Divisions in the Middle East are driven more by regional rivalries than religion

TSG IntelBrief: In a region beset with chronic and widespread problems, ranging from poor governance, war, violent extremism, and resource scarcity, one threat stands above the rest in terms of potential for destruction and cost in opportunity: the use of sectarianism as a geopolitical weapon. Sectarianism encourages extremist rhetoric and violence and serves to distract a populations from economic and social concerns by providing a convenient enemy on which to focus. While the Sunni-Shi’a divide is as old as Islam, current divisions are driven far more by regional rivalries and political gamesmanship than by religion, though the latter remains a primary factor.

While sectarianism as a geopolitical weapon is nothing new, its use is reaching new heights while its consequences find new lows. The current era of sectarianism stems, in part, from the 2003 Iraq War. The shift in Sunni-Shi’a power dynamics in Iraq triggered regional quakes that are still being felt today. It is difficult to overstate how Saudi Arabia’s fears of an ascendent Iran—now, with an Iraqi ally—have led to more than a decade of Saudi maneuvers driven by sectarian concerns. The sectarian war wanted so badly by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi—founder of the group that would become the so-called Islamic State—has metastasized far from Anbar and Baghdad, and morphed into both direct and proxy warfare. [Continue reading…]

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