The Rise of Sectarian Populism

In Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere, religious identity is back in force.

As many Americans were celebrating independence, the national-security community was focused on the protests in Egypt, a military coup and the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. Many expected protests on the one-year anniversary of the Morsi government. But there was a sense that the effects would be small or contained, particularly when compared to events in Syria, which have continued to spiral toward a brutal regional conflict.

At first glance, the protests and coup in Egypt have little in common with the Syrian sectarian violence. Yet less than a month before the coup, Morsi called Shiite Muslims “filthy” while on stage with hardline clerics. A group of Sunni Muslims beat four Shia to death after prayers a week later. With ethnic tensions boiling over in Syria and a poor record of economic performance at home, Morsi tried playing on sectarian tensions. It could not save him, but it may well offer a glimpse of things to come. Recent political transitions towards democracy have added a new element to a region long-plagued by sectarianism: populism.

Sectarian populism, the tendency for political leaders to align themselves along sectarian lines as show of solidarity with their constituency, is quickly becoming the dominant factor in Middle Eastern politics and a critical driver of regional instability. Events in Syria have thrown the region, already moving towards sectarian populism after the Arab Spring, into a tailspin with no clear exit options. As Syria disintegrates, Iran will look for a new ally. Iraq will grow concerned about its territorial integrity with a Sunni-controlled government in Aleppo next door, while Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt will likely face spillover effects that could mean even more political turmoil.

The regional events of the last eighteen months have released the genie of grassroots political activism from the bottle. A return to the fear-induced, tightly controlled information environments that limited even modest forms of political expression seems unlikely. A return of autocracy would likely look different and have to account for the historical success of grassroots activism.

Nascent democracies and grassroots activism will pave the way for political upstarts with no clear track record of governance. While these individuals search for political platforms, individuals with little faith in government will turn to local forces that can offer basic services. Since local actors are often arranged along sectarian lines, this will deepen the sense of sectarianism in many communities. Political upstarts will feel this divide and seek to exploit it. The implications of grassroots politics in the region will be felt globally.

Influence, Sectarianism and Violence

The violence that ensued in Giza after Morsi’s sectarian comments is just the latest in a growing trend of sectarianism in the Middle East. Perhaps the most toxic sectarian political exchange is focused on Syria. On May 25, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged support for Bashar al-Assad. While this should have come as little surprise given the anecdotal evidence of Lebanese and Hezbollah fighters funneling into Syria, it was the first public declaration of support. It would also trigger a wave of sectarian posturing.

Yusef al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian Sunni cleric, took little time to respond. In a speech on June 2, Qaradawi called for jihad in Syria, declaring it an individual duty at a rally in Doha. He accused Iran of sending fighters in support of the Assad regime while the Sunnis stood idle. Qaradawi also reversed his position on Hezbollah, having historically pledged support of the organization. He went so far as to call Hezbollah the “party of Satan.”

The war of words, thus far limited to a few historically vocal sheikhs, escalated further when the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia weighed in on June 6th. Sheikh Abdelaziz Al al-Sheikh did not call for jihad in Syria, but he declared support for Qaradawi. Voicing agreement with Qaradawi’s position on Hezbollah, Abdelaziz called them a “hateful, sectarian” party and called upon Muslim clerics to take steps against Hezbollah. The position of the Saudi clerical establishment may prove pivotal over time.

While Nasrallah blames Saudi Arabia for the presence Sunni foreign fighters in Syria and claims that Hezbollah is defending Shiites against extremists, sectarian violence has continued to escalate throughout the region. Over two thousand people have been killed in Iraq since April. Sunni militiamen in the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon killed twenty members of the Lebanese armed forces on June 24. This attack came just a few weeks after an influential jihadist cleric named Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti sanctioned attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon, even if it inflicts civilian casualties. The time for an all-out sectarian war, he wrote, was now.

As Goes Syria

There is an old adage in the Middle East: there is no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. But what happens if there is no Syria?

From the Western vantage point, it is difficult to identify any good outcomes to the Syrian conflict. Should Assad hold power, it may offer some stability to the region, but it will come at a tremendous human toll. It will also deal a significant reputational blow to the West and empower Hezbollah further in Lebanon. Should the regime fall, the aftermath is muddy at best. A secular authority might rise in its place, but this looks increasingly unlikely. The sectarian nature of the conflict is playing into the hands of religious extremists, who are also doing a good job providing social services during the conflict. Their rise to power would likely be a deadly turn of events for Alawites and possibly offer a new safe haven for violent Salafists to train and stage attacks.

Instead of these two extreme outcomes, it is possible that Syria simply disintegrates, fracturing among ethnic lines. The Alawites will have their Shia territory along the coast, secured by either the Assad regime’s stock of unconventional weapons or an international partner like Iran. The Kurds would look to establish a zone in the northeast of the state, while the Druze focus on the southwest. The Sunnis would control territory in the center, with a sphere of influence that would cut across the Iraq border into the provinces of Anbar, Ninawa and Salah ad Din.

Irrespective of the outcome, the war in Syria has already triggered a tectonic geopolitical shift. Iran, the regional Shia powerhouse, is watching as its one time stalwart ally Syria slips away from its sphere of influence. As the tripartite Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance erodes, Iran will naturally look for new partners to replace Syria. It just so happens that there is a Shia government right next door. Iranian influence in the nascent Iraqi government is well documented, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Iraqi Shia are already fighting in Syria. The Iraqi government may well be working with the Iranians already.

If the Iraqi government is moving closer to Iran, it is with good reason. Aside from the common Shiite lineage, the Iraqi government stands to lose a great deal if Assad falls or Syria disintegrates. A Sunni-controlled Syria, or a Sunni-controlled state in the central and eastern parts of the country, would likely present a serious challenge to the territorial integrity of modern-day Iraq. The Anbar region in western Iraq, as coalition forces learned, has always been difficult to govern. There is little question that the Sunnis in the western part of Iraq would take more comfort in working with a Sunni government in Aleppo than a Shia one in Baghdad. This may well push the young Iraqi government toward placating both Iran and their domestic Shia constituency. It is a case where sectarian populism meets geopolitics.

Instability in both Iraq and Syria is likely to put tremendous pressure on Turkey, which may be in denial about the “long game.” Turkey deals with the secessionist desires of its own ethnic Kurdish populations. Both Iraq and Syria have Kurdish populations in the north of the country, which cross into southern Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has mounted a campaign of violence since 1974. Instability in Syria that galvanizes the Sunni population would increase Kurdish desire for security and autonomy across the three countries.

Here, geopolitics begins to make strange bedfellows. While a Sunni-controlled Syria or the disintegration of the state is likely to create problems along the southern border, Turkey is supporting the Sunni rebels against the Assad regime. Once again, this falls along sectarian lines, with the Turkish government supporting their fellow Sunnis against the Shia Assad government. Turkey seems to have adopted a strategy of ridding their neighboring country of Assad and Shia regime first, and then dealing with consequences of violent Salafists and Kurdish aspirations after. Safe to say, that might not work.

Turkey is not the only country stuck in a bad situation as Syria unravels. Jordan has already taken in about a half-million refugees from the Syrian conflict, which is a tough order in a country of 6.5 million people and a GDP of approximately $37 billion. Jordan is no stranger to refugee problems given the historical Israeli-Palestinian tensions on its western border. The refugee issue adds further pressure to a tense Jordanian political scene. King Abdullah has so far weathered the storm, but the mixture of external and internal pressures make Jordan less stable than it has been in decades.

Saudi Arabia also has an interest and a hand in Syria. While the Kingdom is tucked away from the war zone, it is difficult for the monarchy to remain silent in the face of Iranian and Hezbollah support to the Assad regime. While Syria blames Saudi Arabia for the conflict and a flow of Sunni foreign fighters, the Saudis have been lobbying to arm the rebels. The monarchy would surely suffer a loss of domestic credibility should it sit by and let the Sunni rebels be killed by Assad forces without so much as trying to help. Once again, sectarian populism is pushing towards conflict, and the grand mufti’s remarks suggest that Saudi Arabia is not prepared to let Iranian power projection go unmatched.

Egypt is also likely to face renewed pressures as sectarian tensions mount. Other politicians may feel the need to stake out a populist, sectarian platform for political survival, but that does not necessarily bode well for domestic or regional stability, as Egypt learned. Events that empower the conservative end of the political spectrum may over time make it more difficult to keep the most radical elements, including those in the Sinai, in check.

And yet, the strangest of bedfellows has gone unmentioned: the United States and Iran. Should the Assad regime fall to a Sunni government, or the country disintegrate, the Alawite Shia population will be at risk. The longer the conflict lasts, the more likely the victor will seek retribution against the loser. Should the Assad regime fall, a position long desired by the United States, and the Sunnis take power, both Washington and Tehran will have an interest in protecting the Alawite population from slaughter. Rarely do the two countries find themselves with aligned interests, but this might be one of them.

Broadly speaking, four camps have emerged from events in the Middle East. Democratic optimists suggest that changes will eventually lead to a more inclusive and stable region. Democratic pessimists suggest that democracy is unlikely to bring peace, prosperity or stability. Autocratic optimists suggest that the political change will be short-lived and ultimately overturned by dictators prioritizing stability. The autocratic pessimists suggest that the new weak governments will eventually backslide to autocracies controlled by radical individuals.

Events over the last month in Syria, Egypt and the broader region suggest that each of the paradigms has something to offer and something worth leaving. Rather than root for the best and plan for the worst, policymakers should focus on engaging a region increasingly driven by populist agendas and sectarian interests, as opposed to democratic, autocratic, secular or religious political regimes. There is a rocky road ahead in the best of circumstances.

Scott Helfstein is the director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. All views expressed here are his own.