[I must start by saying, I resent the use of the term "sectarian" to describe ethno-religious conflicts in various parts of the world. As far as I can tell, this is just a form of political correctness, trying to minimize the responsibility of religion in human suffering and bloodshed. The following is my translation of an article on how religion is complicating the pro-democracy movements in the Arab world.]
Rivalry between shiites and sunnies grinds revolutions in Bahrein and Syria to a halt
Why has the Arab Spring ground to a halt in Syria and Bahrein? In both nations the people have made their discontent with their systems clear with repression successfully silencing them about a year later. Nonetheless, in both nations a significant part of the population is opposed to change, thinking that the current systems protect their interests better. Observers point to sectarian divides within these nations. The chasm between shiites and sunnies that divides the Middle East and coming back to haunt Iraq is resurfacing. Some fear that this rift between the two denominations of Islam may turn into a regional conflict.
Religious identity helps explain the loyalty of sunnies in Bahrein to the Al Khalifa dynasty, or the Syrian minorities to president Asad. Even though the Bahreini protesters insist on the secular and democratic nature of their demands, fulfillment of those demands would lead to a radical change that would bring the shiite majority to power. By the same token, democracy is Syria would bring the sunnies to power, which is presently held by the Alawites (a shiite sect) supported by the Christians, Druzes and other minority creeds.
From a Western perspective this might appear irrelevant, but according to Barry Rubin, "In the Middle East sectarian affiliation underlies the communities, which have their own interests and compete for power". According to the head of the Gloria Center in Israel, "shiites and sunnies have different vision of political affairs in the world and different forms of leadership. As such, religious affiliation in not the way it has been recently in the West with the possible exception of Ireland".
These clashes are not new. Rivalry between shiites and sunnies goes back to the dawn of Islam, when conflicting views emerged regarding the succession of the prophet Mohammad. The spring has brought them to the surface by overthrowing some of the regimes that were based on secularism and Arab nationalism. Islamism, once again, puts the emphasis on religious identity and as such, brings back the sectarian divide. Even in countries where sunnie homogeneity brought about a consensus to overthrow dictators, divides are surfacing, for example between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
According to Mehran Kamrava, the director of the Center for Regional and International Studies of Georgetown University in Qatar, the weight of sectarianism depends to a good extent on its use by the governing elites. "In Syria, the Alewites and Christians fear that if Asad falls, a sectarian conflict with arise. How Asad handles these fears will affect the perception of tensions in Syria. Likewise, how Maliki and his opponents resort to sectarian sentiments of their respective followers will determine the conflict in Iraq".
The case of Bahrein is illustrative. "The monarchy in Bahrein has tried, to some extent successfully, to turn the anti-authoritarian sentiments of the people into sectarian divides between sunnies and shiites and make shiites look like stooges of Iran, which they are not", he says.
The same Arab monarchies that came quickly to the help of the King Hamad of Bahrein are threatening to bring Asad to the UN Security Council. Are they supporting the status quo, or the spring? It is tempting to conclude that this apparent contradiction is the result of sectarian solidarity. As the majority of Arab governments, the kings and Emirs of Arabian Peninsula are sunnies. But apart from this, and perhaps on top of it all, there are geo-strategic interests.
"There are different levels of support among nations of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council", says Greg Nonneman, deacon of the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in Qatar. "Oman and Kuwait, for example, have not participate in the military operation, but they all have an interest in the survival of the Bahreinin monarchy, as a partner in the Council. Also they consider that the Bahreini problem could be settled", he affirms before adding that they all "even Saudi Arabia are at times trying to make the regime make a compromise".
The Role of Tehran
The shadow of Iran is key in all these perceptions. Since the triumph of the 1979 revolution, which lead to the first shiite government in an Islamic nation, the Arab regimes, champions of sunnie orthodoxy, have viewed their Persian neighbor with suspicion. That event added a political dimension to the historical/religious divide. The war between Iran and Iraq in the 80's underscored this antagonism. The help of the neighbors helped Saddam Hussein keep the Iranians at bay but also, his own shiite majority.
As such, the transfer of power brought on by the 2003 US invasion was not seen well in the Arab world. The fear that it caused among Arab governments was graphically pointed out in the warning of the "shiite arch" made by King Abdullah of Jordan. The government of Baghdad would give shiites geographic continuity from Tehran to Lebanon (dominated by Hezbollah) through Syria. It is important the Saudi Arabia, the sunnie nemesis of Iran, has not opened its embassy in Baghdad. But for the more radical sunnies, the shiite advancement represents a mortal threat and the defiant tone of the Iranian leaders does very little to soothe these fears.
The wave of attacks that have shaken Iraq since the withdrawal of US forces on December 18 brought back to mind the fear of sectarian war that the country went through between 2006 and 2008. No one thought it was serendipitous that they happened in shiits majority areas. Even though the resurgence of terrorism has various causes, the political crisis between the shiite prime minister Maliki and the main block backed by sunnies, Iraqiya, provides a dangerous mix for discontent. To the point that the Turkish prime minister Erdogan (sunnie) has warned his counterpart that in case of a sectarian conflict, Ankara would not remain silent.
The resurgence of shiite-sunnie conflict have worried some analysts that Arab revolutions may lead to a religious war. As of now, the rhetoric is heating. "We are at the highest level of conflict in centuries", warns Rubin. Theodore Karasik, of the institute of strategic studies in Dubai, goes further. "I would say that the sectarian war is already under way and if Syria falls there will be a shiite-sunnie war from Lebanon to Iraq".
Nonneman disagrees. He does not think that there will be war between shiites and sunnies but accepts that "an armed conflict pitting Iran again sunni Arab countries in the context of an outbreak of violence in the Persian Gulf is possible (but not very likely)".