Speculations emerge that countries in the Middle East are grouping amongst themselves lately, based on denominational difference. Sunnis and Shias are said to be fighting each other in Iraq. How founded are these allegations that sound so dangerous for the entire Muslim world? What would be the possible outcome, were the processes continue to develop in this direction?
Sectarianism: new factor in the geopolitical game?
Analysts have talked extensively about the controversial essence of the “Arab Spring” process. These developments were professed to have an impact on moral-ideological dynamics, along with changes in the geopolitical, political and economic landscape. Currently, the processes developing in that region expose quite perilous trends that are of complex nature and plentiful with dangerous aspects.
First and foremost, we wish to highlight the way sectarian discrimination paves the way towards more massive and deep-rooted social-ideological standoffs. Geopolitical alignments based on that criteria are rumored to be shaping. Experts are suggesting it as a fait accompli, claiming that countries throughout the Middle Eastern region are seeking alliances based on Shia and Sunni denominations. Indeed, the process reveals fairly thought-provoking aspects.
It must first be stressed that geopolitical rivalry of the big powers over the Middle East has acquired new content. Russia and China have started playing more influential role. Moscow appears quite assertive. There are news that Kremlin has broadened military-economic cooperation with Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia (see Владимир Мухин. Москва готовит средневосточный плацдарм / “Независимая газета”, 15 January 2013). More energized performance is evident in the direction of Iran and Egypt. Some Russian analysts insist that Moscow should concentrate on Iran rather than Egypt (see Владимир Алексеев. “Шиитская дуга” – новая реальность Ближнего Востока? / “Iran.ru”, 8 January 2013.
In the meantime, Iraq and Syria must remain high on Kremlin’s agenda. Indeed, alignment with Tehran implies involving Baghdad and Damascus into cooperation. So, why Russia has to opt for this group of nations? This is where some experts emphasize the sectarian factor. Led by Iran, the region is home to nations following Shia ideology. It is being alleged that main source of threat against these countries emanates from the Sunni countries, most prominent being Saudi Arabia.
Anti-Shia sentiments of the Saudis stem from Iran’s regional leadership aspirations and the struggle for energy resources. Western and Russian experts maintain that Washington’s reinvigorated efforts to mend ties with Tehran are irritating to Saudi Arabia. Thus, the former launched certain anti-Iranian endeavors. Conclusions are made that geopolitical alliance – ”Shia crescent” or ”Shia security arc” has to be established in light of these developments. Some insist such an alliance is already underway (see previous source).
Such claims are made on the backdrop of increasingly vivid sectarian discrimination in Syria and deteriorating Sunni-Shia strife in Iraq. Therefore, the allegations appear cogent. Common sense requires Sunni and Shia states to take concrete measures to ensure their security. Nonetheless, both contradictions and dangerous aspects abound here in the strategic terms.
Is threat of disintegration of the Muslim world valid?
The point is that all these hypothetical projections are apparently driven by actual political objectives. First and foremost, it is intriguing that mistrust towards one another is provoked among the Muslim nations. Allegedly, sectarian differences underlie all the contradictions, confrontations and clashes across the Middle East, while geopolitical ambitions of big powers, leadership aspirations of some regional states and social-economic grievances are being dismissed. There are serious motives behind delusion of the public opinion.
Thus, as of the 1990s ceaseless wars and internal standoffs have rocked the Middle East, sparked by direct provocations initiated by the big powers. Processes akin of invasion of Iraq, fomenting infighting in Libya, Egypt and Syria, cornering Iran over the nuclear program, and inciting terrorism in Turkey were not incidental. Motives were regarded mainly from the perspective of geopolitical interference by the U.S. Also interests of Israel, Russia, European Union and China were taken into account.
Washington’s negative image in the Islamic world has begun to exacerbate. Muslims’ view of the West has hit all time low. America’s image of a savior, of a just and democratic nation has been dramatically impaired. Immediately, its geopolitical rivals – Russia and China started to take an advantage. France has also challenged the U.S. clout in the Middle East and more greatly, in North Africa. It must be underscored that Israel tried to ensure its interests in this process.
In the meantime, powerful countries of the Islamic world made attempts to consolidate the Muslim countries. Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Pakistan made relevant moves. Evidently, Islamic countries intend to renew their geopolitical priorities. However, they have apparently failed to consider some aspects, namely, acceleration of the process of wider incorporation of religious affiliation issue into the politics of the Middle East.
Sectarian discrimination has acquired dangerous content in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere across the Muslim world. Iraq is particularly mentioned as the country with Sunni-Shia infighting (see Николай Бобкин. Ирак на грани гражданской войны / ”Фонд стратегической Культуры”, 14 January 2014). There is information that government troops are withdrawing from part of Iraq dubbed ”Sunni triangle”, with differences between Sunni, Shia and the Kurds are cited as the main reason.
According to the experts, struggle between the Sunni and Shia in Iraq is a ”strategic absurd” as there can be no winners (see previous source). U.S. is blamed for what goes on because it was by military intervention in Iraq that the U.S. has tipped the balance of forces in the region and provoked Riyadh-Tehran standoff. Therefore, geopolitical ambitions of some countries are one of the sources that feed the sectarian strife in the Middle East. If true, this means that there are some, willing to sacrifice religious interests for the sake of political aspirations.
Ongoing events in Iraq may potentially repeat themselves in Iran, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other places. Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper published the article entitled ””Security Arc” forms amidst Mideast terror” by Sharmine Narwani (see english.al-akhbar.com, 21 December 2013). Author highlights that Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon alliance is emerging; the ”Shia security crescent” as she puts it. Yet Sunni countries are specifically mentioned as the source of threat.
There can be many other references, but the point is that there are some, among the Muslim nations, that seek to present sectarian difference as a geopolitical factor. By doing so, they aim to portray followers of two denominations as adversaries. Does the extent of exacerbation of this problem imply the critical level of confrontation the Muslim world has reached? This very question deserves contemplation. In any case, for sectarian difference to cause political standoff is hardly a positive development. This denotes emergence of processes in the Middle East that are dangerous for the Islamic world as a whole. This is highly regrettable that the followers of the same religion are confronting one another. Is not it a historic mistake?