The Regional and International Politics of Rising Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East and South Asia Dr. Shireen T. Hunter Visiting Professor at the Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown Universityâ€™s School of Foreign Service
ACMCU Occasional Papers July 2013
The Regional and International Politics of Rising Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East and South Asia Dr. Shireen T. Hunter
ACMCU Occasional Papers July 2013
Dr. Shireen T. Hunter Shireen T. Hunter is Visiting Professor at the Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. From September 2005 until February 2007 she was a Visiting Fellow at the center where she conducted research on reformist Islam, a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. She is also Distinguished Scholar( Non –Resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., with which she has been associated since 1983 (Director of the Islam Program, 1998-2005; Senior Associate, 1993-97; and Deputy Director of the Middle East Program, 1983-92). She is Consultant to the RAND Corporation; and she was Academic Fellow at Carnegie Corporation (2000-2002). From 1993-97, Dr. Hunter was Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels, and also directed CEPS’ Mediterranean Program. While at CSIS in the 1980s, she also taught courses as Professorial Lecturer at Georgetown University, Adjunct Professor at George Mason University, and holder of the Louis L. Goldstein Chair at Washington College (1989). Dr. Hunter’s areas of expertise include the Middle East (especially Iran and the Persian Gulf region), the Mediterranean, Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus (North and South), Islam and politics and society and she has done extensive work on North-South relations, energy (Persian Gulf, Caucasus, Central Asia), developing-country issues (political, social, economic, security), and Islam (Russia, Europe, the US). Prior to joining CSIS, Dr. Hunter was a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution (1979-1980) Research Fellow at the Harvard University Center for International Affairs (CFIA). From 1966-1978, she was a member of the Iranian Foreign Service, serving abroad in London and Geneva. She attained the rank of Counselor and served from time-to-time as Charge d’Affaires of the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. Dr. Hunter was educated at Teheran University (BA and all-but-thesis for a doctorate in international law), the London School of Economics (MSc in international relations), and the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva (PhD in international relations). Her books are: Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era: Resisting the New International Order, Praeger, 2010, Reformist Voices of Islam : Mediating Islam and Modernity , (ed &contributor) M.E. Sharpe, 2008,Islam and Human Rights: Advancing a US-Muslim Dialogue (ed.), CSIS Press, 2005; Modernization, Democracy and Islam (coed. and contributor), Praeger 2005; Islam in Russia: the Politics of Identity and Security, M. E. Sharpe, 2004; Islam: Europe’s Second Religion (editor), Praeger, 2002: The Future of Islam-West Relations: Clash of Civilizations or Peaceful Coexistence? CSIS/Praeger, 1998; Central Asia Since Independence CSIS/Praeger, 1996; The Transcaucasus in Transition: Nation-Building and Conflict CSIS/ Westview Press, 1994; Iran After Khomeini Praeger, 1992; Iran and the World: Continuity in a Revolutionary Decade (IUP, 1990); The Politics of Islamic Revivalism (editor, IUP, 1988); and OPEC and the Third World: Politics of Aid (Indiana University Press, 1984). Here books have been used widely in courses in
The Regional and International Politics of Rising Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East and South Asia
major US and foreign universities. Her book, The Future of Islam and the West, has been translated into Persian and Arabic, Modernization, Democracy and Islam into Arabic and Islam in Russia into Persian. Her major monographs include The Algerian Crisis: Origins, Evolution, and Implications for the Maghreb and Europe (CEPS Paper No. 66, 1996). Turkey at the Crossroads: Islamic Past or European Future? (CEPS Paper No. 63, 1995); Gulf Cooperation Council (editor, CSIS, 1984); Internal Developments in Iran (editor, CSIS, 1985); and The PLO After Tripoli (editor, CSIS, 1984). Dr. Hunter is the author of more than 30 book chapters and 40 articles in many leading journals, including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Middle East International, Washington Quarterly, Harvard International Review, The Brown Journal of International Affairs, Columbia Journal of International Affairs; The Oxford Journal of Islamic Studies, SAIS Review, The Middle East Journal, Third World Quarterly, OPEC Review, World Today, Middle East Insight, Relazioni Internazionali, Current History, Security Dialogue, The International Spectator, Transitions, Orient , Turkey Insight , Arches and Central Asia Monitor. She has written many op-ed articles for various newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Hunter has lectured widely in the United States and abroad, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, World Affairs Councils, Town Hall (Los Angeles), Young Presidents Organization, Foreign Service Institute, Defense Intelligence Agency, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, USIA (Germany, India, Israel, Algeria, Denmark, Australia, and Kuwait), the Marshall Center, Navy Postgraduate School, the U.S. Air Force, Reserve Officers Association, leading universities throughout the U.S., a wide variety of corporations, and professional groups like the Middle East Institute, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Aspen Institute, the American Association of Slavic Studies, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the Middle East Institute, the Asia Society, Freedoms Foundation, the Istituto Affari Internazionali (Rome), the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, International Peace Research Institute (Oslo), Middle East Centre (St. Antonyâ€™s College, Oxford), and the Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies (Tel Aviv University). She has participated in the World Economic Forum (Davos) and in World Policy Conference in Evian (2008). She has testified before Congressional Committees (House Foreign Affairs, House Defense Appropriations) and the Helsinki Commission. She was an Onassis Foundation Fellow at The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP - 2000) and Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (2004). She is an editor of the Journal of Southeast European Studies and is on the editorial board of Global Dialogue and International Politics. Dr. Hunter has traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union (Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia) China, and Japan. (In Azerbaijan she was an election observer.) She has consulted for the Board of International Broadcasting and for a wide variety of U.S. and European corporations (especially in the energy sector). Dr. Hunter is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has lived in the United States since 1978 and has been a U.S. citizen since 1985. She is fluent in English, French, Persian, and Azeri Turkish, and also has a working knowledge of Arabic.
The Regional and International Politics of Rising Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East and South Asia
The Regional and International Politics of Rising Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East and South Asia In the last decade, and in particular in the last few years, tensions and conflicts involving Sunni and Shia populations have risen dramatically in the Middle East and South Asia. These conflicts have led to acts of terror committed largely, but not exclusively, against the Shia communities in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and in the last two years, in Syria. Following popular uprisings in Bahrain in 2011 demanding greater political freedom and equal treatment of the Shias, similar to popular protests that occurred in other Arab countries—which came to be known as the Arab Spring— Bahrain’s Shia majority was severely suppressed by the country’s Sunni-dominated government and its Sunni rulers.1 The popular uprisings in Bahrain, coupled with similar, albeit smaller, protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shia populations in the country’s Shia-dominated regions—notably Qatif and Awamiyah—also exacerbated sectarian tensions in the Persian Gulf region and Arabian Peninsula.2 Moreover, aspects of Yemen’s civil strife, notably the conflict between Sana’a and the Houti rebels who are followers of the Zaydi branch of Shiism, have added to Sunni-Shia tensions across the region.3 This has occurred, despite the existence of considerable differences between the Zaydis and the majority of the world’s Shia population who belong to the Twelver Shiism. In fact, one consequence of the rising sectarian tensions has been a relative growing closer of various Shia sects, including groups such as the Alawites of Syria whose Shia credentials are at best dubious. Furthermore, sectarian tensions have affected countries that in the past had been immune to such problems. Turkey is one such country, where in the last few years, the Shias have grown fearful of greater marginalization.4 On the Bahrain uprising, see among others Sharif Abdel Kouddous, “When Will Justice Be Served in Bahrain,” Nation, March 5, 2013. http://www.thenation.com/article/173190/when-will-justice-be-served-bahrain; Rannie Amiri, “The Bahrain Uprising in Numbers,” AntiWar.com, December 29, 2011, http://original.antiwar.com/rannie-amiri/2011/12/28/the-bahrainuprising-in-numbers/; Rannie Amiri, “Days of Rage, Decades of Oppression,” Anti War.com, February 21, 2011, http:// original.antiwar.com/rannie-amiri/2011/02/20/bahrain-days-of-rage/; and David Roberts, “Blame Iran: A Dangerous Response to the Bahraini Uprising,” Guardian, August, 20, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/20/ bahraini-uprising-iran.
On Shia protests in Saudi Arabia, see Kevin Sullivan, “Shiite Protests Pose Major Challenge for Saudi Arabia,” Washington Post, October 18, 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-10-18/world/35499028_1_shiite-protests-saudi-arabiasaudi-economy; also, “Two Die during Saudi Arabia Protest at Shia Cleric Arrest,” BBC News, Middle East, July 9, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18768703?print=true.
On the Yemen conflict involving the Shias, see Andrew Hammond, “Houthi Rebels Seen Gaining New Influence in Yemen,” Reuters, October 3, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/03/yemen-houthis-idUSL6E8KU2WU20121003; also Salmoni Barack et al., Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2010). On Zaidis history and beliefs, see Gabriele vom Bruck, Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2005). For a brief historical background to the country’s civil strife, see David Keys, “Yemen’s Forgotten War,” HistoryExtra.com, BBC History Magazine, http://www.historyextra.com/yemen.
Susanne Gusten, “Turkey’s Shiites Fear Sectarian Realignment,” Al Monitor Pulse, February 4, 2013, http://www.al-monitor. com/pulse/originals/2013/02/ali-ozgunduz-shia-sectarian-fears-caferi-turkey.html. These Shias belong to the Twelver branch. In addition, there are between 10 million and 15 million Alevis in Turkey. They share a number of significant traits with Orthodox Twelvers, but also differ form them in significant ways.
Parallel with rising sectarian tensions, relations between the Shia-majority countries, such as Iran and Iraq, and the Sunni countries, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have also worsened.5 The deterioration of relations between the Sunni- and Shia-majority countries has been only partly the consequence of rising sectarian tensions. Rather, intensified regional rivalries for power and influence have played a more significant role. In fact, it could be said that the intensification of regional rivalries has stoked the fires of sectarian conflict rather than the other way round.
Rising Sectarian Tensions: What Causes and Why Now? The Sunni-Shia divide in the Muslim world has existed since the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., marked by periods of conflict between the two communities. However, historically and, in particular, in modern times, the trend in Sunni-Shia relations had been toward reducing tensions. There have even been efforts to bring about some kind of ecumenical rapprochement between the two branches of the Muslim faith.6 In view of this history, the following questions arise: What have been the main causes of the recent surge in Sunni-Shia conflict? And why they have come to the fore at this juncture? Have the long-standing doctrinal disputes been primarily responsible for sectarian tensions? Or have the main culprits been new political developments, notably the greater politicization of religion in the Middle East and South Asia and the intensification of regional rivalries following major international and regional events of the last two decades? To what extent has the latest rise in sectarian tensions resulted from the policies of key international actors? A complicated phenomenon such as the rise in sectarian tensions and conflicts in the Muslim world cannot be explained on the basis of a single factor, be it religious or political. On the contrary, a proper understanding of this phenomenon requires that religious and doctrinal disputes, the history of mutual resentment between the Sunnis and the Shias and the more recent political and international developments be taken fully into account. Nevertheless, this paper’s thesis is that, while important, doctrinal disputes are not the primary cause of the recent increase in sectarian tensions and violence. On the contrary, their principal causes are to be found in the Muslim world’s political evolution and the changing dynamics of regional and international politics and their consequences.
The worsening of Turkish-Iranian relations and Turkey’s joining of the Sunni camp is a more recent occurrence and has been caused largely by the two countries’ differences over Syria.
One such effort was in the 1960s, involving a Shia cleric from Qum and the Sunni leaders of al-Azhar. The Islamic Republic in Iran also created the Dar ul Taghrib (Organization for Sunni-Shia Rapprochement).
The Regional and International Politics of Rising Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East and South Asia
Religious and Historic Roots of Sunni-Shia Tensions There are significant religious dimensions to the Sunni-Shia tensions rooted in the long-standing dispute between the two communities over the rightful successroship to the prophet Muhammad, plus other doctrinal differences that developed over the centuries.7 Moreover, from the beginning the Sunni-Shia dispute also had a political dimension. That is, the dispute was about the rightful rulership of the Muslims and the basis of political legitimacy of Muslim rulers. These theological and political differences led to confrontations, including military conflict, between the two communities. The most important and consequential of these confrontations was the challenge launched by Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Shia Imam, against the Umayyad Caliph, Yazid, and his martyrdom in Karbala in 680 C.E. at the hands of Yazid’s army. This was the last major Shia bid for political power in the Muslim world. Afterwards, despite the emergence of pockets of Shia political power in the Middle East and South Asia, the Shias lost both the theological and political battle to the Sunnis.8 The Shias subsequently remained under the rule of Sunni caliphs and sultans, and developed an essentially quietist political culture as part of their strategy of survival. As a result of this situation, Shiism as a political force disappeared from the Muslim world until the establishment of the Shia dynasty of the Safavids in Iran in 1501. The Safavids made Iran’s Shiiazation and the spread of Shiism a major goal of their state. In this way, they reintroduced Shiism as a political force and made it a factor in inter-state relations of the Muslim world. In particular, the Ottoman-Safavid rivalry throughout the 16th and 17th centuries had a sectarian dimension. However, even in their case, imperial ambitions and rivalries played greater roles. Moreover, by the mid-18th century the two states had settled into a competitive co-existence, and no major wars took place between the Iranian state and the Ottoman Empire after this time. Nevertheless, the Ottoman-Safavid imperial rivalry reignited sectarian conflicts. This legacy is still alive and has come to the fore in the last few years. Increasingly in recent months, many Sunnis, and not only the extremists, have come to refer to the Iranians and the Shias in general as the Safavids.9 For the origins of Shiism, its theological foundations, and its early history, see S. H. Mohammad Jafri, Origins and Early Development of Shiism (London; New York: Longman, 1978).
One such dynasty was that of the Buyids, who were from northern Iran. They used the pre-Islamic title of Shahanshah. Their rule is often called the Persian Intermezzo, a period between the Arab rule and the arrival of the Saljuq Turks. See C. E. Bosworth, The New Islamic Dynasties: A Chronological and Genealogical Handbook (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). Other early Iranian Shia dynasties included the Ziyarids, In the Arab world, the Ismaili Shias established the Fatimid dynasty first in North Africa and then in Egypt, where they founded the city of Cairo. The dynasty lasted from 909 to 1171 C.E.
See Burak Bekdil, “The Ottomans Are Back! (And So Are the Safavids…)” Hurriyet Daily News, November 16, 2012, http:// www.hurriyetdailynews.com/the-ottomans-are-back-and-so-are-the-safavids.aspx?pageID=238&nid=34757; also Ali Bluwi, “Alawites, Safavids and the Rise of Extremism,” Arab News, April 16, 2013, http://www.arabnews.com/print/421963.
The sectarian issues further lost their political significance in the 19th and 20 centuries. This was because, from the 1920s through the 1970s, secularism, nationalism, and modernization along either a capitalist or socialist model became the dominant discourse in the Middle East and South Asia, at least at the level of the elites. Consequently, the pattern of conflict and cooperation among Muslim states and between them and non-Muslim countries was determined by ideological differences and competing nationalisms rather than by sectarian affiliations. For example, during these decades, Iran’s relations with the most staunchly antiShia country, Saudi Arabia, were basically friendly because of their common fear of and animosity toward the communists and their regional allies. By contrast, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Sunni governments in Egypt, Libya, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein were hostile. th
Return of Religion to Politics and Reemergence of Sectarian Tensions By the mid-1970s, a growing popular disenchantment had developed with the performance of secular governments and the ideologies upon which they were based, which led to a reappearance of religion and religion-based political ideologies in the Muslim world. This reemergence of religion also affected inter-state relations, because some countries began to use religion as an instrument of foreign policy. Meanwhile, shifts in the relative power of various players further enhanced the role of religion in both the domestic and foreign policies of regional states. In this context, the emergence of Saudi Arabia as an increasingly influential player in the Middle East and South Asia, bent on spreading its reach and willing to use religion (the Saudi brand of Islam) as a tool of its foreign policy, has been of special significance.
Zia ul Haq’s Coup d’État in Pakistan, Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Afghan Wars: Impact on Sectarian Relations The increased importance of religion in politics of the Middle East and South Asia first became evident in Pakistan in 1978 with General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq’s coup d’état and his assumption of the presidency. During his presidency, Zia embarked on an extensive policy of Islamization of the country. The ultimate goal was to establish a system of governance based on the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Zia called this the Muhammedan Order (Nizam e Mustapha).
Zia also shifted Pakistan’s foreign policy toward closer ties with Saudi Arabia.10 These relations would grow even closer following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing close cooperation between the two countries in support of the antiSoviet Afghan Mujahedin. Pakistan’s growing ties with Saudi Arabia led to the spread of Wahhabi tendencies and transformed its culture and religious beliefs. In particular, because of Wahhabism’s anti-Shia dimensions, the attitude of Pakistani Sunnis hardened toward the country’s Shia minority. Meanwhile, Zia ul-Haq’s policy of Islamization—which included measures viewed as detrimental to the Shias’ status, together with already-existing discrimination against the Shias in the army and the civil service—intensified the Pakistani Shias’ sense of insecurity and led them to organize themselves more effectively.11 The establishment of the Tehrik e Jafaria (Shia Movement) was the outcome of this process.12 However, the new Shia activism further intensified the animosity and resentment of the Sunni majority, especially the more conservative among them, such as the Deobandis and those influenced by Wahhabi ideas.
1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran An even more dramatic manifestation of the politicization of religion was the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Even though the Iranian revolutionaries considered their revolution an Islamic and not a Shia revolution, it impacted the Shias more strongly, and led to the beginning of a process that in the last decade has been referred to as the Shia Revival.13 Therefore, the revolution greatly contributed to sectarian tensions instead of encouraging Islamic solidarity across the sectarian divide. The Iranian revolution galvanized Shia populations from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon and Pakistan and encouraged them to be more emphatic in demanding their rights. By doing so, the Islamic revolution generated strong fears on the part of a number of Arab governments, such as Iraq under the Ba’athist regime, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, which have either Shia majorities (Iraq, Bahrain), or substantial Shia minorities (Saud Arabia, Kuwait) as well as their Sunni populations, plus Pakistan’s Sunni population. These fears were exacerbated by the seeming determination of Iran’s Islamic regime to export its revolutionary ideas to other countries, even if, as claimed, through peaceful means. The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980 was
Shahid Javed Burki and Craig Baxter, Pakistan Under The Military: Eleven Years of Zia ul-Haq, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991).
The more conservative Deobandi Sunnis had always harbored anti-Shia feelings and occasionally attacked Shia ceremonies in Pakistan.
The initial name of the movement was Tehrik e Nefaz e Fiqh e Jafaria, or Movement for the Implementation of Jafari Fiqh.
Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007
partly because of these fears. As the Arab states, with few exceptions (Syria, Libya), supported Iraq, the war acquired a distinctly sectarian and ethnic flavor, with the Shia Persians pitted against the Sunni Arabs. Iran was unable to export its revolution to the neighboring Arab states. But the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 provided Iran with an opportunity to develop a foothold among Lebanon’s Shia population, and later contributed to the establishment of the Shia political-social organization Hezbollah. In the coming decades Hezbollah’s influence, and with it Iran’s influence, has grown in Lebanon, creating misgivings among Lebanese Sunnis and other Sunni populations and governments in the region. Consequently, Sunni governments, most notably Saudi Arabia, have tried to counteract the Iranian influence by supporting various Sunni political groups and even militias. These developments have not helped the cause of sectarian coexistence. However, until recently, Sunni-Shia relations in Lebanon had not been overly conflictual. Pakistan and Afghanistan, too, became an arena of Saudi-Iranian rivalry and led to the worsening of sectarian relations as the two countries used sectarian differences to advance their power ambitions and security goals.14 U.S.-Iran Estrangement and Islamic Iran’s anti-Imperialist Crusade Other aspects of the Iranian revolution and its impact on Iran’s external behavior also contributed, in the long run, to sectarian tensions. The following are the two most important of the revolution’s consequences: 1) Iran’s estrangement from the United States as a result of the new regime’s anti-U.S. and so-called anti-imperialist policy and behavior. This estrangement led the United States to pursue a policy of containment and even regime change toward Iran, which in the last decade has included the manipulation of sectarian tensions both in Iran and in the region. 2) Iran’s uncompromising opposition to Israel, and to any compromise between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This opposition has led Israel to manipulate Iran’s religious and other differences with its Sunni neighbors, which has exacerbated sectarian differences. This aspect of Iran’s revolution and behavior did not impact sectarian relations excessively during the 1980s. However, as noted earlier, Iran’s intrusion into Lebanon’s internal politics was resented by Lebanon’s Sunnis and by the conservative Sunni governments in the region.
For a brief but good analysis of background to Sunni-Shia relations and tensions in Pakistan, see Hassan Abbas, “Shiism and Sectarian Conflict in Pakistan: Identity Politics, Iranian Influence, and Tit-for-Tat Violence,” Combating Terrorism Center, West Point, September 22, 2012.
Afghan Wars: Impact on Sectarian Relations Sectarian tensions were intensified by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent decade-long Soviet-Afghan war (1979–1989), as well as by the Afghan civil war that began almost immediately after the Soviet withdrawal in February 1989. There were three reasons for this development: First, the war led to further spread of more conservative Wahhabi Sunni Islam, with its strong anti-Shia dimensions, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as to the systematic nurturing of this brand of Islam by the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. For example, in Afghanistan there was a systematic effort to close the traditional Hanafi religious schools and to replace them with Wahhabi-inspired schools. The same was done in Pakistan, especially in the Pakistan-Afghan border areas.15 Over time, this development led to the emergence of radical Sunni groups in Pakistan, such as the Sepah e Sahaba, Jaysh e Muhammad, and Lashkar e Jangvi, which have been involved in systematic killings of Pakistan’s Shia minority, especially the ethnic Hazaras, in the North West Frontier Province, Baluchistan, Sind, and Punjab.16 Second, the Soviet-Afghan war exacerbated Afghanistan’s ethnic and sectarian divides along both Pashtu-Tajik and Sunni-Shia lines.17 The consequences of this development for both Afghanistan’s future and for the evolution of sectarian relations in the region would become clearer during and after the Afghan civil war. Third, the Afghan wars intensified regional competition for power, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in Afghanistan and beyond. During the Soviet-Afghan wars, Iran, preoccupied with its war with Iraq, was not very active in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it provided some help to the Shia groups in Afghanistan that were fighting the Soviets. However, Iran became much more involved in Afghanistan during the latter’s civil war, in particular, after the emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s. Iran supported the Persian-speaking Tajiks and the Shia Hazara groups there, while Saudi Arabia together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan supported the Pashtun-Sunni Taliban. The result again was the worsening of sectarian tensions and an increase in anti-Shia actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including large-scale attacks on Shia targets, such as the 1998 killing of nearly 8,000 Hazara Shias in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif.18 They also abducted and killed nine Iranian diplomats.19 Olivier Roy has documented this shift in his book Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 1990). Also Zia ul-Haq created a series of religious schools on the Pakistan-Afghan border to train fighters for Afghanistan. These schools, too, were inspired by Wahhabi teachings and led to the nurturing of new generations of extremely conservative and anti-Shia Muslims.
Syed Fazl e Haider, “Nowhere Is Safe for Pakistan’s Hazaras,” Asia Times, February 20, 2013, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/ South_Asia/SOU-04-200213.html.
The Sunni-Shia split in Afghanistan also has an ethnic dimension, as most Afghan Shias belong to the Hazara ethnic group.
“ “UN Report Details Taliban ‘Killing Frenzy’,” News International, November 6, 1998, http://www.rawa.org/killings.htm.
Douglas Jehl, “Iran Holds Taliban Responsible for 9 Diplomats Death,” New York Times, September 11, 1998, http://www. nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iran-holds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomats-deaths.html. In the 1990s there were several attacks on Iranian cultural centers in Pakistan and abductions of Iranian diplomats.
Soviet Collapse and Its Ramifications In addition to the internal dynamics of regional states and those of regional relations, international developments have greatly contributed to the exacerbation of sectarian tensions in the Middle East and South Asia. The most important of these developments was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR’s demise fundamentally altered the nature of the international system and politics and transformed the character and dynamics of regional relations in the Middle East and South Asia. The most consequential impact of the Soviet collapse was the United States’ emergence as the preeminent power in the world,—the sole superpower. This shift in the balance of international power encouraged a more interventionist American global policy, especially in regard to the Middle East and South Asia. This policy aimed to contain and eventually eliminate regimes deemed hostile to the United States, as a prelude to the reshaping of the map of the so-called Greater Middle East in ways congenial to the interests of America and those of its allies. The first targets of political change were Iran and Iraq. At the regional level, too, the USSR’s demise produced significant shifts in interstate relations, particularly the following: 1) Accentuating the competitive and conflictual aspects of regional relations by eliminating the common fear of the USSR, which in the past had mitigated such impulses; 2) Intensifying regional competition, especially among Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in the newly independent Soviet republics of Central Asia. As these countries tried to maximize their assets, such as ethnic, linguistic and cultural links, and their vulnerabilities, such as religious and other differences in dealing with these states, sectarian issues were again manipulated for political ends.
U.S. Dual Containment Strategy: Impact on Sectarian Relations in South Asia The shift in the U.S. strategy toward the Middle East and South Asia was first indicated by the introduction of the “dual containment” policy in 1993 during the Clinton administration.20 One aspect of this strategy was to prevent Iranian inroads into Central Asia, and to counter and eventually eliminate its presence from
The main intellectual influence behind the dual-containment strategy was Martin Indyk. See the text of his speech at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy (WINEP) in the proceedings of the Soref Symposium on Challenges to U.S. Interests in the Middle East, May 18–19, 1993, http://www.thewashingtoninstitute.org/print/php?template=C04&CID=197
Afghanistan.21 The implementation of this policy required supporting those groups in Afghanistan that were anti-Iran, and hence also anti-Shia, supporting Saudi and Pakistani policies there, and encouraging a prominent role for Turkey in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Some observers and analysts have attributed the creation of the Taliban—and either U.S. acquiescence or even active support—to the U.S. policy of containing Iran. For example, according to the Pakistani journalist Ejaz Haidar, the Pakistani general Naseerullah Babar Khan who was responsible for turning the Taliban into a formidable fighting force had said to the U.S. secretary of defense, William Perry, that “I [Babar Khan] will see to it that Iran is neutralized in Afghanistan.”22 Whether the United States encouraged the formation and militarization of the Taliban or merely acquiesced with its creation, the fact remains that until the 1998 attacks by the Taliban allies—al-Qaeda—on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, America closed its eyes to the Talibans’ religious and other excesses, including the mass killings of the Shias. In short, the U.S. policy regarding Iran further contributed to the worsening of sectarian tensions in South Asia.
9/11, Afghan War, and Hardened U.S. Policy on Iran The tragic events of September 11, 2001—during which terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda launched attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, (with a fourth airliner crashing in a field in Pennsylvania—opened a new chapter in U.S. policy toward the Middle East and South Asia. In view of the shock of events of 9/11, U.S. military action in Afghanistan is understandable, although arguably the scale of operations could have been more modest. However, 9/11 also resulted in a fundamental change in U.S. strategy toward the Middle East, shifting from a strategy based on the principle of transformation and political change through containment to a strategy of transformation by military action. The result of this change in U.S. strategy was that even before the military operations had ended in Afghanistan, America attacked Iraq in April 2003. The Iraqi strike was to be followed by attacks on Syria and Iran in order to bring about regime change in these countries, unless such change occurred as a result of popular uprisings under the impact of Iraq’s developments. Operations in Iraq were to have a positive
This strategy began under President George H. W. Bush. During his first visit to Central Asia, the then-U.S. secretary of state, James Baker, indicated that the United States intended to prevent Iranian influence in Central Asia. See, Thomas Friedman, “U.S. to Counter Iran in Central Asia,” New York Times, February 6, 1992, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/06/world/us-tocounter-iran-in-central-asia.html.
See Ejaz Haidar, “Pakistan’s Afghan Policy and Its Fallouts,” Central Asia Monitor, no. 5, 1997; also Anthony Davis, “How the Taliban Became a Military Force,” in William Maley (ed.) Fundamentalism Reborn: Afghanistan and the Taliban (New York University Press, 1998).
domino effect by spreading democracy throughout the Middle East.23 However, because operations in Afghanistan and Iraq did not go as smoothly as expected, there was no attack on Iran. However, the United States did not abandon either the goal of regime change in Tehran or that of limiting Iran’s influence in places like Lebanon and Syria. As a result, it opted for a strategy of pressure and subversion through the manipulation of Iran’s ethnic and sectarian vulnerabilities, notably in places such as Baluchistan, which has a sizeable Sunni population. Furthermore, the United States also ignored some positive Iranian signals after both 9/11 and 2001 Afghan events. For example, not only did Iran sympathize with the United States after 9/11, it also helped it to bring about a successful political transition in Afghanistan and offered other help. But the United States chose to ignore Iran’s offers of help. Later, President George W. Bush included Iran in what he called the “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union speech. The U.S. rebuff of Iran’s help and the axis-of-evil speech foreclosed the option of better relations with Iran.24 Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan saw the elimination of the Taliban, albeit for a relatively short period, from Afghanistan’s political scene as favoring Iran and thus negatively impacting their respective positions. Consequently, both countries set out to influence the turn of events in Afghanistan in ways more congenial to their own interest, and again used sectarian issues for this purpose. In fact, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continued to pursue policies in Afghanistan that were at odds with those of the United States. Pakistan, in effect, supported the Taliban, even after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, raising the issue of whether Pakistan really was a U.S. ally.25 This approach on the part of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was not, however, surprising, because immediately after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, their interests and those of the United States regarding Afghanistan had diverged in basic ways.26 It was only the U.S. preoccupation with Iran that formed the basis of any common interest between America and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan. This U.S. preoccupation with Iran and the refusal of Iranian support made it George Will, the columnist, refers to this phenomenon in an interview. Although not mentioning the word domino. Vice President Cheney expressed a similar opinion. See Peter Wehner, “Contentions: Will’s Loss of Nerve,” Commentary, September 1, 2009, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/1009/09/01/wills-loss-of-nerve; also Peter Wehner, “Democracy Is Still a Worthy Endeavor,” CBS News, September 22, 2009, http://www.cbsnews.com/2100215_162-3513806.html.
Many analysts have suggested that the Bush administration’s negative response to Iran’s overtures after 9/11 was detrimental to U.S. interests. See Barbara Slavin, “Post-9/11 Rebuffs Set U.S.-Iran Relations on Downward Spiral,” Inter Press Service, September 7, 2011, http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/09/post-9-11-rebuffs-set-us-iran-relations-on-downward-spiral.
See John Chalmers, “Analysis: Pakistan’s Double Game: Treachery or Strategy?,” Reuters, September 26, 2011 http://www. reuters.com/article/2011/09/28/us-analysis-pakistans-double-game-treach-idUSTRE78R1LI20110928; also Declan Walsh, “Whose Side Is Pakistan’s ISI Really On?,” Guardian, May 11, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/12/isi-binladen-death-pakistan-alqaida.
Shireen T. Hunter , “In Afghan Act II, Let U.S. Be Wary of Friends’ Aims,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1989, http://www. articles.latimes.com/print/1989-04-03/local/me-582_1_act-ii.
more dependent on Pakistan for its Afghan operations. This dependence, in turn, contributed to the U.S. setbacks in Afghanistan.27 The United States had to placate Pakistan also because its efforts to manipulate Iran’s Baluch minority required the cooperation of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), including in creating the Sunni Baluch terrorist group the Jundullah in the Iranian Baluchistan. The group and its leader Abdulmalek Rigi were engaged in a series of terrorist attacks inside Iran between 2006– 2010. These attacks included the bombing of a Shia mosque in the provincial capital of Zahedan and of a bus carrying revolutionary guards, leading to many dead and wounded, as well as kidnappings and the assassination of a commander of the Revolutionary Guards.28 Throughout the period of activity, the leader of the Jundullah group, Abdolmalek Rigi, frequently crossed the border into Pakistan. This finally led to a crisis in IranPakistan relations, with Iran finally threatening the Pakistanis that if they did not prevent Rigi from using their territory, the Iranian forces would enter Pakistan in his pursuit. Shortly after this Iranian warning, Rigi’s flight from the United Arab Emirates was stopped at the Iranian city of Bandar Abbas, where he was later executed.29 Meanwhile, inside Pakistan, because of the Afghan and Iranian connections, the ISI could not or would not challenge its own militants’ attacks on the Pakistani Shias. As a result, the killers of the Shias largely went unpunished. Another contributing factor to the lack of response of the Pakistani authorities to the killings of Shias was the use of Sunni militants in Pakistan’s struggle with India over Kashmir. The lack of pressure from international human-rights bodies and other governments, including those of the Western countries, on the Pakistani government over the Shias’ killings enabled the government to ignore the plight of the Shias. This attitude was in sharp contrast with when the Pakistani Sunni militant group Lashkar e Tayeba, and at least three Pakistani intelligence officers, became implicated in attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008.30 In short, the evolution of regional politics in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan led to an increase in the frequency and ferocity of attacks on Pakistan’s Shia minority, occasionally eliciting retaliatory actions from them, thus further poisoning sectarian relations throughout the region.31 27
Shireen T. Hunter, “Failure in Afghanistan? Blame Allies’ Conflicting Goals,” Huffington Post, July 5, 2010, http://www. huffingtonpost.com/shireen-t-hunter/failure-in-afghanistan-bl_b_635704.html.
See, among others, “Iran’s Shia Mosque Attack Leaves Dozens Dead,” Daily Telegraph, July 15, 2010, http://www.telegraph. co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/7893316/Ira,-Shia--mosque-attack-leaves-dozens-dead.html; also Shirzad Bozorgmehr, “Bomb Kills 11 on Military Bus in Iran,” CNN.com, February 14, 2007, http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/ meast/02/14/iran.bombing/index.html?iref=allsearch.
Ian Black, “Iran Captures Sunni Insurgent Leader Abdolmalek Rigi,” Guardian, February 23, 2010, http://www.guardian. co.uk/world/2010/feb/23/iran-abdolmalek-rigi-arrest.
See Bruce Riedel, “Mumbai Terror Attack Group Lashkar e Tayyiba Now More Dangerous Than Al Qaeda,” Daily Beast, July 1, 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/01/mumbai-terror-attack-group-lashkar-e-tayyiba-now-moredangerous-than-al-qaeda.html; also, Jim Kouri, “Chicago Trial: Pakistani Agents in Mumbai Terror Attacks,” Renew America, May 27, 2011, http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/kouri/110527. There was also a Saudi connection, as one of the perpetrators was captured in Saudi Arabia by the Saudi authorities.
These killings had a negative impact on Pakistan-Iran relations as Iranian clergy protested against such killings and the lack of adequate action by the government of Pakistan to punish the perpetrators.
U.S. Invasion of Iraq: Ramifications for Regional Politics and Sectarian Relations The impact of the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq on the evolution of regional relations and sectarian tensions was even greater than that of the Afghan operations, and affected a larger geographic area. There were three principal reasons for this situation. First, the fall of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and its replacement by a Shiadominated government was viewed by the Sunni governments of the region, most especially Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states, as dramatically shifting the balance of regional power in Iran’s favor. This perception of the Gulf Arab states is clearly reflected in the statement of the Saudi prince and former ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United States, Turki bin Faisal. Prince Turki said that by initiating the war, America presented Iraq to Iran on a gold platter.32 These misgivings of the Gulf Arab states were also shared by other Arab countries, notably Jordan, Egypt, and, in North Africa, Morocco. Reflecting this misgiving was the warning issued by the King of Jordan, Abdullah, about the potential emergence of a Shia Crescent stretching from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.33 Even Turkey was not happy about the potential implications of the elimination of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq for the balance of regional power and hence Turkey’s own position and influence in the region. Second, those Arab countries with either a Shia majority, as in Bahrain, or a substantial Shia minority, as in Saudi Arabia, were also concerned about the effect of the Iraqi events on the aspirations of their own Shias. The upshot of these developments was an increase in the saliency of the sectarian factor in regional politics. Third, Iraq’s Sunni Arab population became bitter about the loss of their historically exclusive hold on political power in Iraq. In addition, it was psychologically hard for the Sunnis to accept a government in which the Shias had a dominant role. This mind set was reflected in the Sunnis’ decision to boycott the parliamentary elections in 2005,34 although they later admitted that they had made a mistake in doing so.35 Moreover, as the membership of the Ba’ath party in Iraq was overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, the new governments and its U.S. ally’s policy of de-Ba’athification was viewed as unfairly targeting the Sunnis. The result was greater sectarian animosity.
He made this statement while speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in September 2005. See “Prince Turki Al Faisal: Bickering Arabs Have Helped Iran’s Regional Rise,” PakistanDefence.com, April 6, 2009, http://www.pakistansdefence.com/ index.php?showtopic=81842.
“Shiite Ascent Unsettles Iraq’s Sunni Neighbors,” Associated Press, January 29, 2005, http://archive.truthout.org/article/ sunni-arabs-concerned-over-a-shiite-crescent-power.
Michael Howard, “Main Sunni Party Pulls Out of Iraqi Election,” Guardian, December 27, 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ world/2004/dec/28/iraq.michaelhoward/print.
Rory Carroll, “Sunnis Admit Poll Boycott Blunder and Ask to Share Power,” Guardian, February 14, 2005, http://www. guardian.co.uk/world/2005/feb/15/iraq.rorycarroll/print.
Sunni Counter-Reaction As it could have been expected, neither Iraq’s Sunnis nor the region’s Sunni governments were going to accept the new conditions and the emerging power equations without trying to change them. The first step in this connection was the effort to weaken the hold of the Shias in the new political set-up. One instrument used to do this was through nurturing Sunni insurgent movements and developing Sunni militias and terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Mussab al Zarqawi. These Sunni movements and groups, in turn, were supported by countries, such as Saudi Arabia and later Qatar, and significant numbers of Arab citizens from a variety of countries came to join them in their struggle against the Shia-dominated government. Some Arab governments, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also provided shelter to Ba’athist leaders. This assistance has led Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to accuse Qatar and Saudi Arabia of meddling in Iraq and even wanting to topple its government as part of containing the Shias’ influence in Iraq and in the region.36 Turkey, too, has supported some Sunni insurgents in order to balance Iran’s influence with the Shias. It also later helped some of the Sunni politicians unhappy with Maliki’s government, notably Tariq al-Hashemi, by giving him refuge in Turkey so that he can escape trial and imprisonment.37The result again has been the intensification of sectarian tensions within various countries and the realignment of regional politics along sectarian lines. Thus, although initially Turkey had good relations with the Maliki government, disagreement over al-Hashemi and the Turkish prime minister’s criticism of the Maliki government as being influenced by sectarian sentiments led to tensions in Turkey-Iraq relations. In the spring of 2013, because of American advice Turkey tried to mend fences with Iraq, as illustrated by the reported contact between Turkish and Iraqi officials in London in April 2013.38 However, the civil war in Syria, growing Sunni militant activity in Iraq, rise in sectarian violence, and opposition to the Maliki government has stalled progress in Turkey-Iraq relations.39
“Maliki Accuses Qatar and Saudi Arabia of Meddling in Iraq,” Kurdpress New Agency, June 16, 2012, http://www.kurdpress. com/En/NSite/FullStory/Print/?id=1802.
On the worsening of Turkey-Iraq relations, see Richard Weitz, “Turkey-Iraq Relations: From Bad to Worse,” Turkey Analyst, vol. 5, no. 10, May 14, 2012, http://www.crethiplethi.com/turkey-iraq-relations-from-bad-to-worse/islamic-countries/ iraq-islamic-countries/2012; also Sami Kohen, “Turkish-Iraqi Relations Sour ‘Over Ankara’s Interference’,” in Al-Monitor translated from Milliyet, April 25, 2012, http://www/al-monotor.com/pulse/ar/contents/articles/politics/2012/04/and-now-thecrisis-with-iraq.html.
See “Turkish-Iraqi Officials Meet in London to Mend Ties,” Xinhua, April 16, 2013, http://www.news.xinhuanet.com/english/ world/2013-04/16/c_132313822.htm; also Semih Idiz, “U.S. Tries to Reconcile Ankara and Baghdad,” Al-Monitor, April 9, 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/04/turkey-baghdad-tensions-us-improve-relationship.html.
“Sectarian Violence Generates Highest Death Toll in Iraq since June 2008,” Middle East Online, May 2, 2013, http://www. middle-east-online.com/english/?id=58490.
Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, Israel-Hezbollah War: Impact on Sectarian Tensions Developments in Lebanon following the U.S. invasion of Iraq also contributed to the worsening of sectarian tensions and the recasting of regional politics in sectarian terms. Lebanon’s crisis began on February 14, 2005, following the assassination of its former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The assassination was widely blamed on Syria and its local ally the Hezbollah.40 The main reason for Syria and Hizbullah’s animosity toward Hariri was his insistence that Syria withdraw its remaining troops from Lebanon. However, some analysts have speculated that even without Hariri’s assassination, Syria’s influence on Lebanon would have been challenged and efforts would have been made to eliminate Hezbollah’s influence as well. These analysts justify their belief on the theory that the 2003 Iraq invasion was part of a larger U.S. plan to reshape the Middle East by changing the regimes of Iran and Syria and undermining Hezbollah, especially given that the latter had gained in stature in the Arab world following Israel’s complete withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2001.41 As evidence they point to the passage of a bill in the U.S. Congress in June 2003, called the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act that imposed stricter sanctions on Syria and demanded that it withdraw its forces form Lebanon. Irrespective of whether the Lebanese events were part of a larger strategy, the Hariri assassination acted as the trigger for unleashing large-scale anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah demonstrations in the country. Such a development is not surprising, because a substantial segment of the Lebanese population resented the Syrian military presence in that country, even though this presence was reduced after the Taif Agreement of 1989 to 15,000 soldiers. Considerable numbers of Lebanon’s Sunni and Christian communities also resented Hezbollah’s influence in the country’s affairs. The demonstrations that occurred immediately after Hariri’s death and those that followed later collectively came to be known as the Cedar Revolution and as part of the so-called color or velvet revolutions. In response to the anti-Syrian demonstrations, Hezbollah staged a counterdemonstration. This, too, drew many participants. Because Hariri was a prominent representative of the Sunni community, these demonstrations and counterdemonstrations soon acquired a sectarian coloration. Further accentuating the sectarian dimension of the Cedar Revolution was the regional alliances of various Lebanese groups and personalities. Hezbollah was an ally of Iran and Syria. Syria, meanwhile, also had close relations with Iran, although at the time their alliance was not as firm as it later became. Meanwhile, Hariri was close to Saudi Arabia, which had A Special Tribunal for Lebanon under the United Nation’s auspices was set up to investigate Hariri’s assassination. Their verdict was not categorical but indicated that Hezbollah was responsible for the assassination.
See, for example, Stephen Zunes, “The United States and Lebanon: A Meddlesome History,” Foreign Policy in Focus, May 12, 2006, http://www.fpif.org/articles/the_united_states_and_lebanon_a_meddlesome_history.
also become involved in Lebanese politics since the early 1980s. Events in Lebanon exacerbated the already-tense sectarian relations in that country and the rest of the region, especially that increasingly Sunni militant groups were used in confrontation with the Hezbollah. These militant groups had Salafi Wahhabi tendencies and had always enjoyed Saudi backing, just as Hezbollah was supported by Iran. The Sunni militant groups, notably the Fatah al-Islam supported by Saudi Arabia, were used during the events following Hariri’s assassination in Lebanon.42 The end result of Lebanese events again was the intensification of sectarian tensions, although Hezbollah has tried hard to fashion itself into an Arab organization transcending sectarian divides and devoted to the liberation of Palestine. Furthermore, this strategy was supposed to mitigate Hezbollah’s image as a sectarian Shia organization and a proxy for Iran. Israel Attacks Lebanon The assassination of Hariri had already plunged Lebanon into another of its periodic political crises. However, the situation dramatically worsened following the Israeli attack on Lebanon in July 2006 in retaliation for the abduction by Hezbollah of two Israeli soldiers earlier that year. However, Hezbollah did not expect this reaction form Israel. Its apparent goal was to exchange the captured soldiers for its own members who were held in an Israeli jail, a switch that had occurred in the past. In order to persuade the Israelis to make an exchange, the Hezbollah leader warned Israel that it cannot take back its soldiers by military action and that the only way to free them was to exchange prisoners through a third-party intervention. This time, however, Israel was in no mood for such a deal, and it responded by declaring that Hezbollah’s capture of Israeli soldiers was an act of war. Israel also held the Lebanese government responsible for Hezbollah’s action, and then on July 14 Israel followed its warning by a massive bombing campaign of Lebanon and a naval blockade. Because of Israel’s unwillingness to consider an exchange of prisoners, some commentators have argued that plans for an Israeli attack on Lebanon had been prepared before Hezbollah’s abduction of Israeli soldiers. Some, such as Seymour Hersh, have even claimed that the United States had given the go-ahead to such a move and was involved in planning the Israel campaign before Hezbollah captured the two Israeli soldiers. The main purpose of the attack, according to Hersh, was to reduce the threat of Hezbollah retaliation against Israel in case the United States launched a 42
On the history of Hezbollah, see Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2009); also Chris Marsden, “Bush Administration Endorses Ant-Palestinian, Anti-Syrian Offensive in Lebanon,” Global Research, May 27, 2007, http://www.globalresearch.ca/bush-administration-endorses-anti-palestinian-anti-syrian-offensive-inlebanon/5786. Seymour Hersh has also claimed that Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni militants; see his interview at http:// www.peoplesgeography.com/2007/05/23/hersh-lebanon-violence-us-saudi-lebanese-government.
military attack against Iran. He further claims that Israel’s attack on Lebanon in fact “…was going to be a model for the attack they really want to do. They really want to go after Iran.”43 The war took about 33 days and Hezbollah, with Iranian support, put up a strong resistance. The war finally ended when, after the United Nation’s intervention, Israel stopped its military campaign in August 14, and in September 2006 ended Lebanon’s blockade. Hezbollah’s successful resistance to Israel enhanced its standing in the Arab world, including that if its leader, Hassan Nasrullah.44 According to some reports, after the war he became the most popular figure in the Arab world, albeit for only a short while.45 Similarly, it was reported that many Sunni Arabs came to look differently at Shiism, and particularly came to appreciate its potential as a tool of resistance. The upshot of these developments was an increase in the Sunni governments’ anxieties about the rising Shia profile and with it Iran’s regional influence. This anxiety led some Arab leaders, in particular President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, to comment that the Shias owned their allegiance to Iran, a statement that elicited condemnation from Arab Shias.46 Later the Egyptian intelligence claimed that Hezbollah was engaged in subversive activities in Egypt.47 Other Arab countries, notably Morocco, charged Iran of trying to spread Shiism as a way of destabilizing the country. Morocco went so far as severing diplomatic relations with Iran.48
Arab-Israeli Conflict, Search for Sunni-Israeli Coalition Against Iran, and Increased Sectarian Tensions Historically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has played crucial roles in shaping the character of regional politics and the pattern of enmities and friendships in the Middle East. This factor historically has been especially important in determining the state of Arab-Iranian relations. Before the Islamic revolution, Iran had close relations with Israel. These relations were a main cause of discord between Iran and the Arab states, especially the more 43
“Dan Glaister, “Bush ‘Helped Israel Attack on Lebanon’,” Guardian, August 13, 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ world/2006/aug/14/syria.usa/print; also, the transcript of a Hersh interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, http:// www.democracynow.org/2006/8/14/seymour_hersh_u_s_helped_plan.
Lee Smith, “The Rising Popularity and Current Status of Hizbullah Leader Nasrallah after the Lebanon War: Does It Matter?,” Jerusalem Center for Public Policy, vol. 6, no. 11, September 19, 2006, http://www.jcp.org/article/the-rising-popularity-andcurrent-status-of-hizballah-leader-nasrallah-after-the-lebanon-war-does-it-matter.
“And Again…Nasrallah Is the Most Admired Leader in the Arab World,” Haaretz Service, April 17, 2008, http://ibloga. blogspot.com/2008/04/and-againnasrallah-is-most-admired.html.
“Mubarak: Majority of Shias Muslims More Loyal to Iran Than Their Own States,” From Beirut to the Beltway, April 9, 2006, http://www.beirutbeltway.com/beirutbeltway/2006/04/mubarak_majorit.html.
“Hezbollah Confirms Egypt Arrest,” BBC News, April 10, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7994304.stm.
Igalliot, “Morocco Cuts Diplomatic Ties with Iran,”, France 24, June 3, 2009, http://www.france24.com/en/ print/4537501?print=now.
radical among them. After the Islamic revolution, Iran adopted a hostile attitude toward Israel. However, because of other aspects of its foreign policy, notably its hostility toward conservative Arab governments, such as Saudi Arabia and those of the Persian Gulf, this change of policy on Israel did not lead to a warming up of Iran’s ties with the Arab states. On the contrary, Iran’s relations with the Arab world, with few exceptions, grew worse under the Islamic Republic than they were under the monarchy. Nevertheless, the anti-Israel posture of Iran and the Arab governments’ misgivings toward the Iran, especially after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, did not translate into an Arab-Israel rapprochement or a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was largely because until the late 1980s Israel was hoping that the revolution in Iran would settle down, and that the two states’ relations would again become normalized. However, by 1987, Israel had lost hope of any change in Iran’s foreign-policy approach or a change in its political set-up, and hence on any improvement in its relations with Israel for the foreseeable future. Moreover, by this time, and partly under the impact of the Iranian events, Israel’s strategy had undergone a fundamental shift from what was called the peripheral strategy to the Arab option. The peripheral strategy was based on having good relations with the non-Arab countries such Turkey and Iran. The Arab option was predicated on the assumption that worsening Arab-Iranian tensions allowed Israel an opportunity to improve relations with the Arabs by using Iran as the common enemy. However, this strategy did not have a clear sectarian aspect until after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. After that, as part of its strategy of containing Iran, the Bush administration supported a Sunni-Israeli alliance. For example, in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations’ consulting editor Bernard Gwertzman, Gary Sick, a former U.S. official and professor at Columbia University, said that “an emerging strategy is developing that brings the United States, Israel and Sunni Arab states in an informal alliance against Iran.”49 In addition, many in the region and in the United States hoped that the common threat of Iran could make peace between the Arabs and Israel possible. The following comment by a U.S. academic illustrates this perception: “For the first in the Middle East, there is now an organic and parallel common interest between Israel and Sunni Arabs. They need each other to balance and combat Iran’s increased power and clout in the region.”50 Although it is unlikely that those supporting a Sunni-Israeli alliance against Iran wanted to exacerbate sectarian divides, this is what actually happened. Yet, increased “Sick: Alliance against Iran,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 23, 2007, http://www.cfr.org/israel/sick-alliance-againstiran/p12477.
See Raja Kamal, “Emerging Sunni-Israeli Alliance Holds Hope for Mideast Peace,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, March 29, 2007, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/1671/emerging_sunniisraeli_ alliance_holds_hope_for_mideast_peace.html; Jeffrey Goldberg, “How Iran Could Save the Middle East,” Atlantic, July 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2009/o7/how-iran-could-save-the-middle-east/307502; also Chemi Shavel, “Could This War [Israel-Lebanon] Produce a Sunni-Israeli Alliance?,” Haaretz, August 28, 2006, http://www.haaretz.com/ print-edition/features/could-this-war-produce-a-sunni-israeli-allinace-1.195990.
animosity against Iran and the Shias in the Sunni world so far has not been translated into an open embrace of Israel by the Arab states and even less so by Arab populations. Rather, merely a deeper Sunni-Shia divide has been added to the existing Arab-Israeli fault line.
Arab Spring, Bahrain Uprising, and Syrian Crisis: Impact on Sectarian Tensions Developments that began in the Arab world toward the end of 2010 with the start of popular uprisings in Tunisia and that spread to many other Arab states known as the Arab Spring ultimately also led to the worsening of sectarian tensions. Among these popular protests, those with the most negative impact on sectarian relations have been those in Bahrain and Syria. In the case of Syria, the protests led to a full-scale civil war with a strong sectarian tinge and the involvement of regional countries, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, which have supported the antigovernment and predominantly Sunni groups. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Shia-dominated government and Hezbollah have been supporting Syria’s Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Bahrain Crisis Shia protests in Bahrain began in a small way and were first aimed at forcing the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa to grant the country’s majority Shia population a better deal, although some more-extreme Shia groups asked for the end of the monarchy. The government first offered money and promised to release prisoners, but when these measures failed to end the protests it reacted harshly. In its efforts to crush the uprising, the Bahraini government had the support of the Saudi and UAE military, which intervened in the country under the cover of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Peninsula Shield—though this was intended to protect against external aggression and not domestic unrest. The Saudi and UAE troops entered Bahrain on March 14, 2011, and took active part in the suppression of the protests.51 However, the protests have continued sporadically and there seems to be no end to Bahrain’s crisis.52 The crisis in Bahrain enhanced the anxieties of Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf monarchies that were already rattled by protests in Egypt and Tunisia, which had led to the toppling of the existing regimes. The closeness of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, its mostly Shia character, and the extensive relations between its Shias and Iran were Ethan Bronner and Michael Slackman, “Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest,” New York Times, March 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/middleeast/15bahrain.html?pagewanted=print.
It is important to note that these protests were not the first expressions of the Bahraini Shias with the discriminatory practices of the Al Khalifa; there had been protest in the 1990s and even earlier.
particularly worrying to the Saudis. These fears were heightened by the fact that there were protests in the Shia-inhabited regions of the country. The Bahrain crisis intensified sectarian tensions in the Persian Gulf region and beyond. Bahraini Shias saw the Saudi action as an act of war against them. Protests and condemnations also came from Shia religious leaders of Iraq and Iran, including the Iraqi politico-religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr.53 Meanwhile , the Sunni religious leaders, notably the influential Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born cleric who resides in Qatar, characterized the Bahrain uprisings as sedition inspired by sectarian loyalties, although he had supported similar uprisings in Egypt and other Sunni Arab states.54 Rising tensions in Bahrain also caused more friction in relations between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iraq and Iran on the other, as well as between them and the Bahraini government. In particular, Bahrain’s relations with Iran suffered as a result of the riots. Expectedly, and according to an established pattern, the Bahraini government accused Iran of being behind the disturbances in the country.55 However, many observers have disagreed with the view that Iran has been behind the disturbances, although clearly some groups in Bahrain have links to Iran.56 Moreover, once the protests broke out, Iran might have encouraged them. Yet, despite the rising level of repression in the country and massive violations of human rights, the international response to these events, notably from the United States and other Western countries , have remained muted. The principal reasons have been the strategic value of Bahrain as the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, concern over Saudi sensitivities, and the goal of containing Iran. Syrian Crisis and Civil War Unlike Bahrain, the Syrian crisis elicited a strong response form regional countries and the West. As soon as demonstrations and riots developed in Syria in March 2011 in Dara’a and later spread to other cities, there were calls from regional states and Western powers for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave office. Among the regional states that took an uncompromising position against Assad were Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. In view of the many legitimate complaints of the Syrian citizens, especially the See Bushra Juhi, “Iraqi Shiites Decry Sunni Crackdown In Bahrain,” Washington Post, March 18, 2011, http://www. washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/18/AR2011031801066_pf.html; also “Muqtada Al Sadr Warns Bahrain Government,” Mehr News, February 18, 2013.
Mohamed Alarab, “Qaradawi Says Bahrain’s Revolution Sectarian,” Al Arabiya, March 19, 2011, http://www.alarabiya.net/ articles/2011/03/19/142205.html.
Ipek Yezdani, “Bahrain Minister Blames Iran for Crisis,” Hurriyet Daily News, April 26, 2012, http://www.hurriyetdailynews. com/bahrains-minister-blames-iran-for-crisis.aspx?pageID=238&nid=19284
See David Roberts, “Blame Iran: A Dangerous Response to the Bahraini Uprising,” Guardian, August 20, 2011, http://www. guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/20/bahraini-uprising-iran; also Lisa Beyer, “Bahrain Can’t Blame Iran for Its Woes,” Bloomberg, November 5, 2012, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2012-11-05/bahrain-can-t-blame-iran-for-its-woes. html.
Sunnis, who in the past had been harshly dealt with by Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, uprisings in Syria and calls for the removal of Assad regime were not unexpected. However, the worsening of the crisis and its metamorphosis into a full-blown civil war, in addition to the mishandling of the protests by the Assad regime, have had much to do with external intervention, as has the failure of international and regional efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. The brutal response of the Assad regime to the early protests contributed to the worsening of the crisis, the spread of protests to other cities beyond Dara’a, and the intensification of popular discontent. It also meant that the more conciliatory moves of the government, such as promise of reforms and agreement to hold political talks with the opposition, were rejected. This was because, sensing the popular mood, the opposition had hardened its position, created a military force partly made of Syrian army deserters, and become involved in armed struggle. Initially, opposition groups were helped by militants coming from Libya and later helped by regional Sunni governments and Western countries, especially the United States, United Kingdom, and France.57 Initially the Syrian uprising was not particularly sectarian, although clearly because of the predominantly Alawite character of the Assad regime, discontent among Sunnis was greater. In fact, those participating in protests included secularists as well as Sunni religious groups and even some Alawites. However, the conflict soon acquired a sectarian tinge, especially as Salafi jihadist groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (Support Front for the People of Syria), known in the West as al-Nusra Front, were created. Some analysts have traced the origins of al-Nusra to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and its al-Qaeda links are known. In fact, in April 2012 Jabhat al-Nusra declared its loyalty to al-Qaeda.58 These Syria-based groups are fed by jihadists coming from around the world as far as even China.59 In fact, China reportedly has accused Turkey of recruiting its Uighur citizens to fight with al-Qaeda branches in Syria.60 Additionally, members of Europe’s Muslim
See “Sources: Obama Administration Ordered CIA Training for Syrian Rebels,” World Tribune.com, March 22, 2013, http://www. worldtribune.com/2013/03/22/sources-obama-administration-ordered-cia-training-for-syrian-rebels; “AP: U.S. Training Syria Rebels in Jordan,” March 26, 2013, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57576281/ap-u.s-training-syria-rebels-in-jordan; Tim Shipman, “UK Sends Military Aid to Syria Rebels,” Mail Online, April 15, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/ article-2309691/UK-sends-military-aid-Syria-rebels-Hague-aims-tear-arms-embargo-claims-chemical-weapons-usedcountry.html; also Richard Galpin, “Syria Crisis: Turkey Training Rebels, Says FSA Fighter,” BBC News, August 4, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19124810?print=true. Turkey has also been one of the conduits for transferring arms to Syria, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided financial assistance.
Mona Alami, “Syrian Rebels Pledge Loyalty to al-Qaeda,”, USA Today, April 11, 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/ world/2013/04/11/syria-al-qaeda-connection/2075323.
See Jason Ditz, “Chechen Fighters Flock to Syria to Join ‘Jihad’,” Antiwar.com, March 6, 2013, http://news.antiwar. com/2013/03/06/chechen-fighters-flock-to-syria-to-join-jihad/; also Christopher Bodeen, “Beijing Report Says Chinese Muslims Fighting with al Qaida in Syria,” Seattle Times, October 29, 2012, http://www.seattletimes.com/html/ nationworld/2019556229_chinasyria30.html
“China Charges Turkey Recruiting Uighur Muslims to Join Forces with Syrian Rebels,” World Tribune.com, November 1, 2012, http://www.worldtribune.com/2012/11/01/china-charges-turkey-recruiting-uighur-muslims-to-join-forces-with-syrianrebels/.
communities, such as that of the United Kingdom, have gone to Syria to fight.61 Meanwhile, some Iraqi Shias and possibly Hezbollah members were involved in fighting on the side of the Assad government. Apparently the Iraqi Shias were first prompted to go to Syria when Sunni radicals try to vandalize the shrine of Zeinab, Imam Hussein’s sister, which is holy to the Shias.62 By May 2013, however, the involvement of Hezbollah in Syria had become far more significant and open. In fact the Hezbollah forces played a crucial role in the recapture of Al Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, by Syrian forces.63 Because of this greater involvement, Hezbollah’s positions in Lebanon had become targets of attacks by the Syrian rebel forces.64 Hezbollah’s greater involvement in Syria also undermined its standing both in Lebanon and in the rest of the Arab World. It also intensified Sunni-Shia tensions and even led to clashes between the Hezbollah and some Sunni, especially, Salafi, groups.65 In short, increasingly, the Syrian civil war was affecting Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Lebanese government had to walk a political tightrope, avoiding taking sides openly. However, the Sunnis of Lebanon supported the Syrian rebels and Similarly, the involvement of the Iraqi Shias on the side of the Syrian government also increased, especially following Syrian rebel attacks on sites holy to the Shias. Meanwhile, Syria’s Sunnis became more involved in Iraq’s sectarian conflicts. Moreover, the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq has backed the Assad government. Meanwhile, Iran, Syria’s most important ally, has supported the Assad regime, including by providing arms and sending its revolutionary guards to help Assad’s army.66 Iran has tried to help Assad also by pursuing diplomatic channels and trying to get a negotiated settlement. To this end, Iran has organized meetings and conferences, the latest of which was held on May 29, 2013.67 The new Egyptian government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Shiv Malik, “Syria Conflict Drawing Hundreds of Jihadists from Europe, Says Report,” Guardian, April 3, 2013, http://www. guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/03/syria-hundreds-jihadists-europe/print.
“Iraqi Shiite Militants Start to Acknowledge Role in Syria,” Daily Star, April 12, 2013, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/ Middle-East/2013/Apr-11/213306-iraqi-shiite-militants-start-to-acknowledge-role-in-syria.ashx#axzz2WIA6HC37.
James Legge, “ Syria Civil War: President Assad’s Army Regains Control Of Strategic Lebanon Border Town Qusair From Rebels: Independent, June 5, 2013
See Michael Jansen, “Several Killed as Syrian Rebels Clash with Hizbullah,” Irish Times, June 2, 2013, http://www.irishtimes. com/news/world/middle-east/several-killed-as-syrian-rebels-clash-with-hizbullah-in-lebanon-1.1415002; also Jason Ditz, “Hezbollah Forces Move Toward Syria’s Northern City of Aleppo,” Antiwar.com, June 2, 2013, at: http://news.antiwar. com/2013/06/02/hezbollah-forces-move-toward-syrias-northern-city-of-aleppo/
Liz Sly, “ Sunnis, Shiites Clash In Lebanese Town”, Washington Post, 18 June , 2013
Ian Black, “Iran Confirms It Has Forces in Syria and Will Take Military Action If Pushed,” Guardian, September 16, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/16/iran-middleeast/print. Also, the Israeli Military intelligence chief has reportedly claimed that Iran and Hezbollah have created a 50,000-strong force in Syria to help Assad’s regime to survive. But so far there has not been evidence of Iranians fighting in Syria. See Julian Borger, “Iran and Hezbollah ‘Have Built 50,000-Strong Force to Help Syrian Regime’,” Guardian, March 14, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/14/ iran-hezbollah-force-syrian-regime.
“Iran Hosts Peace Conference on Syria,” Iranian Diplomacy, June 1, 2013, http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/en/page/1916869/Iran+ hosts+peace+conference+on+Syria.html.
president Muhammad Morsi initially adopted a middle road; it supported the antiAssad movement without, however, providing military or financial support to it, and opposed foreign military intervention in Syria. However, by mid June 2013, Egypt’s position towards Syria had hardened and the Morsi government had cut diplomatic relations with Damascus.68 In sum, the regional lineup in regard to the Syrian crisis has evolved according to the sectarian fault lines. On the one side stands a Sunni coalition made up of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia supported by most other Sunni Arab governments, and on the other Shia countries and movements made up of Iran, Iraq, and the Hezbollah. However, it would be a mistake to attribute this lineup to the essentially sectarian nature of the Assad regime. Rather, regional politics related to Iran and the ArabIsraeli conflict and, in the case of Turkey, to that country’s new regional ambitions as the major political powerbroker in the Middle East, have led to the current configuration. Nevertheless, deep-rooted sectarian animosities have added to the intensity of political animosities. This view of the essentially non-sectarian and political nature of the current lineup is supported by the fact that until shortly before the Arab Spring, the Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were still hoping that Assad would forgo his ties with Iran, accept a position on Israel similar to that of other Arab countries, and cut his ties with Hezbollah. Accordingly, they maintained their ties to him. To illustrate, Bashar al-Assad visited Saudi Arabia in January 2010, and before that, in October 2009, Saudi King Abdullah visited Damascus.69 The attitudes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar changed only after Assad refused to abandon his ties with Iran, and also the Arab uprisings provided an opportunity to pressure Assad. Meanwhile, Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position was determined largely by Assad’s lack of response to Turkey’s mediation efforts between Syria and Israel, which tarnished Turkey’s image as the powerbroker and peacemaker, and which more importantly was perceived by Erdogan as a personal affront. In short, the Syrian crisis became entangled with the broader regional politics, especially in two ways: 1) The overall Sunni counteroffensive to undermine the Shia-dominated government of Iraq, which began almost immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The aim was eventually to bring down the Iraqi government and reestablish Sunni domination, with perhaps a symbolic role for the Shias. This is certainly the view that the Iraqi government and its prime minister, Nouri al-Malaki, took of the Syrian events. Maliki indicated that the Syrian
“Egypt Cuts Diplomatic Ties With Syria” ALJAZEERA, June 16, 2013, at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/ middleeast/2013/06/201361519182028756.html
See “Saudi-Syrian Relations Thaw as Assad Calls on the King,” National, January 14, 2010, http://www.thenational.ae/ news/world/middle-east/saudi-syrian-relations-thaw-as-assad-calls-on-the-king; and Phil Sands and Caryle Murphy, “King’s Visit Signals Saudi-Syria Thaw,” National, October 8, 2009, http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/kings-visitsignals-saudi-syria-thaw.
and Iraqi problems were increasingly becoming intertwined.70 He and other Iraqi politicians have gone further and accused Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar of wanting to topple his government.71 2) Iran’s containment and cutting the direct connection between Iran and Iraq with Syria and thus preventing the consolidation of an emerging Shia Crescent. According to some analysts, the Iran angle has been particularly important in determining the regional lineup on the Syrian crisis. These analysts believe that the end of the Assad regime would neutralize Hezbollah and might even end the Shia ascendancy in Iraq, thus drastically reducing Iran’s regional influence. Moreover, these developments would facilitate a U.S. and/or Israeli military attack on Iran, which these countries want.72 In short, sectarian factors have been important in the Syrian civil war, especially as far as the uprising against Assad is concerned. The regional lineup on this issue has also been according to the sectarian fault lines. Finally, since the start of the Syrian crisis, sectarian relations have deteriorated to an alarming level. But ultimately, power, politics, and conflicts of interest among regional actors, rather than mere sectarian affiliation, have determined their position toward the Syrian crisis.
Big-Power Alignment on Syrian Crisis The big-power positions on the Syrian crisis have been determined by a mixture of old affiliations and current designs. Thus the Western countries, including the United States, were in favor of the removal of Bashar al-Assad. This was natural because Syria throughout the Cold War was a Soviet ally and also had resisted efforts for peace in the Middle East. Moreover, throughout the 1980s Syria supported Iran and later also helped the Shia groups such as the Amal Movement and Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus hampering Western and Israeli plans for Lebanon. Furthermore, more recently Assad resisted Western pressures and encouragements to sever its ties with Iran. Consequently, Western powers believed that the fall of the
Michael Knight, “Syrian and Iraqi Conflicts Show Signs of Merging,” The Washington Institute, Policy Watch 2042, March 7, 2013, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/syrian-and-iraqi-conflicts-show-signs-of-merging.
See “Qatar, Saudi Arabia Conspire to Topple Iraqi Government: Maliki,” Pakistan Defence, June 16, 2012, http://www. defence.pk/forums/world-affairs/187796-qatar-saudi-arabia-conspire-topple-iraqi-government-maliki-2.html; also “ Political Analyst: Ankara, Riyadh Hatching New Plots to Topple Maliki Gov’t,” Islamic Invitation Turkey, December 29, 2012, http:// www.islamicinvitationturkey.com/2012/12/29/political-analyst-ankara-riyadh-hatching-new-plots-to-topple-maliki-govt/ print. According to the article, an Iraqi legislator, Shakir al Daraj, claimed that Erdogan had invited Sunni tribal leaders from the Anbar region in order to instruct them on how to direct the protests there so as to serve Ankara’s interests. Also, see Zayd Alisa, “Saudi Arabia and Qatar Ratchet Up Sectarian and Ethnic Tensions in Iraq,” Open Democracy, February 27, 2013, http:// www.opendemocracy.net/print/71193.
See Julie Levesque, “Fall of Syrian Government, Prelude to an Attack on Iran,” Global Research News, March 7, 2012, http:// www.globalresearch.ca/fall-of-syrian-government-prelude-to-an-attack-on-iran/29639?print=1; also Max Fisher, ”Israel’s Strike on Syria as a Dress Rehearsal for Conflict with Iran,” Washington Post, January 31, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost. com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/1/31/israels-strike-on-syria-as-a-dress-rehearsal-for-conflict-with-iran?print=1.
Assad regime would facilitate the implementation of their policies in the Middle East, notably toward Iran and Lebanon. In particular, the West believed that removal of Assad would facilitate Iran’s containment and make it easier to launch a military attack against it. However, the influence of jihadist groups in Syria, including the off-shoots of al-Qaeda, prevented the West from militarily supporting the rebels for a period of time. However, by late 2012 the West decided to help train and arm the non-jihadist and secular groups in Syria, for which it has had the cooperation of Jordan.73 And in May 2013 the European Union lifted the ban on supplying weapons to the anti-Assad forces, and in June 2013, the United States claiming that the Assad government had used chemical weapons decided to arm selected groups of Syrian opposition. It also began to consider the possibility of imposing a no fly zone in Syria, and to protect Jordan it stationed patriot missiles in that country.74 By contrast, Russia has seen Assad as the last of its regional allies as well as its entry to the Mediterranean, where it has a base in Tartus. Russia was also concerned about the growth of jihadist forces in Syria and the potential impact on its own Islamist rebels, especially in the North Caucasus. As noted before, jihadists from Chechnya are already fighting in Syria. Russia is also concerned that the Syrian experience could be repeated in the South Caucasian countries. Nor is Russia happy with the possibility of a war with Iran, which could become more likely if Assad is removed. Therefore, Russia has been against supporting Assad’s opponents and has urged dialogue among various political forces for some kind of peaceful reform.Russia also has disputed the West’s claim that Syrian army has used chemical weapons, and has opposed the imposition of a no fly zone in Syria. 75Western sources have claimed that Russia also provided weapons to the Assad regime, a claim that Russia has denied.76 However, Russia has admitted that it has continued to honor its earlier commitments to Syria and has delivered arms to Syria in fulfillment of the Soviet-era agreements.77 However, in May 2013 Russia took a bold action in support of Assad by declaring 73
See Julian Borger and Nick Hopkins, “West Training Syrian Rebels in Jordan,” Guardian, March 8, 2013, http://www. guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/08/west-training-syrian-rebels-jordan; also “Sources: Obama Administration Ordered CIA Training for Syrian Rebels,” World Tribune.com, March 22, 2012. http://www.worldtribune.com/2013/03/22/sourcesobama-administration-ordered-cia-training-for-syrian-rebels.
Max Fisher,“The U.S.Says Syria Has Used ChemicalWeapons.NowWhat?”,Washington Post,13 June,2013,also:US Says ItWill Give Military Aid To Syria Rebels”, BBC NEWS, 14 June, 2013,at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22899289?print=true and “ US To Deploy Missiles And Jets To Jordan”, ALJAZEERA, 4 June 2013, at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/ middleeast/2013/06/201364645929318.html
“Russia Disputes US Claim On Syria Chemical Weapons” Associated Press, 14 June, 2013 at: http:// news.yahoo,com/ russia-disputes-us-claim-syria-chemical-weapons-101848716.html, also: Andrew Osborn& Maria Golovina, “Russia’s Putin Torpedoes G8 Efforts To Oust Assad”, Reuters, 16 June, 2013 at: http://www.reuters.com/assets/ print?aid=USBRE9FOJK20130618
Chris McGreal, “U.S. Says Russian-Made Weapons Are Killing Syrians on ‘an Hourly Basis’,” Guardian, June 13, 2012, http:// www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/13/us-claim-syria-russian-civilians/print.
“Russia to Keep Supplying Syria Leader Bashar Assad’s Regime with ‘Defensive’ Weaapons,” CBS News, February 13, 2013, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57569113/russia-to-keep-supplying-syria-leader-bashar-assads-regime-withdefensive-weapons/.
that it will provide Syria with S-300 air-defense system, but as of 20 June 2013 it had delivered the missiles. Meanwhile, Russia has also tried to find a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis, but it has opposed the condition of Assad’s departure before such a settlement can be achieved. Furthermore, throughout the crisis Russia—together with China—has blocked any United Nations resolution allowing external intervention, including by the Arab League, in Syria, as well as the imposition of sanctions on the Assad government.78 However, at the end of the G8 Summit meeting in June 2013 there some reports that Russia might be open to Assad’s departure provided that it does not lead to a chaotic situation like what happened in Iraq, and the creation of a power vacuum in the country.79 China, meanwhile, has also been concerned about yet another case of regime change through force in the Middle East. It has also viewed the Syrian situation as another instance of Western desire to extend its hegemony to the entire Middle East and South Asia. In addition, China, too, has been concerned about the rising jihadist influence in Syria, especially that some disgruntled Chinese Uyghur minority members have been found fighting on the side of Syrian rebels. Yet, neither Russia nor China has been willing to go beyond a certain point to help Assad, out of concern for the impact of a more robust support for Assad would have on their relations with the Western countries and in the case of China with the oil-rich Gulf monarchies. This is why during the G8 Summit in June 2013 Russia appeared to be considering a Syria without Assad under certain circumstances. The disagreements among key international players and the seeming determination of the Western powers to eliminate the Assad regime, plus the clashing agendas of regional countries, have hampered international organizations, such as the United Nations, to resolve the crisis peacefully. Kofi Annan, who was the UN envoy to Syria, has blamed the Western powers for derailing the process under the plan of “Action Group for Syria,” which he brokered in June 2012.80 A main stumbling block on the way of finding a negotiated solution has been the opposition of Western and Arab countries, plus Turkey, to the participation of the Assad government in negotiations. The failure of such plans so far and the siding of the Organization of Arab States with the Syrian rebels, including giving Syria’s seat to them, has not only perpetuated the conflict in Syria, but it also has contributed to the sharpening of sectarian fault
See Neil MacFarquhar and Anthony Shadid, “Russia and China Block U.N. Action on Crisis in Syria,” New York Times, February 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/world/middleeast/syria-homs-death-toll-said-to-rise.html?pagewanted=all&_ r=0; also Rick Gladstone, “Friction at the U.N. as Russia and China Veto Another Resolution on Syria Sanctions,” New York Times, July 19, 2012,
Patrick Wintour, “ Vladimir Putin May Allow Assad To Go If Power Vacuum In Syria Is Avoided” Guardian,18 June 2013
On UN Secretary Kofi Annan’s view and his plan, see “Peace Plan Nixed: How the West Fueled the Ever-Growing Carnage in Syria,” AlterNet, April 9, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/print/world/peace-plan-nixed-how-west-fueled-ever-growingcarnage-syria.
lines in the region.81 However, international and regional efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis have continued.
Conclusions and Outlook for Sectarian Relations The underlying theological differences between the Sunnis and the Shias, deeprooted animosities between the two communities, and a history of dynastic rivalries between Sunni and Shia empires provide a fertile ground for the potential rise of sectarian tensions and even conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia. However, the recent rise in sectarian tensions has had much more to do with the political evolution of Muslim countries and the dynamics of regional and international politics than with mere religious affiliations. The intensity of the latest tensions is certainly due largely to politics rather than to theology or communitarian rivalry. Paramount among these political factors has been the politicization of religion, which in turn has been a product of the Middle Eastern and South Asian countries’ modernization and the decline of secular ideologies, such as nationalism and socialism. This politicization of religion has extended to the conduct of foreign relations as states, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, have used religion as instruments of influence. In this context, the fact that Saudi Islam has strong anti-Shia dimensions has been especially important because the expansion of Saudi influence, and with it the spread of Saudi Islam, has exacerbated sectarian tensions in a number of countries, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also more recently Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and even in the Maghreb. Meanwhile, Iran’s revolutionary ideology, with its strong dislike of conservative Arab monarchies, has not helped sectarian coexistence and has heightened SaudiIranian differences and intensified their rivalry. This development, coupled by these countries’ manipulation of each other’s vulnerabilities, including their religious minorities, has further worsened sectarian tensions. More recently, other countries, especially Turkey and Qatar, have also come to play the sectarian card in the pursuit of their ambitions. Consequently, a change in the behavior of regional countries—especially their avoidance of either revolutionary behavior deemed threatening to their neighbors or the pursuit of excessively ambitious goals and emphasis on meeting common challenges—would help reduce sectarian tensions. In this context, a change in Iran’s external behavior toward a less revolutionary and more normal direction would be particularly important. The election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate politician, as Iran’s new President on 14 June 2013 creates some hope that tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran might subside. If this were to happen it would have a calming effect on sectarian tensions Elizabeth Dickinson, “Rebel Leader Al Khatib Takes Syria’s Seat at the Arab League,” National, March 27, 2013, http://www. thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/rebel-leader-al-khatib-takes-syrias-seat-at-the-arab-league.
as well. Meanwhile, a less hostile Saudi attitude toward the Shia government of Iraq and Shias in general would also greatly help in reducing sectarian tensions. Similarly, containing and, even perhaps eliminating, sectarian tensions would be more possible if countries adopted nondiscriminatory policies toward their citizens irrespective of their ethnic or sectarian affiliations and encouraged notions of inclusive citizenship rather than communitarian tendencies. Last but not least, the regional policies of the great powers in the last three or so decades have also played a determining role in exacerbating sectarian tensions. In the 1980s, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent war greatly contributed to the spread of more-extremist Sunni Islam with its anti-Shia dimensions and worsened sectarian tensions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the post-Soviet era, it has been U.S. policiesâ€”notably containing Iranâ€™s regional influence and potentially bringing about regime change in that country, the United States militarily intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq, and promoting a SunniIsraeli alliance against Iranâ€”have been major contributory factors to rising sectarian tensions. In view of the heightened level of sectarian tensions, especially with the ongoing Syrian crisis, the chances of drastically reducing these tensions are slim in the foreseeable future. However, if the regional and international actors adopted the right mix of policies, and tried to play down rather than encourage sectarianism and helped to mitigate rather than encourage regional rivalries, over time sectarian tensions would subside. The important thing is that all actors should realize that there are no winners in a sectarian warfare. There are only losers, especially in the long run.
Published on Jul 24, 2013
ACMCU Occasional Papers Series Dr. Shireen T. Hunter July 2013