international analysis and commentary

ISIS and the “Sunni-Shia divide” – parsing the Saudi-Iran-Turkey triangle


Over the past decades, the geopolitical balance in the Middle East was largely shaped by two intersecting elements. The first was the stabilizing hegemony of the United States – whereas the world’s sole superpower constantly engaged in managing festering crises and introducing, with variable success, stop-gap measures – from peace initiatives to warfare – to maintain the regional unstable equilibrium. The second element was the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, through which both Riyadh and Tehran walked a fine line in the pursuit of enhancing their respective influence in the region without triggering a cataclysmic collapse – in what amounts to a localized version of the Mutually Assured Destruction principle. The re-entry of Turkey as a powerful political and economic actor in the region, against the backdrop of the US polarizing action of toppling the Baath dictatorship in Iraq in 2003, promised to diffuse heightened tensions. Ankara sought to serve – and to some extent was seen by others – as a de facto mediator, or at least a mitigator of conflicts, in light of constructive relationships it held with most parties. Alas, the region was not to be so fortunate.

The illusion of political mastery over the precarious regional system dissipated with the unfolding of unanticipated and uncontrollable processes – exacerbated by counter-productive decisions made by both Washington and regional actors. Considerable swaths of the Middle East have thus collapsed into chaos and devastation, with the prominent potential for the affliction to still reach many more territories.

The longue durée process of a Middle Eastern political order still assimilating and adjusting to the European model of the nation-state may require historical distance to properly assess. A basic interpretive framework is that of successive grand narratives experienced by the Arab political culture, promising progress and prosperity. The trials and tribulations of the region can be explained as the failure of those narratives, as they are seemingly incapable of extracting Arab societies from the social and economic morass in which they are trapped. The transformations affecting (and afflicting) Islam as a religion polarized by modernity, authenticity and identity have been difficult both to analyze and to productively manage. In any case, a combination of structural factors and contingent events has generated an unexpected tipping point in the relationship between subjects and rulers, in the form of an Arab Spring, which in turn invited a cascade of reactive measures by the ruling classes. The full consequences of those processes are yet to be ascertained, in demography, economy, and sociology. While such factors may be beyond the immediate grasp and concern of Realpolitik decision making – with its focus on security and stability – they have undoubtedly conditioned the collapse of the region, and threaten to further aggravate its fate.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be the prime manifestation of the magnitude of this collapse. The responsibility for the rise of this particular model of organized terror – thus to an extent its paternity –can be traced to multiple decisions of action or inaction by regional and international actors. Key factors in its emergence are Baath despotism and quasi-genocidal oppression in Iraq prior to 2003 and in Syria on an on-going basis, the corrosive factional policies of the Iraqi government of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Saudi incubation of radicalism in its irredentist religious establishment, Iranian open and stealth expansionism, Turkish and Qatari complacency, as well as the sudden abdication of the United States of its role as the regions security umbrella. Well before the collapse of regional order, the Saddam Hussein and Al-Assad regimes had engaged in massive graphic slaughter with dual messaging: an infinitesimal level of deniability directed at the international community (which often accommodated it), and a clear, albeit unofficial, dissemination of the facts of the atrocities to intended audiences, with the purpose of instilling fear and desperation and securing submission. ISIS is partly different: it disposes of camouflage and boasts of its criminality through high quality media. Meanwhile, Iran’s deployment of its control over its perceived lebensraum of Iraq-Syria-Lebanon was accomplished through a utilitarian reliance on sectarian mobilization. Tehran’s desire for influence beyond the confines of this corridor to the Mediterranean, notably in the context of its patronage of the Palestinian cause, necessitated the restriction of the obfuscation of its reliance on sectarianism. ISIS has no such qualms; it brandishes sectarianism as official “state” policy, elevating its consequences to openly genocidal actions.

The “Sunni-Shia divide” experienced in the Muslim world today was not invented by ISIS, Iran or Saudi Arabia. Seeking its roots, however, in political and theological schisms in Islamic history confuses religious discourse and social dynamics. Contrary to portrayals informed by current events, the continuous existence of sectarian readings of Islamic doctrine has not amounted to perennial conflict. Advocates of such readings were generally interested in – and motivated by – other social fault lines. While acknowledging the latent power of this divisive discourse, its current emergence and apparent primacy is better understood in terms of contemporary circumstances.

In its fundamentals, today’s Sunni-Shia sectarianism, as well as all others expressions of factionalism, is a reflection of the failure of the nation-state proposition to deliver a convincing commonwealth, over the century-long period of its existence. The proclivity for retreat to prior factional frameworks was thus intensified, with the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry making the Sunni-Shia framework preeminent. In their quest to secure and expand their respective zones of influence, both Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran made extensive recourse to sectarian mobilization. The Saudi monarchy can be accused of hosting the initial expression of anti-Shia sectarianism, with the religious establishment in the Kingdom vociferously denigrating Shiism and advocating the exclusion of its followers from national life. Such pronouncements, however, were condoned for historical reasons, and contained through the unequivocal subservience of the religious institution to the monarchy – a rational agent with no organic interest in sectarianism. Iran, on the other hand, can be accused of a deliberate effort to recruit and utilize Shia communities across the region – an action that can also be characterized apologetically as defensive or preventive. In effect, it qualitatively increased sectarian tensions, and set a sectarian “arms race” in which the regime in Tehran seems to maintain the upper hand. Its foremost success story is evidently the Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iranian created and supported para-military formation that frames and controls the Shia community, leveraging its power across Lebanon, and serving as a remote strike force in tasks of importance to Iranian interests. The Hezbollah model seems to be replicated with considerable success in Yemen, and, with less stellar results, in Iraq.

The Saudi response to the Iranian-heralded transformation of Arab Shia communities was less methodic, often trying to capitalize on and redirect outbursts of Sunni counter-sectarianism – with the contradictory realization that Sunni radicalization carry a heavy backlash potential against the monarchy. Ultimately, the effects of tactical sectarian machinations by Riyadh and Tehran proved impossible to control, with ISIS emerging as a lethal incarnation on the Sunni side, and Iraqi militias succumbing to behavior indistinguishable from that of ISIS on the Shia side.

Turkey, as a Sunni country in its majority affiliation, was well positioned to assume a regional role of reconciliation. Ankara enjoyed the trust of both Tehran and Riyadh at the official level, and still scores high approval with their respective populations. The Turkish leadership, however, seemed intimidated by its own miscalculations towards both Syria and Iraq, opting out of its potential regional function, and even engaging in Saudi-like tactical opportunism of its own by enabling sectarian forces across its Southern borders.

Far from alleviating the current crisis, the seemingly incoherent US-led war against ISIS is further widening the Sunni-Shia divide with detrimental consequences to the region and beyond – while Saudi Arabia and Iran are both hostage to their own ill-conceived tactical approaches. Washington, Riyadh, and Tehran seem unable to dislodge the current pattern of degeneration. Were it to reconsider its own sectarian leaning approach, Ankara might  be the only credible actor with the objective interest and means to initiate a process of de-escalation and rebalancing. In recent years, Turkish statesmen expressed a compelling strategic vision, before it was overtaken by unforeseen events and some bad decisions. The leadership and patience to articulate and pursue a revised vision may be the region’s best hope.