and stood as a barrier to Iranian penetration of the Middle
East. Without meaning to, the US brought to power a religious Shiite
government that naturally allied with Iran. Then the US Congress
targeted Syria for deep sanctions and the Bush hawks drove it firmly
into the arms of Iran. The Bush administration backed Israel’s attack
on Lebanon in 2006, which strengthened the Shiite party-militia
Hizbullah, which now is a key backer of the government of Lebanese Prime
Minister Najib Miqati. The pro-Iran capitals stretched from Kabul to
Beirut (light blue in the map below), and Iran suddenly became a much
bigger player in Levantine affairs than it had been in the 1990s. The
Israeli security establishment, indeed, fingered Tehran as their most
pressing threat. Iran was lionized in the Arab world for supporting
Hizbullah against Israel in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War.


If al-Assad falls in Syria and is replaced by a Sunni government of
revolutionaries, they will be beholden to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey
(and Libya), all of them Wahhabi or Sunni powers. They will likely
punish Hizbullah for its support of the Baath government, and will
support Sunni forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in Lebanese
politics. If Hizbullah can’t replenish its stock of rockets, its
geopolitical significance could decline, even as that of the Sunni
Muslim Brotherhood rises. The partitions in the following map, of Iraq
and Afghanistan, are meant only to depict the regional divide over
foreign policy, not to suggest an actual break-up of these countries
(but who knows?)
What the Middle East might look like if Damascus falls to the revolutionaries:


A Sunni-dominated Syria might well exert influence in northern and
western Iraq far beyond what Shiite-dominated Baghdad does. The
under the rule of Shiite religious parties, and resent Iranian
influence. Mosul (now Nineva) Province famously was undecided after
World War I which country to join– Turkey, Syria or Iraq. At
Versailles, Clemenceau cavalierly gave Lloyd George Mosul for Iraq. The
story is that Lloyd George felt he had gotten Mosul so easily that he
regretted not having asked for more from his French colleague. Anyway,
you wonder if Mosul’s choices might not open up again in the coming
years, a century after Clemenceau’s friendly gesture to the UK.
Likewise, as the US withdraws from Afghanistan through 2013, with a
final withdrawal of active combat troops in 2014, Iran’s allies in that
country could be weakened in the face of a resurgent, Pakistan- backed
The Muslim Brotherhood will likely benefit from Iran’s decline. If
the new Sunni government in Damascus is tinged with Brotherhood
influence, it may well reach out to Cairo and forge the strongest
Egypt-Syria alliance we have seen since the failure of the United Arab
Republic (comprised of Egypt and Syria, 1958-1961).
The Israel lobbies in the United States have pushed for a US war on
Iran, which the Obama administration seems unwilling to pursue. In the
absence of military action, AIPAC and groups to their right (the Jewish
Institute for National Security Affairs, the American Enterprise
Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) have succeeded
in persuading the US Congress to impose a financial blockade on Iran,
extending even to throwing up financial obstacles to the sale of Iranian
But what if all this time the Israel lobbies were barking up the
wrong tree? What if, even without US sanctions, Iran is geo=politically
in decline?
A new, Sunni coalition in the Levant would group Lebanese Sunnis with
Palestinians (whether PLO or Hamas); would rule Damascus and Cairo; and
might well give extraordinary support to the Palestinians, especially
to Hamas (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood itself). It may be that
not Tyre but Khan Yunis is the greater security threat to Israel in the
new Middle East that is forming before our eyes. Sunni activists may
well be much more committed to giving practical help to the PLO and
Hamas than was al-Assad, who merely paid lip service to the plight of
the Palestinians.
A Sunni, and possibly Muslim Brotherhood Syria could thus emerge as a
major player, in Arab-Israeli affairs but also in northern Iraq. And,
the salience of the Jordanian monarchy is reduced in case things develop
in this direction.
A Sunni-dominated Levant would not necessarily be hostile to the US,
though it is likely to bear some grudges for US inaction in Syria. But
it would likely be severely hostile to Israel. A galvanized Syrian
population and a revolutionary government, plus their support for the
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, could introduce dangerous new
frictions, at a time when the Likud Party in Israel is moving even
further to the right. Increased Syrian-Israel tension is likely to be
one outcome. A strengthened Hamas might well be another (Hamas is
realigning away from Syria-Iran and toward Egypt-FSA).
Iran is far from Israel/Palestine and has limited clients in that
region. If it is forced out of the Levant, it will lose a talking point
in domestic elections at most. Israel on the other hand is rather
outnumbered by Egypt and Syria, both of them immediate neighbors.

current statistics of shia, sunni. currently there are 1.4 billion sunni and 150 million shia.