Pakistan is perhaps only second to Iraq when it comes to sectarian violence in which Shias are the target of a vicious militancy. The killing of Pakistan’s Shia citizens is an act of savagery that needs to stop and the only force that can prevent it from happening is Islamabad. While Pakistanis struggle to deal with sectarianism on the home front, they need to keep an eye on, what I have come to refer to as, ‘geo-sectarianism’ (sectarianism on a geopolitical scale) centered in the Levant and which will have an effect across the Middle East and beyond.
The Arab Spring, when it reached Syria in March 2011, was about the regional demand for democratisation. But it didn’t take long for peaceful protests to metamorphose into a full-blown civil war. This has been no ordinary civil war because the opposition is largely Sunni, a sect that constitutes at least 60 per cent of the country’s population which is fighting a totalitarian regime dominated by the country’s Alawite minority.
The sectarian nature of this struggle and the fact that a similar conflict has been brewing in neighboring Iraq since 2003 meant that it was inevitable that transnational jihadism would take root in Syria. As non-state actors, jihadists would only go so far in Syria if it were not for state actor interests — in particular those of Saudi Arabia for whom the uprising in Syria presented an opportunity to reverse the disproportionate amount of influence that Iran had gained in the northern rim of the Middle East. Ever since the United States (US) toppled the Saddam regime and facilitated the rise of a Shia-dominated polity in Baghdad, the Saudis have been worried about the Iranians leaping geopolitically across the Persian Gulf.
Toppling the Syrian regime is the key to undermining Iranian ability to project power into the Arab world. Regime change in Damascus would punch a major hole in a potentially contiguous sphere of Iranian influence stretching from western/central Afghanistan through Syria and into Lebanon. The collapse of the Alawite state could disconnect Iran from Hezbollah and render the Iranian/Shia position in Iraq extremely vulnerable.
What has worked to Iran’s advantage thus far is that the US is not ready to undermine Iranian regional influence at the cost of empowering jihadists in the process. Thus, American and Saudi interests have diverged.
The risk of the transnational spread of the most extreme forms of Islamism forced the Obama Administration to back off from responding militarily to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The risk is that even a limited strike may inadvertently weaken Damascus and facilitate the creation of a major transnational jihadist battlespace in the heart of the Middle East. It is not a coincidence that the threat of imminent US military action in Syria was quickly supplanted by the Obama-Rouhani diplomacy.
It is way too early to tell whether a US-Iran détente will materialise but efforts towards it threaten core Saudi national security interests. As a result, American-Iranian negotiations will only further fuel the Saudi-Iranian geo-sectarian struggle. Syria, Lebanon and Iraq will remain the main arenas of this escalating conflict. But it will have a much wider impact, especially in Pakistan, which is already bracing for an exacerbation of sectarian and jihadist violence as Nato completes its departure from neighboring Afghanistan next year.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2013.