Revenge of the Sunnis

Sunni Arabs have been losing their grip on the Arab heartland since the fall of the Ottoman empire; the moment of their revival is now.

Thirty-foot-tall bronze sculptures of Saddam Hussein, which once sat atop the towers in his palace, 2005. Jim Gordon/U.S. Department of Defense.

Thirty-foot-tall bronze sculptures of Saddam Hussein, which once sat atop the towers in his palace, 2005. Jim Gordon/U.S. Department of Defense.

July 18 2016
About the author

Martin Kramer is a historian at Tel Aviv University and the Walter P. Stern fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

The crucial passage in Ofir Haivry’s essay, “The Great Arab Implosion and Its Consequences,” is this one:

If there is a single prime mover of the dizzying kaleidoscope of events we have been witnessing in the last years, it is the crumbling of a century-old Sunni Arab regional order and, no less piercingly, the entire worldview that upheld it. In a world where Sunnis vastly outnumber Shiites, this is a crisis of epic proportions.

The crisis is indisputable. But it isn’t just a matter of the last years. In fact, Sunni ascendancy in the core of the Arab world has been in retreat for a full century, since the fall of the Ottoman empire. And aside from the Sunni and Shiite Arabs themselves, lots of people have had a hand in it. They include France, Britain, Turkey, Israel, and Iran.

Here is how the Sunnis lost their ascendancy, decade by decade, defeat by defeat. In what follows I limit myself to the Arab core of the Middle East, from the eastern Mediterranean shore to the Persian Gulf. This is the arena of Sunni-Shiite contention. Whatever may happen in Egypt and North Africa, those states and societies will remain, as before, entirely Sunni.

It began with the fall of the sturdily Sunni Ottoman empire in which the Arabs of the Fertile Crescent had been securely nestled for 400 years. In 1914, the Young Turks blundered into the world war, putting the empire on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary and against Britain, France, and Russia. In 1916, Sharif Hussein, a Sunni grandee in Mecca, declared the famous “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman empire in coordination with Britain. In return, he demanded an Arab kingdom in expansive borders (see this map). Had he gotten it in one piece, there might indeed have been some prospect of a continued Sunni ascendancy.

Yes, that kingdom would have included Iraq, with its large Shiite population. But it would also have included Syria, with its solid Sunni majority, as well as Palestine and the sharif’s own Hijaz, both entirely Sunni. This kingdom would have possessed a decisive Sunni majority as well as the traditional capital cities of Sunni Islam.

The sharif thought such a kingdom was exactly what had been promised to him by the British in return for his open revolt against the Ottomans. But he didn’t get it. The Arabic-speaking provinces didn’t separate from the Ottoman empire in one piece. As a result of power rivalries, above all between Britain and France, they broke off in many pieces.

The Anglo-French Sykes-Picot partition, contra Haivry, didn’t work to establish “the hegemony of Sunni Arabs,” nor were its “borders aimed at ensuring Sunni Arab predominance.” For one thing, the French did everything in their power to undermine that dominance. In Syria, which they seized as their share in 1920, they parceled the country into even smaller statelets, including Alawite and Druze “states.” The French also privileged non-Sunnis, especially in military recruitment. By the time France unified Syria in 1936, abolishing the statelets, Syria had a sizable proportion of minorities who had tasted independence and power.

Next, the British also undermined traditional Sunni Arab ascendancy. True, they established a Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq, ruled from Baghdad by Faisal, one of the sharif’s sons. And they gave another son, Abdullah, a desert emirate in Transjordan. But by their support of the Jewish National Home policy adumbrated in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, they subtracted Palestine from the Sunni sum. Jerusalem had been a jewel in the Ottoman crown; now the Jews threatened to take it.

The British would also stand by as ibn Sa‘ud and his Wahhabi followers seized the Hijaz and deposed the sharif, their former ally. Today we regard the Saudis as mainstream Sunnis. But at the time, mainstream Sunnis regarded them as fanatic rebels who had constantly denied the legitimate Sunni authority of the Ottoman sultan. The Saudi seizure of Mecca and Medina in 1924-25 sent shock waves through the Sunni world.

To this must be added the earlier 1924 decision of the Turkish nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to stop pretending to defend the Ottoman caliphate and instead simply abolish it. Decrepit the caliphate may have been, but it symbolized the unity of Sunni Islam. Despite the vicissitudes of Islamic history, there had always been a caliph somewhere, a successor to the Prophet Muhammad and the heir and upholder of Sunni Islam. For the previous four centuries, the name of the Ottoman sultan-caliph had been mentioned in the Friday prayers in Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina.

As soon as the Turkish Grand National Assembly abolished the Ottoman caliphate, the sharif in Mecca (by this time a self-styled king) had his subjects proclaim him caliph. But a crucial prerequisite of the caliphate is power. Sunnis beyond Mecca knew the sharif had none, and refused to recognize him. They were right: as I’ve mentioned, the Saudis shoved him off his throne and into exile. Had there been another strong Arab Sunni state, perhaps its ruler might have declared himself caliph. But in the general weakness of postwar Sunni Islam, no ruler could make a convincing claim to the title. Just as the caliphate had been a symbol of Sunni unity and power, so its loss now symbolized Sunni division and debility.


Worse was to come. In 1948, Israel defeated the neighboring Arab states, as well as Iraq. In a crucial test, the Sunni ruling establishments failed to unite; a mere 600,000 Jews created an independent Jewish state in the heart of the Sunni Arab world. In the process, 700,000 (mostly Sunni) Arabs left their homes or were driven out. More than a decade of turmoil followed, in which monarchies came crashing down and military officers seized power. In 1963, after a series of coups and counter-coups, a cadre of mostly Alawite officers took over in Damascus in the name of the Ba‘th party. Syria, once capital of the Umayyads and a bastion of Sunnism, now passed into the hands of members of a sect considered by many Sunnis to be beyond the pale of Islam. In response, Alawites insisted they were Muslims—but Shiites, not Sunnis.

In previous ages, when Sunni Islam fell under threat in the Fertile Crescent and Arabia, Egypt rode to its rescue. So it did most famously in the 13th century by stopping the Mongol invasion, and again in the 19th by crushing Wahhabis who had seized Mecca. But in the 20th century, Egypt was too weak to fill this role. It did not turn the tide against the nascent Israel in 1948 and was instead forced to accept an ignominious armistice. Gamal Abdel Nasser, after taking power by revolution in 1952, thrust himself into the region claiming he would save it from imperialism and Zionism. But Egypt’s 1958 union with Syria collapsed after only three years, and Nasser then suffered a debacle in Yemen and his own humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967. In making peace with Israel in 1979, Anwar Sadat finally turned Egypt’s back on the Fertile Crescent.

Just when Egypt moved out, Iran moved in. That same year, Ayatollah Khomeini unleashed the fury of Shiite Islam in a revolution that reverberated around the Muslim world. The Islamic Republic of Iran became an avid promoter of Shiism through the Fertile Crescent and Arabia, particularly in countries where there was a significant Shiite population. Fostering clandestine relations with the Shiites of Iraq and the Gulf countries, Tehran also forged an open alliance with the Assad minority regime in Syria.

Iran had its greatest success in Lebanon. Since independence in 1943, that country had been governed through an agreement between the Sunnis and the Maronite Christians. In promoting its client Shiite militia Hizballah, Iran now succeeded in marginalizing Lebanon’s old Sunni establishment, making the Shiites the dominant Muslim component in the political system. Through its backing for Hizballah, Iran also seized proprietorship over a good part of the cause of Palestine and Jerusalem, formerly a Sunni prerogative.

Who remained to champion the Sunni cause? First and foremost, Saddam Hussein. His regime in Iraq found itself squeezed between Shiite Iran and Alawite-ruled Syria. The Shiite majority under his own rule was growing restive. Would he break out of the vise? Much of the Sunni world looked to him expectantly. But the war he launched against Iran in 1981 ended eight years later exactly where it had begun, leaving his regime’s coffers depleted and his legitimacy in tatters. In invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia in 1990, he turned on his sectarian allies, dashed Sunni Arab hopes elsewhere, and invited a massive U.S.-led intervention against him. In 2003, the Bush administration deposed him and liquidated his regime, effectively clearing the path for the long-suppressed Shiite majority to take power in Baghdad.

The last Sunni ruler left standing in the Fertile Crescent, King Abdullah of Jordan, coined the phrase “Shiite Crescent” (as Haivry notes) to describe the new reality. Baghdad and Damascus, once great citadels of Sunni orthodoxy, were now under the rule of non-Sunni Arabs. Iran shuttled soldiers, weapons, and money into both of them. If, in the mid-1990s, as a result of the Oslo accords, it seemed that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem might be restored to some sort of nominal Sunni suzerainty, even that modest prospect receded once Yasir Arafat launched the second intifada in the year 2000.

By then, not only had the Sunni ascendancy vanished; it seemed as though external powers, and above all the United States, had helped to make it vanish—by indulging Syria’s Assad, deposing Iraq’s Saddam, conciliating the ayatollahs’ Iran, and supporting Israel.


What we have witnessed these past few years, and especially since 2011, is not a Sunni collapse after a century of dominance. It is a Sunni revival after a century of slow but steady erosion. The rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the outbreak of the (largely Sunni) Syrian revolt, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) are the most violent expressions of this broader revival. And it was totally predictable once the United States had pulled down the anti-Shiite barrier named Saddam Hussein. In fact, even I predicted it at an October 2004 conference in Washington:

U.S. actions have shifted the sectarian balance. In promoting democracy, the United States does not just undermine the authoritarian order, it inevitably undermines Sunni primacy. It is often said that the Shiites constitute only one-tenth of all Muslims. There are about 130 million Shiites. But about 120 million of them live in the region between Lebanon and Pakistan where they almost equal Sunnis in number. The shift of political power in their direction will raise sectarian tensions. It will anger dispossessed Sunnis, who may gravitate toward extremism, and it will require the United States to find its own delicate balance so that it is not drawn into any sectarian conflict.

Over the past dozen years, it would be hard to argue that the United States struck that balance. It didn’t initiate the century-long erosion of Sunni ascendancy. But it did little to arrest it, and two successive administrations have expedited it: the Bush administration by removing not only Saddam but his regime and the Obama administration by cutting a bargain with Iran. Haivry disparages the “forlorn effort by the U.S. to save the Sunni Arab regional order from collapsing.” Perhaps it has been forlorn precisely because it accelerated the collapse, however inadvertently.

The present Sunni revival—David Pryce-Jones calls it a “regrouping”—is anything but unified, but its power is undeniable, which is why so many seek to control and channel it. From Riyadh to Raqqa, king and caliph scheme to harness Sunni anger to their agenda against Iran, against Shiites, or against the perceived allies of these forces in the West. This struggle is not likely to end anytime soon, and the Sunni revival will not simply peter out.


What is to be done, if anything? Haivry would stand back and let Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, sort it out themselves, with the occasional micro-intervention to keep the (apparent) good guys from being crushed. Eventually “a new and stable system” could emerge, he writes, based on the solidarity of small, determined groups that value their autonomy and freedom. Haivry thinks this “offers a prospect of strategic as well as moral coherence. A region redrawn along lines of actual self-definition would give voice to the communities on the ground that will become invested in its success and work for its stability.”

I thoroughly agree with Haivry that the core of the region will remain in flux. Nor do I see an outside power prepared, at this moment, to provide the structure that the Ottomans, the British, the French, and even the rival branches of the Ba‘th party once provided. Entities will form, dissolve, and re-form. The real map will mean very little, as the Fertile Crescent devolves into rump states, quasi-states, autonomous zones, and badlands. It’s already happened.

But this (dis)order will never become a “stable system.” Different populations are too intermingled, and even such groups as “the Kurds” are divided against themselves. (As the Economist recently put it, “the alphabet barely has enough letters to cover the acronyms of all their quarrelsome factions.”) The factionalism also invites outside intervention by Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Although they aren’t powerful enough to restructure the region, they can destabilize it at will. No one will be allowed to “self-define” or “draw lines” in isolation.

And there is still the problem of the Sunni Arabs. One proposal noted by Haivry has been the creation of some sort of (post-IS) “Sunnistan” running along the upper Euphrates. This would be a kind of nature preserve for Sunni Arabs, designed to reconcile them to the loss of Syria and Iraq. But there is no way Sunnis would be satisfied with this landlocked expanse of desert surrounding the third-tier cities of Raqqa and Mosul. The aim of the Sunni revival is ultimately to take back Damascus and Baghdad; the borders of “Sunnistan” would never be settled.

So while no one can predict the future configurations of the region, one thing is certain: they’re not going to be “stable.” Haivry says that the West should simply make sure that the losers in these struggles “will not be exterminated.” That’s much easier said than done. If the history of genocides and mass killings is any precedent, by the time word gets out and the truth sinks in, it will be too late. No conflicts today have a greater potential than these to leave an indelible stain on the leaders and governments of the West. Indeed, it might well be argued that 400,000 dead Syrians already have left just such a stain.


There is a subtext in Haivry’s piece that won’t escape the careful reader. He handles national security for an Israeli think tank. In Israel today, there is constant talk about a tacit alliance with Sunni states against Iran and its Shiite proxies. Sometimes the message comes from officials, including the director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, Dore Gold: “Clearly there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region.” Or then-defense minister Moshe Yaalon: “Iran is the bad guy for us and for the Sunni regimes. They are not shaking hands [with Israelis] in public, but we meet in closed rooms.” One wit has gone so far as to call Israel the world’s first Jewish Sunni state.

If I am reading Haivry right, he is telling his fellow Israelis that the Sunnis whom Israel is courting don’t have the capacity to deliver on much of anything. This includes the Saudis (“overstretched” and “bogged down”), the Turks (“choking,” “on the edge of civil war”), and the Qataris (“facing internal failure,” “beleaguered”). (The Egyptians and Jordanians, who have peace treaties with Israel, are let off fairly lightly.)

To me, this may reflect less an accurate assessment of the weaknesses of these Sunni states than a fear that Israel might pay too high a price to gain their favor. All of them insist that Israel make concessions on the Palestinian issue as a precondition for deeper ties. The admission fee ranges from accepting the (Saudi-Sunni) Arab Peace Initiative to lifting the “siege” of Gaza. Each time the Israeli government hints at Sunni-Israeli convergence, Netanyahu’s critics counter that if he “is genuinely interested in putting Israel in what he calls the ‘Sunni bloc’. . . . he must also be prepared to give something in return.” This goes by the name of a “regional solution.” Egypt proposes to be its broker.

If, however, Haivry is right—if these Sunni states hover between desperation and doom, if Iran looms as an existential threat to them, if the Sunni order is in mortal danger—why do they demand a price from Israel? Were Israel to offer them what they really need—an added layer of protection—why wouldn’t they gladly cut a deal, without any conditions? Israel has provided just such a layer to Jordan for many years. Why do the others play so hard-to-get?

One possibility is that things aren’t that bad, and that they would have to get worse to make Israel halal. Another is that these states know full well that Israel hasn’t the will to become a security provider for the Sunni Arabs, especially in the far-off Gulf. Israel has a policy of acting forcefully to defend its perimeter (including Jordan), but no tradition of fighting on behalf of imperiled allies. For Israel to contemplate such a role, the United States would have to retreat from the Middle East much farther than it has already done.

So Israel’s value to the Sunnis is limited—which is precisely why they demand an admission fee to their club. Some imagine the fee would be worth paying in exchange for access to the fabulous wealth of Araby. Needless to say, however, few Israelis would trade their security or patrimony for such elusive gains. In sum, Sunni-mania in Israel has probably gone as far as it can go, so there is no need for exaggerated Sunni-skepticism.


Now that Iraq is lost, the Saudis are increasingly prepared to buck up the Sunni order. Haivry thinks they are a domino ready to fall; I think he underestimates them. Saudi Arabia represents the most successful instance of Arab state-building in the 20th century. From a small nucleus, the Saudis expanded under ibn Sa‘ud over almost all of Arabia, defeating rivals and drawing the kingdom’s own borders as they advanced. Since then, the Saudi monarchy has survived every campaign to delegitimize it, from Nasser to Khomeini to Osama bin Laden. They started the 20th century reviled by mainstream Sunnis; they ended it as their champions. The Saudi regime is prepared to destroy any nascent Shiite enclave in Arabia, from Bahrain to Yemen, as well as any Shiite attempt to suborn the kingdom’s own Shiites or hijack the pilgrimage to Mecca.

At almost every point in their history, the Saudis have been described as imperiled, bankrupt, even doomed. But they always maneuver, bribe, or bludgeon their way back. What they lack in charisma, they make up for in wealth, experience, alliances, and the holy places. David Pryce-Jones warns against writing the Sunnis off prematurely. It is always tempting, at any point, to write off Saudi Arabia in particular. So far, doing so has always been a mistake.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the only credible counterweight to Iran. As Haivry writes, “an Iranian hegemony is possible, but obviously unsafe and highly undesirable.” That’s an understatement. In an unstable Fertile Crescent, the Iranians will play a long game, and while at some points they may appear “overstretched,” they will use their levers in Baghdad and Damascus, and they will put bodies on the line, in order to extend their empire westward. It’s no juggernaut, but it’s methodical and relentless.

The strongest remaining bulwark against Iran is Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners. They must get a grip on the wilder shoots of the Sunni revival, and the West must put its thumbs on the scales to make sure they win. The alternative isn’t a tolerant Middle East of “self-defined” good guys. It is a Middle East that will march against Israel on Khomeini-mandated al-Quds day in Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut—and all the places in-between.

More about: Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia