A delicate balance in the midst of a crisis
November 10th, 2014
05:56 PM ET

A delicate balance in the midst of a crisis

By Nicole Dow, CNN

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – a fact that is just as true for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as it is in physics. Now, as the Sunni militant group continues to try to expand its sphere of influence, its progress threatens to tip the delicate sectarian balance. Indeed, the ripple effects could transform the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

To understand why this is the case, it’s essential to understand the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia is an Arab state with a Sunni majority, while Iran is a predominantly Shiite, non-Arab state. Between the two countries is an ongoing tension that has been brewing at least since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

"This is very much a conflict that is molded and shaped by the geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region," says Harith Al-Qarawee, a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

"The very idea of having Sunni countries fighting ISIS, and the tendency to exclude Iran from the conferences that occurred in the past…[suggest] Iran is not considered an ally in that conflict," Al-Qarawee says.

Al-Qarawee says one reason is that the United States and its allies believe that a military offensive is best led by Sunni governments as ISIS identifies itself as Sunni. “I think the Obama administration concluded that no one can face ISIS except Sunnis themselves. If you ally with the Shia or a Shia-dominated government, you are deepening the sectarian divide and it is also the case if the arrangements rely only on Sunni allies and exclude Shias.”

But the rise of ISIS has also sparked division within the Sunni community itself.

"This is the ultra-sectarian group, so extraordinarily intolerant of everyone else that every single faction or sect that doesn't agree with it is in danger," says Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park. "[ISIS] is so out of touch with mainstream Sunnis in the way they frame their issues."

It is perhaps this ultra-sectarianism, and frustration among Sunnis uncomfortable with the suggestion that ISIS somehow speaks for them, that could also be opening space for some cooperation between Sunnis and Shia, even if it is Sunni governments that are being expected to take the lead.

“Despite the competition [between Iran and Saudi Arabia], they are moving a bit closer to each other on Iraq and Syria," suggests Telhami, who also authored The Stakes: America & the Middle East. "They are still competitive, [but] both increasingly see ISIS as a threat, and that is going to be important."

In a move that surprised many, the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia met recently to discuss the ISIS situation. But welcome as some may see this willingness to talk, Al-Qarawee warns that it is too early to label this a turning point in relations between the two.

"There are signs by the Saudis and the Iranians that it is in their interests to de-escalate tensions to confront ISIS,” Al-Qarawee. “But it’s impossible to move from hostility to alliance quickly. Although the two sides realize that ISIS is a threat to some extent to both of them, they don’t think it is so big a threat as to move that fast to cooperation."

Even so, countries in the region see ISIS as a genuine danger to the sectarian balance.

"This is a very extreme group of militias that is bent on not only taking territory in Iraq and Syria, but that is expansionist. They talk about expanding their domain," says Hillary Mann Leverett, a former White House and U.S. State Department official who worked on Middle East issues.

"They are thriving on the emerging vacuum of power with part of a constituency that is unhappy with the current power, but they alienated everybody else," says Telhami, who notes that while the group has not been able to take over Iraq or Syria – something that is hardly surprising given the size of the forces ranged against it – the group has still managed to thrive in “situations where states have either collapsed or have significantly weakened.”

And, as the group has stepped into the vacuum, the threat it poses to regional stability has only grown clearer.

"It’s dangerous to have Iraq right next to it [Iran]…you have not only an expansionist ISIS state, but a genocidal one,” says Leverett, who co-authored Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. “It doesn't want to just to take the territory, but to kill the Shia. It is a huge problem for Iran."

According to Telhami, Iran isn’t the only country in the region that should be concerned. "The Islamist groups have a very strong presence in Jordan – a lot of it is mainstream,” Telhami says. “There are structures of relationships that go back long before the emergence of ISIS as a dominant group, and those are bound to create problems for Jordan."

Telhami notes the previously close relationship between Jordan and Iraq previously, and how following the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime Jordanians were support of Sunnis as they were marginalized by the Shia-led regime of Nuri al-Maliki. “Some of those groups have become more extreme and those ties, as you move forward could become problematic," Telhami says.

And what of Syrian neighbor Lebanon, a country that itself is no stranger to sectarianism?

Although there are no homegrown extremist groups there, proxy sectarian rivalries are a recurring issue. "Some of the Gulf states were funding Sunnis to counter Hezbollah after the 2006 war,” says Telhami. “In the Lebanese context, while that became something of a problem...the threat in Lebanon is ISIS groups coming across the border from Syria."

But if ISIS is to meet its expansionist goals, it may have to rethink its sectarian mindset and broaden its appeal, something it may already be on the road to doing.

"The jihadist identity of ISIS is becoming more powerful with time with foreign fighters joining its ranks, Al-Qarawee says. “So it feels like it appeals and connects to Muslim populations all over the world.”

“Now, ISIS’s main conflict is actually within the Sunni community. It seeks to convince Sunnis that it is their sole representative, and as it fails to do so, it resorts to brutality that in the end alienates larger sectors of Sunni community,” Al-Qarawee adds. “‘Sectarianism’ is a tool in its battle to win Sunni hearts. However, ISIS’s attempts to be more than a sectarian organization, mean it’s putting less emphasis on the sectarian conflict…and more on its identity as a representation of puritanical Islam. While investing in the sectarian conflict, it is trying to have broader audience and broader support."

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Topics: Middle East • Syria

soundoff (111 Responses)
  1. Cobrat3d

    ...and so the farmer shot his rooster for shooting blanks.

    November 11, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  2. ReeAction

    You knew the cause of your reactive abortion was overly promiscuous se x. Case dismissed, I guess.

    November 11, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      As you drove those two women who said you impregnated them to their appointments.
      You are a monumental hypocrite. Hush.

      November 11, 2014 at 5:35 pm | Reply
      • Blind Flag Waver

        Not about you. About U.S. Get a clue.

        November 11, 2014 at 6:44 pm |
      • banasy©

        I know it's not about me.

        It's about a colossal hypocrite that speaks out against something he has done. These people are doing the same thing you did, so you have zero authority to play holier-than-thou.

        I cannot believe you are that dense.

        You need to hop on the clue bus, badly.

        November 11, 2014 at 8:43 pm |
  3. Blind Flag Waver

    [Insert country name] , love it or leave it.

    November 11, 2014 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  4. chri§§y

    Now thats a BiPolar person. Nice one minute nasty as hell the next!

    November 11, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      No surprise here.

      November 11, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  5. dazzle

    The question is why is he still here.

    November 11, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Because the powers that be don't care ?

      November 11, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  6. bobcat2u

    Two elderly gentlemen from a retirement center were sitting on a bench under a tree when one turns to the other and says: 'Slim, I'm 83 years old now and I'm just full of aches and pains. I know you're about my age. How do you feel?'
    Slim says, 'I feel just like a newborn baby.'
    'Really!? Like a newborn baby!?'
    'Yep. No hair, no teeth, and I think I just wet my pants.'

    November 11, 2014 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Morris, an 82 year-old man, went to the doctor to get a physical.
      A few days later, the doctor saw Morris walking down the street with a gorgeous young woman on his arm.
      A couple of days later, the doctor spoke to Morris and said, 'You're really doing great, aren't you?'
      Morris replied, 'Just doing what you said, Doc: 'Get a hot mamma and be cheerful."
      The doctor said, 'I didn't say that. I said, 'You've got a heart murmur; be careful.'

      November 11, 2014 at 7:55 pm | Reply
      • bobcat2u

        One more. !

        A little old man shuffled slowly into an ice cream parlor and pulled himself slowly, painfully, up onto a stool.. After catching his breath, he ordered a banana split.
        The waitress asked kindly, 'Crushed nuts?'
        'No,' he replied, 'Arthritis.'

        November 11, 2014 at 7:57 pm |
  7. chri§§y

    Awesome job @ bobcat...in spite of he who shall remain nameless! Lol the other day musta messed him up bad when we all got along eh?

    November 11, 2014 at 8:01 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Well, it's been said love can conquer all evil. Kinda like the crucifix, holy water, wooden stake and silver bullets I spoke of the other day.

      November 11, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  8. dazzle

    There's the bobcat we love.

    November 11, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      The cat is trying to get back on track. So how are you doing ? And how is Tori doing ? Last I heard she was going in to medical school. Right ?

      November 11, 2014 at 10:06 pm | Reply
      • banasy©

        Yes, Rawr, our "daughter" is indeed attending medical school. She is doing splendidly.

        November 11, 2014 at 10:27 pm |
      • bobcat2u

        That is wonderful news. Next time your in touch, tell Papa bobcat said hello.

        November 11, 2014 at 10:48 pm |
  9. chri§§y

    Lmao @ bobcat...now youre talking about Supernatural. A show that im really starting to like. Lol you wouldnt believe how much salt ive bought lately lmao! Just kidding but it might be a good idea. Lol

    November 11, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      My granddaughter had me watching that while she was staying with us this summer. Freaky stuff.

      November 11, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  10. chri§§y

    And another thing ive been wondering...the author of this story...Nicole Dow. Would she be formerly known as Nicole Saidi???

    November 11, 2014 at 9:49 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      You know chrissy, I never thought of that. One way to find out. Yo, Nicole, is dat youse from TJI ? Inquiring minds (me and chrissy) want to know.

      November 11, 2014 at 10:02 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      They are not the same person.

      November 11, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  11. chri§§y

    Lol well it does remind me of her style. And i really enjoyed her articles. Especially because she had a sense of humor. And ty @ bobcat for giving mine back to me cuz i was in a real dark place a cpl hrs ago after reading crocketts crap to me on the asian thread. So seriously a big THANK YOU! 😉

    November 11, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      They both are very fine writers, Chrissy.

      November 11, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Reply
      • bobcat2u

        Hey banasy, I wondered where you disappeared to.

        November 11, 2014 at 10:32 pm |
      • banasy©

        Right here! *Waves*

        November 11, 2014 at 10:36 pm |
    • bobcat2u

      chrissy, I just went over there to see what you were talking about. That is just totally uncalled for. But listen, it was you and banasy who taught me to have a thick skin on these boards, and now I'm telling you the same thing. Screw those trolls. You know what you are about, and that's all that matters. You've got a lot on your plate what with Melissa and all, so just concentrate on what's important and ignore those children. If I can help in any way, just let me know.

      November 11, 2014 at 10:31 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      I agree with Rawr, Chrissy.
      I went and looked, and even left a brief message to him.
      Don't ever let that fractured person get to you. It is what he desires. Don't give him that power.
      Laugh at him. It's all he'll ever have; it's all that he deserves.

      November 11, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  12. chri§§y

    Lol yea freaky but kinda in a good way. That stuff was never my thing but ya know...too much time on my hands. Plus those bro's are easy on the eye lmao!

    November 11, 2014 at 10:16 pm | Reply
  13. chri§§y

    You already both help...each and every day thank you! And ya know what maybe that j a c k a s s will get to spend some quality time with the miserable drunken child and wife beating "hero" of his in the pits of hell. Im certain they will both be there one day.

    November 11, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      Meh. People who admire other people like that are usually guilty of those same crimes, Chrissy.

      November 12, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Reply
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