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Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold posters of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration in Baghdad Monday. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold posters of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration in Baghdad Monday. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Escalating dispute between Saudi Arabia, Iran threatens Syria peace talks Add to ...

The age-old schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims continues to destabilize the Middle East and throws a wrench into efforts to end the civil war in Syria.

Saudi Arabia’s Saturday execution of dissident Shia imam Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, for example, roiled the entire region. The capital punishment may have been intended as a warning to Saudi Arabia’s minority Shiites not to challenge the authority of the Sunni House of Saud, but its reverberations were felt acutely in Iran, the region’s dominant Shia power. The Saudi embassy was sacked and Iranian authorities vowed revenge. (The assault was viewed in Riyadh as having been encouraged by the Iranian leadership, causing Saudi Arabia to sever its diplomatic and commercial ties with Tehran. Bahrain, where a majority Shia population is ruled by a Saudi-backed Sunni emir, followed suit, while the business-oriented United Arab Emirates downgraded their diplomatic relations with Iran.)

More important, the shock waves also extended to Syria just as the parties to that country’s civil war were close to entering peace talks in which Iran and Saudi Arabia were to play leading roles. With an irate Iran defending the Syrian regime and a defiant Saudi Arabia backing the rebels, those peace talks likely will be set back by recent events. Some say this was Saudi Arabia’s intention all along.

Proxy battles in Lebanon and Yemen may be affected as well. In Lebanon, the normally dominant Hezbollah movement, a Shia group backed by Iran, had lost some of its influence in the past year as the fighting in Syria took its toll of Hezbollah forces who were helping defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Now, however, Hezbollah, which shares Iran’s outrage over Sheik al-Nimr’s execution, may be invigorated and take out its resentment on Saudi-led Sunni groups in Lebanon.

In Yemen, in recent months, there has been an intensification of the hit-and-run war between Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, who took control of the capital, Sanaa, in February, and a Saudi-led coalition that is trying to salvage a government currently in exile. The al-Nimr execution has drawn attention to Iran’s influence throughout the Arabian Peninsula and may lead to an increase in the already considerable Saudi efforts in Yemen.

Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, predicted ‘divine vengeance’ for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, left. (Reuters)

The United States is suffering the consequences of the Saudi execution. For more than a week, U.S. officials had strongly counselled Saudi authorities not to include Sheik al-Nimr in the capital punishment, for fear of the consequences. The advice was pointedly ignored, making the Obama administration appear weaker than ever in Arab eyes. This would seem to be a goal of the new Saudi regime, in which King Salman appears to be allowing his Crown Prince, the Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, and his son, Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, to set the tone of the new Saudi regime.

Even Canada is touched by these developments. Ottawa sharply criticized Saudi Arabia’s mass executions of 47 people that included Sheik al-Nimr on Saturday and expressed its concern that it might lead to sectarian violence. But the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remains committed to a $14-billion contract to supply Riyadh with hundreds of armoured personnel carriers intended for quelling any domestic uprisings. This kind of business dealing will complicate matters for the government should it wish to reinstate diplomatic relations with Tehran, severed in 2012 by the Harper government.

Iran’s agenda

Iran’s initial interest in the Syrian civil war was to ensure the survival of a client state regime that helped extend Iran’s influence from the Afghanistan border to the Mediterranean. In particular, the Assad regime in Damascus helps facilitate Iran’s support for the militant Shia Hezbollah movement in neighbouring Lebanon and protects Shia pilgrimage sites inside Syria, keeping them safe from Sunni extremists.

The advent of the Islamic State in 2014, however, and its continued strength in 2015, has made Iran look somewhat differently at the conflict. It now views the war as part of a larger Sunni-Shia struggle that engulfs Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen and may well spill over into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

With Russian forces now active in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime, Iran was able in December to withdraw large numbers of Revolutionary Guardsmen it had deployed to assist Syrian forces, and which had been incurring heavy losses.

As the year ended, it appeared that Iran would be focusing its external attention on the war against IS forces in Iraq where it was having greater impact and where the nucleus of the IS self-proclaimed caliphate is located.

Iran also has felt newly empowered by the signing in July of an agreement reached with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany to restrict Iran’s nuclear capacity for the next 15 years. In exchange for this restriction, international sanctions that have been in place against Iran are to be gradually lifted and the country’s waning economy will be revived. Already, Tehran is flaunting its improved situation by carrying out several controversial tests of long-range missiles.

It is suspected that the lifting of sanctions will breathe new life into Iran’s agenda of extending its influence in the Shia-populated areas of the region, something Saudi Arabia is determined to stop.

Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran after protesters attacked its embassy in Tehran. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Syria’s endless war

After five years of fighting, the Syrian civil war continues unabated. The millions of Syrians who had fled the violence had been waiting out the war in nearby camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. In the past year, hundreds of thousands began washing up on the shores of southern Europe, bringing the reality of war to the attention of Europeans and North Americans.

Humanitarian concern mixed with fear of being overrun lent a new determination to Western efforts to end the war; talks led by Russia and the United States, with the participation of Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several other interested outside parties, had produced a “road map” intended to lead to a political solution.

Many differences remain unresolved, such as which Syrian opposition groups would be allowed to participate in the process and which would be excluded as “terrorists.” Also unsettled is the status of Syrian President al-Assad and how long he’ll be allowed to remain part of the process of transition. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is vehemently opposed to Mr. al-Assad continuing in office, to rule by an Alawite minority group over the majority Sunni population and to Iran benefiting by such a rule.

Russia’s arrival

The most significant change within the Syrian conflict was the arrival in September of Russian forces that quickly went into combat. Following a formal invitation by the Syrian government, Russia deployed several fighter bombers, cruise missiles, heavy armoured vehicles and several hundred troops to a newly expanded base near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. The base is close to a Russian naval facility at Tartus and within the Alawite homeland of President al-Assad and his family.

Russian bombing has been almost daily, almost always heavy and usually successful in reversing the advances of rebel forces in the northwest that were closing in on the Alawite areas. The rebels have been led in part by the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and included a great many Turkmen who had the quiet support of nearby Turkey.

The Russian role has been a game changer for the Assad regime and for the moribund political process since it has made clear that the Syrian leadership will not be forced from office.

Turkey stirs

Russia’s actions also stirred things up with Turkey. When a Russian strike aircraft strayed over Turkish territory on Nov. 24, it was promptly shot down by Turkish fighter jets that had been lying in wait. The move may have been intended to discourage Russia from targeting the Syrian Turkmen population who live in the border area near Turkey, but it had the opposite effect. Russia increased its attacks on the Turkmen and moved into Syria some of Russia’s most potent surface-to-air defence systems, daring Turkey to try to attack a Russian aircraft again.

The episode served to expose the extent of Turkey’s increased role in the Syrian conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always made clear he wishes to see Mr. al-Assad vanquished, but has maintained an officially neutral position. Turkey, however, has been far more active than people realize, and increasingly so. In this, it is closely allied with Saudi Arabia.

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold posters of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration in Baghdad (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP)

In addition to supplying arms and ammunition to the Turkmen in the northwest, Ankara has also kept the border with Syria deliberately porous so that foreign fighters could filter in to join the Nusra Front or other groups, including the Islamic State. Turkey wants to support any group that is effective against the Assad regime, even the Islamic State. Indeed, when the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State began operations in late 2014, Turkey refused to allow even its allies to use Turkish facilities in carrying out bombing runs against IS forces.

As well, when the Kurds of northeastern Syria were fighting for their lives against the Islamic State, Turkey refused to allow any Turkish Kurds to join the battle – it was the one border area Ankara kept closed. In 2015, however, plenty of Turkish Kurds succeeded in joining the fight, including members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK. But rather than help these U.S.-backed Kurds in the campaign against IS forces, Turkey carried out frequent bombing attacks on the Kurds. Mr. Erdogan views the PKK as the greater threat.

Islamic State evolves

The Islamic State’s role in the Syrian conflict also changed in 2015. It lost ground in the northeast to the Kurds, though it succeeded in taking new territory in the south and middle of the country, including the historically significant ruins of Palmyra, parts of which the group appears to have destroyed.

Over all, including Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate shrank by about 14 per cent in 2015, with most of those losses being to the Kurds.

This may explain why IS leaders this past year projected their violent path to areas outside their caliphate. On Oct. 31, a bomb planted on a Russian airliner departing from Sinai was traced to the Islamic State; the blast downed the plane killing all 224 passengers and crew.

And in Paris, on Nov. 13, seven co-ordinated attacks were carried out by IS supporters, killing 130 people.

The two unforeseen assaults led Russia to intensify bombing of IS targets in Syria and to call for a broad coalition against IS terror, an invitation Washington has declined, preferring to conduct its own operations against IS facilities in Syria and Iraq. The assaults did lead European nations, especially France, to join in the fight against IS forces. Paris echoed Moscow’s appeal for a co-ordinated campaign against the extremists.

These developments contributed to improving the prospects for a political solution to the Syrian conflict so that all attention could be focused on ending the Islamic State. Now, however, those prospects are running into considerable opposition from Saudi Arabia.

More in-depth coverage

Untangling the Middle East: A guide to the region's shifting relationships

As civil war rages in Syria and the Islamic State movement clings to control of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, long-time rivalries and alliances are shifting in the Middle East. Every player in the region has interests that intersect and sometimes collide with enemies and allies alike.

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