Exploiting Historical Tensions and Highlighting Sectarian Divisions: ISIS’ Role in the Sunni-Shi’a Conflict
December 16, 2014
Host: The Stimson Center
Mr. Joseph Bahout, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Mr. Omar Al-Nidawi, Director for Iraq, Ggryphon Partners LLC
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, leaders around the world hoped that the movement would dispose of the Middle East’s longstanding societal and sectarian divisions and give birth to a new, inclusive and more democratic Arab identity. These hopes however, have failed to become reality. Instead, the opposite has happened: the prolonged civil war in Syria has exacerbated regional and sectarian tensions, challenged the notion of statehood in the Middle East, and given a new sense of prominence and legitimacy to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other radical militant throughout the region.
Now, rather than looking to a new future, citizens in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and throughout the Middle East are being forced to acknowledge and confront the longstanding division between the region’s Sunni and Shi’a Muslim populations.
The swift rise of ISIS, the group’s ability to garner foreign support, and the ease with which it has entrenched itself in Iraq speak volumes about how effective sectarian rhetoric and politics are in the Middle East.
This strategy of highlighting sectarian divisions in order to achieve political goals actually has a long history in the Middle East, and has been used prominently in the prolonged proxy-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to Mr. Al-Nidawi, ISIS is not creating sectarian divisions, but is rather building on the sectarian narratives and geopolitical rivalries that came before it.
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – the group that would eventually become ISIS – was weakened militarily and strategically. But sectarian politics spearheaded by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, allowed the group to maintain influence amongst the country’s Sunni population. By replacing Sunni military leaders with his own personal allies and suppressing Sunni and Kurdish political leaders in parliament, PM Maliki’s policies acted as a catalyst for ISIS’ success in western Iraq, according to Mr. Nidawi. Maliki’s sectarian policies played right into ISIS’ narrative that Iraq was being corrupted by Shi’a oriented, “Iranian influence.”
In Syria too ISIS has been largely reactionary. The group was not instrumental in instigating the initial civil unrest that brought about the revolution. Instead, Mr. Bahout argues that the group was simply opportunistic as it pointed to Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime as justification for its own involvement in Syria. Like in Iraq, the group is posing itself as the representative of Syria’s Sunnis and defender against Shi’a oppression.
So far, ISIS’ success has relied almost exclusively on its ability to construct a narrative: that it is fighting against a corrupting “other.” Whether it be the Shi’a group Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon or Iranian influence in Iraq, ISIS has managed to garner resources and recruit fighters from all over the world by portraying itself as the champion of Sunni Islam.
In order for there to be lasting peace in Syria and the wider Middle East, an alternative narrative must be presented. However, both Mr. Bahout and Mr. Al-Nidawi are skeptical that any meaningful change can develop in the near-term. The problem facing Syria, Iraq, and the wider Middle East is not so much ISIS itself, but the ideology that the group represents and its ability to resonate with people throughout the region. Changing this narrative will require time as well as a serious and continuous effort from all regional actors. Leaders must stop relying on divisive politics in order to gain influence. Only by establishing a history of partnership and inclusivity can lasting peace be attained.