The dangers of sectarian politics

The dangers of sectarian politics

When the Iranian influence all over the Middle East increased after the Iraqi invasion of 2003, the countries that were disturbed by this new reality resorted to various strategies. One of them was to put stress on the Shiite character of Iran to limit its influence and appeal in the region. The Shiite domination of Iraqi politics in the post-invasion era, as well as the developments in Lebanon after Syrian withdrawal from that country in 2005, led to the ringing of alarm bells. The Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, countries had additional concerns that all these developments may have repercussions for their domestic politics as their long discriminated Shiite populations could also rise. But what was happening went beyond these concerns. The curious reactions came from two Arab countries with insignificant Shiite populations. In 2004 King Abdullah of Jordan warned about the emergence of an ideological “Shiite crescent” from Beirut to the Gulf. Then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced in 2006 that the “Shiite are mostly always loyal to Iran and not to the countries where they live.” While Mubarak was making this statement, the Egyptian people showed in a poll that was conducted that they considered Hezbollah leader Fadlallah and Iranian President Ahmadinejad as the two most popular leaders in the Middle East; a development which was clearly alarming for the United States and its allies in the region.

In those days King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took the lead to establish a “Sunni bloc” to limit what was termed as the Iranian encroachment into the Arab and Sunni Middle East. Within this context Turkey’s involvement in the region was seen as crucial by these actors as a balancer against Iran; as a new “regional Sunni power.” King Abdullah became the first Saudi king to visit Turkey since 1974 in 2006. This visit was followed by another one in 2007. Yet the results of this new diplomacy seemed to be disappointing from their perspective as far as Turkey was concerned. Turkey adopted a policy of engaging Iran more closely as well as reached out to the Iraqi Shiites.

The results of this sectarian politics in general were disastrous. In Iraq the sectarian civil war claimed hundreds of lives almost every day especially between 2006-2008. As in the past, the sectarian politics suffocated the political process as the country passed from one crisis to another.

Unfortunately sectarian politics seems to be again on the agenda in the wake of the developments in Syria. Both the Syrian regime and the regional actors are playing with this card. In order to survive, the regime seems to be invoking the fears of the Alawite minority against a possibility of a majority Sunni rule. The Syrian regime is generally characterized as an Alawi regime. It is true that the Alawis are disproportionally represented in the regime due to historical and political reasons. But for many ordinary Alawis their lives have not improved a bit under the so-called Alawi regime. Now their fears are invoked. There are reports that some of them are already leaving Damascus. Many in the opposition point to the fact that unlike his father, Bashar chose to send troops consisting of Alawis to suppress the uprising in Hama. All these dangerously point to a possibility of a civil strife.

On the other hand, the Gulf countries are again concerned about an Iranian involvement in support of the regime in Syria. It would not be surprising to see Iran helping its only ally in the Arab world. But once again this is being constructed in sectarian terms. The Iranian-Syrian alliance is a strategic one that goes back to the early 1980s and have been beneficial for both countries. It is, however, interesting to see two gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, with very problematic records in regards to their Shiite minorities and dismal record in dealing with their own opposition, denouncing Syrian policy and suspending their diplomatic relations. It seems that the region is again at a point where politics is being defined in sectarian terms; the results could be disastrous for all.