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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.

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This shrine is called Imam al-Huwa (Imam of the Wind) in Dakouk, south of Kirkuk, a largely Shia Turkmen town in the disputed territories claimed by Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs. (Franco Pagetti/VII/GlobalPost)

Q & A: US foreign policy lessons and failures along the Sunni-Shia divide

After 10 years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, has the US learned anything?

Reza Aslan is a professor of religious studies at Drew University and a senior adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, an international bestseller. Aslan spoke to GlobalPost — presented in partnership with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism — about lessons learned by the US after 10 years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how these lessons have informed US policy toward Syria.

Lauren Madow: What lessons about the Sunni/Shia divide should the US have learned from its involvement in Iraq, and how might we apply these lessons to Syria?

Reza Aslan: Well, perhaps the first lesson that the United States should have learned is that there are such a thing as Shias and Sunnis in the world. That is something that actually the Bush administration seemed to be fairly ignorant about as it was planning the war in Iraq.

There’s evidence to suggest that even on the eve of the bombing, President Bush himself was unaware not just of the intricacies of the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq but that there was such a thing as a Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq. But in more serious terms, I think that when talking about this sectarian division in the Middle East, we need to divide it between religion and politics. Politically speaking, there is a deep sectarian divide in the region, but it has more to do with the rise of Iran as a major regional power, with the Shia government in Iraq, certainly with the Shia-dominated regime in Syria.

In that case, the principal divide, for instance, between the so-called Sunni axis, which is sometimes referred to as Turkey and Jordan and Saudi, and the Shia axis, which is often referred to as Iran, Iraq and Syria, is not about religion. This is not sectarian insofar as an argument over who should have succeeded the prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago. This is about regional ambition. This is about national security issues. It’s about competing interests in a destabilizing region.

So we have to be careful about making too much of a theological argument about what is, in fact, simply a geopolitical conflict in the region. Now, when it comes to internal conflicts in countries like Syria, or internal conflicts in Iraq, or for that matter even in Pakistan, where we are seeing Sunni-on-Shia or Shia-on-Sunni violence, that is not about politics. That’s about religion.

The slaughter of the Shia in Pakistan, which has gone unabated now for a year, is about a puritanical sect of Sunni Muslims who believe that the Shia are infidels and need to be wiped from the face of the earth. The same can be said about the slaughter taking place in Iraq, and indeed even today there was another attack on a Shia enclave in Iraq that ended up killing 50 people. That has some political overtones to it, certainly, but that is much more theologically motivated than it is politically so. And then certainly when it comes to the situation in Syria, which has degenerated into a sectarian conflict, no question, that has far more to do with the Assad regime using the sectarian divide as a way of delegitimizing the rebels and the insurgency.

In other words, by simply making it look like some sort of sectarian conflict, not a conflict between a brutal regime and an insurgency that wants that regime’s downfall, Assad has the added advantage of getting his Shia neighbors to join into the conflict, including Iran and Iraq.

LM: In its limited engagement so far with Syria, do you see the US repeating any of its earlier mistakes in Iraq?

RA: On the contrary, I think that we have learned a valuable lesson from the Iraqi conflict, which is to do our very best under whatever circumstances possible not to become militarily engaged in this region. Part of the hesitancy of the Obama administration in taking any kind of hard line on the uprising in Syria is precisely because it is gun-shy from the horrific consequences of the Iraq war. Now, that’s for better or worse. One can say that Syria would not be in the situation it is