By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
As Western commentators discuss the potential for military conflict with Iran, those in the Middle East worry about another devastating possibility: sectarian war in the region.
This past week saw a wave of deadly suicide bombings in Iraq that increased tension between Sunnis and Shiites, continued sectarian violence in Syria, and Sunni-Shiite unrest in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Though he has championed anti-regime revolts in the Arab world, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was moved to caution, “The structure that has emerged is leading to a religious, sectarian and racist civil war. This has to be prevented.”
Columnist Abdullah al-Suwayji agreed, writing in Al-Khalij, a United Arab Emirates daily, that it seems Syria, in particular, “has started entering a very dark tunnel that will become even darker. If the situation continues, it will turn into a new Iraq or Libya or even another Somalia.”
As many as 6,000 Syrians have been killed since anti-government protests broke out last March, with some of the worst atrocities attributed to deepening divisions between Sunnis and Alawites, members of a branch of Islam some Sunnis and Shiites once regarded as heretical. Alawites compose the core of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Like many other commentators, Suwayji expressed exasperation with the rising level of hatred and violence, including suicide bombings aimed at security services in Damascus, and frustration with the lack of remedies. He concluded his column with a simple, albeit unrealistic, plea: “The Syrian regime and opposition must realize that they cannot continue to live with this situation.”
Writing in the Lebanese daily An-Nahar, columnist Rajeh al-Khoury focused on the violence that has gripped Iraq, especially following efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to arrest leading Sunni figures. Khoury wrote that the U.S. holds primary responsibility for unleashing sectarian conflict through its governing decisions as Iraq's occupier. Yet the country is on the verge of a nasty civil war now, he argued, because some Iraqis, guided by Iran, are “speeding up” the process of eradicating the last vestiges of the non-sectarian state. Maliki has been intensely attacked, especially by columnists aligned with Saudi-backed media, as a pawn in an alleged plot by Iran, which is mainly Shiite, to stoke sectarian divisions for its own benefit. Khoury wrote:
It is no secret that sectarian divisions went too far in Iraq before the pullout of the Americans, who are now not affected by the events that are going on.
After Tehran’s man, Nouri al-Maliki, was imposed as prime minister, things proceeded towards additional division. And in two years, the Americans did nothing to change the situation. When they pulled out, they left Iraq as easy prey for the Iranians, their adversaries on the surface and their partners when interests intersect!
Now, with Tehran’s key ally, Syria, on fire, Khoury argued, the Iranians are asserting their power even more forcefully in Baghdad and beyond, creating a marked increase in conflict. Khoury concluded, "Is it too much for us to ask: Gentlemen, what is left of Iraq?!”
Writing in the Iraqi daily Al-Aalam, which supports Maliki, columnist Jamal al-Kharsan strongly disagreed that Iranian malfeasance was behind the rising sectarian violence and suggested that concerns over Iraq’s security were overblown.
The opposition coalition group the Al-Iraqiyah List, which includes Sunnis and Shiites, Kharson wrote, “usually harps on the prospect of an imminent security collapse occurring and a major sectarian civil war breaking out in Iraq whenever it feels upset at being denied a sizable share of the Iraqi pie. The fact that such warnings are often followed by spikes in violence makes it look as if Al-Iraqiyah leaders are capable of activating armed groups with a simple push of a button.”
Iraqiyah, he added, has a long record of anti-Iranian instigation and routinely vilifies its political rivals as Iranian proxies, even though, he charged, the group had recently reached out to Iran to help settle disputes with the Maliki government.
In the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, columnist Madhawi al-Rashid also rejected the Iranian angle. She asserted it was Sunni-led Saudi Arabia that was behind the sectarian tension and uptick in regional violence.
The Saudi regime, Rashid wrote, is using regional and sectarian divisions "in a desperate attempt to contain the repercussions of the Arab spring and postpone the arrival of its winds in Saudi Arabia.” The Kingdom’s elite would be better off embarking on deep, structural reforms, she said, arguing, “the more the regime ignores this file, the deeper it is digging its grave with its own hands.”
Largely absent from the debate over who was to blame for the most recent sectarian trouble was the party that traditionally stands accused in such discussions: the United States.
After multiple bombings in Iraq and Syria killed and wounded hundreds, the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah directly blamed the U.S. for the attacks, arguing that America wanted to divide Arab societies. But Hezbollah was one of few voices taking this position.
Perhaps with the U.S. having withdrawn its last troops from Iraq, faulting America just doesn’t have the same currency it once had.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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-0- Jan/11/2012 21:16 GMT