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Ethno-Sectarianism and Political Order in the Middle East

The Brief

This paper begins by interrogating three of the most prevalent recommendations for returning stability to Iraq and Syria: redrawing borders, balancing regional powers, and enacting federal political systems.

When Iraq and Syria descended into civil war, the intractability of their ethnic and sectarian divisions were said to make such conflicts inevitable. Now, as these two conflicts appear to be reaching a turning point and attention shifts to the task of reassembling political order in the heart of the Middle East, such diagnoses and the impossibility of peace that they implied have largely been forgotten.

Increasingly, analysts and policymakers have turned to the idea that a decisive military victory by Damascus and its Russian and Iranian backers will allow Syria to “knit itself together again.” According to this theory, only when regime forces have decisively crushed the remaining pockets of opposition, in Idlib Province and possibly the Kurdish-held northeast as well, can Syrian President Bashar al-Assad succeed in once again stabilizing Syria on his terms. In Iraq last year, Washington also embraced the logic of stability through force when it consented to Baghdad’s military intervention following a Kurdish independence referendum. And yet this newfound faith in the ability of centralized governments to maintain order by brutalizing restive populations into submission is belied by the region’s recent history. Indeed, it was the failure of this very approach that left both Iraq and Syria susceptible to the upheaval they are experiencing today.

Thus, any consideration of Iraq’s and Syria’s future political dispositions cannot and should not take place without a broader reflection on what caused them to unravel in the first place. This must be true both logically and strategically. No attempt to replace conflict with order can succeed without resolving the drivers of the conflict in the first place. Any vision of what comes next in Iraq and Syria contains, whether explicitly or not, a judgement about what sparked their combustion. The viability of these proposals can be vetted by the accuracy of their diagnoses.

Such a comprehensive explanation for the Middle East’s instability is also a strategic requirement for U.S. policy. Stability not only continues to evade the region but also remains a significant national interest. Whatever the fate of Syria and Iraq, violence and civil conflicts continue rippling through the region, tearing apart Yemen, Libya, and southeastern Turkey. In all cases, the only benefactors of such chaos are America’s adversaries: Iran and Salafi jihadist movements like the Islamic State. If America’s enemies are driving or exploiting regional instability, or both simultaneously, it is crucial that American policymakers understand its roots in order to develop a strategy for reversing it.

There has been no shortage of previous attempts to ascertain the failings of Middle Eastern states. Long before the current conflicts arose, scholars and statesmen seeking to shape the region have offered diverse diagnoses for the Middle East’s political pathologies and proposed an equally diverse array of cures. Over the course of the 20th century, religion, culture, class conflict, and economics have been put forward as broad explanations for any and all of the region’s perceived shortcomings. In turn, a succession of would-be reformers Ottoman modernizers, European imperialists, Soviet advisors, and American development experts have sought to transform Middle Eastern states and societies. Yet despite, or
because of, these efforts, a stable and durable political order still eludes the region.

Nevertheless, to avoid the pitfalls of the last century, these same questions ought to be asked again. And asked in light of both past failures to create a sustainable order in the region and the latest paroxysms of violence. Either old diagnoses need to be discarded and new cures developed, or expectations of order in the region need to be recalibrated. Or perhaps both. Yet, in current policy debates about Iraq and Syria, neither is occurring.

This paper begins by interrogating three of the most prevalent recommendations for returning stability to Iraq and Syria: redrawing borders, balancing regional powers, and enacting federal political systems. Each approach relies on an implicit or explicit assessment of what key element makes a state system function smoothly. Then, citing the supposed absence of this element in the Middle East, each approach proposes a method for instilling it. Ultimately, each of these proposals amounts to a reductive approach doubling down on a single explanatory variable and an inflexible solution that comes at the expense of a comprehensive vision for the region, one that can be both flexible and focused on building a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East’s unraveling.

All three of these approaches share two fundamental characteristics: They locate the source of instability in the region’s ethno-sectarian cleavages, whether internal or external, and then they assume that this constellation of identities is static and immutable.

Indeed, sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, which were not a defining feature of regional politics a century ago, have taken on an undeniable importance over the past two decades. Just as it would be a mistake to see multiethnic states as doomed to failure, it would be a mistake to see the Sunni-Shiite divide as an insurmountable 13-century-old geopolitical rift. Yet, recognizing that these fault lines are not eternal or inevitable does not make them unimportant. Nor does it minimize the risk that they could become even more important if misguided policies exacerbate them.

Squaring this circle, then, at both the local and regional level, requires an ongoing awareness of malleability and endurance of political identities, as well as the possibility that they can overlap. It requires creating a balance of power that acknowledges sectarian divisions where they exist while incorporating cross-cutting identities that reduce their salience.

The resulting model might be thought of as synchronized stabilization. Its goal would be to recognize and resolve existing conflicts without reifying the institutions and identities that sustain them. Applying the idea of synchronized stabilization to U.S. policy and the Middle East today calls for lowered expectations about how much stability the United States can achieve, coupled with greater attention to the most concrete and dangerous destabilizing forces.

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