The sectarian genie is now well out of the bottle, eclipsing
traditional inter-state rivalries that plague the Middle East - even
if these still play a part in the drama.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution brought a Shi’ite theocracy to power in
non-Arab Iran, giving a sectarian edge to the long-standing,
state-to-state contest for influence in the Gulf between Iran and
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy underpinned by the fundamentalist
tenets of Sunni Wahhabi doctrine.
And the 2003 US invasion shattered Iraq into ethno-sectarian
fragments, giving the majority Shi’ites the whip-hand over the Sunni
minority and overturning a century-old balance of power.
Now the Syrian conflict pitting a government whose core is President
Bashar al-Assad's Alawites, a minority sect descended from Shi'ism,
in an all-out war against rebels made up mainly from the Sunni
majority, has lured jihadi volunteers to create an almost seamless
sectarian battlefield from Baghdad to Beirut.
"There is no sense of common identity and therefore wherever there
is a division of power like in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain they
end up fighting over who wins. It has become a winner take all
situation," said Middle East academic and former State Department
official Vali Nasr, also a Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution.
"This is being driven from both top down and bottom up."
Glimpses of the savagery of this sectarianism have multiplied as the
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda splinter
group which controls parts of war-torn Syria, captured a string of
north and central Iraqi cities in June. On Sunday, it declared a
state in areas under its control and its leader caliph of Muslims
throughout the world.
One video posted by ISIL shows its fighters storming the house of an
old man and accusing him and his two young sons of fighting in the
Iraqi army under Nuri al-Maliki, the Shi’ite Islamist prime
As the captives dig their own graves, a fighter taunts them, “You’re
tired, Yes? Dig, dig more, where is Maliki to come and save you? Why
did you join Maliki’s army?”
The old man implores comrades to repent and break ranks with the
army, saying: “Look at me, I am digging my own grave, they came to
my home and took me”. The video ends abruptly with what looks like
the swish of a blade falling upon the victim and a one-word caption:
An ISIL leader reached by Reuters via Skype makes clear this
brutality is a considered policy as his movement builds its
cross-border Islamic State.
“We will deal with Maliki’s followers and his filthy state according
to righteous Islamic law”, he says. “Whoever comes to us repentant
before we have the upper hand upon him, will be one of us; but the
one who insists in fighting us and on his infidelity and apostasy,
he'll have to face the consequences”.
Disowned even by al-Qaeda, ISIL has taken hate speech to a new level
in Iraq, denouncing Shi’ites as “dogs of Maliki”, or as “reviled and
impure rejectionists (rafadah)”.
They proclaim that “death is the only language the Shi’ite Marjaiyah
(clerical leaders) and their rotten gangs understand”.
The Shi’ite side has responded in kind, posting videos of Sunnis
being executed. In one, groups of men shot randomly, some in the
head, lie next to each other in what appears to be a room with blood
splashed on the wall and bullet holes everywhere.
Religion, many analysts say, is being deployed as a weapon to
galvanize rival interests, but is taking on a virulent sectarian
life of its own, sometimes escaping the control of those wielding
"National identities in these countries are eroding and sectarian
identities are becoming more prominent," Nasr said.
In Iraq, says Professor Charles Tripp at London University's School
of Oriental and African Studies, the process began in the 1990s when
Saddam Hussein, the dictator toppled in 2003, started a “piety
campaign” to solidify support for his otherwise secular regime in
the face of crippling international sanctions.
This indiscriminate encouragement of Sunni Salafism and Shi’ism
encouraged “sectarian entrepreneurs who found it very profitable to
mobilize people around religion or sect”.
In a process which continued under Maliki, the poison of sectarian
prejudice hardened into bigotry, exploited by leaders who fell into
"an awful bidding war" to claim religious legitimacy, Tripp says.
Regional players also cloaked their pursuit of geopolitical
advantage in religion, he adds.
“If you emphasize your Shi’ism as an Iranian it allows them to
intervene in Lebanon (which has a big Shi'ite community). Equally,
if you are a Saudi you can claim it is not about regional rivalry
but some bigger cause”, he says.
“On a regional level people get sucked into a power game which is
not actually about religion but resources and prestige."
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Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center
in Beirut, argues that "there is actually no theological debate in
this religious war." “It’s fundamentally, as always, a fight for
While enmity between Islam’s two competing sects has often been
fierce and bloody, it now spreads over huge swathes of territory
from the eastern Mediterranean to Iraq, the Gulf and Yemen. “It is
neither solely religious nor purely political; the two mix and feed
upon each other, with personal interests and geopolitical
confrontations pouring petrol on the flames,” said Tarek Osman,
author of the "Perilous Scenario in the Eastern Mediterranean."
Sectarian wars, Osman says, are also occurring at a time when Arab
societies are undergoing a transformation from the old political
order following the ousting of autocratic leaders, who have ruled
for decades to a new, as yet undefined, order.
And for the first time in the last 150 years, the region is
witnessing the emergence of highly assertive, well-armed, jihadist
groups that are dominating the plains from eastern Syria to western
Iraq, and gradually carving for themselves quasi-statelets that they
aim to have as permanent entities.
“If that happens, it will not only be a peril to all sovereign
states in this part of the world, not only to religious minorities,
but to all of the societies," Osman said.
The future, experts argue, will be determined as much by local
factors as regional forces.
“Local politics will shape this in one form or another. Sometimes
local politics will mean it is horrible and really violent, you will
see the kind of things you saw in Syria where one village is
massacred by another. And of course localism can take the fuse out,
take the bitterness out because it could actually lead to a local
settlement,” Tripp said.
While it is true that Iraqi Sunnis of the north, united in their
hatred of Maliki's government which they say disempowered and
marginalized them, helped ISIL in its dramatic takeover, the same
differences may cause a break with ISIL's intolerant and brutal
methods, as happened in Syria and Iraq seven years ago.
The Jihadist coalition under ISIL, experts say, will eventually
fragment because of internal disputes over sharing money, territory
They believe ISIL insurgents will overreach themselves by alienating
tribes, more pragmatic Sunni groups, former officers from Saddam's
era and ordinary Iraqis as they did in 2005-2008 under al Qaeda
leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, when Iraqis revolted against its
ultra-hardline Islamist agenda.
Some argue that these splits will open quickly because the Jihadists
have to provide government in the huge swathes of territory they
“One of the great strengths of al Qaeda was that it has no social
constituency”, says Charles Tripp. “It could rally people round an
idea but didn’t have to provide electricity, water, social justice
and so on. ISIL now does.”
So far in Sunni cities captured by ISIL, the social power structures
are those of existing tribal leaders and former Baathist officials,
while the people with the guns and the ruthlessness and violence are
the ISIL, Tripp says.
“They know they cannot rule that area without the cooperation of the
tribes and when you look at the pattern of what happened before
that’s how the control of al Qaeda and Zarqawi fell apart because
they alienated them," Tripp said.
On the ground, it is hard to imagine Maliki regaining Sunni
provinces he lost to ISIL with Iraq's army, a force which exists
more on paper than on the ground. But regaining it with
Iranian-trained Shi’ite militias such as Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq is also a
recipe for sectarian slaughter, experts say.
Many predict the fighting will go on until all sects - from Syria to
Iraq - Shi'ites, Sunnis, Kurds and Alawites carve up their own
fiefdoms even if they stay within the same international borders.
The clearest emerging enclave is the northern Kurdish autonomous
region, which has been more than 20 years in the making and which
experts say could be permanent.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Philippa Fletcher)
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