The Middle East is experiencing several conflicts at the regional level (Russia-Turkey), the religious sectarian level (Sunni-Shiite), the ethnic level (Kurd-Arab-Turkmen) and the political level (US-led front-Russian-led front). The situation has plunged the Iraqi public into conflicts that remain unresolved despite numerous attempts to address them. Regional as well as international parties have invested heavily in these conflicts in an attempt to protect their interests.
The involvement of major powers in the Middle East has turned communities into political tools. Each community relies on its patron power to fight an opposing community. As the situation changes, the roles of the conflicting powers shift in the sectarian collective imagination.
When the United States advanced Shiite interests by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Baath Party in 2003, Russia was on the Sunnis' side. Moscow maintained good relations with the Baathist regime until the very end and had opposed the US-led invasion. When US President George W. Bush issued his ultimatum on March 18, 2003, for the Iraqi president to leave the country within 48 hours or face war against the United States and its allies, Russia declined to join the allied coalition.
The equation that existed in 2003 has since changed. Now Russia and the Shiites are on the same side, fighting the Islamic State (IS) while supporting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Russia launched military airstrike operations in Syria on Sep. 30. Meanwhile, the United States, in league with its Sunni allies in the Gulf and Turkey, continued to work toward toppling Assad.
Following the launch of Russian attacks in Syria, 52 Saudi clerics from the International Union of Muslim Scholars issued an Oct. 4 statement denouncing Russia's actions. According to them, “Russians are ultra-Christians,” and “Russian support for the Safavids and the Nusayris is a real war on Sunnis, their country and their identity.”
Applying a sectarian interpretation to events is not limited to where Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved, although their rivalry exemplifies the Sunni-Shiite regional conflict. Sectarian polarization has also engaged Egypt, Lebanon and Pakistan along with the other Gulf states. It is as if taking sides is a must. The regional powers’ political positions are therefore widely interpreted based on sectarian logic.
For instance, news about some of Turkey's recent positions and actions, including its confrontation with Russia, was cast in the context of sectarian configurations: The Shiite axis includes Russia, Iran, the Alawite-led Syrian regime and Shiite organizations in the region, such as Hezbollah from Lebanon and the League of the Righteous in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Sunni axis consists of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Sunni armed groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, opposing the Syrian regime.
What’s more, there are times when powers in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq fuel sectarianism tensions with their choice of words. For example, in 2010, the widely known Sunni Saudi preacher Mohammed al-Oraifi declared the phrase “Supreme Shiite Iraqi” “heretical.” After the fall of Mosul to IS in June 2014, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, in October that year, that the Iraqi army consisted only of Shiites and that Turkey was ready to train Sunnis in Iraq to fight IS. On Dec. 4, 2015, Turkish authorities sent an armored regiment of 150 soldiers into the Bashiqa area, north of Mosul, to do just that.
Erdogan’s statement and Turkey's recent actions have reinforced a sectarian perspective in which Ankara is supporting Sunnis against Shiites in Iraq and Syria. The Rule of Law Coalition issued a Dec. 9 statement accusing Turkey of “inciting sectarian strife.”
Despite soothing statements made Dec. 15 by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu while trying to explain that Turkish troops had entered Iraq only to train peshmerga forces in their fight against IS, Ankara’s provocative style led Iraq’s Shiite-majority government to condemn Turkey's actions, accusing it of exacerbating an already difficult sectarian situation.
Turkey did not coordinate with the Iraqi government before sending in its troops. In addition, Turkey confined its cooperation to Sunni areas, in particular to Mosul. In addition to the peshmerga forces there, Turkey is training the Sunni Popular Mobilization Units, which were formed to liberate Mosul.
Previously, sectarian sensitivities had been triggered Oct. 29 by the uncontrolled entry at the Zurbatiyah border crossing of hundreds of thousands of Iranians making the Arbaeen pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq. According to some observers, the incident violated Iraq's national sovereignty. The Iranians’ entry without official permits might be interpreted as a sign of leniency on the part of the Iraqi Shiite-majority government toward Shiite Iranians.
The uncontrolled entry took place, however, because Iraq is unable to maintain control over large religious events, let alone its borders. Looking at the incident in a sectarian context could nonetheless be justified given the polarization riddling the local and regional arenas.
All regional and international actors must grasp the seriousness of manipulating an already critical sectarian situation. Powers seeking to protect their regional interests should not give the impression that they have caved in to sectarianism by serving the agenda of a given axis against another. This highlights the need for those powers to carefully think about their discourse, positions and actions when they have the potential to fuel sectarian conflicts.