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Nauman Sadiq l

Lately, it has become a habit of Orientalist apologists of Western imperialism to offer reductive historical and theological explanations of Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East region in order to cover up the blowback of ill-conceived Western military interventions and proxy wars that have reignited the flames of the internecine conflict in the Islamic World.

Some self-anointed “Arabists” posit that the division goes all the way back to the founding of Islam, 1400 years ago, and contend that the conflict emerged during the reign of the fourth Caliph, Ali bin Abi Talib, in the seventh century A.D.

In modern times, the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East region is essentially a political conflict between the Gulf Arab autocrats and Iran for regional dominance which is being presented to lay Muslims in the veneer of religiosity.

I wonder what would be the American-led war on terror’s explanation of such “erudite” historians of Islam – that the cause of “the clash of civilizations” can be found in the Crusades when Richard the Lionheart and Saladin were skirmishing in the Levant and exchanging courtesies at the same time?

In modern times, the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East region is essentially a political conflict between the Gulf Arab autocrats and Iran for regional dominance which is being presented to lay Muslims in the veneer of religiosity.

Saudi Arabia which has been vying for power as the leader of Sunni bloc against the Shi’a-dominated Iran in the regional geopolitics was staunchly against the invasion of Iraq by the Bush Administration in 2003.

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Sudden escalation of conflict in the Middle East

The Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein constituted a Sunni Arab bulwark against Iran’s meddling in the Arab World. But after Saddam was ousted from power in 2003 and subsequently, when elections were held in Iraq which were swept by Shi’a-dominated parties, Iraq has now been led by a Shi’a-majority government that has become a steadfast regional ally of Iran. Consequently, Iran’s sphere of influence now extends all the way from territorially-contiguous Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast.

The Saudi royal family was resentful of Iranian encroachment on the traditional Arab heartland. Therefore, when protests broke out against the Shi’a-dominated Assad regime in Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the Gulf Arab States along with their regional Sunni allies, Turkey and Jordan, and the Western patrons gradually militarized the protests to dismantle the Iranian axis.

Moreover, during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration took advantage of the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq and used the Kurds and Shi’as against the Sunni-led Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. And during the occupation years from 2003 to 2011, the once dominant Sunni minority was politically marginalized which further exacerbated the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq.

The Saudi royal family was resentful of Iranian encroachment on the traditional Arab heartland. Therefore, when protests broke out against the Shi’a-dominated Assad regime in Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the Gulf Arab States along with their regional Sunni allies, Turkey and Jordan, and the Western patrons gradually militarized the protests to dismantle the Iranian axis.

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According to reports, Syria’s pro-Assad militias are comprised of local militiamen as well as Shi’a foreign fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and even the Hazara Shi’as from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan. And similarly, Sunni jihadists from all over the region have also been flocking to the Syrian battlefield for the last seven years.

Notwithstanding, in order to create a semblance of objectivity and fairness, the American policymakers and analysts are always willing to accept the blame for the mistakes of the distant past that have no bearing on their present policy

A full-scale Sunni-Shi’a war has been going on in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen which will obviously have its repercussions all over the Islamic World where Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have coexisted in relative peace for centuries.

Notwithstanding, in order to create a semblance of objectivity and fairness, the American policymakers and analysts are always willing to accept the blame for the mistakes of the distant past that have no bearing on their present policy, however, any fact that impinges on their present policy is conveniently brushed aside.

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The birth of Islamic State

In the case of the creation of the Islamic State, for instance, the US policy analysts are willing to concede that invading Iraq back in 2003 was a mistake that radicalized the Iraqi society, exacerbated sectarian divisions and gave birth to an unrelenting Sunni insurgency against the heavy-handed and discriminatory policies of the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government.

In fact, the proximate cause behind the rise of the Islamic State, al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and numerous other Sunni Arab jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq has been the Obama Administration’s policy of intervention through proxies in Syria.

Similarly, the war on terror era political commentators also “generously” accept the fact that the Cold War-era policy of nurturing al-Qaeda and myriads of other Afghan so-called “freedom fighters” against the erstwhile Soviet Union was a mistake because all those fait accompli have no bearing on their present policy.

The mainstream media’s spin-doctors conveniently forget, however, that the creation of the Islamic State and myriads of other Sunni Arab jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq has as much to do with the unilateral invasion of Iraq back in 2003 under the Bush Administration as it has been the legacy of the Obama Administration that funded, armed, trained and internationally legitimized the Sunni militants against the Shi’a-dominated Assad regime since 2011-onward in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa region.

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In fact, the proximate cause behind the rise of the Islamic State, al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and numerous other Sunni Arab jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq has been the Obama Administration’s policy of intervention through proxies in Syria.

And now, the wretched inhabitants of those regions are once again in the line of fire from the Islamic State’s suicide blasts and car bombings, on the one hand, and the US-backed artillery shelling and aerial bombardment, on the other.

The border between Syria and Iraq is highly porous and poorly guarded. The Obama Administration’s policy of nurturing militants against the Assad regime in Syria was bound to have its blowback in Iraq, sooner or later. Therefore, as soon as the Islamic State consolidated its gains in Syria, it overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014 from where the US had withdrawn its troops only a couple of years ago in December 2011.

And now, the wretched inhabitants of those regions are once again in the line of fire from the Islamic State’s suicide blasts and car bombings, on the one hand, and the US-backed artillery shelling and aerial bombardment, on the other.

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Other flashpoints of Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East

Apart from Syria and Iraq, two other flashpoints of Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East region are Bahrain and Yemen. When peaceful protests broke out against the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain by the Shi’a majority population in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, Saudi Arabia sent thousands of its own troops across the border to quell the uprising.

The revelation does not come as a surprise, however, because after all al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria, Al-Nusra Front, has also been fighting hand in glove with the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime for the last seven years of the Syrian civil war.

Similarly, when the Iran-backed Houthis, which is also an offshoot of Shi’a Islam, overran Sana’a in September 2014, Saudi Arabia and UAE mounted another ill-conceived Sunni-led offensive against the Houthi militia in March 2015.

The nature of the conflict in Yemen is sectarian to an extent that recently, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda’s leader, Qasim al-Raymi, has claimed that al-Qaeda has been fighting hand in hand with the Saudi-led alliance against the Iran-backed rebels for the last couple of years.

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The revelation does not come as a surprise, however, because after all al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria, Al-Nusra Front, has also been fighting hand in glove with the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime for the last seven years of the Syrian civil war.

The fact of the matter is that in modern times, the phenomena of Islamic radicalism, jihadism, and the consequent Sunni-Shi’a conflict are only as old as the Soviet-Afghan jihad during the late seventies and eighties when the Western powers with the help of their regional allies trained and armed Afghan jihadists to battle the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Now, when the fire of inter-sectarian strife is burning on four different fronts in the Middle East and the Sunni and Shi’a communities are witnessing a merciless slaughter of their brethren in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, then what kind of an Orientalist shill would have the time and luxury to look for the cause of the conflict in theology and medieval history? If the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have been so thirsty for each other’s blood since the founding of Islam, then how come they managed to survive as distinct sectarian groups for 1400 years?

The fact of the matter is that in modern times, the phenomena of Islamic radicalism, jihadism, and the consequent Sunni-Shi’a conflict are only as old as the Soviet-Afghan jihad during the late seventies and eighties when the Western powers with the help of their regional allies trained and armed Afghan jihadists to battle the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

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And the conflict has been further exacerbated in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 when the Western powers and their regional client states once again took advantage of the opportunity and nurtured militants against the Arab nationalist Gaddafi regime in Libya and the Baathist-led Assad regime in Syria.

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist, and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism, and Petro-imperialism. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist, and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism, and Petro-imperialism.

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