January 8, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Greatest Threat in the Middle East

• The weaponization of sectarianism is the greatest threat facing the Middle East, exacerbating extremism and preventing common action against societal and environmental crises

• The current tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are at their highest levels in decades; both countries are using sectarianism as leverage against increasing domestic and foreign challenges

• Since the 2003 Iraq War, the use of sectarianism as a weapon has become more prevalent and violent

• All the while, extremist groups feed on the division and distraction, and comprehensive peace efforts face further challenges.


In a region beset with chronic and widespread problems, ranging from poor governance, war, violent extremism, and resource scarcity, one threat stands above the rest in terms of potential for destruction and cost in opportunity: the use of sectarianism as a geopolitical weapon. Sectarianism encourages extremist rhetoric and violence and serves to distract a populations from economic and social concerns by providing a convenient enemy on which to focus. While the Sunni-Shi’a divide is as old as Islam, current divisions are driven far more by regional rivalries and political gamesmanship than by religion, though the latter remains a primary factor.

While sectarianism as a geopolitical weapon is nothing new, its use is reaching new heights while its consequences find new lows. The current era of sectarianism stems, in part, from the 2003 Iraq WarThe shift in Sunni-Shi’a power dynamics in Iraq triggered regional quakes that are still being felt today. It is difficult to overstate how Saudi Arabia’s fears of an ascendent Iran—now, with an Iraqi ally—have led to more than a decade of Saudi maneuvers driven by sectarian concerns. The sectarian war wanted so badly by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi—founder of the group that would become the so-called Islamic State—has metastasized far from Anbar and Baghdad, and morphed into both direct and proxy warfare.

In the week following the execution of Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, sectarianism-driven violence and rhetoric have exploded, hardening lines in conflicts and between countries. Following Saudi Arabia’s lead, Sudan, Somalia, Bahrain, and Djibouti severed diplomatic ties with Iran; Kuwait recalled its ambassador, and the United Arab Emirates lowered its representation to the chargé d’affaires level. Various Iranian officials have stated that the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran was unacceptable, but these statements are unlikely to reduce tensions. Lost in the sectarian outrage was the fact that of the 47 people executed by Saudi Arabia last week, only 4 were Shi’a; the rest were Sunni members of of the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda.

On January 7, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of bombing its embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and now intends to lodge a formal complaint, though there were no signs of visible damage; reports indicate that a building across the street was hit and that shrapnel might have landed in the Iranian compound. Lost in the outrage about the Iranian embassy is why Saudi warplanes are over Yemen in the first place. For nine months, the Saudi-led campaign has tried to push back the Houthi rebels, who toppled the Saudi-friendly regime of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2014. The Houthis, supported at some level by Iran, have been pushed out of Aden and other key areas, but the fighting goes on. The current sectarian flare-up ensures that the fighting will not only continue but worsen, as the Yemeni people, with no history of sectarian violence of their own, are left to bear the costs of regional gamesmanship.

Likewise, the extreme sectarianism will likely frustrate the already maddening process to end the Syrian civil war through negotiations. The sectarian divide is worsening in the conflict; the primarily Sunni town of Madaya is suffering starvation and malnutrition because of a months-long siege by Shi’a Hizballah forces and the Syrian regime. The siege of Madaya is in part revenge for the ongoing siege by Sunni rebels of the primarily Shi’a villages of Fua and Kefraya. UN efforts to lift the sieges are complicated by the sectarian divide; the likely outcome will be mass dispersion and relocation along Sunni-Shi’a lines.

Efforts to fight the narrative of groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda are weakened when governments encourage divisions based on religious sect. Official government statements from Saudi Arabia and Iran keep the rhetoric just below calls for violence, but the message is clear. Meanwhile, clerics on both sides go even further in negative attacks on their counterparts.

Further widening of the Sunni-Shi’a divide will lead to more and greater disaster. With serious scarcities in water, food, arable land, economic opportunity, and effective representative government, the region's abundance of sectarianism makes addressing these challenges nearly impossible, as many of the crises are cross-border in nature. The sectarian straw man only serves to obscure the many real and urgent issues threatening the future of the region.


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