The Geopolitics of Sectarianism (Syria, Iraq, and Regional Contagions)

Nine months after the full withdrawal of American soldiers, Iraq is being squeezed on many fronts. Internally, a Sunni-based insurgency persists. Troubles remain in part of the northern Kurdish region, leading to Turkish military incursions. Tensions between neighboring Iran and much of the world remain high. Oh, and there is Syria. The problems in Syria are a potent reminder of just how unstable sectarian politics can be, particularly given the cultural geography of the Middle East.

Though Iraq’s leaders profess to be democrats, they seem to be moving in a direction of greater support for the decidedly un-democratic Assad government in Syria. Planes delivering weapons to Assad have been transiting Iraqi air space from Iran, despite the efforts of U.S. and other diplomats to halt the flow. Established democracies (in the West) also support authoritarian governments at times, out of geopolitical realism. Given his recent tactics, though, Bashar al-Assad is no longer a run-of-the-mill dictator.

The bigger picture is about much more than the fate of a political dynasty in Syria. As others have noted over the last year, the Syrian uprising – unlike those in North Africa – has the potential to instigate a catastrophic regional contagion. Syria’s marginalized Sunni majority is the core of the anti-Assad forces. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni minority remains uneasy after the upheaval that began in 2003. Elsewhere – in places like Bahrain and Yemen – Sunni-Shiite tensions are palpable.

It is easy for outsiders and Westerners to recognize the flaws of sectarian politics in the Middle East. For many Muslims, though, the sectarian contest is the fundamental dimension of domestic political life. And, if one does not accept some level of separation between mosque and state, there is little space for democratic compromise.

The rest of the world will soon find out whether the Syrian conflict can be contained. Even if it is, the specter of sectarianism will persist in the region.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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