The greatest threat in the Middle East is 'going to get much worse before it gets better'

Sectarian divisions in the Middle East are only getting worse, and there’s little sign that tensions in the region will abate before they explode into war, experts say.

The Soufan Group, a New-York based strategic security firm, said in a note on Friday that the “weaponization of sectarianism,” fuelled by the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, is the “greatest threat facing the Middle East.”

“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,” the firm wrote.

It continued: “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-Shia 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.”

Ali Khedery served as a special assistant to five US ambassadors, as a senior adviser to three heads of US Central Command, and was the longest continually serving US official in Iraq.

He agreed that tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are getting dangerously worse.

“I think it’s going to get much worse before it gets better,” Khedery told Business Insider. “… It’s just constant escalations. … What I see is constant major escalations by both sides and no de-escalations.”

Last weekend, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric, angering many Iranians. The Sunni kingdom then cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran after Iranian protesters ransacked and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia is at the head of a Sunni sphere of influence, while Iran, a Shiite theocracy, is trying to expand its role in the region.

The US State Department issued a statement saying the execution of the Shiite cleric exacerbated sectarian tensions.

Khedery said these tensions have been getting worse since the US invaded Iraq in 2003. He noted that the execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had a similar effect on Shia Muslims.

“I was involved in the execution of Saddam Hussein by Malaki in December 2006 and the same exact thing happened,” Khedery said, referring to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“Maliki executed him on the holiest day of Islam, which was supposed to be a day of mercy. The Saudis were furious … because the way Saddam was executed with Shias chanting … sparked sectarianism. This has just been an endless tit-for-tat.”

Hussein’s 2006 execution “opened up a more explosive, unprecedented chapter in regional sectarianism,” Khedery said.

But Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr, the Shiite cleric, is just the latest example of growing sectarian tensions in the Middle East.

“In the region now you have the majority Sunni Arab world feeling like it’s been under attack by the Persians — and on top of that, perceiving that they are under attack by Shia Persians and Shia Arabs proxies like Lebanese Hezbollah,” Khedery explained. “On the other hand, you have from the Shia perspective that they feel they have been repressed for way too long.”

Both Sunnis and Shiites think they have a right to power and see themselves as coming out on top in a sectarian war. On the Shia side lies Iran, Iraq, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Khedery explained. On the Sunni side is Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and other Gulf countries.

“There’s basically a sense of manifest destiny and divine right to rule … by both sides,” Khedery said. “What I see is both sides are confident, but at the same time scared, that they’re under a sort of existential threat. … We’re in the middle of the fever that still has a long way to burn before the patient comes out standing at the other end.”

And actual military conflict between the two sides might be a real possibility.

“There’s continuing escalation. Both sides are gearing up for direct conflict. It’s becoming less ‘Cold War’ and more direct confrontation,” Khedery said. “Both sides believe they can win, both sides have been gearing up for battle, confident that they can come out on top. And when you have that, you usually have a war. A regional war, a world war … it’s going to be big.”

Other experts, however, have thrown cold water on the idea of an all-out sectarian war in the Middle East.

Marc Lynch, a nonresident senior associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an op-ed this week that despite “apocalyptic rhetoric on all sides,” the Saudi execution of the Shiite cleric probably won’t change much of the dynamics.

“The implications of the Saudi sectarian escalation for the region’s high politics are likely overstated,” Lynch wrote. “The challenge to Iran and the mobilization of sectarian passions are part of the standard playbook for Riyadh when faced with regional and domestic challenges.”

Still, Lynch cautioned that, with a generation that came of age during the Iraq war and media broadcasting images of sectarian violence daily, the “sectarian game” that is developing in today’s age is “much more dangerous than in the past.”

He concluded: “It will be far more difficult to de-escalate these sectarian passions than it has been to inflame them.”

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