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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

US finds Sunni-Shia rift difficult to navigate

From Iraq to Syria, what might look like domestic conflicts are often proxy battles in a much larger war.


US policymakers are keenly aware of the baleful influence of heightened Sunni-Shia tensions. But grappling with the Sunni-Shia rift in policy terms is a conundrum. It is forcing US officials — unaccustomed to discussing religion in policy debates — to be more mindful of religion’s role. It also makes it more difficult for Washington to be seen as neutral in conflicts that participants and governments view through a strictly sectarian lens.

Virulent sectarianism also means that US officials are confronted with a dynamic that runs counter to values meant to guide US statecraft, such as equality, religious tolerance, compromise and non-discrimination. Promoting such values becomes more difficult, even suspect, said Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center’s Middle East program who is examining sectarianism in the wake of the Arab Awakening

Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, she noted, tend to view calls for democracy “as part of a subversive Shia agenda” to bring them down.

In the recent interview, the State Department official said that while the Sunni-Shia fault line’s “growing importance is well understood,” it is more a backdrop to US policymaking than a focus of it. “There isn’t an actual policy towards it nor is our policy discussed in those terms. It’s not the overlay through which we actually decide our policy…[because] doesn’t actually provide much of a guide for us...on a daily basis.”

The US experience in Iraq has chastened US policymakers and lowered expectations for being able to manage peaceful political reform in the region, US officials and outside analysts say.

“The lesson we have learned is that the domestic politics of countries like this are incredibly complex, that we can’t hope to master them and control them, and we can’t predict the consequences of disturbing them,” the State Department official said. US leaders, he added, have acquired “a general humility” from Iraq that has “definitely informed the Obama administration policy toward Syria over the last two years. And still does.”

Some outside observers say that despite lessons learned in Iraq, Washington still needs more nuanced polices and greater understanding of the Sunni-Shia divide.

“I think the Americans have a better sense of it after Iraq, but they don’t quite understand the complexities of it and don’t understand it in an adequately sophisticated way...and how it relates to broader regional dynamics in the Middle East,” said Shia expert Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

“Sometimes we ignore [sectarian tensions] completely, as we did in Syria at the beginning and in Iraq in the beginning, and sometimes we have a very simplistic black-and-white view of it,” he added. “Given how important this is becoming to the region and how complicated this is, we’re not there yet in terms of our understanding.”

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and a leading pollster of Arab public opinion, said that the rising profile of Sunni-Shia tensions sometimes tempts decision makers to see each side in monolithic terms, blinding them to other factors in play.

“To have a coherent policy and a full understanding of who’s trying to do what you have to go beneath the surface, and they don’t go beneath the surface,” he said.

Often “the extent to which [the two sects] move into confrontation is less a function of their theological differences and more a function of the politics around them,” Telhami said. While religious differences are present, it is necessary to see when they are being highlighted “to deflect from real problems.”

In Bahrain, Telhami notes, the Sunni monarchy repeatedly blames Iran for the Shia community’s ongoing protests. “But if you look at the issue of civil and human rights in Bahrain, I don’t think you’d have any independent analyst who wouldn’t say, Iran or no Iran, you got a problem here,” he said.