The breakdown of states throughout the Middle East since the outbreak of the Arab Spring has led the people in the region to fall back on primordial attachments, enhancing the power of sectarianism, tribalism, and Islamism, experts told The Jerusalem Post.
Various forces are seeking to fill the vacuum amidst the chaos, including a rising Shi’ite Iran and its allies, Sunni jihadist groups and Arab states.
The Iranian-Shi’ite battle being played out in the region has often been characterized by each side accusing the other of extremism or terrorism, but much of the underlying feud appears to be sectarian.
Shmuel Bar, a senior research fellow at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, said we are witnessing the failure of the nation-state in the Middle East, and people are reverting back to families and tribes.
Asked if the Sunni-Shi’ite reference is the best way to describe what is occurring in the region, Bar responded that it is part of it, but it is also linked to two other frames of reference: the “retribalization” of the Middle East and the conflict between Iran and the Arabs.
“The former is expressed in the breakdown of the nation-state and the reversion of communities to a primordial frame of reference – the tribe and the sectarian community – to provide the security that the state can no longer provide.”
“The latter is a deeply rooted conflict in the region that was subdued as long as Iran – and its Arab Shi’ite proxies – did not seem to be predominant and victorious,” he said.
Bar added that the success of Iran in spreading its hegemony throughout the Arab world through Shi’ite proxies – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon – is viewed by the Sunni Arabs as an existential threat to Sunni predominance.
“As long as the Shi’ites were a docile, quiet minority and accepted their status, they could be tolerated,” he said, “But once they are seen as tools in the hands of Iranian hegemony, the anti-Shi’ite ideology of the Wahhabi movement morphs into the even more extremist phenomenon of Islamic State.”
The fact that the United States is now seen as having “flipped” from support of the Sunni countries to support of Iranian hegemony exacerbates the sense of existential danger, said Bar, noting that the US toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and brought a pro-Iranian Shi’ite regime to power.
The US could have also worked to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, but it decided to reconcile with his continuing massacre of Sunni Syrians, he said, and is sending a message of willingness to change its position on Hezbollah. These are all seen as signs of that “flip,” continued Bar.
Bar sees the ideology of Islamic State’s caliphate as an important historical change of course.
SOURCE: ARIEL BEN SOLOMON
The Jerusalem Post