Sectarian spill

Published: October 12, 2013
The writer is vice-president, Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs at Stratfor and a fellow with the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding in Washington DC

The writer is vice-president, Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs at Stratfor and a fellow with the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding in Washington DC

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.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Parvez
    Oct 12, 2013 - 11:40PM

    As the Shia – Sunni ideological divide is a reality, fanning the flames by non-Muslim states instead of using their clout to bring about stability is short sighted policy.


  • aqib
    Oct 13, 2013 - 2:16AM

    the enemy of my enemy is my friend


  • lalai
    Oct 13, 2013 - 3:57AM

    War is good for business and the western Corporate bosses will always use the Sunni Shia rift to create conflict for their financial gains. Unfortunately, the Muslim leadership will never get mature enough to understand this strategy, hence killing each other on sectarian basis will continue.


  • csmann
    Oct 13, 2013 - 7:42AM

    How can a non-muslim state help a millenium of Sunni-shia bloodshed.Anybody who might even try is hounded by Muslim countries. Where are these self-aggrandizing mullahs of the two sects.Can’t they sit together and figure a way out.Why can’t sects think about a mutual tolerance policy,and learn to live peacefully side by side.No,sir,you need to work out your prejudices, and intolerances. Nobody is going to come and fix your problems.


  • observer
    Oct 13, 2013 - 9:28AM


    fanning the flames by non-Muslim states instead of using their clout to bring about stability is short sighted policy.

    To the best of my knowledge,

    A. It is Saudi Arabia and Iran that are fanning the flames in Syria and Bahrain.

    B. In Iraq it is Al Qaeda and its sponsors that are busy bombing the Shias.

    C. In Pakistan leaders of outfits such as SSP and ASWJ are given ‘stipends’ by the Government of Punjab.

    So can you tell me which ‘non-Muslim states‘ are you talking about. And will you also provide some evidence, please.


  • Oct 13, 2013 - 10:13AM

    We have seen extremism from the Sunnis but not the Shias, well, to a much lesser extent.

    I gladly support Iran in its quest. A strong Iran is also bad news for the Taliban.


  • ajmal
    Oct 13, 2013 - 11:56AM

    A strong Pakistan will be less beholden to Saudi Arabia, which will lead to less terrorism in Pakistan.


  • Parvez
    Oct 13, 2013 - 2:44PM

    @csmann and @ observer : Why is it that if one says non-Muslim state the Indian reader automatically thinks it refers to India ? ……… relax.
    Saudi Arabia and Iran have for long been opposed to each other but it was after the Iraq invasion by the US that matters tilted in favour of a major Shia revival. Now, the fanning of the flames is being done by America / Israel and the stupid Muslim world are playing along and helping them destroy each other.


  • LahoreJ
    Oct 13, 2013 - 5:30PM

    Among my fiends and family I can feel a growing hatred of Shias which never existed 30 years ago.


  • Oct 14, 2013 - 4:16AM


    My relatives elsewhere in Pak have felt growing anti-Shia prejudice, bigotry and hatred with isolation around us too, cut off from former friends who used to be friendly but are now cold. We’ve been too well aware of trends of rising extremist ideologies and violence for decades since the 80’s in Pakistan. Some old Sunni neighbours are still showing their bravery by promising to protect them…it has a tense eerie 1947 feeling…Recommend

  • Oct 14, 2013 - 5:57AM

    trends of rising extremist ideologies

    I had named the specific sectarian extremist ideologies, which most other usual ET commentators are aware of, but unfortunately they were edited or censored out, which I feel is unhelpful. I would think it be relevant to an article like this or to the replied commentator’s comment who just admitted his own friends and family have become more sectarian, which is a sign of growing intolerance and extremism. If it can’t be discussed, identified or addressed here, then where and when do we discuss this sectarian spill in detail?


  • Milind
    Oct 15, 2013 - 1:53PM

    @Parvez – “Why is it that if one says non-Muslim state the Indian reader automatically thinks it refers to India ?”

    Sir.. you’re comments are usually balanced, but the ones from this blog are way off… Especially the above… Nobody here is thinking of India.. It could be U.S. or Israel.
    More so, we’re worried about this pattern, where external elements are blamed for causes internal to Islam…
    Why should non-Muslim states come into the picture – whether for resolving the conflict or fanning the flames? Isn’t it the reponsibility of the Muslim world to sort this out? What is OIC doing? Why isn’t it blamed for failing to resolve this conflict?


  • Parvez
    Oct 16, 2013 - 2:16PM

    @Milind: Sorry, I replied twice but both times it got washed away. Appreciated your comment and I admit to being a bit thoughtless in my second comment but I stick to my view of ‘ fanning the flames ‘………….hope you get this because I don’t like leaving stuff hanging, if I can help it.
    ET would appreciate if this is posted.


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