Sectarian tensions burst through regional politics

Sunni rulers who have fostered 'jihadism' may be forced to crackdown their sectarian policy eventually.

Sectarian tensions deeply embedded in the societies of West Asia have burst through the surface of regional politics since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings which have challenged the old order which had kept the lid on the 1400 year old Sunni-Shia divide. In Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Shias called for reforms to eliminate political, economic and social discrimination and give them a stake in their homelands. In these countries Sunni rulers have not only cracked down hard on dissident Shias but have also taken a tough line against Sunni radicals seeking to promote their puritanical line, that includes hatred of Shias.

In Iraq, Sunnis sought to counter marginalisation by the Shia-dominated regime installed by the US following its 2003 occupation of that country. At first the Sunnis mounted protests but when these were put down, Sunni tribesmen retaliated by attacking soldiers and policemen. Extremist Sunnis linked to al-Qaeda carried out bombings in Shia neighbourhoods or targeted Shia gatherings. In Syria, deprived rural and urban Sunnis have striven to oust the secular Syrian regime headed by the Assad family which belongs to the small Shia-offshoot Alawite community. Sunni disaffection was exploited by Sunni actors and powers eager to achieve this objective, largely because of the regime's longstanding alliancewith Iran. Arms, funds and training have been provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and wealthy individuals from the Gulf to Sunni rebels - who have become increasingly fundamentalist - as well as to militant jihadis.

Saudi-Iran rivalry has intensified over the past 35 years due to the transformation of Iran into a theocratic "Islamic republic" and its efforts to export its "Islamic revolution" to neighbouring countries, starting with Iraq. This was initially countered by the war between Shia Iran and secular but Sunni-led Iraq which had the military and financial support of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. 

Saudi’s response

Saudi Arabia, which portrays itself as the supreme Sunni power, has responded to the Iranian challenge by launching a comprehensive out-reach programme, building mosques, training clerics, and financing conservative Salafi groups adhering to the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam and puritan practices. The dynamic of the Iranian-Saudi competition has prompted Shias to be more demanding while Sunnis are systematically radicalised. Shia assertiveness has stirred Sunni fears that Iran has been trying to carve out a "Shia crescent" including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in West Asia and to destabilise Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.

Sunni clerics and Gulf and Saudi media portray Shia calls for democracy and equal rights as Iranian inspired and created divisions within reform movements by claiming they are sect-based. Sectarian tensions have also been exacerbated by social media - Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - where individuals can express their prejudices and promote sectarian animosities and fundamentalist ideologies.

The war in Syria has drawn more ultra-orthodox Salafis and al-Qaeda-type jihads from across the Muslim world than the Afghan, Bosnian or Libyan conflicts. While there are no reliable figures, it is said the insurgents number 75-110,000.  Of these the vast majority are fundamentalists, including the 30-40,000 in the Western-sponsored "Free Syrian Army." There are also 45,000 fighters in the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, and 26,000 radical jihadis, including 7,000 foreign fighters from 50 countries, including India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Chechnya, China, Britain, and France. Some 1-2,000 jihadis are believed to be Saudis who face prosecution at home under a recently adopted law banning Saudi citizens from fighting outside the country or supporting foreign fighters. Between 700-1,000 jihadis are Jordanians who have joined al-Qaeda's official Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra.  Concerned over the participation of its citizens in the conflict, Jordan has arrested 150-170 jihadis in recent months. Laws  and prosecutions could backfire. While the objective of many Syrian fighters is the overthrow of the regime, Sunni fundamentalists and jihadis see Syria as a potential base for prosecuting a "jihad" to impose on West Asia Muslim canon law, Sharia, and transform the region into an "Islamic caliphate" modelled on the polity created by the Muslim community in Mecca and Medina.

If Syria is indeed transformed into a state ruled by Sunni fundamentalists, it is certain to be widely disruptive and destabilising in the neighbourhood and for the entire region and beyond. The Shias of Lebanon, the largest community, and of Iraq, the majority, are already fighting such an outcome. Eventually, Sunni rulers who have fostered "jihadism" may be forced to crackdown on the "international jihadi movement" which they have been using as an instrument of sectarian policy.

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