Breaking down the Middle East’s sectarian tensions

Breaking down the Middle East’s sectarian tensions

The impact of rising Saudi-Iran tension has serious repercussions for peace talks. However, simple-minded sectarianism isn’t always so clear-cut when considering the region’s complex conflicts.

One of the messages that reverberated throughout the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the desire to end sectarianism. The rallying cry of “La Sunniya, la Shia, wahda wahda Islamiya” (no Sunnis, no Shias, only Islamic unity) was shouted by the masses of Iranian demonstrators as they sought to topple the secular-orientated monarchy of Shah Pahlavi. The goal of shaking off political repression in a new era of freedom and justice forged through Islamic unity did not seem distant to Iran’s citizens.

Today, sectarian relations within Islam could not seem further apart. The international community has urged calm as Iran and Saudi Arabia embrace this latest crisis to maximize their advantage in the midst of regional uncertainty about future of peace in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. In addition to the geopolitical intra-Islamic clash, there are overlaps within sectarian interests that factor into the long term dynamics for Sunnis and Shias.

Syria and Iraq: individual manifestations of sectarianism

It is true that the sectarian divisions in Iraq and Syria have manifested themselves at an organic level among civilians on the ground, especially at the individual level. For example, Abu Azrael, a commander within the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (and whose name means “Father of the Archangel of Death”), is admired among Shias on social media for his role in the battlefield victories against Islamic State (IS). Abu Azrael recently taunted Saudi Arabia for its atrocities in Yemen.

The recapture of Ramadi was done without the Popular Mobilization Forces. Sunni tribes, aligned with the government, played a role in driving out IS. Iraq still has opportunities to rebuild trust between its sectarian communities in the battle against IS, and the Iraqi government is well positioned to play a role as mediator between the regional powers.

In Syria, despite the ongoing peace talks, the answers to the conflict will ultimately reside with the fighting forces on the ground. Labib Al-Nahhas, with Ahrar Al-Sham, Syria’s largest Sunni force, has become a vital spokesman for connecting the group with Western audiences in a calm, collected manner. As the group suffered from the deaths of high level commanders, the direction which Ahrar Al-Sham travels in a post-war political process will be closely watched.

In Syria, there are opposition figures among the regime’s Alawite sect, such as Louay Hussein, an Alawite politician who fled to Spain. Efforts to include these players in any political transition will be crucial.

Even in regards to the Assad regime, the definition isn’t always so clear-cut. In the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, the government’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is protecting many Sunni civilians in government-held districts. SAA Maj. General Issam Zahreddine, a Druze, recently returned to the city to oversee the regime’s counter-offensive against IS. Life for secular-minded Sunnis has largely continued on until a recent offensive by IS in which many Sunni civilians associated with the Assad regime were kidnapped.

Cities like Deir ez-Zor have become part of Syria’s landscape of medieval-style siege warfare. Surrounded by a sea of IS, the SAA relies on daily shipment of supplies from a military airstrip. Corruption from new black market “Check Point” economies has emerged making life for ordinary people from both sects extremely difficult.

A Shia Crescent or Full Moon?

Prince Muhammad bin Salman recently told The Economist that Iran’s geopolitics (the infamous Shia Crescent) is now being perceived as nothing short of a full moon. Fear is an important tool; with Saudi Arabia’s domestic and economic troubles looming, the Kingdom uses Yemen’s conflict towards this end.

Along with highlighting the atrocities carried out by the Syrian regime and Shia militias in Iraq against Sunni civilians, the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen feeds a heightened state of nationalism among the country’s youth on social media. Twitter has become its own battleground of ideas and cross-sectarian discourse.

At the start of the conflict, many analysts pointed to the similarities between the Zaydi Houthi rebels and the Lebanese Hezbollah. However, there has been little evidence that Iran has a significant role in supporting the Houthi rebels.

There are Sunni elements within the loyalists of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who has aligned with the Houthis through a mutual convenience (though most are beginning to give up the fight). In addition, Saudi Arabia and the Houthi shared a similar opposition to the Al-Islah Party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Arabia is shoring up allies as part of its effort to counter Iran’s growing influence. Pakistan has a long history of military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Though Pakistan skipped out on joining the war in Yemen, they have agreed to take part in the new anti-terrorism alliance in an unspecified capacity.

The Pakistani government has encouraged Saudi Arabia to make strides towards Islamic unity. Pakistan has made its own recent gains against terrorism where many attacks have targeted Shia mosques and other minorities.

The prisoner exchange and release of the U.S. sailors illustrates that the United States is now on a permanent trajectory towards an understanding with Iran. Iran’s return to international energy markets is already sending shockwaves through the oil economies of the Arab Gulf States.

There have occasionally been glimmers of hope through examples on the ground. Two Sunni security guards died blocking a suicide bomber from attacking a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Iranian Government would be wise to follow the brave example of these guards and begin de-escalation of the sectarian conflict.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris