The Middle East’s Ignored Cold War

With the recent attacks on American and Western embassies across the Muslim world, most of the narratives in the mainstream media have been focused on conflict between the West and the “Muslim world.” Yet, this exaggerated conflict is often given precedence over another trending clash in the Middle East—one with more serious ramifications for the region. While many have been focused on this improperly simplified “Islam vs. the West” song-and-dance, the media’s mostly missed the significance of the possible cold war that is growing between Sunni and Shina powers. Take a quick glance at many of the conflicts in the Middle East or “Muslim World” today and one will quickly find this divide present.

The regional cold war between Iran, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (above), and Saudi Arabia, led by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, in the Middle East does not receive near the attention it deserves from the mainstream media.

In Syria, the predominately Alawite-dominated Assad regime remains pitted in a bloody contest against the mainly Sunni opposition forces. Of course, there are some Alawites among the rebel forces and some Sunnis still among the regime’s supporters, but these are overall exceptions to a conflict that many observers see becoming ever more and more sectarian.

Lebanon, a country historically dominated by Syria, has seen its neighbor’s violence spill over into its own borders. Shia-Sunni violence is nothing new to Lebanese history, with both groups having fought civil wars with each other for government control. However, Lebanon’s sectarian woes
have remained relatively quiet recently; that is, until Syria’s troubles began exporting sectarian violence to the multi-religious state.

In contrast to Syria, during the Arab Spring, Bahrain experienced a Sunni-dominated regime being challenged by its overall Shia populace. Although these protests were quickly put down (with the help of the regional Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia), these tensions still exist.

Also, the diverse and unstable state of Yemen remains no stranger to sectarian conflict. Among many of its internal conflicts, Yemen’s government continues to face off against a group of separatists in the north—the Houthis, a Shia group from the Zaidiyyah school of thought.

Before Syria’s current strife, some of the worst Shia-Sunni fighting occurred not too long ago in post-Saddam Iraq. Despite the Bush administration’s repeated denials, the country was very much in a state of civil war between its Sunni and Shia Arabs. And although things have calmed down quite a bit since then, the tensions remain. For example, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, recently succeeded in his bid to charge fugitive Iraqi Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, with allegedly running death squads against Shias during the post-Saddam civil war. This political contest is doing no favors for Iraq’s sectarian tensions.

But to paint all these conflicts as only products of the same overarching sectarian trend in the Middle East would be mistaken. Each of these countries and their respective conflicts have their own histories and nuanced motivations for perpetuation.

In addition, the linkage of these conflicts may have less to do with pure ideological grounds and more to do with just plain regional hegemonic influence. That is, in their bids for regional dominance, long-standing enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran have stuck their hands deep into many of these conflicts, playing up the sectarian tensions to their own advantage.

Saudi Arabia supports Sunni groups across the region, including within the Syrian insurgency, the Iraqi Sunni powers, as well as the Bahraini and Yemeni regimes. In contrast, Iran continues to stand behind the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, while lending its support to Shia revolutionaries in Bahrain and Yemen.

Yet, one might point out, Iran also supports the fiercely Sunni insurgency in Afghanistan, as a power play against the United States. So, sectarian lines may not be so clear, again making this cold war less about ideology and more simply about power—a contest of political and economic regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Whatever the accurate interpretation of these trending sectarian battles is, one thing is for sure: this is not getting the play it should in the Western media today.