Sectarian and Regional Conflict in the Middle East

by Aaron Reese

Executive Summary

The first half of 2013 has demonstrated clearly that sectarian conflict is spreading in the Middle East. This conflict is a product of developments over the course of 2012, including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s consolidation of power and the development of an armed opposition movement in Syria. A turning point, however, came this year with the Syrian opposition’s loss of the strategic town of al-Qusayr in early June to regime forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah. The intervention of this prominent Shi‘a militant group has heightened the “sectarianization” of the conflict. Sectarian narratives provide an emotional rallying point for popular mobilization, and are easily leveraged by actors involved in the conflict to achieve their goals. The rise in sectarian violence sponsored by external actors poses an existential threat to these already-fragile states.
State weakness tends to encourage recourse to identities that do not align with the nation-state, such as sect, ethnicity, or tribe, to provide community. Sectarian conflict of the kind now witnessed is thus a symptom of political conflict rather than a cause. Left alone, however, it could become a cause of violence as groups strike preemptively against perceived threats to their communities or pursue revenge. Further violence then creates a vicious cycle of state weakness and perceived illegitimacy, which continues to lead citizens to feel less secure and to identify more with sub- and trans-national groups. Worsening violence and increasing polarization has led fighting to spill over from Syria into Lebanon, for example, as supporters of the Salafist Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir lashed out against Lebanese Army and Hezbollah. Further, the wider consequences of continued fighting, particularly the masses of refugees flooding into Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, will have destabilizing effects as these populations drain state coffers and test the ability of these states to maintain order. These effects will only worsen over time. 
In Syria, the Assad regime has played upon the fears of minority groups to rally support. Shi‘a militias from outside Syria, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi groups Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, have defined their role as protecting holy sites like the mosque of Sayyeda Zeinab. On the other hand, Sunni and Salafist militant groups have used anti-Shi‘a rhetoric and anti-Iranian sentiment to justify their own actions. With the repeated occurrence of sectarian massacres in Syria, both by pro-Assad militias and Salafist groups, these justifications risk the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mainstream opposition, in the form of the Supreme Military Council, has defined their role in nationalist terms as a struggle for Syria. Devolution of this fight into communal violence threatens an already beleaguered civilian population.
In Iraq, Maliki’s pursuit of power, overtly sectarian rhetoric, and utilization of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for political ends has reinforced sectarian polarization. The Sunni insurgency against Coalition forces in Iraq was mostly quelled by the promise of political participation. Maliki’s political and military targeting of Iraqi Sunnis, however, has fed Sunni perceptions that they are threatened and disenfranchised by the central government. The protest movement that erupted after Maliki’s attempt to arrest former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi has given voice to these concerns, and the deadly ISF raid on the Hawija protest camp only served to demonstrate the threat. Lack of confidence in the Iraqi state has led to diminishing faith in political processes, as evidenced by low voter turnout in some areas for the provincial elections.
The conflict has expanded beyond the boundaries of Iraq and Syria and has become increasingly regional in scope. Particularly in Syria, a number of external actors, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, have engaged in the fighting either directly or by providing funds or weapons. As a sign of the weakening of the state, Syria’s borders have become increasingly porous, facilitating such flows of men and materiel. Displaced persons, too, have been driven across these borders. Iran has put forward an enormous amount of support, deploying advisors and launching a thorough resupply mission to keep its Arab ally afloat. It has also supported sectarian militias entering from Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanon and Iraq themselves have tried to avoid overt engagement, but non-state actors have repeatedly crossed these borders to fight. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have each separately funneled support to opposition groups, in addition to leading media campaigns to bolster regional support for the opposition. Each views the Syrian conflict as an opportunity to support its role as regional powers as well as to deal a blow to rival Iran. Turkey has also become a player, motivated in no small part by more than 500 miles of border that it shares with Syria. The battle for al-Qusayr exemplified the stakes for all these players, who have stepped up their involvement in the battle’s aftermath and turned to focus on Aleppo. Intervening states and actors have staked their reputations on the outcome of these conflicts, and it is unlikely that they will back down from such high-profile support. 
As sectarian violence spreads into Lebanon and even Egypt, it is clear that the consequences of such conflict will reach far beyond Syria and Iraq. A quick resolution is unlikely, but an increased understanding of the regional scope of these problems is an important step towards addressing them. The U.S. should not follow withdrawal from Iraq with disengagement from the region – productive efforts with regional allies are still possible and will be vital to preventing the further deterioration of an already bad situation. It should be very clear that increasing sectarian polarization and violence is in the interests neither of the U.S. nor its allies.