Robin Yassin-Kassab


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Felipe DanaAP

The remains of the Nuri mosque amidst the remains of the ancient city of Mosul, Iraq. photo by Felipe Dana/ AP

An edited version of this article was published in Newsweek.

In his January 20 Inaugural Address, President Trump promised to “unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s only had six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, is almost concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. Here a new Great Game for post-ISIS control is being played out with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key actors. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the US), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may in the end be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa – its Syrian stronghold – is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisors, are leading the fight. Civilians, as ever, are paying the price. UN investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by US-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multi-ethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organisation is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety), and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadist anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty per cent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shia militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18th pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down.

Hashemi-Postel-–-Sectarianization-webThe United States has also struck Iranian-backed columns in the south east of the country three times in recent weeks, as well as destroying at least two Iranian drones. The Shia militias were advancing near al-Tanf, where Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. From the al-Tanf base the US military has supported local rebel groups as they won large swathes of the southern desert from ISIS, and from here it hopes to drive ISIS out of the Euphrates valley. But as the rebels advanced eastwards against Sunni jihadists, Iran’s Shia jihadists came from the west, and claimed the newly-liberated territory.

After six years, and the interventions of a myriad of states and organisations, each with competing agendas, the war in Syria is immensely complex. This doesn’t stop people reaching for simplistic total explanations, both ethnic and sectarian.

Some in the region will frame the intensifying tensions as the US siding with Sunni against Shia Muslims, a perception reinforced by President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the multi-billion dollar arms deal he signed there. Likewise, President Obama ignoring the Iranian build up in Syria, and the disappearance of his chemical ‘red line’ in August 2013 when Assad gassed 1400 people in the Damascus suburbs, led many to believe then that America was siding with Shia over Sunni Islam.

Very many in the West too – politicians, academics and journalists as much as anyone else – assume that the Middle East’s current wars are symptoms of ancient, unchanging enmities. Barack Obama, evading his own share of responsibility, asserted that regional instability is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” In other words, in “ancient sectarian differences.”

But it’s not ‘the Kurds’ occupying Arab-majority towns; it’s one political party-militia claiming to speak for the Kurds. Likewise, ISIS in no way represents Syria’s Sunni Arabs, though it says it does. Neither does the externally-based Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has proved incapable of recognising Kurds’ right to autonomy in areas where they do form a majority. And Iran’s goals are geo-strategic, not sectarian, though it exploits sectarian identity in order to achieve these goals.

Proponents of the ‘ancient conflict’ thesis are unable to explain why social identities are so politically salient at some moments but not at others. The main cleavage in Lebanese politics, for instance, appears today to be Sunni vs Shia, but during the country’s 1975-90 civil war battle lines were drawn between Christians and Muslims. Similarly, Sunni and Shia communities in contemporary Iraq seem largely closed to each other, but before 2003 a third of Iraqi marriages were made between sects.

Any serious analysis of these shifts and reversals must pay attention not to theology but politics. A new book – “Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East”, a collection of essays focusing on crises from Pakistan to Yemen – does just that. The introduction (written by editors Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel) defines sectarianization as “the perpetration of political rule via identity mobilisation” – that is, a deliberate policy pursued (or perpetrated) by authoritarian regimes, the better to divide and rule. By this reading, the problems of the Middle East arise from tyranny and political underdevelopment, not from inherent cultural divides.

In its early stages, the Syrian Revolution was explicitly anti-sectarian. Protestors hoisted such slogans as “My Sect is Freedom” and “The Syrian People are One”. Christians attended mosques so they could join the demonstrations after prayers, and Arabs chanted ‘Azadi’ – the Kurdish word for ‘freedom.’ As land was liberated, Syrians of all sects cooperated in elected local councils. How did this promising start degenerate in six short years to today’s seeming tangle of ethnic and religious wars?

In the essay on Syria in Hashemi and Postel’s book, Paulo Hilu Pinto identifies four channels of sectarianization: “top-down (state generated); bottom-up (socially generated); outside-in (fuelled by regional forces); and inside out (the spread of Syria’s conflict to regional states).”

The most significant is top-down. From the start of the revolutionary challenge, the Assad regime made “strategic use” of visible state violence against Sunnis while mobilising minority communities to police their ‘own’ revolutionaries. To shore up minority support, and to pose to the West as the lesser evil, the regime helped create a Sunni-Jihadist opposition by organising massacres of Sunni civilians (in 2012) and releasing thousands of extremists from prison (in 2011) even as it rounded up, tortured and murdered democrats.

Socially generated sectarianization flourished in response to war. Rumours, jokes, songs and media platforms expressed a sense of communal victimhood and demonised the other.

The chief regional forces contributing to the broth were ISIS – an Iraqi Sunni organisation – and Shia-theocratic Iran. Both broadcast their presence in April 2013. Iran did so through its Lebanese client Hizbullah, which recaptured al-Qusayr for the regime. In the same month ISIS declared itself a ‘state’. At this point some Sunnis came to believe that Iran’s Shia International was attacking them not because they had demanded democracy, but simply because they were Sunnis. And some non-Sunnis came to believe the regime was the only alternative to annihilation.

Both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance have practised sectarian cleansing. ISIS does it for ideological and propaganda reasons. Assad does it more politically, to clear rebellious populations from strategic points, and often to replace them with sectarianized loyalists.

To a lesser extent, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also added to outside-in sectarianization, by funding Sunni-identity militias or broadcasting sectarian propaganda.

But Saudi Arabia’s sectarianizing influence, as Madawi Rasheed’s essay shows, is most pronounced at home. There’s a long history to this, but most recently the Arab Spring, and the spectre of a national opposition movement, “pushed the regime to reinvigorate sectarian discourse against the Shia.” Just as Iran portrayed Syria’s uprising as a Saudi plot, so the Sauds described their restive population as a tool of Iranian imperialism.

Shia Muslims form a majority in nearby Bahrain.Toby Matthiesen’s essay remembers Bahrain’s cross-sect labour mobilisation of the 1950s and 60s. The (Sunni) Al Khalifa royal family responded by banning unions, disbanding parliament (in 1975), building an exclusively Sunni security service (staffed by foreign mercenaries), and promoting Islamist parties. In February 2011, in response to pro-democracy protests, Saudi troops moved into Bahrain, supposedly to foil an Iranian-Shia plot. Today the US maintains a naval base in this sectarianizing dictatorship.

When Trump told the Muslim dictators massed in Riyadh to drive out extremism, he missed the main point. Dictatorship is the problem. The long-term solution to extremism is democratic self-determination. Sectarianization is one of the obstacles that dictators deliberately throw in its way.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 19, 2017 at 8:55 pm

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