The National Catholic Review
Jan 17 2014 - 3:53pm | Giandomenico Picco
The Sunni-Shiite Divide in the Greater Levant

In his seminal book Voltaire’s Bastards (1992), John Ralston Saul noted that at the Vienna Conference in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic era, the leaders of the old continent concluded that the nation-state, born in Westphalia in 1648, had to be re-organized: “institutions would no longer be allowed to marry genius but only mediocrity.” In 1981, almost a decade into my career at the United Nations, a new U.N. Secretary General was elected: Perez de Cuellar. The Cold War was at its peak and the new Secretary General told me that the United Nations, as it had been known, was gone, that the Cold War had made it marginally useful at best, and that unless we were ready to go for broke, the organization had no future. He asked me if I wanted to have a career or to make history. “If so,” he said, “you will have to forget the pension: the (mediocre) institution will see to it that you do not get it.”

Prior to joining the United Nations, I had the good fortune of attending universities in several countries, from Italy to the United States, from the Netherlands to Czechoslovakia. But it was in the war-torn streets of the Greater Levant, from Pakistan to Lebanon and the countries in between, that I got my real education. In the process, I had the good fortune of saving a number of human lives, all the while wondering, when blindfolded and kidnapped, or subject to attempts on my life, whether I would make it home with my own.

Throughout all those years, I learned that “narratives”—not only national narratives but also “individual narratives”—matter a great deal, in human behavior and, accordingly, in negotiations. The constancy of change means among other things that tomorrow is not like yesterday; it has to be invented and built. But how many of us dare to envision what does not yet exist? That is the real weakness of institutions and many political leaders: they so fear tomorrow that they try to repeat the past, which is, of course, a sheer impossibility. They seem incapable of leading without an enemy. They lack the guts, in other words, to build what does not exist.

Beginnings and Endings

The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon—what I refer to as the Greater Levant—has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.

Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.

In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.

The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.

But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.

Road to Nowhere

Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.

There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.

The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides.

Enter Syria

After “losing” in different ways in both Kabul and Baghdad, and in the wake of the Arab Spring (mainly a Sunni spring, for it happened mostly in Sunni-ruled nations), the Sunni side of the region could hardly accept minority Shiite control of Damascus. Thus Syria became the site of a third chess game between the region’s Sunnis and Shiites or, better said, between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The conflict in Syria, then, should not be read as a civil war but as an extension of the competition between the two major strands of Islam. The Syrian conflict is more than a bilateral war between government and opposition.

Given that Syria’s borders have become quite porous and weapons and people move freely, it may be time to speak of the Syrian conflict as one taking place within a “Syrian-Iraqi space.” Damascus has had an Alawite, minority ruling class and a Sunni majority. In adjacent Iraq, the Shiite majority has been ruling since the United States took down the Sunni Saddam in 2003. An undeclared war between Shiite and Sunni groups produces tens of death almost every day in that country and the numbers of casualties is increasing. The patrons of the Sunnis and the Shiites—Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively—are likely trying to avoid a direct confrontation along the two rivers (Euphrates and Tigris), for if that were to come about, much more of the region would be engulfed by violent conflict. Nevertheless, the possibility remains.

A Way Forward?

At the beginning of these observations, I mentioned that despite my studies in four different universities, I learned more in the streets. To those wisdom of those streets I attribute whatever success I have had in saving human lives and ending conflicts. After all, how can a learned professor or an erudite theoretician teach you how to negotiate when you are taken hostage and have no idea where you are, let alone whether you will survive? How can law treatises teach you how to negotiate in a particular way with a country’s president and yet appreciate the need for a different approach to another president of the same country? It seems to me that those who speak of “how to negotiate” with country A or B or C, have never actually negotiated. The truth is that one only negotiates with individuals. When people ask me how to negotiate with Iran, I simply respond: I only negotiated with individuals, never with countries.

Furthermore change in negotiations was brought about by the end of the Cold War: so much so that since the early 1990s, from the Balkans to Eastern Africa, from South Sudan to South East Asia, successes in conflict resolutions were achieved only by “mini-lateralism” or bilateralism, not multilateralism. Multilateral approaches to conflict resolution have had little effect since the end of the Cold War. The United Nations and the multilateralism mindset are still prisoners of the concept of “impartiality.” Impartiality does not exist. No party to a conflict will ever accept impartiality because they cannot see it. If you place a glass in the very center of a table, the two persons sitting across from each other will always see the glass as closer to the other side.

I submit that much has to be understood about the “narrative,” not only of nations but of individuals as well. Had I negotiated with President Rafsanjani of Iran as I did with his successor, I likely would have failed with one or the other or both. I have never negotiated with countries, only with people. The narrative matters and every narrative is subjective in nature. This is why impartiality is a myth. Many years ago, when I was taken away at night and blindfolded by hostage takers, my masked interlocutor told me: “I hope you are not going to talk to me about impartiality. I know well that taking innocent people from the streets is wrong, my problem is I have no other tools.”

Saddam Hussein himself made it clear to me that he thought I was his enemy but added that people he could not easily categorize as friends or enemies unsettled him.

All of this is to say that the Syrian question cannot be resolved without a bilateral “understanding” between Russia and America and a “deeper and more complete understanding” between Saudi Arabia and Iran; not agreements on paper—but true “understanding” between the two “outsider powers” and a deeper understanding—I repeat understanding NOT agreements—between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the new architecture for the region may require a larger understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran, one that covers the entire Syrian-Iraqi space and the Pashtun-Tajiiks/Hazara areas in the northeast.

The question is simply this: Will the leaders in Riyadh and Tehran have the courage to rise to the call of history? And will they be able to take on a responsibility that is no longer, as in bygone times, reserved to the so-called superpowers?

Tomorrow is opening the door to new meanings of identity and border. To face that tomorrow requires real courage and real leaders, not poor copies of bygone Cold War caricatures. We need leaders who can lead and unify without an enemy.

As John Ralston Saul suggested, we do not need civilizations that divide through their answers, but rather civilizations that “unify the individual through our questions.”

Giandomedico Picco, who worked for almost 20 years (1973-92) at the United Nations, led the task force that secured the cease-fire agreement between Iran and Iraq in 1988. From 1988 to 1992, he conducted the operation that led to the release of 11 western hostages in Lebanon. He is the author of Man Without a Gun: One Diplomat’s Secret Struggle to Free the Hostages, Fight Terrorism, and End a War.