Sectarian war or regional power struggles?

Stimson Center’s discussion on The Escalating Shi’a-Sunni Conflict: Assessing the Role of State Actors featured a panel made up of Dwight Bashir of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Najib Ghadbian, Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas, and moderator Geneive Abdo, Fellow at the Stimson Center.

Dwight Bashir claimed that governments and countries in the Middle East with more religious tolerance have seen greater stability during and following the Arab Spring than those countries with less tolerance. Perhaps this is true superficially. If we consider the countries where positive reform has resulted from the popular movements which began in 2011, such as Jordan, Morocco, and most notably, Tunisia, the evidence for sectarianism both today and before the Arab Spring is limited. Meanwhile, if we look to Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State is acting as an exemplar of sectarian and religious violence, it seems as if Bashir might have a point.

A more than cursory look at the numbers says otherwise. In Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, considerably more than 90% of the respective populations identify as Sunni Muslim, and in all of these countries the ruling class is dominated by the Sunni majority. Contrast this to Syria, with a 74% Sunni majority but with power held primarily by the Alawite minority, and Iraq where the Shi’ite majority (over 60%) is often at odds with the Sunni minority (over 30%, concentrated in the north). Further, Bashir’s suggestion that Syria and Iraq were notably intolerant as compared with certain other countries affected by the Arab Spring seems tenuous. Is it religious tolerance that has allowed greater stability in the Arab Spring success stories, or is it religious (and ethnic) homogeneity? There is a difference.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are interesting to consider in this context. While both have remained relatively stable, this has come at the cost of heavy-handed repression towards these countries’ non-dominant Shi’ite groups. Bashir explicitly outlined the problems presented by societal sectarianism endemic in Saudi Arabia on the country’s policies, and on its influence on external groups such as the Islamic State. Yet despite this apparent intolerance by its Sunni majority towards the Shi’ite 15%, Saudi Arabia, for now at least, is not at risk of instability on the scale seen in much of the Arab world.

It is clear that Sunni-Shi’ite tensions have escalated in some areas, generating inter-religious war that is a far cry from the original protests calling for political change and economic reform. Ghadbian believes the war in Syria was increasingly driven towards sectarianism by outside actors. He points to Saudi Arabian radical sheikhs who have used satellite TV stations and social media to incite Sunnis to jihad against the Assad regime on the one hand, while noting Iranian support for Assad – and the direct intervention of the Shi’ite Hizbollah from 2012 – as having further served to turn the narrative of the Syrian civil war into one of Sunni jihadists versus a Shi’ite regime.

It increasingly appears that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others are fighting proxy wars. Each sees itself as the leading nation for their respective branch of Islam, and both seem keen to install governments and groups favorable to themselves across the region. This has manifested itself most prominently in the Syrian conflict, and also in conflicts such as the ongoing Houthi uprising in Yemen. The Saudi-Iranian power struggle is nothing new, but it is now exacerbating and intensifying conflicts across the Middle East.

American support for Saudi Arabia, and hostility towards Iran, means that there is an increasing perception in some quarters that the US has picked a side in the regional proxy wars. Both Bashir and Ghadbian closed by calling for consistency in US policy when dealing with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Solutions to localized conflict can not be addressed only locally. Solutions need to include, and address the concerns of, the regional powers.

The Arab Spring did not begin as a religious conflict. But it has become increasingly tied to an escalating Sunni-Shi’ite proxy war, at times been driven by elements in Saudi Arabia and Iran. De-escalating these tensions on the ground will not only be important to find a lasting end to the ongoing crises in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, but will be vital for any future state building efforts.

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