Muslim sectarian violence may be approaching a red line threshold moving away from localized extreme sectarianism eroding national stabilities—like that of Syria and Iraq—to regional sectarian strife. The most frightening scenario is the unrestrained complete jihad between the two sects of Islam which would cross state boundaries, utterly destroy the Middle East, destabilize Central Asia and disrupt the world.
A larger development is likely to happen under the following:
1) A continued gradual intra-state violence and mistreatment of one or the other Islamic sect will set off a larger regional sectarian struggle (Current Context)
2) Interstate rivalry and influence stirring the religious communities that gradually polarizes the two and pitches them against each other (Potential development)
3) The highest religious leaders and icons issue a fatwa or calls for sectarian jihad (Potential Development)
4) A crisis situation could become so unbearable for one or both sects that they blame each other for the failures (Potential Development)
All things being equal, there is a clear worsening of relations between the two Islamic sects in the region that has led to two recent civil wars, local uprisings, abuse, targeted terrorism, and proxy power attempts. There is a future boiling point for the current contextual frame and any of the above triggers could start a larger transnational sectarian jihad—one that is either backed by states, religious leaders, dissidents, or all of the above. It is the Shia that have the most to lose but each conflict within the states is increasingly connected to the regional impact of their faiths.
Iran is the strongest Shia dominated state. Other smaller states like Bahrain and Azerbaijan have Shia majorities while in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, and Kuwait there are significant Shia minorities.
Syria is the frontline, so to speak. Its Syrian Alawite rulers are Shia and make up only 12 percent of the population. They are engaged in a brutal civil war with the Sunni majority rebel forces, of which over 70,000 civilians have been killed.
In contrast, Iraq was previously dominated by a Sunni minority population of around 20 percent led by Saddam Hussein, but Iraq is now in danger of majority Shia takeover after the ousting of his regime. Sectarianism in that country is a tri-party struggle of Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations. After what is documented as an “civil war”—picking up from 2006 past 2007—and in spite of US occupation— Iraq has been struggling to handle differences through the political process but the entire local situation hangs on a very delicate and perilous thread. Regional and international relations plays a major part as foreign terrorists and local Sunni insurgents continue to try and overturn the Nouri al-Maliki Shia-dominant government.
Saudi Arabia and Iran serve as national exemplars of Sunni and Shia faiths, respectively. Both are historic centers to their faiths. They held multiple talks on the issue of sectarianism during the heated escalation in Iraq but the continuance of mistreatment and violence from various Sunni states and extremists against Shia communities is not a simple diplomatic matter.
Iran’s recent overture to the shaky rule of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi is more a geopolitical gesture against Israel. The two states are hardly friends, but Iran likes to keep ties with what they might want to see as Israel’s jailers: Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. These key strategic locations offer them the wishful thinking of some Israeli containment. At the very least, it is their attempt at Shia-Sunni solidarity against the “common enemy”. They are not ideological partners but unlike Saudi Arabia, the arch-rival of Sunni Islam, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sought to work with Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood as a potential soft face to Sunni Islam—unlike the Salafist Saudi Arabian government.
Iranian key reasoning for sectarian concern in light of the rising wars and attacks: no other state will attempt to protect the Shia populations or their protection is insufficient. The Shia, being the minority in the Muslim world, have the most to lose in a further regional sectarian divide.
Iran is certainly the only Shia state with the position and real obligation to protect and expand this variant of Islam. It falls on them to increase their presence within the minority Shia populations; and as they do—under the auspices of moral legitimacy, they will no doubt begin intelligence channels and weapons supply chains, as they did with Hezbollah. There is also the Iranian regional interest at play. This aims at the spread as well as the protection of Shia Islam within Sunni nationals—actions that will likely fuel greater regional sectarian fires.
The Iranians have been supplying Bashar al-Assad’s regime for since the Revolution and even now into their civil war. Hezbollah is the Iranian Shia transplant in Lebanon since the 1982 Israeli invasion. Iran is also gaining influence in Iraq but the Iraqis do not want to become a vassal state. Iran could cooperate with a Shia dominated Iraq, however, at some point in the future and meddle into Sunni-Shi conflict in the immediate periphery.
In Baghdad, an attack Sunday, targeting Iranian refugees, killed dozens and wounded at least 100 in a series of increased sectarian attacks against the Shia majority government. Brig. Gen Ali Aouni, who was head of the Iraqi Military Intelligence Academy, was killed only days ago by a Sunni suicide bomber.
The latest attack in Quetta, Pakistan killing dozens and wounding a hundreds of Hazara Shia was led by Sunni terrorists Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in Quetta, Pakistan. It is one of many and many more to come. That particular group has picked up its targeting of Shia in Balochistan province in last two months.
Although, relations between the Iran and Pakistan have been fairly good recently with the planed economic projects like the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and further geopolitical cooperation, such ongoing sectarian targeting, mistreatment and killings in Pakistan or elsewhere that have little government resolution and even potential Sunni government sympathizers could in the future trigger an eventual Iranian reprisal of some kind. Iran condemned the most recent attack as an attempt of extremists but they well understand the many facets of Sunni radicals within the Pakistani security complex as well as the basic dangers and opportunities of holding Shia communities within such environments.
Iran will continue to engage in greater transnational paramilitary operations as it has in Syria and Lebanon over the years. Iraq has also been a mainstay for their efforts. However, all of this will be done to the extent that it they are able—the US and partners have constrained and disrupted Iran’s connections through Sanctions, containment and low level military and intelligence operations.
Nevertheless, Iran will seek to play a greater role at targeting Sunni extremists groups in the region and places if given constraints are lessened and in the response to radical Sunni attacks on Shia minorities. It will try to work with Sunni governments if possible. They will seek to establish greater ties and a stronger foothold within those Shia minorities through communications, intelligence and arms supply. A very distant consideration is the national wars ignited by these developments and reactions. Nevertheless, the meantime is riddled with a shift from national instabilities to religious instabilities across Central Asia.
About the author: Brett Daniel Shehadey
Brett Daniel Shehadey is an analyst, writer, and commentator. His areas of interest include: strategy, political theory, foreign affairs, intelligence and security. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University and a B.A in Political Science from UCLA.